Foreign Illness

by Mir Jalal

From the book "Dried Up In Meetings"
Azerbaijan International 1998, USA

When I refer to an external illness, I don't mean the physical symptoms of an illness. I use this term in its geographic sense; that is, meaning diseases that come from outside the country.

I think that in our city, no profession is always on duty as much as the medical profession. Being a doctor, more often than not, I'm on duty. I continuously have to keep an eye on my patients, noting their prognosis and watching for the results of their treatment. My duty never leaves me.

When I'm on duty, I'm not just concerned with my own patients. Suddenly, the door of the hospital swings open, and a Volga, Pobeda or Moskvich car or, for that matter, even a truck arrives with wailing and complaining patients.

It's true that our hospital is in the most distant corner of the city and doesn't have enough beds. We don't allow patients to be brought in every hour, but whoever does comes won't be turned away. One has a stomachache, another has been in a car accident, a third is an alcoholic. Another has been stabbed and yet another was bitten by a dog. In short, this is a big
city and therefore, many unfortunate things happen. You can't lecture patients on this or that principle, nor can you quote
municipal regulations. Besides, the law doesn't allow it! Here, neither doctor nor nurse can close the door on a patient. A good conscience won't allow you to say, "Look, comrade, we don't have room. Go somewhere else!"

The patient who arrived this evening didn't fit any of the above
categories. She had not been bitten by a dog, nor was she drunk, nor had
she been stabbed. She was very quiet, very well-behaved, and didn't moan or
complain. It seemed as though she had received special permission to come
to a sanitarium. She was lying on a coach in the reception room. I asked
the driver who had brought her, "What is wrong with her?"

"I don't know, doctor."
I turned to the nurse. "What's wrong with her?"
"Nobody knows."
"Perhaps she's not sick at all, and they've brought her here by mistake."
"How could that be possible, doctor? She had fallen on the pavement and was lying there surrounded by people."

I went to the patient. As a matter of fact, she did look pale and sallow. I observed a weak, slender girl who had no strength left in her. If it weren't for her large, very sunken eyes under her black eyebrows, I would have taken her for corpse. Her face was sickly yellow, and she appeared to be at the end of her rope. She didn't speak or move; just painfully turned her large eyes to watch those who were passing by.

"My daughter, what has happened to you?" I asked her.
In order to take her pulse, I held her frail wrist. The pulse was weak.
"What's wrong with you, Miss?"
The patient turned her face toward me and said with difficulty, "Is there a cinema here?"
"A cinema?" I asked.
"Do you have a TV?"
"Are you sick or are you looking for entertainment?" I asked, confused.
"I'm not looking; I'm just asking."
I repeated my question once more. "What's wrong with you? Do you have any
"I don't know, myself."
"How long have you been like this?"
"Today, I fell down near the boulevard."
"Have you been wounded?"
"No, not at all."
"Perhaps something hit you?"
"No, nothing hit me. While walking, I just fell down." Immediately, I took the patient to a comfortable ward and ordered a
preliminary medical examination.

Before long, the mother of the patient appeared. After thanking me and expressing her gratitude, she approached me, and as if seeking a personal request, whispered, "Doctor, please keep Ophelia here as long as you like. I beg you."

The mother's strange request surprised me. It surprised me because such a request is never made of us. On the contrary, as soon as treatment is finished, mothers and fathers want to take their child out of the hospital.

I asked her mother, "Has she been sick for a long time?"
"Yes, for a long time."
"How long?"
"It's been a few months."

I was surprised. It was amazing for such a weak body to bear such an illness, and not seek a doctor or go to the hospital for such a long time. I asked her mother, "Aunty, why didn't you bring this sick girl for treatment before now? She has no record with us. How negligent you can be?"

The mother shook her head, then looked up at me as if she wanted to open her heart to me. With sincerity she said, "Oh, doctor, today's youth, do they ever listen? Do they take advice? Do they confide in you? Would they take time from their movies and concerts to go for treatment? You know very well that all the girls want to stay thin!"

Now I understood why the mother was happy to have Ophelia hospitalized. Of her own accord, a child with wouldn't allow any kind of treatment, nor would she care to be subjected to the regulations of the hospital. Ophelia's admission to the hospital was a consolation for her mother. Obviously, in treating any patient or any sickness properly, the doctor
must first make a diagnosis, or to use the words of the poet Sabir, " find the pain," that is, find its source.

It's true that there may be some old people who are ill or who never seek treatment and thus further weaken their bodies and make their treatment more difficult and complex. However, with the help of modern medicine and pharmacology, even the most complex ailments can be analyzed. Nothing has to remain dreaded. Where is there an organ that x-rays cannot penetrate?

