National Geographic

Fire Cure

Near Ummlajj, Saudi Arabia, 25°02'03" N, 37°34'06" E

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.

Picture of woman with her grandchildren

Fatimah and a few of her many grandchildren—also patients. Photograph by Paul Salopek

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.

Picture of man's belly with burns from a healer

A satisfied indigestion patient shows off his burn scars. “It was immediate relief,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Just like that!” Photograph by Paul Salopek

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.”

There are 104 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Al Beckley
    November 14, 2013

    It is a wonder that Fatimah did not want to sear a spot on your head, Paul.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 16, 2013

      Lost cause, I guess.

  2. alma whitla
    November 14, 2013

    could it have the same theory as acupuncture and moxibustion? Our grandparents knew more than we do now, a pity that so natural medicine is being lost.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 16, 2013

      Yes, Fatimah spoke at length about nerve lines and following venous blood when it came to knowing where to place the branding irons. These are very ancient concepts that come down to us from classical times. They were revived and modified by Muslim scholars who rescued works of Greeks such as Hippocrates and Galen from oblivion when Europe was sunk in the Dark Ages.

  3. eva Maria Huschka
    November 14, 2013

    Dear Paul! Where are you? I am following you on the map. Are you following the coast where the small road comes from highway 5 in the east down to meet King Abdullah Road? I cannot see any town named Ummlajj.
    I am glad to hear that she found nothing that needs curing. Keep well!

    • Paul Salopek
      November 16, 2013

      I’m sitting on a beach, Eva. The moon is up. The camels are couched and facing Mecca. Mr. Awad is snoring. As for Ummlajj, it can also be spelled Umlaj. It’s north of Yanbu on the highway to Al Wajh.

      • eva maria huschka
        November 16, 2013

        Thank you, Paul for your info.
        The Red Sea must be beautiful on this side.
        The trail that runs along the coast about 4 m parallel to Highway 5, is this a tared highway or just a trampled path? One sees many such paths ending into nowhere, what are they?
        The weather looks good, just 30 degrees C. But does it get very cold at night?
        You are beginning to get into more populated areas in the north. Please watch out that nobody has any crazy ideas!
        Stay safe!

  4. Eva Maria Huschka
    November 14, 2013

    I found this type of cure in the Philippines. There they burned the earlobe against headaches.

  5. Julie
    November 14, 2013

    Thanks so much for your posts.

  6. Adam
    November 15, 2013

    Your postings reveal human practices and beliefs rarely documented for future generations. We only can imagine how our ancestors dealt with injuries, illnesses and diseases of their time.
    Stay well and safe!

  7. Susanna Sendejas
    November 15, 2013

    Hi Paul! While reading your dispatch I couldn’t help but note the similarities to the “ventosas” that I was taught to give for back pain. Interesting! Thanks for the post! Take Care!

  8. celia webster jaramillo
    November 15, 2013

    Interesante. Mis abuelos paternos curaron la poliomilitis de su hijo por medio de descargas eléctricas.

  9. Linda Hoernke
    November 16, 2013

    Strange healing practices to us but common to them. Glad she did not find you needed her cure. Safe travels~~

  10. Laurie LaBella
    November 17, 2013

    Fatimah’s eyes appear
    to pierce the soul.
    All knowing, eyes that have seen.
    Her grandchildren’s eyes emit
    the unencumbered innocence yet
    undisturbed by turmoil, strife, pain.
    What will their faces reveal
    with the passing of time?

  11. jonathan allen
    November 18, 2013

    Fascinating, I never knew about this. I’ve just burnt my finger on my wood burner…suddenly doesn’t feel as painful! Looking forward to your next post…

    • Paul Salopek
      November 23, 2013

      It probably took your mind off other woes—at least for a moment. This is medicine.

  12. Lorraine Showen
    November 18, 2013

    Paul, your journey and your writing are amazing and inspiring. This is the first journal entry I have read, as I just became aware of your epic quest through the article in the latest National Geographic. Wonderful photos too! Just finished reading this entry about Fatimah the fire healer. Very intriguing, it’s true that many cultures have practiced some sorts of medical treatments involving fire. The universality of this method of alternative healing contributes to its credibility. I believe that there must be something to this type of healing, even if it is only the patient’s faith in its power to heal.
    Paul, the story of your journey is a very compelling one, and I look forward to your next journal entry. I am vicariously enjoying your walk across the earth, as it has been a dream of mine for some time. Stay safe on the road and enjoy the adventure!!! May God protect you in the desert.
    Bon Voyage,
    Lorraine Showen

  13. Jim Broadstreet
    November 18, 2013

    Paul, Be safe and send news of your wanderings. I taught my students about Ethiopia and the Australopithicus, Lucy. I’ll hope to hear more about your trip.

