Book Review: Indigenous Medicine among the Bedouin in the Middle East

Indigenous Medicine among the Bedouin in the Middle East. Aref Abu–Rabia, New York: Berghahn, 2015, 216 pp.

The book’s title reveals its content: a detailed description of beliefs and practices associated with traditional healing among the Bedouin of the Middle East in general and more specifically in Israel. Aref Abu-Rabia provides us with rich knowledge that rests on a wide- ranging literature dealing with Islam and the history of the Bedouins of the Middle East, as well as on anthropological studies conducted by other scholars and on findings accumulated during the author’s extensive fieldwork over a period of 30 years. His impressive knowledge of the subject is demonstrated by the rich list of sources.

The specific medical anthropological knowledge conveyed in the book includes a detailed account of the history of the use of herbs in Muslim society, the history of treatment in this society, particularly by means of herbs, the beliefs linked to treatment, and the various methods employed. Approximately two-thirds of the book is devoted to a detailed ethnographic description of a long list of maladies. The catalog of complaints is ordered alphabetically (abdominal pain, abortion, affliction by Jinn …). The names of the disorders follow the manner in which the relevant population—the Bedouin—defines illnesses, which I find most commendable.

I do, however, have one main reservation. The text on the back cover of the book promises us something extra, something of considerable importance: “This book will contribute to renewed thinking about a synthesis between traditional and modern medicine—to their reciprocal enrichment.” This topic, which I believe should lie at the core of the anthropological debate, is considered only briefly, in the introduction and in Chapter 1.

While the introduction refers to studies conducted in the 1970s into the simultaneous use of traditional and modern medicine, we could have benefited from a broader and more up-to- date discussion of this major issue (as reflected in patients’ preferences, their differential attitudes toward various types of treatment, instances of cooperation between practitioners of each type of medicine, and so forth).

Chapter 1, Health and Health Services, offers a detailed and clearly presented account of Western health services available to the Bedouin in Israel, and this is indeed essential to our understanding of health-related behavior among a traditional population. Abu-Rabia addresses the fundamental contradiction between the fixed location of medical institutions and the nomadic way of life of the Bedouin. This merely accentuates the absence of a concrete account of their continued reliance on traditional methods of healing alongside the use they make of the services provided by the Western medical establishment.

One may ask in this context whether there is a fundamental contradiction between the state’s attempts to persuade the Bedouin to settle in a permanent location and to use Western medical services and the Bedouin’s desire for independence manifested in the preservation of their tradition, both through their nomadic way of life and continued use of folk medicine. Abu-Rabia informs us (in Chapter 1) that changes in the Bedouins’ customs have contributed to the appearance of various diseases. How is this manifested in their health-related behavior?

I would have liked to hear more about people’s concrete patterns of behavior. Who (the elderly, the young, the better educated, women) uses what and which types of medication? Who serve as sources of knowledge or as role models? In which concrete situations is the Western option preferred to the traditional one? Such questions unfortunately remain unanswered, which is a pity since the preface suggests that the author possesses this kind of knowledge.

This book will prove useful to teachers and students of medical anthropology. It offers a rich pool of knowledge on the beliefs associated with and use of traditional treatments for medical ailments in Bedouin society in the Middle East and in Israel in particular, with all the relevant background (history, religion, Western medical services) fully and adequately presented. In the introduction and in Chapter 1, Abu-Rabia raises several important and interesting issues, which he has clearly addressed in the past. The field of medical anthropology would have benefited from a broad account of developments over more recent years. Perhaps this will be the topic of the author’s next book?

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