Book review: Aboul-Ghar's journey and the nation's story

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 19 Jun 2011

Mohamed Aboul-Ghar, the renowned scientist and activist, relates the nation's story from the point of view of a non-politician that lived through decades of the change

In between the publication of the first edition of his memoires in 2003 until this second edition in 2011, Aboul-Ghar's journey had witnessed many changes. Most significant among those is the author's increased involvement in Egyptian political life. He is considered by many as the Godfather of the May 9th movement for the independence of universities, and played a remarkable role right before the January 25th revolution, maintaining a prominent position throughout, until his latest efforts in starting up an association for those injured during the revolution, and becoming a founding and board member of the trustees of the Egyptians Social Democratic Party.

Al-Tayeb Saleh, the late Sudanese author, described the 2003 edition as "A truly exciting journey. For [Aboul-Ghar] started at the Faculty of Medicine when he was 16 and finished his PhD at the age of 27, specializing in gynecology, and thereafter became known internationally for his experience with IVF babies." And the truth is that the author hasn't only told his personal biography, but also that of the whole nation, for, like many of his generation, he witnessed several major turns of events.

Since his birth in 1940, to a lower middle-class family, he lived through the last days of the monarchy, and his childhood blossomed alongside the national dream and Nasser's victories, until the defeat of June 1976. Despite the numerous testimonies of writers and intellectuals of the time, and particularly the active contributors, Aboul-Ghar's is quite distinctive. He never belonged to any movement, right or left, neither the Socialist Union nor the vanguard organization. Thus, his statement is not only impartial, but also quite indicative of the contributions of many sectors across generations that chose to stay away from this noise. Not quite as a disinterested audience, but rather with a forward-looking sense of the upcoming danger that came with the defeat.  And because this defeat was quite dramatic, it shook his entire life, as a young ambitious doctor married to his Swedish wife and an elderly man bearing the heavy weight of his occupied nation. When the chance finally came for him to migrate and work in one of the most important universities in the United States, he refused at the last minute, despite all the temptations.

Aboul-Ghar survived the big national dream, and the defeat of that dream, and then the Sadat era that reversed all of the Nasserite values, with the opening of the economy and peace-making with Israel. It is interesting to note that Aboul-Ghar paid particular attention to his personal life, talking only about what he knew well: recalling his readings, his extended times developing himself, his times as a young doctor in the rural areas of Egypt, and never once mentioning his major medical contributions out of a clear modesty.

Very early on Aboul-Ghar realized that he cannot be a good physician without being a human being first. A good reader, observer, with a taste for art, literature and history, he also became a doctor and scientist of the highest level.

It's clearly been difficult for the author to keep this delicate balance between his role as a doctor and the need to keep up with the times. He remained a true and honest human being, refraining from many temptations to join any political organizations, or becoming a minister for example, which is why we see his strictness in regards to external tutoring at the Faculty of Medicine, as well as his defense of the independence of universities and strong belief in freedom and refusing any form of injustice.

Aboul-Ghar also clearly enjoys a powerful memory and observant eye, for he was able to recount many eras throughout his sixty years with strong brushstrokes, without missing details, but instead using such details despite their possible triviality or disconnect with the bigger picture. One example is the major incident in Egypt's history when Abdel-Nasser attempted to step down on the 9 June 1967. Aboul-Ghar recalls seeing someone from the van of the Socialist Union (the only official party at the time) trying to recruit people, but failing to convince anyone because at the time the defeat was beyond comprehension. However, millions of people gathered afterwards to ask Nasser to return when they felt the need for him, with the possibility of forgiveness, on the condition that he liberates the land from the Israeli enemy.

At the same time, Aboul-Ghar recalls his personal experiences and the long road taken until the success of the birth of the first IVF baby in Egypt and the Arab world on the 7 July 1987, which can make for a seperate second autobiography given the major scientific leap by this leading physician.

These are the larger brushstrokes as we accompany Aboul-Ghar on "the margin" of his journey, and in many ways the journey of the nation, with its pains and agonies, from the operating room to the labyrinths of politics and art, and the galleries of thought and history.


Ala Hamish Al-Rehla (On the Margin of the Journey) by Mohamed Aboul-Ghar, Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk, 2011. pp 340.

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