Alternative medicine is fine if the spice is right

In an age before modern medicine, traditional healers were once regarded as a necessary evil. But their techniques for natural cures are now finding a new following, reports Rym Ghazal.

Natural remedies and traditional cureswere once thought of old-fashioned or even fraudulent but there has been increasing interest in them again.

Ibrahim Saleh would be the first to admit that there was time when he was not the most popular of men.

His services were much in demand. Young Emirati boys, sent as household messengers, might arrive at any hour of the day or night. But those who requested his skills might also do so with a certain amount of trepidation.

"Our techniques and remedies were not always the most comfortable," admits Mr Saleh with a shrug.

Now he is one of the last of the UAE's traditional medicine men. Yet in an age of wonder drugs, microsurgery and high-tech scanners, Mr Saleh and his age-old techniques still have their following.

Close to 80 years old and boasting of "good health", he demonstrates one of his old methods to cure a "bad tummy" by throwing a pillow on the floor.

"If you had a swollen abdomen, I would do this," he says, then with great enthusiasm throws off both sandals and begins to crush the pillow with the heel of a bare foot.

"Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't," he admits.

Depending on the ailment, the medicine man would pull, pluck, poke, cut, wrap, even burn skin with an iron rod - all in the name of healing and saving lives. He still uses the same medicine bag, now battered from time and usage. It came from a barber he first met in the 1950s and who supplied him with razors used for circumcising infant boys.

The last in a long line of medicine men in his family, it has been three decades since he formally gave up his practice. But while the messenger boys no longer call at his home in Ajman, his phone still rings with requests for help.

"When modern medicine fails, that is when they call me. And I noticed more and more people calling me now to ask my advice on what they can use from nature to help them," he said.

"There is a renewed interest in the traditional art of mixing brews and drinks made of herbs, oil and spices," he says. Some techniques have made a comeback, such as using pressure points in a way similar to reflexology and "masah" or massage.

One ancient treatment that has remained in fashion is "hijama" or cupping. Now properly regulated using hygienic disposable tools and certified by the health authorities, cupping creates a vacuum to remove impurities from the blood through a series of tiny incisions.

"If something works, and is not too painful, it will be practised forever," says Mr Saleh.

Other, more intrusive techniques have fallen from vogue, for perhaps understandable reasons. Tonsillitis, once common among children, was cured, he says, by pressing "with these", meaning his first and index fingers, on the tongue until the unfortunate child vomited.

So "people hated us" says Mr Saleh, referring to both medicine men and women, the latter mostly midwives. "But they needed us until modern medicine finally came here and made us obsolete."

Until the 1950s, the UAE was almost entirely without modern facilities. A small medical centre opened in the Al Ras area of Dubai in 1943, offering basic care for those who could reach it, but it was the '60s before things started to improve for most of the population.

The first hospital - the modest 12-bed Al Maktoum Hospital in Deira, Dubai - opened in 1951 with British aid. The Oasis Hospital opened in Al Ain in 1960, Ras Al Khaimah's first hospital opened around the same time (1961-62) and was called the Houdaybah hospital, then Nakheel Hospital then Saif Hospital and today it's Ibrahim Obaidullah.

Al Qasimi Hospital opened in Sharjah in 1971, with small clinics offering medical service until then.

"You can now find every kind of doctor and treatment you can dream of here, and even I use modern medicines and pills, as they are fast and less painful," admits Mr Saleh. "But I am glad people are asking again about natural medicines."

Besides using everything from herbs to local plants and animal products, healers like Mr Saleh would also use religion, reciting Quranic verses over the body and the location of the ailment.

"The best healing comes from believing you will heal," he says.

These days, though, with so many claims and counter claims on the internet and television about natural remedies, sorting out fact from fiction can be hard.

Dr Carina Huwari would once have been called a "huwai", prescribing natural remedies much as a modern pharmacist would.

Now the head pharmacist at the Dubai Herbal and Treatment Center, she worked with modern medicines before becoming an expert in traditional herbal and natural cures.

Dr Huwari says she has noticed a change in attitudes to alternative medicine. "People are reading and finding out more about natural options, but get confused with contradictory information they find online, and so come here to find out more." she says.

A mother of three and Brazilian of Jordanian-Palestinian descent, she has been working at the centre since 2007. Now she hopes she is establishing the foundations of a long tradition of healthy families.

She, her children and husbandare battling "summer flu" by drinking Echinacea juice. Natural, brown in colour and made of the flowering plant Echinacea, the drink is "tasty", she says, with no problems in getting her children to drink it.

Three times a day, her one year old son Mohammed drinks 1ml, two year old Judi gets 2.5ml, and six year old Ihab 5ml, half the adult dose.

"How much to use and when to give your body a break for it to develop its own immunity is critical for natural medicine to work," she says, adding that for infants under one, Echinacea is not allowed.

"You need to help your body work better on its own," she says.

One of the biggest challenges is weaning people offoverprescribed medicines such as antibiotics. "I refuse to let my family fall into the widespread 'antibiotic' habit found in most families here and across the Arab world," she says. "Without even searching for alternatives, they go and get lots of pills, and often don't bother finishing the treatment and dosage recommended."

Unlike antibiotics that end up killing both "good and bad" bacteria, and are useless against viruses, Echinacea just targets bad microbes and stimulates the body's natural resistance and immunity, she claims.

It is important to diagnose each individual and if ailments are severe, chronic or acute, then modern medicine has to come first, she says, "with the help of alternative [medicine] along the way to recovery."

Besides Echinacea, Dr Huwari says there are three natural medicines that every home should have.

Turmeric (Kurkum) is used to treat coughs and remove freckles, as an antiseptic on acne, blemishes and an anti-inflammatory for bruises. It has also has anti-ageing and anti-wrinkle properties by improving elasticity of skin and has high antioxidant effect.

Dr Huwari sys: "Through improving body immunity, providing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, it acts as one of the only cancer-fighting medicines you can find in a bottle."

Saffron, while one of the most expensive spices, has many benefits, especially as an antidepressant effect. Dr Huwari says that "homemakers can use it to gently make those at home happy."

It is said that about 30 mg of saffron has the same effect as 20 mg of Prozac.

Dr Huwari says:"It is important to highlight that the common dose should not be above 1.5 gm on two divided doses. ingestion 5 gm of saffron can be toxic, while 10 gm has a lethal effect causing organs to bleed."

Saffron combats infertility in men and treats period pain through its anti-spasmodic effect.

And for the summer, the powerful Aloe vera should be in every home. It is an effective rehydrating agent and can be drank or applied as a gel. As a gel, it can be used locally as anti-irritant and for calming and treating insect bites. It is an effective detox drink, if it is drunk about 30 ml each morning on an empty stomach. "Every season has its natural remedies," she said.

"Modern and traditional medicine are complementary to each other," says Dr Huwari. "Balance them properly and don't underestimate the body's natural power to heal. It just needs a little bit of help."