Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution is a graphic novel following two girls, one American and one Egyptian, as they grow up, choose careers, and lose family members. Although the story is fictional, it combines anthropological research about American and Egyptian healthcare cultures with the story of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. This unique concept (ethnography via graphic novel) is the first in a series called ethnoGRAPHIC from the University of Toronto Press.

The story opens with the friendship between Anna (the daughter of an American businessman) and the bawab’s daughter Layla. The bawab, or doorman, is at the very bottom of the Egyptian social classes, and Anna’s association with Layla is frowned upon by the upper-class residents of the building. But the girls don’t care. They remain close even after Anna’s mother dies. She is sent to a boarding school in the US but returns every summer to visit her dad and see Layla.

The story of Layla and Anna’s friendship is enough to make this book a worthwhile read, but it has so many additional layers that make it even better.

One of these layers is the medical layer. Anna’s mother dies of breast cancer. When she is old enough and can be tested for the BRCA1 gene, she has to reckon with the multiplicity of issues that come with that decision. Meanwhile, back in Egypt, Layla’s father is suffering from kidney failure and refuses to consider a transplant even though a family member has offered to be a donor. The book uses the different characters’ approaches to medical treatments to discuss the two cultures’ understandings of the body and medicine.

Yet another layer is that the latter portion of the book takes place during the 2011 revolution, and it provides a great introduction to the events of that year.

This story is also about poverty and the way that that translates into a lack of preventative medical care. Layla is in medical school with more well-to-do students who criminalize poverty and rail against their “ignorant peasant” patients behind their backs. 

I lived in Egypt for years, and I was there during the 2011 revolution. I found this book to be spot-on in terms of accurately representing life there, including the events of 2011 and, unfortunately, attitudes toward the poor. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Egypt, the Arab spring, or how medical attitudes differ across cultures.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Find it here: Goodreads | University of Toronto Press | | Book Depository

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