  14. Dennis Kelly
    November 19, 2013

    Centuries prior to our first appearance along the coast you are walking other intelligent marine mammals (dolphins) swam the same shoreline. They probably saw the first humans on this journey and wondered “what will this mean?”
    Their future and ours is still being played out. Best wishes and be safe!

    • Paul Salopek
      November 23, 2013

      Thanks, Dennis. The coming of a new era. And who will walk these after we are gone?

  15. george chevalier
    November 19, 2013

    I am really enjoying your travels; you have a great story to tell, as you are living it each moment, and sharing your great love of adventure with us.

  16. Gina
    November 20, 2013

    This is a fascinating story of healing. Has she passed this gift to a son or daughter? Does it just end with her? Remind of the Cajun Traiteu.

  17. Soukath
    November 20, 2013

    Hi Paul,
    it’s a good thing as your walking through foot covering utthe coastal lines of the world and its a nice journey that you are planned to do that for the next seven years, hopefully you do that well… and my question is as you are travelling for the next seven years will the national geographic team will be with you or you alone will be travelling?

  18. Ashar Ata
    November 21, 2013

    Hi Paul- Just heard your conversation on NPR this morning on NPR. Very interesting. You reminded me of another Journalist who travelled in these areas inth beginning of the 20th century- Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss) – wrote a book Road to Mecca. If you have not read – do read. The fact that yo want to tell a story via your travels reminds me of Muahmmad Asad. Good Luck — “Fee Amanillah” — Ashar

    • Paul Salopek
      November 23, 2013

      Shukran Jazilan, Ashar. I know Weiss’s work in excerpted form. You have convinced me to add his book to my rucksack library—hopefully, it is in digital form.

      If anyone else has good books to recommend by travelers in the region—Muslim scholars, Western explorers—please post.

      • Ashar Ata
        November 23, 2013

        Yes, the kindle version is available on Amazon. Since you have asked about recommendations, I would highly recommend Jack Weatherford’s – Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Its not a travel book but it gives a very good perspective of the areas that you are going to travel in future – pretty much the are that Genghis and his offsprings conquered or chose to settle. Its avaialble as an audiobook and might be a good walking companion for you.

  19. Tim DeGri
    November 21, 2013

    I also hear your interview on NPR this AM . I am very envious. I suspect walking 20 miles a day at 3 mph is healthier for the limbic system than is sitting in the office at 0 mph all day. Safe travels

    • Paul Salopek
      November 23, 2013

      Tim, get out and walk. Around the block. Across the street. Into another room. The body remembers.

  20. Robert Rhodes
    November 21, 2013

    A friend heard you on NPR.

    Would you believe, I’ve been to Ummlauj!

    What an amazing story. Be well. Stay safe!

  21. sam
    November 21, 2013

    wow 7 years 21000 miles wow

  22. Pingil
    November 22, 2013

    Paul, this post reminded me of my grandma. Back to 1970, a small town in china, my grandma used to cure people in her spare time by dotting little burns swiftly on body or plank with Juncus effusus and bean oils. By hearsay in the family, nobody knows how she learned this skill and she didn’t teach anyone because of no suitable candidates. Interestingly, to this date, we all feel mysterious about this matter, however, understandable, no one raised any question. “Understandable” is not quite the appropriate word, we don’t understand and don’t try to. Is it like a door closed behind us?

    • Paul Salopek
      November 23, 2013

      So much knowledge is being lost, Pingil, in the age of speed and the tidal waves of digital information. It is our task, I think, to remember—without being romantic about what has gone before. Abandoning these details, these family histories, the history of the larger world, we never mature. We remain infantilized as human beings.

  23. Jennifer Wilson
    November 23, 2013

    Your journey across the world is so amazing to me. I am looking forward to reading about your adventures and commentary. Each day you walk is a gift.

