Memoirs of a Woman Doctor - Nawal El Saadawi,  Catherine Cobham (Translator)

Rebelling against the constraints of family and society, a young Egyptian woman decides to study medicine. Her encounters with the other students intensify her search for identity. She comes to find fulfilment not in isolation, but through her relationships with others.

~from the BookLikes book page for this title





I feel a little silly now admitting that when I first picked up this book I mistook it for an actual memoir, having missed the part where it says "a novel" right on the front cover. *Facepalm* I also had the initial thought, "Man, this seems pretty short for a memoir!" (the whole thing is only 101 pages) but I thought maybe it was just a quick look back at a few moments within a few years time. Nope, it's actually a quick little novella read about an Egyptian female doctor just out of medical school, trying to get her career started up. 


Egyptian author Nawal Saadawi originally penned this novella (originally published in 1988) in her early 20s (30 years before the publication), when she herself was a recent medical school graduate. It was originally printed in serial form in an Egyptian magazine. Saadawi mentions in the foreword that when she decided to print it in book format, the Egyptian government actually censored parts of the full manuscript. She also mentions that while this novella is now sometimes used in feminism & women's studies courses, she herself had never read any feminist literature prior to writing her book. She simply observed cultural and gender issues around her and her frustrations compelled her to write and bring light to them. Hence, this novella. 


Memoirs Of A Woman Doctor, told in first person (I'm not even sure the narrator is given a name) illustrates the life of a young woman who grows up under the traditional perception that she is to marry and be a mother. Our narrator, however, believes a woman should be thought of more than just a housekeeper or baby factory. To prove this, she bucks convention and works her way into a male-dominated medical school. She's initially proud of her accomplishments but after a time runs into some heartaches. She realizes that by age 25 she's focused SO hard on her academics that she's never gotten around to even having her first kiss. Having successfully nabbed that DR. after her name, our narrator suddenly discovers she wants to really experience life and relationships, but still on her own terms. She comes to have an appreciation for her body after years of being taught to be ashamed of it. Through this, she also slowly comes to accept that it's not a sign of weakness to admit that you want someone next to you in life. 


It's also interesting to read this character learning the nuances of human relationships. In the early parts of the book there's a sort of cold disconnect in her interactions with others, maybe as a way to protect herself from falling into the type of bondage she so feared being locked into. With her patients she is very much distanced and uber-clinical until she has one patient who touches a nerve in her, reminding her that there's a soul behind the name on the form. When it comes to personal relationships, like many of us, it takes a few misses for her to figure out what she really wants out of a partner and what a balanced relationship should consist of.


It's a quick read, with a quietness to it. While not gripping or action-packed, it does illustrate some social and cultural struggles that do need attention and discussion. The problems brought to light in this story aren't entirely a thing of the past yet, so the more angles we expose ourselves to, the better. 


Note To Readers: This edition of this novella, produced by City Lights Books of San Francisco, has been translated from the original Arabic by Catherine Cobham.