Beirut apothecary upholds noble tradition and novel superstition

Filled with taxidermied creatures and wide selections of herbs, Al Kinaan's theme is difficult to pin down

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Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, is a liminal, contradictory place: at once glamorous and decrepit; feudalist and cosmopolitan; modern and traditional.

And so it is perfectly reasonable and bewildering that the Al Kinaan shop of curiosities should exist next to an electronics store and across from a supermarket ― at once in discord and harmony with its surroundings; typically Beiruti.

The small, archaic boutique is located in Beirut’s lively Basta neighbourhood. A hyena in the shop window sneers at customers and passersby as they round the corner, preparing them for entry; dozens of stuffed animals are displayed in the glass storefront and inside the shop.

Part apothecary, part occult novelty store, Al Kinaan's theme is difficult to pin down. And much like Beirut, it is contradictory: a place where noble tradition meets novel superstition.

Issam al Barjawi has one of the few remaining Attara's in Lebanon. Matthew Kynaston /  The National

Store-owner Issam al Barjawi says his business helps to keep alive the fading traditions of the attar: apothecaries who specialise in distilling plant and animal organs to create perfumes, salves, and medicines to treat physical and spiritual ailments.

“I haven’t found anyone else who does the same thing that I do,” Mr Barjawi said. “The work that I do and the specific variety I stock isn’t found anywhere else in Lebanon.”

Al Kinaan contains hundreds of remedies for various ailments ― some treatments are scientifically sound, while others are rooted in superstition.

Mr Barjawi takes a small bag labelled "hyena gallbladder, $6" off the display rack.

“The bile in a hyena’s gall bladder should be mixed with cedar honey,” he said. “Then applied as a kohl around the eyes.

“It improves eyesight, repels glaucoma, and it lengthens eyelashes.”

Historically, attars are the Islamic predecessors of modern-day pharmacologists. The height of Islamic civilisation brought medical advances between the seventh and 13th centuries ― introducing distillation techniques and the use of alcohol as an antiseptic, for example.

Despite the advent of contemporary medicine, apothecaries still exist throughout the Arab world in some form or another ― carrying a rich tradition of folk practices.

Most attars today run perfume stalls, selling hand-mixed scents from distilled oils and touting the benefits of aromatherapy.

Issam al Barjawi inspects an ostrich egg, which if grinded into a paste could be used to encourage hair growth, he says. Matthew Kynaston /  The National

Others ― usually tucked away in old souqs and alleyways ― have remained truer to their apothecary roots, using herbs and oils to create cosmetics, perfumes and pharmaceuticals to treat a spectrum of ailments from dry skin and dandruff, to rheumatism, inflammation, respiration issues, and hypertension.

Mr Barjawi specialises in making natural remedies, as well as providing gemstones or animal talismen derived from Islamic tradition or folklore.

“Everything in the store is Islamically permitted,” he says, drawing from the ancient experts. Many of his studies are from a book called The Great Animal Life, a 12th-century collection of animal-related jurisprudence and religious accounts by the Mufti Kamal Al-Din Al-Damiri.

Mysticism is abundant in Islam. Ayatul Kursi, for example, is a Quranic verse that wards off the devil and evil spirits; some scented oils derived from plants and animal glands are believed to repel djinn and the gaze of the evil eye.

Often Mr Barjawi’s shop is frequented by people desperately seeking solutions to their problems.

The place is filled with concoctions and animal parts said to aid with impotence, infertility, and fruitful marriages.

“Yesterday I made a mixture of honey and ground seahorse for a customer, for fertility. He’s been married four years but no kids,” he said. After doctors found nothing wrong with him or his wife, “He resorted to trying this. It strengthens the seed.”

Seahorse is also used for finding love, luck, and attaining social prestige. It sells for $8.

Mr Barjawi explains the effects of each product with great patience and enthusiasm.

Hedgehog spines, $3, are an important item, he says.

Hanging it above the bed of a pregnant woman will ward off Umm al Sobyan ― the infamous djinn feared throughout the Arab world and said to force women to miscarry.

A paste of ground ostrich eggshell mixed with honey and herbs generates hair growth and prevents hair loss.

Lion pelt, when sat upon, repels haemorrhoids ― but it also gives courage.

Carrying tiger skin aids one’s social status. Kangaroo skin is used for good luck, but also to maintain healthy kidneys. The skin of a wolf repels enemies. Burning porcupine thorns will prevent djinn from entering one's home. A tiger's fang has no medical or spiritual benefit, but makes for a nice amulet.

And, of course, “the most highly demanded products are aphrodisiacs. For sexual energy”.

If he doesn’t know the answer to an ailment, Mr Barjawi refers customers to more experienced attars or practitioners of Arab medicine.

The products in Mr Barjawi’s store often veer into the curious and the exotic, and one could be forgiven for thinking his business benefits from illegal poaching trade.

But, he insists, all his animal products are ethically sourced according to Islamic law.

“People think we kill the animals so that we can benefit from them, but that’s not true,” he says. “If an animal is already dead, we harvest its parts.”

The only permissible harvesting from slaughtered animals is when an animal has been killed according to zabiha ― or ritually slaughtered with the intention to eat.

Of course, less adventurous options are also sold in Al Kinaan. Honey sourced from all over the eastern world; jars of pollen for immunity. Black seed oil for inflammation, hypertension, and headaches; an assortment of essential oils. Rows of precious stones: Hematite stone bracelets for rheumatism and increased blood-flow; turquoise for luck.

Mr Barjawi’s reverence for animals and wildlife shines through as he talks. He owns a number of animal-related businesses, he said, including, before Lebanon fell into severe economic crisis, a zoo.

He admits his other businesses are more lucrative than the apothecary, which is a labour of love and a way to circulate the knowledge of the attars to the wider community and keep it alive.

Some of his customers place stock in superstitions, he says. Others are more sceptical.

To the sceptics, Mr Barjawi says: “I encourage them to try it, and find out for themselves.”

Updated: October 20, 2022, 9:28 AM