  24. Jennifer Wilson
    November 23, 2013

    Will follow your progress

  25. Shelley Steingraeber
    November 23, 2013

    Paul, your journey is amazing in all ways. I am completely captured by it and will continue to follow your footsteps and your reflections and musings about those many, many footsteps. I teach first grade and am interested in involving my students in some way in your journey– to involve them in opening their eyes to all that is around them and ahead of them. Take care and be well!

    • Paul Salopek
      November 27, 2013

      Glad to have your students along, Shelley. See our education hub for learning resources associated with the walk.

  26. Chris Eric
    November 25, 2013

    Wow, very primitive methodology to say the least. What if she said “you needed a cure” instead of “you don’t have sob”? You don’t need any holes punched if you plan to make Tierra Fuego. Take good care.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 27, 2013

      Agreed, Chris. I have enough holes punched in me already.

  27. Kirk
    November 25, 2013

    I think that is crazy and I also think that it will hurt really bad

  28. Christiane Oudet
    November 25, 2013

    So inspiring,and now talk about relevant books to expand yours and our experience. I am on your journey , excited about all the new books to read. This is a hard time for me as I just lost my love…I feel joyful again as I read your postings.
    Thanks .
    It looks like you have many companions on your journey,I too am walking.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 27, 2013

      Travel is both a disease and its own cure, I think, Christiane. We find on the road mostly what we bring to it. Welcome to the cavalcade.

  29. Leslie Amador
    November 26, 2013

    Can liken this to bee sting therapy, yeah?

    • Paul Salopek
      November 27, 2013

      Good point, Leslie. My impression, though, is that the immune reaction to bee venom is what eases ailments such as arthritis, no?

  30. joseph zappulla
    November 26, 2013

    Story presented in an almost totally credulous manner, no hint of any skepticism or trying to apply logical reasoning.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 27, 2013

      Agreed. Some things—thank heavens—are beyond logic, Joseph.

  31. samser sanyasi
    November 26, 2013

    We also practice such fire therpy as a prevention of septic in the wound.

  32. Maylen ambos
    November 26, 2013

    Hi mr. Paul we’ve been searching for Fatima’s for about a year and we can’t find any fire healer,is it ok if I ask a map from madinah to yanbu al wajh thank you.

  33. magape bogopa
    November 26, 2013

    Fire is a powerful medium for cleansing, even ash.

  34. Cheryl Boquet
    November 26, 2013

    So many ancient ways to cure. Thank you for searching out these that are lost. My mother was cured of malaria when she was a child in south Louisiana which we new what her grandmother used to cure her. Wisdom lost from the Indians here. Continue the trail to knowledge lost

  35. Margaret Garcia
    November 26, 2013

    What a wonderful story Paul. Fatima’s said this ancient practice will end when she dies; why didn’t she teach someone else to do as she had learned? So sad to see it end with Fatimah.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 27, 2013

      She’s teaching her grown son—which may be good or bad news for her patients.

  36. guno
    November 26, 2013

    Things on eard are magniffecend
    When y geaf a bebble,aut of myne pocket, people can
    Feel some of vabretion,what even can make you shaken

  37. Tina Schaefer
    November 26, 2013

    Thank you, Paul, for making this trip and sharing it with us. I found the New York Times article this week and have now read all I can about your trip. I can’t wait for the book. How I wish I could walk part of the way too. I wonder if this fire healing might help with my osteoarthritis in my hands.

  38. ‫عبدالعزيز الجهني‬‎
    November 26, 2013

    Thanks Paul

    This type is the last treatment in Arabic culture.

  39. Maher Aljohani — Ummlajj
    November 26, 2013

    Hi there
    I’m ready to help everybody want go to her… Or wanna more info. About the address
    Follow me at Twitter: maher1ksa
    Or email me at

  40. Amrita Hoke
    November 26, 2013

    Love this! I recently had a fire healing treatment for a torn muscle in my rib was a Chinese doctor in my area..he rubbed an herbal salve on it and lit a piece of ginger on fire and rubbed it on my felt good and burned at the same helped with the pain and sped up the healing process…I will be following your adventures :)

    • Paul Salopek
      November 27, 2013

      Interesting. Herbal fire. A two-fer.

  41. fawaz al Hajuri al Johaini
    November 26, 2013

    I am a relative and I live near them From I want access I’m ready my mobil 00966540059059

  42. abdallh aljohny
    November 26, 2013


  43. Fawziah al Johani
    November 26, 2013

    she lives aboutv25 km from Umlij.she is well known for this kind of treatment. well, some people still believe that burning with fire is can work better than a doctpr’s medications.

