Today, there are dozens of public and private hospitals and clinics in the UAE, offering every speciality of healthcare, but until the 1950s the region was almost entirely without modern facilities.
For centuries the isolated inhabitants of what was to become the UAE had only the handed-down treatments of traditional medicine to help them in times of sickness. Some cures were effective, others less so. But the old ways – practised at a time when there was only a thin line between life and death – have an important place in the nation’s story and, says one of the last few practitioners of traditional medicine in the UAE, deserve to be preserved for future generations.
Before modern medicine came to the region, there was only one treatment available to prevent infections in women who had just given birth – and the application of balls of salt was both painful and not particularly effective.
Small wonder that until the Oasis Hospital opened in Al Ain in 1960 – founded by an American couple, Pat and Marian Kennedy – only half the babies born in the region survived, as many as one in three women died during delivery and malaria, tuberculosis, intestinal parasites and eye infections were common.
“It was a particularly tough time for women here before the arrival of modern medicine,” says Ibrahim Mohammed Saleh. “There wasn’t a household here without a death or two of a woman during childbirth or that of the child from a common disease.”
Mr Saleh, who is now in his late 70s, is a walking encyclopaedia of Emirati traditional medicine and practices, some of which have faded away with time, but a few of which are still used.
“Look, we still use this,” he says, first pinching the skin between the thumb and index finger and then, with his other hand, simultaneously applying firm pressure to an area between the neck and shoulder.
This technique – called “al ousouba”, a play on the Arabic word for nerves – is a method that would not be unfamiliar to modern reflexologists. “To relax muscle pain you have to do this three times a day,” he says. “I have seen modern doctors using this.”
There was, of course, no formal training; traditional doctors such as Mr Saleh learnt the tricks of the trade from their fathers and their fathers before them. Women also practised the medical arts, particularly as midwives; Mr Saleh believes the last traditional woman doctor in Ajman died just a few years ago.
Living in a harsh environment with little outside assistance, Mr Saleh and others like him had to experiment with whatever materials they found around them.
With neither painkillers nor antiseptics available, fractured bones were reset in seawater. Wounds and tumours were cauterised, cupping was used to remove “bad blood” and massage played a big part in many treatments.
“We used what we could find in our environment,” he says, “an environment that wasn’t always generous.”
Mr Saleh is speaking in Ajman Museum, which has a wing dedicated to traditional medicine. On the walls hang photographs of a much younger Mr Saleh, showing him performing traditional treatments, such as rubbing a red oxide paste on a swollen cheek to cure mumps, known locally as “khaz baj”.
This, he says, is one cure he would still swear by: “We apply the paste just once and the swelling goes down within two to three days.”
Modern medicine, when it finally did arrive, did not replace the traditional ways overnight. 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.
“It took time for the people to trust modern medicine, so until it was more readily available, people came to us,” says Mr Saleh.
It was not only the arrival of modern medicine that affected the old ways. Politics also played its part. “I used to go in my boat to the island of Abu Musa on a regular basis to get the mud of the red oxide from a certain mountain, as well as many other ingredients for the medicines we used,” says Mr Saleh. Along with the rest of the population of the UAE, he has been unable to visit the island since 1971, when Iran seized it on the eve of unification.
He recalls a wide range of Emirati traditional medical practices, many of which are represented at the museum. Among the more common was “al falaa”, in which head traumas were treated by the application of crushed garlic and alcohol with a pad of cotton, before wrapping the wound with a clean piece of cloth.
The circumcision of boys was done with a sharp razor; afterwards, the bleeding was stopped using an ointment called “hil adam”, made from a mix of herbs and oil. Another paste was used to disinfect the wound.
Versions of some techniques are still found in doctors’ surgeries today. Although broken bones were reset under seawater, a cast was then applied to hold the bones in place. Mr Saleh demonstrates the technique: first a sticky “dough” – made from the herb astragalus, the resin of the plant sarcocolla and eggs – is rolled out and covered with lamb’s wool, which is then applied directly to the broken limb. To give the cast rigidity, palm sticks are pushed into the soft cast before it hardens; thread is used to bind it all together.
