She took my right hand, turned it palm up, and pressed her thumbs hard into the ball of my thumb. Calloused fingers crimsoned with henna. Browned by sun. Knuckles like walnut shells. Her fingernails brittle as horn—or chert, the kind of stone you strike fire from.
“You don’t have sob,” the old Bedouin woman said.
She released my hand. “You don’t have anything I can treat.” My heart was relieved.
Fatimah Ayed Hamed al Hajuri al Johaini, 72 or 73 years old, was a fire healer. She burned people for their own good. She had been doing this all day in a desert operating room that consisted of a dusty rug and a hearth. In the coals of the hearth she heated iron nails to orange hotness. These implements she pressed into twitching flesh at secret locations on her patients’ bodies. Nerves and veins taught by her father, by his father before him, and so on, going back thousands of years. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years. People keep coming. There is only me left do this. I am about to die. Thanks be to God. But I will cure whatever I can cure.”
The explorer Wilfred Thesiger, in his classic of travel, Arabian Sands, writes of the Arab fire cure. The Bedouin, he said, “cauterize themselves and their camels for nearly every ill. Their bellies, chests, and backs are often crisscrossed with the ensuing scars.” He tells the story of the survivors of a British steamer. The ship was wrecked off the coast of Yemen. The passengers, stricken with diarrhea, were kindly—and forcibly—branded over and over by their tribal rescuers: “They eventually arrived at Muscat nearly killed by dysentery and this primitive treatment.”
None of Fatimah’s patients wanted their screams heard. So she demonstrated her treatments on a grown son—with cold irons.
There is mberga, “twisted face,” which requires four burns—on the cheeks, forehead, and chin. (“I can brand on the face in a way that leaves no permanent scars. “)
There is erg anissa, chronic lower back pain, which is treated with seven carefully-spaced brands down the back, buttocks, and legs. (“I see a lot of this today. Our men have moved into the cities. It is caused by sitting in chairs and air conditioning.”)
There is sob, or persistent loss of appetite, which is cured with a spangle of burns around the navel.
The use of fire for medical purposes is very old. Is it by no means a Bedouin innovation.
Cauterization was likely adopted from ancient Greece and refined by medieval Arab doctors. (Hippocrates: “Those diseases that drugs do not cure, the knife cures; those that the knife does not cure, fire cures; those that fire does not cure must be considered incurable.”) The prophet Mohammed advised against branding except as a last resort. So it remains today.
“All these people have been to see ordinary doctors already,” said my translator, Saeed al Faidi. We were sitting in Fatimah’s reception tent. Parked SUVs, sedans, and pickups ticked in the hot sun around us. Her house was far from the nearest town. “They are desperate,” Saeed said. “Some come from as far as Qatar and Yemen. Fatimah’s famous. You go to Fatimah when nothing else works.”
Saeed had been branded as a boy. He parents thought he was a little crazy. So they had a fire healer burn a hole in his head. He removed his shemagh scarf and showed me the place. A small bald spot on his crown.
“Did it work?” I asked.
“Never again,” he said, shaking his head, putting on his shemagh. “I’ll pass. No, thank you.”