It was an accident. In 1994 I spent a day with the political reporter, Robert Fisk, in Egypt. I had never heard of Fisk before, but the experience changed me.
We were part of a press tour organized by the Egyptian government to look at family planning clinics during the International Conference on Population and Development. Fisk inspired me to become an activist instead of just a doctor.
The tour started in a room crowded with real journalists. Although the Durango Herald provided me with the necessary credentials, I had little idea what a journalist actually did. Fisk told me about his experiences as a war correspondent. He has been in the middle of hostile fire in Bosnia and other hotspots. I remember his stories of reporters with less experience—and less luck—who were caught in crossfire and killed. “It’s a dangerous, lonely life,” he said in a recent interview. If I’m not wrong, Fisk himself has taken a few bullets. He could have been a professor of history, the field of his PhD. “You’ve got to feel the passion,” he exclaimed about his choice of career.
As a man who has experienced war personally, he comments: “War is primarily about the total failure of the human spirit. It is about death. Forget Hollywood.” Although British, Fisk has made his home in Beirut, Lebanon, for over 30 years. He told me that it had been a beautiful city before civil war tore it apart.
The tour showed just what I would expect to find in a developing country. In one women’s clinic I asked (through an interpreter) some of the women in the waiting room if they breastfed their babies. They looked at me as though I was from a different planet! “Of course our babies are breastfed! The Qur’an says that we should nurse for at least seven months.”
Although I had traveled to and practiced medicine in some rudimentary places, this clinic left strong memories. One was a woman arriving for her prenatal visit in beautiful clothes—by oxcart. The posters on the wall were similar to what we might see in this country, except for the Arabic script. There are many differences between our societies other than just the alphabet, however.
The clinic’s doctor spoke excellent English. During her years of service in that clinic she had done an informal survey of female genital mutilation. This cruel procedure is also known as “female circumcision,” and is performed in parts of northern Africa and of the Middle East. Usually a barber or other non-medical person does the cutting using unsterile instruments. The victims are children. FGM can lead to serious infections and even death. Survivors will enjoy sex less and may have serious problems during childbirth due to scarring. The doctor said that, of a hundred women she had asked, 98 had suffered this traumatic maiming.
Fisk put this visit into another perspective. He had been to Egypt many times before and had pushed the frontiers of freedom of speech. On one trip he explored the slums up in the hills surrounding Cairo. This huge city of 17 million people in the metro area has at least a million commuters who venture onto the crowded streets every day. Most commuters live in squalor in the poor areas surrounding the city. Fisk spent a day, he said, documenting people living in those miserable living conditions. Someone evidentially tipped off the officials that a stranger was snooping around, and the police exposed all of his film to the Egyptian sun.
Shortly after this experience in Cairo, I started working less so that I could do other things. Now I have time to write this newspaper column, teach a class at Fort Lewis College and be involved in leading a Quaker environmental group. Many friends in Durango have helped me step into this expanded role.
I now read the Independent of London, Fisk’s paper, online every day. His column on 9/11 reminded me of that accidental day in Egypt and how he inspired me to go beyond the usual role of a physician—to become an activist. The title of that article summarizes his viewpoint: “Nine years, two wars, hundreds of thousands dead – and nothing learnt.”
I am happy that I stepped out of my “comfort zone” sixteen years ago to learn more about family planning in Egypt. In addition, I accidentally learned about the risky life of a war journalist—and was propelled into being more of an activist.
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