Modern life strains Oman's love affair with herbal cures

Traders of home-grown medicines in Oman are becoming a rarity with the passing on of the old generation that used to support the trade.

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BAHLA, OMAN // In the shadow of the towering 300-year-old Barka fortress in the north-east of Oman, Khalid al Azri sat inside his dark shop surrounded by baskets, woven from date palm leaves, that contained leaves, bottles, balms, roots, tree barks, rock salts, all ingredients of folk remedies. Apart from two old friends drinking coffee with him, no one visited the shop the whole day. The 72-year-old said he was seriously thinking of closing down his traditional medicine business.

Traders of home-grown medicines like Mr al Azri are becoming a rarity with the passing on of the old generation that used to support the trade. The younger generation, wealthier and with highly paid jobs in large companies, enjoy perks include medical insurances in private hospitals. Outside the shop he pointed at modern villas that stand in neat lines to make up new streets. The properties replacing the old houses of his former customers, who were farmers, fishermen and spice traders, were built by their educated children.

"Home-grown remedy means very little to them because they are educated and have highly paid jobs, unlike their parents, who toiled all day in the sun and earned little. Who can you complain to?" Mr al Azri asked. Young people say they have no need for "a bundle of twigs and roots" that their parents used as medicines. "They are bitter, dusty, smelly and there's no scientific proof that they work. Of course, I don't speak for everyone, but I am not a great fan of our traditional medicines," Musallam Abdulsalam, 32, a car showroom manager in Bahla, said.

In Bahla in the central north, Nasser al Hinai once had a five-door shop for his traditional medicine business 200 meters from the Bahla citadel. That was 10 years ago. Over the past decade, the 66-year-old businessman has been forced to reduce the size of his shop as customers prefer pharmacies. He now sits on the floor in front of a one-door shop. His trade is supported by old timers and tourists who want to take Oman's medicinal traditions home more as souvenirs than anything else.

"I see people walking to a pharmacy just seven shops away from me. They see me as an old man with old smelly bags of herbs," Mr al Hinai said. He blamed the rise in medical centres in the country and doctors prescribing medicines for "western remedies". "What we sell is natural and free from chemicals as opposed to western medicines. Our remedies have been tested over the centuries and contain no side effects. I guess we are the last of the kind," Mr al Hinai said.

Hamood Wahaiby, 76, a retired night guard of a museum in the ministry of national heritage, agreed with the pedigree of the local medicines. "For example, habat al kamar is a great remedy for controlling blood pressure and so is kurkum, which fights infection in your body. You don't need expensive and harmful pills from the doctor." Habat al kamar is a combination of desert tree roots while kurkum is a mixture of yellow powder extracted from ginger, garlic and other spices. Both are cooked with food or boiled in water and taken orally, Mr Wahaiby said.

Foreign residents knowledgeable about local herbs are surprised that young Omanis are abandoning traditional remedies. "Local remedies like frankincense are good for the sinus when you chew it, cloves prevent teeth decay while cardamom seeds improve your blood circulation. I buy the stuff regularly from my local medicine shop," said Edward Sullivan, 42, a US-born gym instructor in Muscat. Khalid al Jabri, proprietor of Ibn Jabri Trading Co and owner of a pharmacy, said vendors of folk medicines must modernise their business premises to revive the trade.

"Their shops are dirty, smelly and unhygienic. The products are wrapped in unattractive packets. They also need to market their products in a profession way, like the Chinese do. Products wrapped in newspapers do not appeal to modern customers," Mr al Jabri said. A medical practitioner acknowledged the benefits of local medicines and encouraged patients to integrate traditional remedies with hospital prescriptions.

"Clinical prescriptions go hand in hand with local medicines. For example, I always recommend to my patients to use herbs from the local dealer for common ailments like constipation, heat stroke, tooth decay and even diarrhoea," Wahab Khalifa, a government hospital physician in Bahla, said. But some doctors are sceptical about the use of traditional medicines, saying that they may relieve the symptoms but never a cure.

"Home-grown medicines are never a substitute to a prescription. Yes, you may get a temporary relief but always go to the hospital if you want to be cured," Hatim Khabourah, a physician at Ramool Private Hospital in Muscat, said.