Discovering the malady of a young, 18-year-old girl didn't require a complicated and extraordinary process. The slender, almost semi-transparent body of this girl displayed all the outward signs of sickness. After examining Ophelia, apart from her weakness and lack of strength, I didn't discover anything. The young body had not been adequately nourished, and as a result it had weakened gradually, until it finally reached the state of collapse.

I criticized the girl's mother. "You're from a well-to-do family, why don't you pay attention to the eating habits of a young school girl. Why have you allowed her to become so weak?"

Ophelia's mother seemed fed up with this eternally-asked questioned, and slapping hands on her knees, she said, "Oh Doctor, if you could make Ophelia eat a second meal in a single day, I would be grateful to you my entire life. My dear sir, she doesn't eat, she doesn't touch anything!"

"What do you mean?"
"My dear, she doesn't eat!" she repeated.
"Her thirty-two teeth are absolutely healthy, there's nothing wrong with her digestive system and her stomach is working normally. Why doesn't she eat?" I asked.
"Doctor, in spite of all that, she doesn't eat!" she repeated again.
"If there are specially prepared, delicious foods, she will eat," I insisted.
"Whatever is the most delicious food in the world"chicken, very nice pastry, dolma, any well-prepared dish of whatever you can imagine, we give to her, but she won't eat it. She leaves the table, saying that she'll get fat."

I wanted to laugh. Someone with a twig-like body, afraid to become fat! That's funny! How could she get fat, when in all her body there couldn't even be five kilos of meat!

"She's afraid," her mother said. "Her world is magazines and movies."
"I will make her eat! You will see!" I said.

As a matter of fact, by boasting about what I would do, I reassured Ophelia's mother, but she wasn't satisfied with our hospital's food. Every morning and every evening she would cook all sorts of foods and place them on nice dishes and bring them to her daughter. I soon discovered that making Ophelia eat wasn't an easy matter.

"Ophelia, what's the purpose of starving yourself?"
"What are you saying doctor? Do you want to make me lose my shape and become the laughing stock of everyone?"
"What is this, my girl? Whoever eats becomes a laughing stock?"
"Doctor, don't you see what incredibly huge ladies we have among us? Europeans are all thin and shapely. One has to have nice figure!"

"What have you seen in Europe? Have you been to Europe?"
"I subscribe to Screen."
"Screen is a magazine of stars. Do you want to become an actor?"
"No, not an actor, an actress."
"For acting, your body has to have strength."
"I don't want strength. I want a good figure."
"You want to be slender?"
"Yes, if I'm not slender, I'll kill myself."

I pointed to her weakened body and said, "Even weaker than this?"

"I want to be slender, Doctor. Instead of these dishes, give me a medicine to stay even thinner than I am now. And at the same time, I want to be able to fly like a birdlike a bird, you know!"

It was obvious that Ophelia was not sick. She was only a victim of the movies.

Ophelia didn't stay in the hospital longer than a week. She wasn't taking advice, nor taking any medicine, nor eating any of those nice foods her mother had prepared for her. She sat in front of the TV and watched foreign movies. If there weren't any foreign films on TV, she'd bring Screen from the library and look at it. Or, she'd fashion her body and clothes according to the magazine and look at herself in the mirror. When her mother came to see her, I said, "Don't let the driver leave."
The lady called the driver and asked him to stay. She must have thought that I needed the car for some reason.

"Please, Doctor, it is your car."
"It's not for me. Ophelia wants to go for a ride."
"A ride?"
"She wants to go to the cinema."

Overhearing this, Ophelia hurried to the courtyard and called to her mother, "Mom, bring my clothes. Quickly! In the Nizami cinema, His Love is showing and I'll die if I don't see it!"

I sent Ophelia along with her mother and asked her not to bring Ophelia back to the hospital. "Her illness can only be cured in the Club."

"But, what's her illness, doctor?"
"This illness has come from abroad. We don't have it among us, Aunty!"
"I've heard of foreign goods, but this is the first time I've heard of a foreign sickness. How has this damn thing come and gotten hold of Ophelia?"

"Aunty, she's gotten it from the movie theaters. She'll be all right; don't
worry. This is typical of foreign goods. It's a new arrival."


(1) Sabir (Ali Akbar Sabir Tahirzadah, 1862-1911) is the greatest satirical poet of Azerbaijan who published most of his poems in the journal Molla Nasereddin.
(2) Dolma - a traditional dish of the region made of grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat.
(3)"His Love" or "Yevo Liyobov" was the title of a well-known movie.


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