x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Purveyor of potent potions

As Ras al Khaimah's leading herbalist, Dr Omar Hajji Mohamed offers to cleanse, beautify or energise his customers with infusions, creams and ointments that harness nature's goodness.

Dr Omar Hajji Mohamed in front of his jars of exotic ingredients at al Baraka Lili Ashab, the Herbal Medicine Shop, in RAK.
Dr Omar Hajji Mohamed in front of his jars of exotic ingredients at al Baraka Lili Ashab, the Herbal Medicine Shop, in RAK.

As Ras al Khaimah's leading herbalist, Dr Omar Hajji Mohamed offers to cleanse, beautify or energise his customers with infusions, creams and ointments that harness nature's goodness. Anna Zacharias drops into his apothecary to meet the man behind the counter The store resembles a medieval apothecary. There are wooden boxes of cuttlefish bones and dried black fungus. The shelves hold vials of dark brown honey from the mountains of Ras al Khaimah and clear plastic jars filled with roots, leaves and seed pods plucked from trees in India and Iran.

There are slabs of soap to cure every skin ailment and dusty boxes that hold snake oil to treat joint pain. It is from this store, scented in mystique, that Dr Omar Hajji Mohamed runs his business as a specialist in herbal and Islamic medicine. Dr Hajji Mohamed has a special formula for health: tekhaliya, tedliya and tehaliya - cleansing, beauty and energy. For cleansing, he prescribes any number of herbs and potions to cure stomach problems, help pregnancies and purify the blood.

For beauty, he sells creams and oils for the skin and hair, kohl for the eyes and different hues of crushed henna powder. "The third thing is tehaliya," he says. "This gives a lot of energy, like the horse, for someone who is married or does sports or does a lot of work with their head." Before he knows it, he is making recommendations. "One thing we can give them is fish oil, it's full of vitamins. Take this, it's zatar with honey, like a candy. This is to give us natural energy."

It may be Dr Hajji Mohamed's energy that draws people to the shop. Throughout the morning, Emirati men of all ages come to discuss their problems with him. "Thursday is our busiest day," he says. "Normally people come in the afternoon, especially after the evening prayer. "From eight until 10, it's a market here. And in the first 10 days of the month when people have money we do very well!" The store has regular clients from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Thailand, Syria, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories , Egypt, and Pakistan.

"But the majority who come are Emiratis," he says. "In the Emirates people understand it better. Even the elderly, they know it's very important. "Usually people come because they want something special. But not everybody buys. For every 10 people, maybe one or two will buy." "Men who are 20 to 25 always want something for their muscles. These are the tough guys," he says, pointing to a poster of an inflated bodybuilder. "They want something natural, not something chemical. On the other hand, women always want something for beauty."

Most of the merchandise is from a supplier in Dubai. Sometimes, traders enter the store to hock their wares, selling honey from Yemen or herbs from Iran. "People are always looking for something natural, like green tea or honey," says the herbalist. "They don't want antibiotics or protein shakes or capsules." "Since 2006 it's been very good. Before everyone said, 'Oh it's herbal, it's not something useful', but now everyone's tried it and they know they need to continue."

"We are not against medicine, we work together," he says. "We don't say, 'oh we don't need doctors or pharmacies'." In special cases, Dr Hajji Mohamed performs hijama, or cupping, to remove unclean blood. He does this in a small side room. The practice was recommended by the Prophet Mohammed to cure a number of illnesses, including muscle pain, stomach aches and migraines. A cup with a pump is placed on the patient's upper back and pumped three times. After two or three minutes, three small holes are pricked in the skin and the cup is applied again to create a vacuum which draws out the blood.

According to the doctor, the colour of the blood can be used to diagnose the patient's illness. Of course, cupping is performed on only those in proper physical health. "It's not for everyone," he says. Before the store appeared on the corner of the Maaridh souq five years ago, Dr Hajji Mohamed worked in a centre for herbal medicine in Sharjah. In Sharjah, he did a two-year theory course on blood drawing and six months of hands-on training.

Before he moved to the UAE, Dr Hajji Mohamed, 43, studied the medicine of the Prophet Mohammed at the Islamic University in Mogadishu, Somalia. The degree, known as al Tibb al Nabawi, focused on the traditions, practices and recommendations for the treatment of health and disease used and discussed by the Prophet Mohammed. After graduation, Dr Hajji Mohammed worked as an assistant for a herbal doctor before going to Cairo to complete his Master's degree.

He later moved to Tunis for two years to take his PhD in classic Arabic. His goal was not to study literature or history but to read medical texts from the Middle Ages. "It's the old Arabic, maybe spoken before Islam," says Dr Hajji Mohamed. "Because the old books are written by hand, to read this you need to be a specialist." "It's easy to read things on the computer but to read this books," he pulls three leather-bound books from under the counter, "you need to know something like Latin."

"So I specialised in the Arabic language to read this. It's not easy. My eyes got very, very bad. Some days we would work 18 hours non-stop. We were reading the old books and asking, 'what is this? what do they mean by this?' "Arabic isn't my first language. My mother doesn't speak Arabic. My first language is Somali but it's been a long time since I was there. But now I speak better Arabic than people here."

"But I'm not an Arabic professor. I did this course to understand how people before wrote and to understand what they did. Maybe people read Latin literature in English. It's not enough. You have to read the old books in their language." Dr Hajji Mohamed is also fluent in French. "I left Somalia simply to study, but after I left Somalia there was war and so I stayed for a while in Europe. "I go one or two months a year to see my family, especially in Ramadan. For me it's not dangerous, I am not someone who makes war, I work like a normal person. I don't say who is right and who is wrong. I do my work. I go and I leave like anyone."

"But you need something, we are here for this." "If you do something for mankind, this makes me very happy. When old people come and say for us, 'al humdullilah', this makes us very happy. "We work to serve people. I am happy for this. I am not a professor or somebody who knows a lot of things. Up until now I am learning new things every day. We say life is school, al humdullilah." azacharias@thenational.ae