Traditional Medicine < OMAN HERITAGE


Salim bin Salam al Abri, a familiar fixture outside Nizwa souq, hawks traditional remedies for virtually every common debility or disease, except perhaps death itself

Salim bin Salam al Abri sells his exotic remedies outside Nizwa souq — Pictures by Abdullah Ibrahim al Shuhi

Sitting outside Nizwa souq in the shadow of the majestic Nizwa fort, Salim bin Salam al Abri's little pavement stall lends an element of enchantment and exoticism to this bustling and modern souq. It is redolent of the great oriental bazaars of antiquity, when caravans bearing spices and other merchandise from the regions of ancient Oman traded here in times bygone.The souq has since received a complete facelift to complement the grandeur of the Nizwa fort located nearby. But a remnant of the old bazaar is still preserved within this modern edifice, offering visitors a glimpse of what Nizwa's famous marketplace of antiquity looked like. Some traders still run shops in this crumbling quarter, which sits rather incongruously with the rest of this splendidly redesigned souq. They sell everything from foodstuff and spices to household goods and farming implements.Al Abri sits in the shade of some trees outside the East Gate, the entrance to the old quarter of the souq, beckoning passersby to sample from his great collection of remedies. Displayed on a mat before him is an exotic melange of traditional, herbal and other popular remedies that come in every shape and hue.

There are spices, herbs, seeds, dried roots, berries, tree bark, rock salts, condiments and balms organised in neat plastic bags.You can choose from some 150 different remedies that offer cures for everything from the common cold to diabetes. Most of these are procured from bazaars in the United Arab Emirates, Iran, India, Pakistan and East Africa. Al Abri's medicinal potpourri includes the popular cure-all called habat al barakah — black seeds which are a panacea for virtually every malady except, he adds with a grin, death itself. Ground and mixed with honey, the seeds are known to be a potent remedy for knee problems.Another coveted restorative is the araq al qarah — a preparation from a root that, taken with other herbal remedies, can enhance the efficacy of the medicine. At 100 baizas per three-inch-sized root, it is the most expensive remedy hawked by Al Abri.Also in great demand is the habat al kheel, touted as the ideal home remedy for diabetes — incidentally an unusually common affliction in the Sultanate.

Also in great demand is the habat al kheel, touted as the ideal home remedy for diabetes. A teaspoon of the ground seeds taken thrice daily with water is said to be a splendid remedy for diabetes

Al Abri's melange of remedies

A teaspoon of the ground seeds taken thrice daily with water is said to be a splendid remedy for diabetes. For constipation, Al Abri recommends the halool — dried leaves, which are ground and taken with water. There are some mineral-based remedies as well, like the lasif — a gleaming lump of rock imported from Pakistan, which is popular among traditional womenfolk as an invigorant for the eye. Bright yellow lumps of sulphur, called kabreet, are also being sold as a polishing agent and as a cure for animal skin rashes.A native of Al Hamra, Al Abri has been dispensing his traditional remedies for the past eight years, running a weekend stall at Nizwa souq. Although there are other medicine men like him in the Nizwa area, Al Abri's range is the biggest by far. Dyes, condiments, spices and incense are also part of his collection. Most of his customers, he says, are elder folk who "appreciate the value of traditional herbal medicines"

Araq al qarah — touted as a universal restorative

habat al kheel — recommended for diabeticshabat al kheel — recommended for diabetics


Neem – the village pharmacy – goes global

In ancient times neem was the most celebrated medicinal plant of India and found mention in a number of Pauranic texts as also in ancient Persian and Urdu pharmacopias who called it a "Blessed Tree'' and the Village Pharmacy''. A millennium later, today, neem is once again steadily becoming an agro-scientific celebrity, says Mukesh Khosla


Imagine the scenario.... A few years from now an apple a day may no longer keep the doctor away. Or a bowl of curd and green salad may not be your passport to good health. Milk, meat and poultry may come with a warning that their excessive consumption may be injurious to health.An agro-scientist may find nothing funny about these statements. In fact, he would also tell you why. Some of the apple, you eat could be a source of chemical poisoning. And that juicy chicken may have been fed with seeds contaminated with toxic pesticides. The wheat, dal, vegetables and green salad may all have been sprayed with deadly dichloro, diphneyl trichloroethane (DDT) or benzene hexachloride (BHC). Besides being consumed by human beings many of these also go into the food chain of animals resulting in contaminated milk and meat products.There is growing concern around the world about the increasing use of harmful chemicals in our food. Such is the awareness that now, even in India, it is not unusual to find that many of the progressive farmers keep a part of their farms free of chemicals for their own consumption. Here they employ the ancient means of farming which includes an extensive use of neem tree.In fact, in ancient times neem was the most celebrated medicinal plant of India and found mention in a number of Pauranic texts like the Atharava Veda, Upanishad, Amarkosha and Ghrysutra.