Tumours were, of course, often fatal but there was a technique for treating them – “al lessah”, the thief’s mark. A traditional Arabic coffee cup was placed upside down on the tumour and the tip of a hot iron rod was used to cauterise the skin around the cup in a series of dots. Then the cup was removed and the tumour itself cauterised. It was, says Mr Saleh, “very painful but something had to be done to get all the bad stuff inside the tumour out of the person’s body”.
Some treatments were even more brutal. Swollen abdomens, for instance, were treated by crushing with the heel of a bare foot. A fading old colour photograph in the museum shows a patient on his back crying out in pain as the medicine man enthusiastically goes to work.
Conjunctivitis was treated with a solution made from kermes, a naturally occurring reddish-brown mineral compound that contained antimony – an element since found by modern science to be toxic.
The infectious eye disease trachoma, in some parts of the world still a leading cause of blindness, was treated by rubbing the eyelid with a gold ring before applying seeds of the “breho” plant under the eyelid.
Liver problems were tackled externally, by rubbing into the skin a hot paste made from dates. For children, tonsillitis was even less fun than usual: the “cure” was to press on the tongue until the child vomited.
One wall of the museum is lined with a display of more than 100 herbs, minerals and oils in airtight containers. Having the right ingredients was the most critical aspect of treatment, says Mr Saleh: “Many of these are hard to find these days.”
The cure was frequently worse than the affliction. “We used to boil a small piece of shnyob” – a ghost crab – “for someone with a bad cough to drink,” says Mr Saleh, laughing. “The taste is so awful, that a person would never dare have a cough again.”
Religion played a big role in traditional medicine and many faith-based cures continue to be used today, he says. “Hijama”, a method of cupping to draw blood, was practised by the Prophet, and the tradition of “blessed water” is still widely used today throughout the Muslim world.
“A glass of water covered with a saucer is sent to the religious sheikh who reads over it verses from the Quran; he then lifts the saucer and blows on it before it is returned to the family who sent it. The sick person then either drinks the blessed water or washes the area of sickness with it.”
Sometimes saffron and flowers are added to the water and china bowls inscribed with verses from the Quran are used.
To this day, says Mr Saleh, many people turn to traditional medicine when modern methods fail them. A few years ago, one of his patients, a 60-year-old man, was told that he had gangrene in his foot and that there was nothing to be done but amputate.
“So he came to us; a group of us decided to save it by mixing all the potent herbs we had with animal fat and pouring the mixture onto the problem area after it was thoroughly cleansed with a bird’s feather and seawater.”
The treatment was continued for a month. “The foot was saved in the end and he walked without pain,” says Mr Saleh.
Despite such successes, he freely admits that modern medicine has its advantages. In fact, he says, he is late for a doctor’s appointment.
“It is quicker and I am old,” he says. “We have access to everything now, so there is no need for these old ways.”
Nevertheless, he is determined that they should not be forgotten — and time is running out. Dubai’s Al Maktoum Hospital, the first to open in the UAE, has already become history itself. It closed in January and is to be turned into a museum of the history of modern medicine in the UAE.
Mr Saleh, who was a consultant for the Ajman Museum’s collection of traditional medicine, urges the younger generation who have known only the modern ways to visit and understand something of the lives their forebears.
“People have forgotten traditional Emirati medicine, and only remember it when they visit museums. Just because we don’t use it doesn’t mean we should forget.”
Ajman Museum (06-742-3824) is open from 8am to 1pm and 4pm to 7pm every day except Friday. Sharjah Heritage Museum (06-568-0006), which also has a collection of traditional medicine, is open daily from 8am to 8pm, and from 4pm to 8pm on Friday. Tickets are Dh5 for adults, entry is free for children.