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Traditional medicine is making a comeback in the MENA region

Traditional Medicine MENA Region
An Iraqi mixes herbs at an “apothecary” in the old al-Shurjah souk in central Baghdad on December 14, 2008. ALI YUSSEF / AFP

Dana Hourany

Samer El-Khoury was startled by the sound of gunfire at 3 a.m. on a cool December morning. El-Khoury, who lives in a small village high in the mountains of northern Lebanon, discovered a dog on his porch that needed emergency medical attention. His stomach and leg had severe gunshot wounds and were at risk of infection.

The young environmental activist and animal lover opted for an herbal concoction made from the local herb “tayyoun” (inula) instead of the vet’s topical ointment recommendation, which would have cost him $25.

“It has the same antiseptic properties as the ointment and is sticky enough to be used as an effective disinfectant,” El-Khoury told Fanack. “The vet was even amazed by the results because he didn’t expect such a quick recovery.”

El-Khoury is part of a new generation of herbalists in the country, reviving ancient medicinal practices. Traditionally, herbalism has been recognized as part of a larger approach to healing in the Middle East that includes spiritual practices, diets, mind-body practices and physical techniques, used in combination or individually.

An amalgamation of Greco-Roman, Chinese, Persian and Ayurvedic theories, the practice of ancient Arabic medicine has survived the test of time. Experts say today’s inflated medical costs, prescription shortages and political upheaval have reignited people’s interest in age-old healing techniques.

“There are many ailments that can be cured by herbs, and our bodies can benefit greatly from reconnecting with nature,” El-Khoury said.

Back to origins

Greek, Chinese, and Indian medical techniques were the primary influence on Arab physicians, who acquired their knowledge through trade and travel along the Silk Roads from the 2nd century BCE until the mid-15th century. Professionals and enthusiasts attended clinical lectures on basic sciences such as alchemy, pharmacognosy, anatomy and physiology. They would then use their newly acquired knowledge to heal wounded warriors.

Multi-regional medical knowledge was compiled using translations and documents from the Silk Roads. Scholars who had never been to China or the Indian subcontinent were thus able to access various fields of study.

As Baghdad became the center of the medical world in the mid-9th century CE, where pharmacies would first be established, the discipline of pharmacology would then take off and spread to the rest of the Arab world and parts of Europe. Veterinary science and general medicine would become independent disciplines that developed in medieval or post-classical times between 500 and 1450 CE.

The Quran and Hadiths of the Prophet, which became more popular in the 7th century AD, led to an expansion of the practice. According to the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims have a responsibility to look after their physical and spiritual well-being.

The translated manuscripts of Pedanius Dioscorides and Galen of Greece formed the basis for a better understanding of medicine in the 9th century CE

During this period, Arab scholars discovered herbs, explored anesthetics, and developed techniques such as distillation, crystallization, dissolution, and calcination. A new class of drugs was introduced which contained camphor, senna, musk, alum, sandalwood, ambergris, mercury, aloe, and aconite.

Prominent names from this era include Al-Razi (850-923) who produced over 200 books on medicine and philosophy and was famous for his method of experimentation and observation.

He supported a holistic approach to medicine where a person’s background and relationship to the doctor was considered.

Other renowned scholars are Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1947 CE), often referred to as the father of modern medicine, the polymath Al-Biruni (973-1050 CE) and the botanist and pharmacist Ibn Al-Baitar (1197-1248 ). THIS).

Learn from ancestors

The influences of Arabic medicine are found in modern medical science. Trained doctors, hygiene rituals, medical records and pharmacies are all features of traditional Arab hospitals. The sites were also used for medical teachings – similar to modern facilities.

The most sought-after drugs in Morocco today, according to Loukili Hamid, a practitioner of Moroccan Arab medicine, treat skin and stomach disorders.

“The gut can harbor many painful diseases,” Hamid, who has practiced traditional medicine since childhood, told Fanack.

Since he chooses to treat low-income people for free, Hamid’s interest acts as a hobby rather than a career, but gaining new knowledge and staying curious is the most challenging aspect of his practice, he said.

“There is an undeniable increase in demand for these ancient drugs across the Middle East, but not everyone is qualified to become a professional in the field,” the practitioner said.

“Often the information is passed on by older practitioners who supervise newcomers or who have documented their findings in books that are not available in libraries. My ancestors recorded their trial and error in journals that I found when I was very young,” he continued.