They all dealt with the outstanding qualities of the neem tree as a source of medicine and as a natural pesticide. The great Muslim scholar Ali Gilani called it the 'Blessed Tree' and the ancient Indians called neem the 'Village Pharmacy'.A millennium later, today, neem is once again steadily becoming an agro-scientific celebrity. Of late, neem has figured as the priority in seminars and serious agricultural workshops in the West and they are all discovering its abundant qualities which the ancient Indians knew centuries ago.There is an oId fable of a king who sought the best vaid in the country. His couriers summoned the most accomplished practitioners of medicines from all corners of the land and the king put them to an unusual test. He had a tray of 10 unlabelled medicine bottles brought in and pointing to them said, ''The first bottle contains a medicine which helps cure piles, the second one makes the skin glow, the third is good for diabetic patients, the fourth one cures toothache, the fifth banishes dandruff, the sixth helps obese people lose weight, the seventh stops bleeding, the eighth checks vomiting, the ninth heals sores and wounds and the tenth purifies blood.''The vaids Iooked at the multi-coloured bottles but before they could speak, the king said, "No, I don't want you to tell me the names of these medicines. My question is: There is a common ingredient in all of them. In one word, you have to tell me what it is.''Needless to say the man who bagged the coveted job was a vaid who, after sniffing at the bottles, gave the one word magic answer — Neem.Modern western medicine is finally discovering that the neem tree has superb pharmaceutical and pesticide controlling qualities. Its effectiveness, availability and safety have made agro-scientists promote cultivation of neem forests.

The Azadirachton compound in neem has been recognised as an effective insecticide which is biologically selective, not harming the useful pest-predators but keeping almost 250 harmful ones at bay.Neem cake is traditionally put into rice fields as a fertilizer. Scientists recommend coating urea with neem cake to kill nitrifying bacteria. Even water management with neem to control vectors of Japanese encephalitis have shown the victory of neem over DDT.Besides azadirachton, neem also contains salanin, a chemical substance which is a patent pest controller and is said to be far more effective than the chemically produced diethyl-toluamide which is a part of most of the lethal synthetically produced pesticides. Margosa, the oil extracted from its seed, contains oelic, palmitic and stearic acids as also nimbosterol and tannin. It is the combination of these complex natural substances which makes neem such a rejuvenating tree.The neem is also said to aid longevity, guard against heart disease, high blood pressure and arthritis. Besides, it has ingredients which lower cholesterol and clear arteries of fat.Margosa oil has amazing antiseptic properties as well. It is now being increasingly used in the manufacture of antideratatic soaps and toothpastes. These soaps have natural anti-dandruff qualities. The other uses of margosa oil, the amazing extract from neem, is that it is said to help diabetic patients.

The ancient vaids usually recommended a bitter paste of neem leaves margosa oil as a cure for obesity. It's cosmetic value too is an established Indian tradition as in the old times women applied an application of neem leaves and turmeric paste for a glowing skin.Some old-timers still chew a few leaves of neem every morning as these are said to contain blood-purifying qualities. Of course, in villages, people use neem tree twigs (datoon) to cleanse their teeth. In ancient times people applied neem leaves to wounds and sores to hasten healing. Concoctions of neem leaves blended with honey or other soothing herbs are said to cure dermatitis, eczema and other skin rashes. Dried nimbosterol mixed with honey and pepper powder can cure colds, stop bleeding and help a patient suffering from piles.The American National Research Council says that neem is ''the most promising of all plants which may usher in a completely new era of pest control, provide millions with inexpensive medicines and even reduce the excessive temperature of an overheated globe.''However, it is neem's pest control qualities that have truly stirred the imagination of a scientist who discovered this quite by an accident.

In 1959 a German agro-scientist, Dr Henrich Schumtterer, working on a research project in Sudan saw a swarm of locusts descend on a farm. They plundered everything except the neem trees.Dr Schumtterer embarked on an extensive study and his conclusions startled the western scientific community. He discovered that ezadirachton, the complex compound in the neem tree contained potent anti-feedant properties which were repugnant to over 250 species of crop destroying insects. It also retarded the development of larvae thereby decreasing the population of the pests.One of the biggest advantages of the neem is that it is a hardy tree and can take root rapidly even in hostile soil conditions. More than that it does not need too much nourishment and thus it doesn't impinge on the food supply of the other crops. It also has the unique quality of enriching the surrounding soil and making it more conducive for water retention as it contains compounds which neutralise the acidic content in the soil.Agro scientists say that neem is the most eco-friendly pesticide which nature has bestowed to man. To use it as a pesticide, they recommend that neem and its kernal should be liberally mixed with compost and set it rot.

The pesticide is ready in between two and six months depending on the weather conditions.Organic farming using neem a pesticide is still done on a very miniscule scale India. But scientists suggest that rather than switching completely to neem-based organic farming, it may be more practical to switch to what is termed as integrated Pest Management. This method advocates the judicious use of less harmful chemical pesticides where a natural predator like neem is not effective. This is so because as of now it is practically impossible to switch completely to organic farming as the neem technique works only on a small scale and certain crops require artificially produced pesticides to come to full bloom.There is a certain urgency in advocating the use of neem as a pesticide as there is a growing concern for the lethal pesticides being used in our day-to-day foods.Take for example a commonly used vegetable like 'Ladies finger' or bhindi. It is sometimes immersed in a solution of copper sulphate to give it that extra green shine. In fact, a minimum of six to seven chemical pesticides are sprayed on an apple tree before the fruit is plucked. Just before harvesting the apple trees are sprayed with fungicides and pesticides alongwith daminozide, a growth regulator. Finally the fruit is sprayed with ''alar'' to heighten its redness. Once the apples reach the cold storage they are sprayed with pesticides once again to keep off the rats and insects.Just imagine what it does to your body every time you eat an apple. Which is exactly the reason why scientists are so bullish about the neem option as a pesticide. But not just as a pesticide, neem has its medicinal values as well.

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