Famous doctor Mohamed Abul Ghar puts aside medicine to write a fascinating memoir about the decline of the middle class
Abul Ghar's parents
When Jean-Paul Sartre visited Egypt in the late 1960s with his companion Simone de Beauvoir, he asked to see life in Egyptian villages. Dr. Mohamed Abul Ghar recounts how, curious to meet this great thinker, he decided to tag along on one of these visits. Upon arriving at the village, Abul Ghar was surprised to see that young students, when seeing his car, started shouting in French, "Vive Sartre, vive Simone!" In addition, the peasants were given slips of paper with difficult existentialist questions that they were supposed to ask their great visitor. Abul Ghar tells me about this scene with a mixture of cynicism and wonder.
When I in turn recounted this anecdote about Sartre's visit to a group of my colleagues, they all burst out laughing. A very apt Arabic saying comes to mind here: sharro el baliyyati ma yodhik, which means "the worst catastrophes are those that make us laugh."
Abul Ghar is best known as the father of Egyptian in-vitro fertilization, since his team of scientists helped bring along Egypt's first test-tube baby in July 1987. Abul Ghar's new book Ala Hamesh al Rihla (Along the Lines of the Trip), however, is not about medicine. Instead, he tells the story of the Egyptian middle class through the eyes of one of its most faithful members: himself. "I come from the middle class and have lived in it all my life," he explains. "Maybe I no longer belong to it economically, but the way I live, my insistence that my children and grandchildren attend national schools, are all values that I draw from it."
The book, released this winter, has earned a lot of positive press. Written in a conversational, nostalgic and, more often than not, critical tone, the book draws the reader to the issues of the present time.
"Many people called me, many of whom are literary and cultural figures, and said, 'You have written something we would have liked to write,'" says Abul Ghar. "My intention was to write a book about Egypt, and I thought the best thing to do was to write my own memories. I am no historian. I just wrote my observations and feelings."
A few years back Dr. Galal Amin also offered his observations on class and social change. His book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians is written through the eyes of an economist who belongs to the middle class. The ideas he presents in his book are easy to apply to Abul Ghar's story. "My father and I represent the older characteristics of the middle class," says Amin. "Now I find it very different. People like me represent a very small proportion - I do not mean economically. I mean the characteristics, outlooks and the values. I do not like what has happened. I can argue there have been signs of deterioration. The new middle classes may be more ambitious economically, but they have deteriorated aesthetically, morally, in their commitment to the country, and in their view of religion. This has become more dogmatic, more narrow-minded, less tolerant. Before we read more and we read better things."
Back to the Roots
Abul Ghar begins his story like this: "My grandfather, hajj Mohamed Abul Ghar, was a cotton merchant ... who sometimes did well and sometimes did not." Cutting a traditional figure, the grandfather still sent all his daughters to school. "But he had no ambitions beyond securing a simple but good life. He never participated in public work ... but just concentrated on getting both his male and female children an education." The grandfather belonged to the middle class, and was happy to stay there.
Visiting his grandparents for a few days every summer was the highlight of Abul Ghar's childhood. And visiting the library was a ritual he insisted on performing whenever he was in Shebin el Kom, his village. Of these years, he also remembers going upstairs to the guest room, where his aunt's husband, a sheikh at Al-Azhar, kept his books. Reading became a passion - so much so that he can still remember when he read certain books and how these affected his development and outlook on life.
One interesting aspect of life during his upbringing was the relationship between Copts and Muslims. His uncle, the Al-Azhar sheikh, would spend time with the bishop of a church in Minofia. "They often visited," says Abul Ghar, "and loved each other very much, and that was not because they wanted to show people [that Copts and Muslims can be friends]. It really came from the heart." He also remembers Aunt Olga, a friend of his mother's during the family's years in Minya. When, as a 4-year-old, he suffered from severe burns, his mother went to church with Aunt Olga and brought back talismans to place under his pillow. "[My mother] used to get a sheikh to read the Quran in my room hoping it would help, and Aunt Olga brought a priest to visit me twice," he says. In the book, Abul Ghar wonders whether this is still the case. "Religion today is partly business and partly hysteria," he writes. "My mother was not veiled. She wore short-sleeved blouses in summer, and knee-length skirts. She was religious ... in that she prayed regularly, fasted and went to hajj. Fanaticism had not set in yet."
Contrary to Abul Ghar, Amin believes that fanaticism is currently abating. "The fanaticism of the 70s and 80s - manifest in militant books like Torture of the Grave, being rough and violent with Copts and tourists - has decreased tremendously," asserts Amin. "What we are seeing now is an increase in religiosity. People are frustrated now, and they see no way out. I see it on the Metro, people reading the Quran as a kind of consolation. This is also why more people go to mosques. But they are not fanatics."
Born in 1940, Abul Ghar considers himself a true son of the 1952 revolution. That's not because he still believes in the golden promises of that era, but because as a teenager, it was very difficult not to. Patriotic feelings ran high, but for the 12-year-old Abul Ghar, it was not easy to find an outlet for these feelings. "There was no real chance to express your opinion or even think," he writes. "The only opportunity was to join the Tahrir organization, and those who did later became the country's officials, mayors and ministers." His only brush with politics was when, as a 13-year-old, he was approached in the school courtyard by a student who invited him to join the Muslim Brotherhood. Although he attended a few of their meetings, this soon amounted to nothing. What he did not know at the time, but understood later as an adult, was that the government had started cracking down on Islamic groups. "We loved the revolution from the heart," he remembers. "I never felt the major Muslim Brotherhood arrest campaigns in 1954 or the campaign of leftist arrests that followed, because our family was neutral and none of our relatives or friends was arrested," he remembers.
