Bedouin Herbalism: Abundance in the Desert

Words by Lauren Stroh

Photographs by Nikki McClarron

Health is, in a sense, a synonym for integration: It refers to totality and whether or not a system is in harmony or discord. It’s no wonder, then, that many of the world’s most time-honored medicinal practices, like the three included in our Get Well series, are rooted in holism, treating our individual systems in relation to the larger system that connects us—how we are integrated with nature.

Text Size

Visiting Ahmed Saleh is kind of like visiting a king. When you stop strangers on the road to ask directions or mention him at the military checkpoints littered across the highways of South Sinai, it’s as if you’ve given them a secret password: They relax their shoulders, they smile, they wave you along. Within his small desert community of Saint Catherine, located along the ancient way to Shur on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Ahmed is known simply as “the doctor” despite his lack of professional credentials or formal medical training.

 

Amid the harshest and most unforgiving of Earth’s terrains, Ahmed tends to a medicinal garden of over 472 plants and herbs, 19 of which are unique to Saint Catherine and 42 of which exist precariously as endangered species. Relying only on the plants he grows and tends to, Ahmed cares for his family, members of his community, tourists who happen upon his farm by chance over their course of their travels, and pilgrims who visit Saint Catherine from various countries around the world after hearing of his work—all seeking a cure from the illnesses and afflictions that ail them.

The community of Saint Catherine is settled largely by Bedouins, an ancient group of nomadic Arabs who have roamed the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East since well before the Common Era. Their survival over millennia has quite literally depended on their ability to live in relationship with the Earth in spite of the severity of the region’s terrain. Bedouin ethnobotany evolved as a natural result of their pastoral lifestyle: Living in close proximity to the natural world mandated an intimate understanding of it. Knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses have been passed on from elders to youth in largely informal contexts over many generations, primarily through applied practice and word of mouth.

 

As in traditional Bedouin ethnobotany, Ahmed’s own medical practice heavily centers the relationship between human bodies and the Earth. He lives in harmony with nature, waking with the sun and resting when it sets. The garden he grows at his farm is entirely organic, uncorrupted by the pesticides present in most commercialized agriculture and protected from the pollutants endemic to urban life. He tends to his plants at regular intervals using water that collects in his well. Because of the abundance of plants he has to work with, a wide variety of species feature prominently in Ahmed’s practice—some of which include sage, moringa, ginger, cinnamon, ginseng, rosemary, Judean wormwood, lemongrass, hyssop, chicory, jaada, dandelion, and parsley. He prepares these plants as tea blends, creams, soaps, oils, and pills, which he then sells in a small two-room pharmacy that sits adjacent to his property. These treatments address a diverse variety of medical conditions: infertility, diabetes, hair loss, impotence, arthritis, AIDS, asthma, acne, kidney problems, emotional and hormonal irregularity, poor circulation, and obesity. In addition to his curative medicines, he manufactures herbal birth control and vends supplements for immune support, both as preventative measures.

Ahmed’s medical practice is intuitive: When he meets someone, even without physical contact, he senses immediately what the problem is in their body—it manifests in his own. His most popular formulation is a tea that he and his employees serve guests on their arrival to his farm. Used as a general panacea, though specifically formulated to cleanse the body of toxins and provide additional immune support, the tea is comprised of a rich blend of sage, hibiscus, rosemary, and moringa, steeped in hot water until they bleed red and then sweetened to taste. A woman I meet in Nuweiba, who accompanied me to Saint Catherine to meet Ahmed, calls the product “anti-depression tea” due to its uplifting effect immediately after consumption. Another popular product he sells, intended to help ease the circulation of blood in the body, is a blend of ginger, cinnamon, and ginseng, also steeped and served as tea. Though local varieties of the herbs available in Egypt and the rest of the world vary dramatically, these plants are ubiquitous enough to be either ethically wildcrafted or sourced from reputable herb shops and brewed in our own homes.

“I have life. I have day. I have night. I have feelings. What more do I want?”

Ahmed Saleh

There is no lack or scarcity in Ahmed’s garden. I think about the nature of abundance: that the Earth supplies us with everything that we need. Ahmed’s professional ethos is most unlike that of most practitioners of mainstream Western medicine; it is deeply rooted in mindfulness, stewardship, selflessness, and an ethic of care. His work is unembroidered by frivolity and excess; it is not a byproduct of greed. About this, he assures me, “I have life. I have day. I have night. I have feelings. What more do I want?”

Bedouin Anti-Depression Tea

 

Formulated by Ahmed Saleh for cleansing and immune support.

 

INGREDIENTS: sage, hibiscus, rosemary, moringa, basil, peppermint, white mint, anise, lemongrass

 

INSTRUCTIONS:

 

1. Mix desired portions generously in a large bowl.

2. Boil water, then steep a single-serving size portion until the blend bleeds red.

3. Sweeten your tea with sugar or honey and serve hot.

 

Please consult with a medical professional before using plants unfamiliar to you—they may contraindicate with certain medications or any preexisting conditions you may have.

AnthropoceneNow,ArtWorld,BeyondBorders,BlackFuturity,ClimateChampions,DemocracyEarth,EarthEquity,Earthscapes,EarthTones,HolisticNature,Indigeneity,QueerEcology,ReFashion,RisingTides,TEKToTech,TheFrontline,TheOverview,WildLife,