Hamid says that among the difficult diseases he was able to treat in his area of ​​specialty were malignant skin tumors.

In the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, Fadi El-Khatib and his Iraqi business partner, Bassem, whose names have been changed for privacy reasons, told Fanack that people in their area were increasingly frustrated with modern medicine.

“Our goal is to give patients something that offers some semblance of stability. Frequent hospital visits and addiction to prescription drugs have made people look for something that gives better results or at the very least comfort. This is where we come in,” El-Khatib said.

Seeking Stability in Troubled Times

A Chinese doctor who once lived in Syria gave El-Khatib his informal training six years ago. What started as an introduction to herbalism has evolved into a wide range of different therapies, including, among many others, cupping, East Asian massage, and aromatherapy.

“As the saying goes, an herb that doesn’t help you won’t hurt you,” the practitioner said, “and I got into this field for that reason. Without running the risk of possibly hurting people, I wanted to do good.

More than a decade of crises and deteriorating economic conditions have caused a serious humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib. People are forced to rely on food baskets or are forced to beg in the streets.

The conflict greatly harmed the practice of El-Khatib as many of its earlier facilities were destroyed and supplies were in short supply.

Fortunately, the turmoil having calmed down in recent years, he was able to reestablish his practice. However, he is still wary of potential developments.

Although he claims that traditional medicine takes a holistic approach, he personally focuses on orthopedics.

“We don’t deny the importance of modern medicine, but we provide a solution when it doesn’t.”

His cupping expert partner, Bassem, stresses the importance of this centuries-old practice, which was endorsed by the Prophet, who is said to have said, “Indeed, in cupping (hijamah) there is a remedy”, according to Jabir ibn Abdullah. [Saheeh Muslim hadith No: 5706].

What is cupping?

Blood is taken from the body during hijamah (cupping) to allow the circulation of replenished and healthier blood. In Islam, cupping is used to treat a wide variety of ailments and dates back thousands of years when the Chinese, Babylonians and ancient Egyptians were the primary practitioners.

The cupper burns a small piece of paper or cotton inside the container to rarefy the air to cling the cupping container to the skin. The vessel should then adhere to the skin for three to ten minutes. A razor blade or other sharp object is used to make a small incision in the skin to remove it. This process is repeated if necessary.

Other traditional practices include apothecaries, also known as “attar” shops, which still operate in parts of the Middle East but are in danger of disappearing. They sell perfumes, medicines and ointments that treat diseases with the help of plant and animal organs.

In these stores, mixtures containing hedgehog spines, seahorses, and ostrich eggshells are sold for as little as $3. “The most requested products are aphrodisiacs. For sexual energy,” Issam Al-Berjawi, an attar from Lebanon, told The National.

Mind, Body, Spirit

There are institutions in Lebanon where alternative medicine, which incorporates East Asian and Middle Eastern traditions, is taught and practiced.

Hassan Jaafar is an author, gynecologist and alternative medicine practitioner. He founded the “Lebanese Center for Alternative Medicine” in 2000. The number of patients has steadily increased since then, he told Fanack.

“Patients these days are visiting their regular doctors under the pressure of rising medical bills and potential bad news. This leads to a decline in their physical and mental well-being,” he said.

The doctor says that over time he has observed an increase in the number of young women suffering from migraines, sexual dysfunctions, glandular disorders and menstrual cycle disorders. However, the alarming rise in psychiatric disorders has only become more widespread in recent crisis years, he said.

More than 80% of the Lebanese population fell into poverty as a result of the 2019 financial crisis, and the value of the local currency continues to fall against the US dollar.

“For those who are psychologically and mentally ill, we use a hypnosis technique where we release the subconscious mind from the underlying problem,” he said.

Jaafar asserts that this tradition is similar to that practiced in Islam where exorcism or “healing invocations” are used while reciting verses from the Quran to soothe mental disorders.

“They deal with the subconscious. For the religious spirit, faith in the scriptures is necessary. For the lay mind, a more scientific approach is needed,” Jaafar said.

According to El-Khatib, exorcism, which he uses on patients with mental health issues, only has a calming effect on the patient.

Both practitioners agree that traditional medicine emphasizes a flexible approach to disease, where treatments and formulations are regularly changed to meet contemporary demands without prioritizing financial gain.

Supplies are generally accessible and reasonably priced. More importantly, traditional medicine does not conflict with contemporary treatment; rather, it is meant to improve it, they said.

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