Cheap rival rises to challenge Viagra

Street Life: Beirut

BEHIND THE counter of Dr Pierre Malychef's pharmacy in the Beirut suburb of Jal al Dib, a dark-brown ochre liquid bubbles softly in a large test-tube. Bottles cluster on the counter labelled "Ferula Hermonis" and "Cherch al-Zallouh".

When Dr Malychef shuffles into his back room with a crumpled sheet of fax paper, there is a smile on his face. "We are now awaiting your reply on exclusive sales rights for your latest national product for treatment of male impotence," it says.

There follows an eager request for pre-contract exclusive sales rights for Scandinavia, Slovenia and Croatia from Mr H Mirell of Texmaco, Norway.

Oh, lucky Swedes. Oh lucky Slavs. Forget Viagra. For as little as pounds 14, Dr Malychef's unique hormonal milky extraction - "an aphrodisiac on the genital glands", as the doctor puts it - will be coming your way, courtesy of the hillsides of Lebanon and Dr Malychef's test-tubes.

That is, if the Lebanese have not already stripped away every one of the gnarled roots of the Ferula Hermonis plant, with its pale pink flowers, from the mountain sides of Hermon on both sides of the Israeli-occupied sector of southern Lebanon.

Minefields and dug-outs may separate the seedbeds of Lebanon's Viagra, but war never stopped the Lebanese quest for manhood; which is why the Lebanese ministries of agriculture and environment have issued decrees banning the uprooting of the plant on Hermon, on the hillsides of Ain Dara, and on Jebal al Shaikh, near the Syrian border.

Dr Malychef produces a snapshot he took at Ain Dara, a photograph of dozens of sturdy goats gnawing greedily on the root. "You see, it is a very popular plant," he says, eyes moving towards the counter where two middle-aged Lebanese men are after three bottles of Ferula Hermonis in the form of wine extract - for purely medicinal purposes, you understand; tiredness, hair-loss, that sort of thing. And when a young woman in black comes through the door, she merely asks for "the tonic".

Dr Malychef points out that most of the women buying the brew for their husbands are "a bit old", but some young men arrive to buy 20 bottles at a time "to give them strength" before playing tennis or basketball. Or so they say.

Dr Malychef is 74. He claims his brown hair used to be silver and was falling out before he swallowed Lebanon's Viagra. He is of Russian parentage. His St Petersburg family unwisely supported the White Russians after the Revolution and 90 per cent of them were liquidated. "Now I am just a humble pharmacist with a Lebanese passport and a little shop in Jal al-Dib," he says.

"But I am doing this for Lebanon. This is part of Lebanon's heritage and the Ferula Hermonis could give this country untold wealth if it was protected and controlled and marketed properly. In economic terms, this tonic could allow Lebanon to rival the wealth of Saudi Arabia. It could be `Lebanon's oil'."

Dr Malychef has been studying the effects of Ferula Hermonis since he taught Beirut medical students 45 years ago, insisting that the legendary Gilgamesh partook of the self- same medicine in southern Lebanon 4,000 years ago, when he arrived there from Sumer in present-day Iraq. A few sips of the root's juices, it seems, enabled him to tear a lion apart with his bare hands - there is a centuries- old carving of this feat cut into a rock near the Lebanese town of Ghine.

"We are not against Viagra, which is produced by a very important company," he says. "We say only that sometimes Viagra has no effect and Viagra doesn't act without desire. We could collaborate with Pfizer by a partial combination of Ferula and Viagra. The desire will be provided by the Ferula and the erection by Viagra."

His wine extract should be taken with a tablespoon morning and evening after meals. "That's very important because it gives a hypo-glycenic action," he says. "There is organic chrome and selenium in the roots that renew the function of some glands like the pancreatic gland and the genital glands.

"In the substance of Ferula there is Ferulic acid, which acts directly on the back part of the brain, in the hypothalamus centre of the brain's desire. From this place there is a reaction which gives a neural transmission through the vertebral column to the nerve which enlarges the tissues of the `cavernus corpus'.

"This provides an enzyme call cyclo-oxygenese which produces in certain cells a secretion which acts immediately and a good erection is produced."

Good God, I said. Are there any other uses? "Oh, yes," Dr Malychef responded. "There is a man who came here who asked for many bottles. He said it was for his horses."

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