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An authentic euphoria
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 01 - 2019

The vast, infinite blue skies hovered above the luminous streets of Old Cairo. In perfectly harmonious alignment stood an accumulation of shops carrying Egyptian authenticity. Stepping into what looked like a never-ending stockpile of labelled jars felt like entering another world of its own, a diverse world that carries juxtaposed elements of belief, reality and myths.
Hyssopus, Castus Arabicus, Acacia Gum, Ammi, Nigella and Amblic were some of the foreign jar labels that stocked infinite shelves in vertical perfection. Al-attar, similar to the mediaeval apothecary, or what is known today as an aroma therapist, is where belief and culture are fused in pungent aromatic compound mixtures that penetrate the nostrils of any visitor. Whether the search is for cooking recipes, physical remedies, or protection from the evil eye, al-attar has the appropriate mix for the visitor's request, preparing natural remedies and home mixtures.
Mohamed, 43, salesman at Al-Ghamrawi, a shop that stands from the 1960s until this day in Al-Muizz Street, said, “we have natural mixes for the kidneys, stress relief, evil eye, weight loss, and osteoporosis.” He added, “people don't know much about our natural offerings. They automatically reach for the commercial drugs rather than exploring what nature has to offer.”
Passionately guiding his customers, Mohamed explained the uses of a few of the copious mixes: Acacia Gum used to treat the kidneys, Violet Roses for calming effect, and Mariam's Palm for protection from the evil eye and enhancing fertility.
Next door stands a 120-year-old shop in Hamazawi Al-Soghayar Street, Ettaret Al-Khedr, which followed the same pattern. “You can consider us a drug and spice store,” Ahmed Mohamed, 23, said. “We have natural hair oils, natural remedies, and oils and herbs for the stomach.” When asked about market products, Mohamed said “our natural products are much better than commercial products that are canned and unnaturally preserved, yet people almost always choose commercial.”
It seems salesman Mohamed wholeheartedly believes in the effect of the remedies, explaining that habb al-rashad, a mixture used to strengthen and heal the joints, has unlimited demand. He further explains that customers who have tried Al-Khedr's colon herbs have automatically replaced pharmaceutical products. Whether this information can be falsified or verified is a matter of belief and background.
Mohamed calls out for more reach and exposure. “We should have more contact with people and educate them on Egyptian traditions. We want to get in touch with people who are difficult to reach, those who are constantly on digital platforms.”
Taking into consideration the customer perspective, AUC student Nadine Abdel-Latif, 22, shares her opinion on Egyptian attareen. “I don't know much about etara in Egypt but I would question the credibility of products even if I know that they could have a better and more natural effect.” Abdel-Latif adds, “Commercial products definitely have flaws, but brand names definitely do matter in any customer's purchasing decision, and that's a real shame as we could miss out on something like the concept of al-attar.”
In response to Abdel-Latif, Abdel-Rahman, a salesman at Abu Affya, argues, “You can buy something for LE5 and it could treat whatever pain you're feeling and you can get something for LE1,000 with a fancy name and it could give you pain you never had. There's no correlation.”
When asked about his customers, Abdel-Rahman explained: “We have foreigners and people from Upper Egypt. But people from Cairo seem unaware of what we have to offer and seem to think that it is not based on knowledge, but what they don't know is that 80 per cent of drugs in pharmacies are taken from our natural products.” He adds, “All your cough medicines at home are made of this liquorish right here.”
Taxi driver Ahmed Said shares Abdel-Rahman's opinion on the concept of al-attar. “Now, I do not know if it is a myth or not but my wife buys Mariam's Palm, boils it in water and leaves it overnight to drink it or shower with it the next day. She strongly believes in its power to ward off the evil eye. Some people may call that ignorance but I believe that genuine belief and faith can bring reality.”
Sharing a similar point of view, chef Hanan Sayed, 65, states, “I buy the best of products from any attar in Al-Hussein, all natural. Some of their remedies are the best healing methods, and there's really nothing to lose as opposed to taking chemical drugs that have side effects.” She adds, “Sometimes the traditions of our ancestors, the untouched and unchanged traditions, are the best tools to healthy living.”