In 1956, Abul Ghar joined the faculty of medicine, almost against his wishes. What he really wanted to become was an engineer. "Egypt was on the verge of a great industrial wave, and the country needed engineers. I was very hesitant, but then decided to choose medicine as a result of indirect pressures from relatives and society as a whole," he says. "The attraction of the white coat and clinic, the respect and the high income may be the reasons behind it."
The revolution made everybody, even the middle class, hopeful of moving upward, observes Amin. "Although still slow, social mobility started with the revolution," Amin explains. Social mobility was accelerated by "economic development, nationalization, redistribution of income and free education."
Abul Ghar writes with much nostalgia about the group of friends he used to go out with as a university student, and how it was possible, for a few piasters, to buy beer and drink it anywhere. He describes a Cairo that no longer exists: "I spent a lot of time studying in the zoo. It cost two piasters to go in, and I'd sit in the tea island and order tea for three piasters, studying in front of the lake until sunset."
Although Abul Ghar's real disillusionment with the revolution took place following the 1967 defeat, as a university student he became aware of the wide arrests and repression. An avid reader and a diligent student, Abul Ghar spent those critical years of his life educating himself. "Our generation was offered a great opportunity in education," he points out. "We benefited from free education decreed by Taha Hussein in 1950, which the revolution capitalized upon, allowing great numbers of the children of peasants and poor people to get to university." Abul Ghar sees Qasr Al-Aini University, where he studied medicine and was a resident, as a place with a great potential that's been wasted because of the lack of resources, bad management and the interference of the Ministry of Higher Education. He tries to make sense of what Egyptian universities have come to today. "One of the most important reasons for the academic disintegration of the Egyptian universities is that their administration is left in the hands of hypocritical politicians," he says. As a result, real academic superiority is no longer an issue, which resulted in the inferior quality of university research, Abul Ghar argues.
Following the 1967 defeat, Abul Ghar describes how a number of professionals saw migration as the only solution. Having married a Swedish physiotherapist, Abul Ghar left Cairo for Sweden in 1968, intending never to come back. He got a job in England but eventually decided to go back to Cairo, finding it impossible for him to survive anywhere else.
After leaving briefly to finish his post-doctorate studies in Denmark, Abul Ghar returned to Cairo in the early 70s. "I found Cairo afloat with student movements," he says. "University was afire with enthusiasm. Students wanted to die for their country. I do not remember ever having reached a similar degree of patriotism and real willingness to give up my soul for my country. This is very different from my feeling now, as I have become frustrated with the Egyptian regimes and their attitudes. I now feel indifferent when listening to patriotic songs or calls." During this period, Abul Ghar befriended a number of student leaders.
"At the time, Sadat was encouraging youth Islamic movements," he remembers. "And external aid, from the Gulf and the United States, further encouraged these Islamic ideas ... until the Islamic voice became the one most heard on the streets by the end of the 20th century. ... In a few years, most women wore the veil."
Then came infitah (open-door policies), and corruption became common, according to Abul Ghar. "Sadat did not think corruption was a big deal, which is why he was surprised when the 1978 riots erupted. I remember demonstrations calling for the fall of prices and those causing [the high prices], meaning Sadat of course," he says.
For his part, Amin believes infitah to be the real reason behind the disintegration of the values of the middle class. "Social mobility became very clear from the 70s onwards. Inflation, increase in consumerism, importation and migration to the Gulf all affected the characteristics of the middle class negatively," Amin asserts. "The lust for profit and over-materialism became the name of the era."
While Abul Ghar believes the middle class is currently dwindling, Amin believes the middle class has actually grown in size but changed in characteristics and aspirations. "What has happened over the past 15 or 20 years is that the middle class has been under a great strain economically, but so has the lower class, which has declined tremendously," says Amin. "So the middle class is suffering, but it is still in the middle."
Thus, after the active social mobility of the 70s and 80s, things came to a halt, Amin believes: "The middle class has been hit because of the slowing down of growth and migration. Ambitions have weakened. Lust for profit is now replaced by frustration and depression, which may result in crimes of violence and theft." And the results? "Loyalty to the country and to public issues wanes," says Amin. "People are tired, they feel helpless. So they stop caring about politics. They may say, yes, poor Palestinians and Iraqis, but what about us? Poor us, too. Politicization has to do with a degree of comfort."
Instead of pondering on the current political situation, Abul Ghar talks, toward the end of his book, about the depressing medical educational system. As for his IVF center, the reason behind his fame as an ob/gyn, he talks about it in only a few lines. "This book is not really about me," he explains. Neither does he linger much when considering his extensive modern Egyptian art collection. "This will be a topic for a future book," he says.
Abul Ghar ends his engaging tale by describing his father, who passed away a few months before the book came out. "I would like to recount the experience of my father who loved life and loved death, and who decided to die when he felt fed up with life. ... My father was a middle-class man by the criteria of the 1940s, when middle-class families led easy lives," he writes. "After his 96th birthday he started losing control of his bladder, and that killed him. ... He decided to refuse food and water ... and we all decided to respect his decision." Thus died a noble member of the old Egyptian middle class, taking a whole era with him. et