  44. Amanda
    November 26, 2013

    Oh very wonderful trip ,hopefully one day I could be there let’s us know your advandure events there I am excited to hear

  45. Shatha Aljohani ( a Saudi linguist )
    November 26, 2013

    Dear paul, WOW it is amazing how you were able to cover such a practice that is very common in the area yet very strange to others. There is modern reasoning that I use to hear from educated younger generation, it is that your Amun system will rise to fight this burn which in return will help in healing your other sickness. The word sob is very very local only theBedouin trips of that area can understand it.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 27, 2013

      I’ve been walking through many Bedouin colloquialisms, Shatha. In some cases, my walking translator from Medina, Ali al Harbi, can’t understand a word they’re saying. (My favorite so far is Dhab—for snake.)

  46. @BakheetAlmailby
    November 27, 2013

    God bless you, Mr. Paul Salopek in the second country Saudi Arabia we are very happy you’ve arrived and Nauk Alnsenhh to enjoy in the beautiful shores of the Red Sea stems, or committees, face … Down to the village Maqna

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      Shukran, Bakheet. Very kind.

  47. Saudi Arabia
    November 27, 2013

    Hi everyone
    I am from this place I live around there . I know this woman she is age  100 years old . My father came to him before one week and she burned ten times 5 at head another five at stomach. His good medicine

  48. Sami Al Senani
    November 27, 2013

    Great post , my dad had a twisted knee , after MRI and lots of medications with no benefit , he tried fire cure by this women and he got well >> :)

  49. eman rashed
    November 27, 2013

    شكراً مره كثير

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      شكرا لانضمامك إلينا، إيمان.

  50. Johani, Abdullah
    November 27, 2013

    Dear Paul!
    There are many patens they didn’t treated unless they try this kind of medicine.

    King Fahad was treated by this way since all the modren and new technologies couldn’t help.

    He treated by a very famous old man named “Salamh Rashdan” from al Medina.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      Yes, Abdullah, I heard about a few other such healers. I also heard that the government is trying to regulate them, to avoid cases of medical malpractice. Thanks for writing.

  51. Linda Timmins
    November 27, 2013

    Your journey is fascinating…I will follow your adventurous footsteps with great pleasure! And envy!

  52. Jon Goff
    November 27, 2013

    Paul, it has been a sincere pleasure catching up on a year of your posts over the past few weeks. The thought of this journey continuing for another six is suddenly very precious to me. I am both inspired and flabbergasted by what you’re doing. I already miss Banounah and Alema but I’m sure there will be many other notable companions along your route. The kind of people drawn to a journey like this will always be worth knowing. Much thanks for the knowledge you’ve passed along already, particularly the dispatches on Ethiopian sandals and phone-charging stations; Bedouin coffee; camel-washing; AK-47s; and the streets of Jeddah. I look forward to any and all future transmissions. Safe travels and good health to you and your caravan.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      Thanks, Jon. Glad to have you along.

  53. M hamad
    November 27, 2013

    Glad to hear that you dont need any treatment out for the camles in the roads

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      I would pose the danger from the camel’s perspective: Watch out for cars on the road. Thanks, Sayyid Hamad.

  54. Akram
    November 27, 2013

    I live in the same erea.. She is an expert.. She can help to heal from neural diseases i guess..

  55. meso
    November 27, 2013

    Hello I Micho I’m from an area close to. Fatima I was suffering from pain in the lower spine and I went to it and did not feel Aaljtna Balki Palm simple but does not mention, and I am very Allhin recuperative I advise that. You are suffering from any pain that it Tzhbo I introduce you help me

  56. kathleen
    November 27, 2013

    you are walking for all the dreamers

  57. Omar Alkeheli
    November 27, 2013

    without faith, perhaps they never would worked in the first place

  58. مشاري
    November 27, 2013

    هلا بالعيال قالبينه تشبيك هنا ورقم وايميلات لا ياحبيبي ذولا انقليزين لو دق عليكم مراح تفهمون شيء فديتكن يالمزز اعرف ماتدرون وش السالفه لاكن احبس انتي ياللي تقولين وت امواح كلها 3 سنوات واجيكم في لندن. اي لافيو لاندن ا

  59. نايف الحشكلي ابو اصيل
    November 27, 2013

    The last of Medicine Fire Cure

  60. Fawziah al Johani
    November 28, 2013

    To my naive people who are so happy about a stranger western visit to their pure land ! what are you happy about ? why you thank paul? in this difficult time of our region, you must be suspicious about his intentions? why he wants to explore our land .hope he got the answer and learned how ready we are to defend our land .