The concept of al-attar remains a cultural mystery which definitely deserves curious souls and minds to discover. It tells stories of hundreds of generations and origins. Simply put, it's a concept that places one in a state of authentic euphoria.
The history behind spices is one that is described to be a fascinating journey of travels and struggles for supremacy. It is one that evoked the spread of ideas, significant discoveries, and also created rivalry between those aiming to dominate. “Spice of life” and “sugar and spice” are sayings built around the inevitable worth of spice. The treasure search for spice dates back to Christopher Columbus who headed westward from Europe to find a sea route to the “Land of Spices” which coincidently led to the discovery of the New World. Vasco Da Gama later sailed around Africa on the southwest coast of India, and Arabs were already trading spices with the then known Orient through land routes in the 13th century. In alignment with these explorations, Marco Polo also stumbled across the fascinations of spices in his many travels.
The spice deal was no joke. It was perceived as an irreplaceable fortune that attracted powerful rulers, catered to the curing of ailments, and allowed for the discovery of entire nations. It looks like the search for spices can lead to wonders. Spices have been driving factors in human history that allowed for the British Fast India Company and the British Empire to transform London into the world's greatest spice market for 200 years.
The importance of spice led to the greatest of historical sacrifice. Manhattan, nowadays New York, was swapped by the Dutch with the British for a tiny island in Indonesia around 350 years ago. Why the unappealing deal? The tiny Indonesian island, known as Run, was defined by its nutmeg, which was valued more than gold. The enchanting spice possessed extraordinary medicinal properties, sufficient to induce an overwhelmingly satisfying state of euphoria. This spice has indeed seized the taste buds of many. It was used in cuisines throughout the world and for Caribbean dishes, it was known to be a must.
Even though the word “spice” did not come to use until the end of the 12th century, the usage of herbs dates back to ancient eras. In fact, earlier civilisations would wrap meat in bush leaves and by coincidence, discovered that the leaves enhanced the taste of meat. A lot of the spices were seen as extremely precious commodities in ancient times when spice expeditions were organised to safeguard the supply. Based on legendary stories, dating back to 1000 BC, the queen of Sheba offered King Solomon of Jerusalem spices, gold measures and precious stones while visiting. This example only goes to show how much value was added on spices. A now highly trending spice, cardamom, was worth as much as an underprivileged man's annual salary. It was worth as much as a substitution for any form of luxury to the extent that slaves were bought and sold for some cups of peppercorn. The scarcity of the spices was all based on the minimal discoveries of trade routes which allowed some countries to dominate others (in terms of trading spices) as well as the value-adding natural properties of the herbs.
The spice trade was so competitive it was a “who runs the spice world” kind of game. Arab traders were actually first to introduce spices in Europe. To ensure the scarcity of supply and their monopolistic domination of the market, traders protected their highly demanded commodity by keeping their sources of supply a secret.
Another group of eager spice seekers were the Phoenicians who were expert merchants and excellent navigators to the extent that by the end of the 14th century, spices were called “Phoenician merchandise”. The smooth middlemen knew how to extend their services to kings as well as the Pharaohs in order to expand their supply prosperity.
Following the same spice game, the Roman Empire, which was of course of strategic geography, extending from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, could not ignore the unwavering spice trend. The Roman choice of spice was long pepper which was ubiquitously found on Roman tables and originates from Sumatra.
Cleopatra used what was known as a “stimulating” food spice to seduce Caesar and huge quantities of saffron were used to pave the streets of Rome in order to celebrate Nero's entrance. The lavish state of spice was of course elevated to status symbols. In reference to the biblical Magi, three kings visited Jesus after his birth bearing gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold. The frankincense spice was extremely rare and expensive at that time, another depiction of the worth of ancient spice.
In addition, the Crusaders promoted the rediscovery of spices when it was quite noticeable that seasonings made quite the comeback to the powerful European courts. In the case of Britain's share in the spice trade, it was dependent on the overland through Arabia and the Red Sea, and Egypt and the ports of Venice and Genoa, from where spices were transported and received by Britain.
