The stores in this market, in the centre of the southern Iraqi city of Kut, are tiny. There’s barely room for the owners to sit alongside their wares. But business is thriving here in the city’s “medicine market”, as it has done for almost two centuries now.
There are around 3,000 kinds of natural medicines available here, says Zaher Abu al-Hawa, the eldest son of the al-Hawa family whose ancestor is credited with creating this market around 200 years ago. “Its proof that comfort comes from the earth,” al-Hawa says poetically. “The healing power of the many different kinds of medicines sold here has given alternative medicine credibility.”
Al-Hawa says the market was first started during the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish occupation of Iraq. “It was named the Abu Al Hawa market because it was built by al-Haj Rashid Abu al-Hawa, the eldest son in the family at the time. He became famous for his knowledge of alternative medicines and he healed diseases that medicine at the time could not.”
Al-Hawa’s family, who started out selling herbs and vegetable fat, has grown prosperous thanks to the market, and their sons still work here in Kut today.
“As years have gone by the members of the family learned a lot about natural medicine,” says Zine el-Abidine, another member of the al-Hawa family. “The eldest member of the family always has a huge library of books on the subject. We also bring a lot of plants from other countries here, including from China, Syria and Iran. But you must have detailed knowledge of the age of the plants, their expiry date and what they can cure,” he adds.
A lot of the local people still go to this roofed market because they trust that the sellers, many of whom are members of the al-Hawa family, know what they’re doing. The place is busy at all times of the year and casual visitors will see people simply strolling around, looking at the interesting medications and tonics, while others are clearly there on a serious mission.
It’s also less expensive to get medicine here than in local pharmacies, points out Balqis Ali, one of the shoppers NIQASH spoke with. And even if you don’t believe the herbs can help there are also very few side effects.
“There are also other things available here,” said another shopper, a woman who had not come for medicines, “such as henna colours, ancient spices and perfumes and other items, all of which you can only get here.”
While some locals don’t believe in natural medicine and prefer to go to a doctor or pharmacy, at least one local physician is a fan. “This kind of medicine dates back to ancient times,” says Maher al-Awsi, a doctor who usually prescribes pharmacy-only medication. “The government should really pay more attention to this kind of medicine. It needs further testing.”
Al-Awsi thinks that, given the local knowledge, it would be a good idea to introduce a specialized course in herbal medicine at Iraqi universities.
Meanwhile a local historian has another reason for being enthusiastic about Abu Al Hawa market. “The fact that this market is always so busy indicates that Iraqis want to preserve their history and cultural identity,” says Wasit historian, Saeed Ghanem. “They are able to value the traditional and the popular with a modern spirit,” he enthuses.