  61. Shari Ranger
    November 28, 2013

    Today was my first encounter with you & your walk. As you walk thro our ancient ancestors – I have been walking thro my ancesters of a more modern (?) age. I am now into the 1300’s and continue to be facinated with my discoveries also. I will continue to follow your path with anticipation – as I do with my own history. May your Higher Power bless and keep you.

  62. mohammad
    November 28, 2013

    interesting article
    I liked it. Its very common here and I am glad you shed light on such medical treatment.
    My father had a brain stroke and luckly we saved him by such medical method in madinah area

    best wishes

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      I’m glad your father recovered, Mohammad. Thanks for sharing your story.

  63. hoba
    November 29, 2013

    o_O حركات ياجدة

  64. hoba
    November 29, 2013


  65. mike
    November 29, 2013

    Dear poul,
    Read the book of (alttebb alnabawi) you will be amazed about islamic tradition medication.

  66. Mohammed Ali
    November 29, 2013

    Please open this link to change your life:

  67. Admssharbi
    November 30, 2013

    Thank,s paul yuo are a very Respective Researcher

  68. Megan
    December 1, 2013

    Reading your story in NGM. I, too, have learned the value of walking the land. By slowing down, feeling the ground beneath my feet, breathing the air near the earth has brought me a bond I never knew driving around “site seeing”. The contours take shape and have meaning. The strata tell stories of billions of years of life. Your journey is epic. May the stories the land yields you be just as epic.

  69. Eileen
    December 2, 2013

    Your walking makes you meet the people on the land. One on one encounters and reliance on them for your life , food, water, and information takes away the barriers of being a tourist with no insight into how they live. People and relationships are what will give us all a future on the earth. What a commitment you have taken on. I will follow your progress.

  70. Shelley Steingraeber
    December 3, 2013

    Hi Paul. I hope these words find you well. Thanks for the link to the education hub! I think the Storyteller’s Eye lesson gives me a great jumping off point to weave your walk into my history curriculum. I teach 5 ancient civilizations, and we just wrapped up ancient Mesopotamia. Your mention of ancient Greece and the city of Babylon will ring familiar to my students’ ears! We can also go for walks outside and utilize your tips and strategies for slowing down and observing what is all around us. I am very inspired by your walk and will infuse my teaching with it. Best to you, your feet, and your companions.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 7, 2013

      See the recent Google hangout with students, Shelley. It may be of some use.

  71. Shelley Steingraeber
    December 8, 2013

    Hi there Paul, Thanks so much for the Google Hangout link. I’ve enjoyed watching it and it has given me some ideas for the 5th grade teaching team as well as for my own class of 1st graders. It absolutely means the world to me, and many, many, many others as well, that we can be in touch with a modern day explorer like yourself. I have a special place in my heart for people, places, and adventure, and this journey of yours is giving everyone a chance to connect, think, and reflect upon our connections to each other. I am grateful for your undertaking of this adventure, and it is such a privilege to be following along. Best to you

  72. Dennis E Holseybrook
    December 10, 2013

    The “FIRE” is but a trigger to the mind, alerting the body to heal itself. This is a gift of spirit to man. Paul, just as your journey is for discovery, it also is of the spirit and will bring healing to us all. God bless each foot step ahead.

  73. Aidelyn
    December 11, 2013

    Thank you Paul for letting us be part of your journey. I pray that you accomplish your goal and enjoy the walk. Can’t wait to hear what is coming next!

  74. v v
    December 12, 2013


  75. ilianea
    December 12, 2013

    dear Paul, what do u do ?

  76. joseph
    January 8, 2014

    dear paul, where is your curant location i am a student in denver at grant beacon ms

  77. Winifred Grace
    January 30, 2014

    I’m wondering if there is any connection to this type of healing and the tradition of walking over hot coals?

  78. kevin
    October 14, 2014

    How Paul sending those pages

  79. BKspritzzz
    October 15, 2014

    It’s awesome how you get to meet these people and learn about their lives, and what they do. I hope your journey continues safely!

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