Sinai – Fact Check

Meeting a Sinai medicine man

Dr Achmed sees a patient for treatment. He is one of the last traditional Bedouin medicine men, a job that used to be prestigious, but is now in decline. ”If I go belly up soon, all my knowledge will be lost.”

Photo by Jochem Wijnands / TRVL

Sinai – Fact Check

Meeting a Sinai medicine man

On the edge of Nuweiba, a village on the eastern part of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula between the resorts of Taba and Sharm el Sheikh, Dr Achmed receives me in his house.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

We sit in a cool room with only a doorway and a small window. On the sandy floor lie hundreds of cushions, and in the center a smoldering fire gently warms a charred teapot. The walls are bare, save a portrait of his grandfather, Sheik Umbarec. Dr Achmed follows my gaze and then says: “My grandfather was a great medicine man, and very well respected. Often the guest tent would be packed full of waiting patients. People came from near and far to be treated by him, and if the treatment was expected to take a while, they would set up their tents nearby. But that was then. Now, traditional medicine is in a sorry state. The younger generation simply takes an aspirin if they don’t feel well.”

Sitting next to Dr Achmed is a Bedouin of around 40 years of age, who says nothing throughout our discussion. As the time passes, he starts acting like someone who is seriously ill, and when that still fails to attract our undivided attention, he puts a hand to his stomach, rolls on his side and, to my consternation, begins to groan softly. What’s going on? “Chronic stomach pain and diarrhea,” Dr Achmed casually explains.

Ten minutes later we walk to the treatment room, where the patient is lying on a bed. Dr Achmed feels his abdomen (“Cough for me…”) and puts a glass cup with medicinal smoke on his chest (“Breathe in, breathe out…”). He takes a substance from one of the pots of minerals and plant extracts which fill the shelves, and puts it in a plastic bag which he carefully seals and hands to the patient. He is to drink a tea made from this stuff three times a day. With a look of melancholy in his eyes, Dr Achmed watches as his patient climbs onto his camel, reborn.

“The job of the medicine man is on the decline. Before it used to be only the chosen ones who were allowed to study the art, now no one even bothers applying. There is no motivation to do it. This means if anything happens to me, all my knowledge will be lost.”

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