While traveling over the last few weeks I picked up a nasty sinus infection and used it as an opportunity to visit an attar, a traditional Arab apothecary. Though “attar” is most commonly used today in English to refer to fragrant essential oils, its original use in both Urdu and Arabic referred to a pharmacist or apothecary. Medicine has long had a place in the Muslim world, long before Al-Biruni in the 10th century wrote his classic Book of Pharmacy in the Healing Art. Despite the recent proliferation of western medicine, attars are still popular, especially among the poor.
The attar I visited is well known in Cairo, Attar Harraz, which has been around for almost a century (which seems a bit short for Cairo). First, I had a short consultation with the pharmacist, who shared a small office with another man who was attending to a woman with an earache. After I described my symptoms, he scribbled down what I needed and directed me downstairs to a counter. I handed a man the slip of paper, and he began mixing herbs. One combination was for an herbal steam, another for a tea, and in both the only ingredient I could recognize was chamomile. The last item I was prescribed was something called Sheikh Sha’rawi’s jam, a medicinal honey named after a hugely popular Egyptian “televangelist” from the 1970’s, which got a big chuckle from my husband.
There are still numerous attars, and beyond that, other herbalists and homeopaths in Cairo who draw from both the Unani tradition as well as Western herbalism and homeopathy. Wherever I travel in the Arab world I see interesting remedies available. Recently in Medina I saw bedouin women selling all sorts of things that I am completely at a loss to identify, and one can easily purchase bee pollen, date pollen, ostrich fat (to relieve arthritic pain), and other interesting goodies. I was also able to pick up some wonderful medicinal honey from Eritrea and Yemen, and five bottles of organic black seed oil (from Sekem foods). I encourage everyone to keep an eye out for some of these unique items as they travel!