“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves — in finding themselves.”
– André Gide
In her memoir, Hand on My Heart: Awakening in Afghanistan (Caitlin Press 2023), Maureen Mayhew shares a captivating account of her experiences as a foreign, female physician in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan. Initially hesitant, Mayhew’s journey takes an unexpected turn as she finds herself returning to the country multiple times over a decade, immersing herself in the culture, learning the regional Afghan language of Dari, and forming deep connections with the local people, including women, men, and even members of the Taliban.
Mayhew’s story begins with her search for something new and interesting, but when Medicins Sans Frontieres offers asks her to volunteer her medical expertise in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, she’s reluctant. Fearful of losing her independence and compromising her safety, it was the last place she wanted to be. However, in April 2000, she finds herself stepping onto Afghan soil for the first time, draped in unfamiliar clothing, her heart pounding and her hands trembling. This moment marks the beginning of an extraordinary journey that challenges her preconceptions and transforms her understanding of the world.
Hand on My Heart is a powerful juxtaposition of Mayhew’s experiences as a foreign physician in a culturally unfamiliar territory and her personal exploration of her identity as a professional woman in the 21st century. As she travels to remote outposts, navigating language barriers and establishing trust with her patients, Mayhew’s Western beliefs are confronted and tested. The memoir delves into her reflections on gender roles, her own struggles, and the complexities of cultural differences. Through moments of disorientation, fear, wonder, and joy, Mayhew’s curiosity and tenderness shine through, allowing readers to witness her personal growth and transformation.
The memoir is a testament to the power of human connection. Mayhew’s willingness to take advantage of opportunities to engage with individual Afghans on a deep level, sharing cups of tea in secret and building lasting relationships, demonstrates her empathy and compassion. The stories she tells are moving and highlight the famous resilience and strength of the Afghan people.
For those of us used to looking at Afghanistan through conflict and security lens, Mayhew offers a unique an unfamiliar perspective on the complexities of a country deeply affected by war. Her crisp writing style, combined with her eye for telling details in her personal insights and intimate accounts, create a vivid and engaging narrative. Readers will find themselves immersed in the rich tapestry of Afghan culture, captivated by Mayhew’s journey of self-discovery and the bonds she forms with those she meets along the way.
This illuminating and thought-provoking read offers us a glimpse into a world rarely seen, while simultaneously inspiring introspection and reflection on our own similar journeys.