Thursday, June 11, 2009


Karima al-Hifnawy’s Diary of a Pharmacist (Dar al-Ain, 2008) is a work of quiet beauty and unusual restraint. Best known for her Kifaya and Karama activism and fearless presence at nearly every street protest over the past few years, Diary reveals another side of Dr. Karima. In print, she’s a light-footed, elegant narrator, relating her experiences as a pharmacist fresh out of university in the 1970s who chose to set up shop in a couple of small Delta villages. When I first saw the book, I quivered at the prospect of yet another elite intellectual regaling us with anecdotes of villagers’ quaint or backward folkways, an abhorrent tradition in Egyptian letters. Thankfully, Diary of a Pharmacist is anything but urbane condescension or didactic “observation.” It’s something far more original, luminous, and humane.

Barely 80 pages long, the book is structured into 19 vignettes, each rarely more than three pages long. They recount Hifnawy’s experiences interacting with village residents from the late 1970s to the 1990s, from her vantage as a medical professional dispensing remedies for all manner of ailments. Part of the great pleasure of the book is its writer’s genuinely unobtrusive presence, neither falsely self-effacing nor insufferably self-promoting. The introduction, just one paragraph long, is a study in the power of writerly economy. Hifnawy describes the book’s contents as “the reactions of an Egyptian woman pharmacist who lived among villagers for long years of her life, and they turned out just like this, with nothing added and nothing missing.”

The first scene-setting sketch, titled “The Train Station”, tells us that the village is the administrative node for seven surrounding hamlets. This privileged position was enhanced in 1979 with Hifnawy’s opening of her pharmacy, and then in 1984 when the village was blessed with a taboona to churn out ‘aish baladi, much to the pride and delight of residents. In a wry tone, Hifnawy relates the story of an enthusiastic elder who used to come by to her pharmacy every day to buy anything: some medicine, a bottle of cologne, baby formula for a grandchild. When she asked him why he encouraged everyone else to buy from her, the man relates a story from his past. As a young man, he banded together with other villagers to relentlessly petition the government for a train station stop at the village.

“We said to officials: we’re seven villages, and we have kids who travel back and forth to schools and universities, and we kept writing petitions and telling them how many people need this service. They told us we’ll build it, but if there’s no revenue from passenger tickets for the government’s treasury, then we’ll shut down the station. So me and all the other young men from the surrounding villages would walk three kilometers to the train station and buy tickets, not to ride the train but to keep the station running.” Different readers will draw different meanings from this story. I read it as a poignant and terse summation of a universal story: humble people’s resourceful extraction of basic services from apathetic governments.

Other vignettes describe various rural conditions, norms, and practices, but not in the remote analytical language of social science. Nor does Hifnawy pretend to “give voice” to ordinary people. Her words and opinions are clearly expressed, her criticisms matter-of-factly and calmly conveyed. I can’t quite describe this stance except to call it human grace. This comes to the fore most clearly in Hifnawy’s interactions with village midwives, women who are privy to residents’ most intimate secrets. Such material is not easily handled without salaciousness or voyeurism, but there’s none of that here, only the stories of women protecting other women from vengeful social codes.

There are plenty of lighthearted vignettes that don’t carry social commentary but simply relate the extraordinary stories of ordinary people, such as Fattheyya the vegetable peddler who must get back to work three days after giving birth to her eighth child, to support her children and disabled husband, a tuberculosis-afflicted shoe shiner. There’s a hilarious encounter between Hifnawy and some villagers after rumour spread that she was a communist, and an extremely moving story about a proud elderly woman who gifted the pharmacist with fresh eggs from her only chicken.

Diary of a Pharmacist recalls two canonical works in Egyptian letters that depict the encounter between the urbane intellectual and the rural poor: Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Diary of a Prosecutor in the Countryside (1942) and Nawal al-Saadwai’s Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958), both fictionalised accounts based on the authors’ experiences. But it is distinguished from these two texts both in form and substance. Hifnawy’s writing is minimalist and almost fragmentary, Hakim and Saadawi’s prose is more elaborate and garrulous. Substantively, Hakim and Saadawi are far more self-centered and self-regarding than Hifnawy, with an explicit project of societal critique and reform. Hifnawy is no less committed to social change, but she has the self-awareness not to grandly insert herself as the enlightened reformer uplifting the hapless natives. Hifnawy loves the villagers and they love her back.

If Hifnawy’s book simply defied the “oh-let’s-pity-the-poor-people” attitude so ingrained in how we speak about poor citizens (when we mention them at all), it will have done an immense service. But it does much more. As a writer, her precise prose is a refreshing reminder of the power of words. As a social critic, Hifnawy is at once respectful of people’s beliefs without necessarily validating the cruel traditions governing their lives. As an activist, Hifnawy doesn’t let anyone off the hook with comforting bromides about “giving voice to the voiceless”, or nationalist bombast aestheticizing poverty as “authenticity.” This little book shows us humans living in unjust conditions, and asks: when will these human beings become full citizens?