The herbalists of Tunis medina: on borrowed thyme – a photo essay

‘The Souq El Blat is the heart beat of the medina,” broadcasts Mourad Boughanmi, a medicinal herb supplier on this historical quarter of Tunis. Certainly, for hundreds of years, its herbs have sustained the our bodies of other folks dwelling right here. Bundles of untamed thyme, sage, poppy, garlic and eucalyptus have covered the partitions of this shadowy souq for no less than 700 years.

When Covid-19 entered Tunisia in early 2020, some herbalists say call for for plant medication grew , with higher numbers in need of to give a boost to their immune techniques naturally. However customs are converting, and with none state give a boost to this industry has turn out to be endangered.

5 thousand years in the past the Sumerians of Mesopotamia documented the health-enhancing homes of untamed crops. Those early texts articulated the traditional observe of herbalism, the place ecology, biology and chemistry meet. Within the resulting millennia, medicinal herbs had been picked and ready to assist with plenty of illnesses. Within the cavernous stores of Souq El Blat, this industry lives on.

Down Rue Bacha Hamba, Tawfiq Ben Yacoub, a herb broker with a zeal for artwork, historical past and track, has a store with the chaotic really feel of an artist’s studio: it is full of flasks, bottles, artwork, luggage of previous herbs and the candy odor of incense. He tells his tale over the quiet fuzz of a radio as bleating mopeds go through.

As a boy, he would hike along with his Libyan father within the inexperienced mountains close to Benghazi, the place he realized about medicinal herbs. He tells how Tenth-century Tunisian doctor Ibn al-Jazzar complicated natural medication in Tunisia and throughout north Africa. After the Islamic golden age, Ben Yacoub says, medication stagnated around the Muslim international when put next with Europe, as a result of weaker institutionalised scholarship. “We misplaced wisdom of this science after we misplaced the scripts,” he says. “Lately our youngsters know about Ibn al-Jazzar, however as historical past quite than for clinical coaching.”

Wild thyme
Fresh green almonds
Wild garlic for sale in the Souq El Blat
Dried esfand, also known as harmal

  • Clockwise from most sensible: wild thyme, recent inexperienced almonds, dried esfand, often referred to as harmal, and garlic. Most of the herbalists observe a holistic, intuitive strategy to therapeutic

Within reach, in his store subsequent to the Khilwiya Bilhassan mosque, Chowki El Fout is any other herb broker who sees his vocation as a strand in Tunisia’s wealthy and sophisticated historical past. El Fout says it used to be the Ottoman Turks who in reality established natural medication right here, from the sixteenth to the 18th centuries. He perspectives his observe as a part of Tunisia’s heritage. “Simply as we’ve got heritage in garments and language, so we’ve got natural medication. It’s one thing we want to stay.”

But with the upward push of pharmaceutical medication, those herbalists can seem artisanal. Additionally they lack out of doors give a boost to. Being marginalised on this approach is exasperating for natural physician Samir Ben Youssef, who inherited his father’s industry and has handled sufferers in Souq El Blat for twenty years.

Samir Ben Youssef in his shop in the Souq El Blat

“100 years in the past, this complete highway so far as the mosque [Al-Zaytuna] used to be covered with herboristes,” he says. “There used to be an entire chain of people that went to assemble the herbs. However younger other folks these days don’t need to paintings on this industry any further. And the elders don’t need to go on their wisdom. So it is going to disappear.”

There are some more youthful herbalists, comparable to Yacine Ben Moussa, who’s in his 30s and believes that modernity gives benefits. “Ahead of I simplest labored with herbs that develop in Tunisia,” he says. “Now, with the web, I will be able to Google issues and order international herbs on-line.” A number of the cabinets of plant drugs, which come with cloves, anise and chia seeds, he presentations me a framed certificates of phytotherapy from an academy of complementary medication.

A herbal practitioner’s shop in the Souq El Blat
Goods including peacock feathers and an empty tortoise shell outside a herbal practitioner’s shop in the Souq El Blat

As Samir Ben Youssef intimated, alternatively, the popularity of herb sellers would possibly provide an issue. They’re related to black magic. Most of the stores promote turtle carcasses as fortunate charms. Some allegedly promote overwhelmed iguana and hedgehog carcasses. One gave me a bag of cowrie shells and black nigella seeds to chase away the evil eye.

Regardless of its secularism, non secular trust nonetheless closely influences Tunisian society. In medication, whilst Tunisia has in large part followed western practices, the connection between spirituality and therapeutic lives on. This broader view of medication – which herbalists span – has arguably helped to maintain a extra holistic, intuitive strategy to therapeutic.

A stall selling scent and beauty products near Zaytuna mosque
Man sitting outside Zaytuna mosque

As I depart the medina, taking within the smells of leather-based and jasmine fragrance from a succession of stores, I go the porticoed front of the seventh-century Zaytuna mosque. My head is alive with ideas of the folk as soon as hired in amassing the crops and seeds from across the nation to heal the unwell. They’d to find wormwood, for diabetic illnesses, a number of the craggy rocks of the southern Jebel Oust mountains.

That is necessary: it reminds other folks that the majority medication is basically drawn from the dwelling or natural international, a elementary reality that can be misplaced to many shoppers of western drugs. This isn’t to discredit western medication – its significance, for billions of other folks, is simple. However it’s to take into account that humbling, even sacred side of medication: that a lot of what heals us will also be present in nature.

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