I came across an op-ed piece in The New York Times the other day with the title “Egypt in the Dentist’s Chair.” Now – that really caught my attention. The article was written by Alaa Al Aswany, an Egyptian writer – and practicing dentist. Now that is a first! Aswany is the only dentist I have ever heard of who was also a writer. In my experience, dentists are not too literate as they have never focused their attention on the humanities. Several years ago Aswany wrote “The Yacoubian Building,” a wonderful novel that I have read and found to be a fascinating account of intersecting lives in a decaying Cairo apartment building. In this recent op-ed piece he writes about how his experiences with his dental patients give him perspectives on human nature that he incorporates into his writing. He believes that novelists have to acquire human experience, find inspiring characters and place settings for their novels. As he says, “I am lucky not to have had to undertake these adventures because I am both a novelist and a dentist. The dentist’s profession enables him to see so many varied examples of humanity that his clinic can resemble the backstage of a theater, where the performers, out of costume and minus makeup, are no longer acting.” He adds that he has treated the teeth of 1,000’s of people, from “peasant farmers to society ladies and government ministers.” He is always learning new things about human behavior.
Yes, this is true in Suffolk County too. I have also treated many thousands of teeth and have treated government officials, prominent professional people, laborers, and migrant workers – the tremendous range of people who live and work on Long Island. Aswany’s experiences in this far off land of Egypt, now in political upheaval, in many ways mirror my own and in many ways, are very different. He relates how a government minister in Egypt doesn’t go to the dentist by himself but arrives with an entourage who sniff into all corners of the clinic looking for potential hazards. I haven’t quite seen this but have had patients who were so busy, they never made their own appointments or discussed treatment plans but directed that all communication go through their staff. I am also party to family dynamics – of quibbling husbands and wives and of parents who are too protective of their children. I see kindness – of people driving infirm neighbors to their appointments and sometimes things that are not so kind.
But Aswany’s experiences offer a unique window to a nuanced understanding of an authoritarian society. He relates an incident in which a woman wearing a niqab and suffering from a toothache arrives with her husband at the clinic. Aswany let them know that she would have to remove her niqab and the dental assistants would have to remain in the room during her treatment and the root canal specialist was a Christian. The husband grabbed his wife by the hand and started to march out of the office, but his wife refused and stood her ground. To Aswany this incident was a demonstration that women who were thought to be fundamentalists were just victims of their husbands’ dogmatic beliefs. Aswany was also not afraid to confront a secret police officer whose tooth he had just extracted. The person in the dental chair is in a vulnerable position and Aswany took advantage of that vulnerability in order to address political excesses.
Aswany is very brave and his writings are brave. Fortunately in Suffolk County the excesses we see are very mild in comparison. Nevertheless I have made my opinion known when I felt that I could make a difference. Aswany concludes his essay with his observation that after 30 years of practicing dentistry and writing, he is not convinced that they are completely separate professions. “They both treat the same subject: humanity.”