Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Traditional Physicians Make a Comeback
Iraq’s healthcare system may be in decline, but the trade in traditional herbal treatments is booming.
In a covered market street just beyond the golden dome of the mosque of Kadhemiya, Baghdad, dozens of vendors display jars full of dried leaves, oils, and powders.
Each jar is neatly labelled with the name of a herb traditionally used as a medicine, together with the condition it can be used to treat.
The merchants, most of whose fathers and grandfathers were also herbalists, wax prolific about the superiority of their wares to ordinary medicines and the range of diseases that they can cure.
"I have never taken so much as a paracetamol painkiller in my entire life," said Hussein Halool Abid al-Ibrahimi, 25, owner of the Zein al-Abdeen herb shop.
"I use natural herbs treatment, as do all my family," claimed Ibrahimi. "I consider herbal medicine better than modern medicine, because it cures many incurable diseases such as cancer ... and has no side effects as is the case with chemically-based medicines.”
Some herbs are imported from countries like Iran, Turkey and India, but merchants said at least 3,000 species of medically useful plants occur naturally in Iraq.
"The most famous herb in Iraq is qaisum [southernwood] which is used as a digestive and a parasite killer," herbalist Abbas Khudeir told IWPR.
Oil can be extracted from the flowers of shieh – or wormwood - and used as a syrup to cure fevers, while the fruit of the khilla plant, boiled in water, can be used for kidney pains and to remove gallstones, Khudeir said.
Some herbs, like handhal (colocynth), which is used for diabetes, are desert plants, while others come from the mountains. Wild thyme, known as zaatar and helpful for chest conditions, and babunug or camomile, used for muscle and stomach pains, grow in river valleys.
Herbalists sell each other plants collected in their home areas, and pay farmers and others to bring in herbs from remoter parts of the country.
Merchants cite an illustrious line of predecessors such as the 10th century herbalist Imam al-Sadeq and 12th century physician Zuheir Najib al-Zubaidi.
They say their clients come from all walks of life, and include many visitors from other Arab countries.
Zuheir Jabbar, 35, a mechanic treated for kidney problems, is one satisfied customer. "Most drugs were of no benefit to me. There was nothing else left... so we turned to herbs," he said, adding that a dose of the herb known as “kafshat al-udhra” cured his troubles.
Some patients come to the herbalists on the advice of orthodox doctors.
General practitioner Dr. Ali Abd al-Sahib, 40, refers patients to Kadhemiya to obtain treatments such as black caraway, used to cure urinary tract infections. "They are tried-and-tested and have no side effects,” he said.
While many of the treatments are homeopathic cures for day-to-day ailments, some herbalists claim to be able to cure just about anything.
"You can bring anyone who is sick with AIDS, and I can cure them in six months," said Faris Abd al-Zahra, 30, owner of the al-Imamain store.
He won't disclose which herb he uses. "It's a secret - I can't tell you,” he said. “I discovered it. No one else has the right to know what it is."
Naser Kadhem and Hussein Ali al-Yasiri are IWPR trainees in Baghdad.
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