The strategically located Venetian merchants became the middlemen of the spice trade. They mainly took care of northern European countries by sending their cargoes for sale in local markets.
Later in the world of spice, European navigators set sail in search for the everlasting and prospering trade routes. Portuguese navigators and geographers had worked for over half a century in an attempt to control and supply spice markets. This was not only the objective for the Portuguese but the Spanish as well. Their goal was to overturn what was a widely evident Arab and Venetian monopoly in the Mediterranean.
The remote monopoly in which Venice was in charge of the European spice trade was doomed. In May 1498 Vasco Da Gama led his ship to the coast of India. The Arab merchants who were dominating that coast were stunned to see a Portuguese man on Indian shores. “We are searching for spice,” the Portuguese navigator stated. That was when the Arabs suddenly saw their monopoly crumble.
Da Gama returned to Lisbon with news that the ruler of Calicut was prepared to exchange cinnamon and cloves, ginger and pepper for gold, silver and what was perceived as strange, scarlet cloth. The European spice trade rapidly fell in the hands of the Portuguese who held on to it while facing many struggles for a century, then eventually lost it to the Dutch whose trade with Java and the Spice Islands (as the Moluccas came to be known) led to the 1602 formation of the powerful Dutch East India Company.
Approaching the 1680s, the Dutch had established a complete and obvious monopoly of the profitable trade in cloves and nutmegs while the Portuguese remained cornered in the cinnamon business. During this period, British cooking was still heavily loaded with ginger and pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The food of European countries was similarly spiced and of related scent.
Towards the middle of the 17th century, the British East India Company held a monopoly on all trade with India and the British began developing their cooking through now very famous cooking lines. Spices and sugar were widely available which made them relatively cheap, and were therefore of lower prices. This was due to the fact that the economic value of these products decreased as farming sites increased. Thus, the more abundance and decreased scarcity, the lower the price.
For fear of their clove and nutmeg trees being exported to other regions, the Dutch protectively sheltered and blocked access to the Moluccas, which would have ruined their monopoly. Any stealth of such goods was punishable by death. Following copious attempts, a few pepper and nutmeg trees were sent and planted in Mauritius Island. This eventually led to the spread of plant production across Dutch, English and French colonial empires. The restriction on the industry was evidently loosening.
The evolution of spices seems to have gone from scarcity and luxury to absolute availability. However, the knowledge of the authentic elements seems to be marginal and the value of such commodities seems to be undermined compared to ancient times. The idea of colonial empires has disappeared and spices are widely used in almost all foods consumed. And, of course, costs are low.
The quest for spices is now irrelevant in today's world of omnipresent spices, but it seems that the most obvious spices are the ones gaining recognition and attention despite the natural value of other herbs. The modern day understanding of spices and herbs has been modernised to fit today's dynamic trend. Controversial mixtures are being integrated to cater to modern taste and preferences. Catering to the trend of weight loss, herbs have been mixed to create products that tailor to customers' demand on such products. With the rising trend of body manipulation, some herbal mixtures turned into body cream are said to enhance women's figures. Skin care routines and skin colour manipulation have also been taken into consideration by modern-day attars, as skin whitening creams have been established. Harraz Planta Medical Group is an example of today's modernised and integrated attars who are connecting not only on the physical scale but on the virtual level where this attar is found on major digital platforms of reach and exposure.
It seems that some attars are growing and developing to address the rapidly changing culture and the ongoing changes in consumer taste and preferences. For some attars, their state is not static since they are highly adaptive and cater to change.
Within the Egyptian context, in relation to the floatation of the Egyptian pound, the import of herbs and spices has not been easy. Imports have indeed decreased and the extra cost paid by suppliers gets embedded in the selling price. This of course impacts consumer demand since some herbs and spices have elastic demand in that they are not viewed as major needs and could be substituted. Other spices are viewed as being needs and due to the response of salesmen from five out of seven shops, the products with highest inelastic demands are those associated with myths of evil eye protection, fertility enhancements and energy healing. This piece information of course sheds light on cultural belief and ideology.


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