Our potions beat Viagra, say Cairo quacks

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The Independent Online
HAJ Ahmad Batrawi sat puffing on his narghile (water pipe), grinning at Azzizah, a woman in her thirties who was queuing in front of his herb and spice store.

"Who needs the American blue pill?" said Haj Ahmad with a wink, using the Egyptian slang for Viagra. Pointing to the hundreds of multi-coloured jars and bottles climbing in dark mahogany cabinets to the ceiling of his tiny shop, he went on slyly: "We have what blessed your mother and grandmother, making them roll in happiness for many nights."

The woman blushed and frowned, before being infected by the giggles spreading down the queue. "Behave yourself, Haj," she said, playfully smacking the old man on his shoulder. "I am only here to buy mughat for my sister- in-law. She has just had a baby."

The shop owner ordered his assistant to give her two ounces of the herb, but added: "Take a green jar for your husband, then praise Allah, and thank me." This brought more giggles from the line of women; they all knew what Azzizah, just like them, was really after.

Viagra has been banned from sale in Egypt by the health ministry, generating a dispute with pharmacists who claim to have lost pounds 50m-worth of sales to black-market importers and attarin (herbalists) such as Haj Ahmad. "Thank Allah," he said. "That blue pill is bad for the heart and the soul, but our wasfah [a herbal prescription favoured by quacks] has worked miracles for hundreds of years."

"There is a black market for Viagra in Egypt," said Nabil Sharbawie, a fertility specialist, "but most Egyptians go to attarin quacks for herbal alternatives." There has been a sudden rush to their shops in the narrow alleyways of Al-Guhria, the medieval quarter of east Cairo celebrated in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel Prize winner for literature.

Air-conditioning units are beginning to displace the slow ceiling fans batting the warm air, but in the attarins' establishments there are few other concessions to modernity. For the past 1,000 years, they have dispensed their potions here to seekers of beauty and romance. Whether it is rounding and firming a young woman's breasts - "better than a Wonderbra", says Haj Ahmad - or boosting the sexual desire of a lover, he will find the right wasfah in one of his tiny mahogany drawers. None of them has a label; knowledge of the contents is a secret passed from father to son.

The women queuing in this medieval setting shielded their faces behind Gucci-style handbags, fashionable sunglasses, and silk scarves - more to conceal their identity than because of Islamic modesty. They paid 200 Egyptian pounds (pounds 35) for tiny jars of "Elixir of Life", "Hell's Stone" or "Nerve Charger", herbal potions to give to their men. Others asked for shirsh el-zalouh, the root of a herb that grows in the mountains of Lebanon.

"The female shirsh, which looks like a woman's genitals, is used to restore men's potency, while the male herb, which looks like a man's genitalia, is given to women. It works better than Viagra," said Al-Mu'ez Eiad, whose grandfather taught him the secrets of love potions after learning them from his great- grandfather. In his shop, which has been in the family for 300 years, assistants were preparing small parcels containing jars of "Masculine Potion" or "Seed of Romance", and handing them to couriers sent by masters who were unwilling to be seen in the market.

Mr Eiad believes the boom will continue, even when the government permits the sale of Viagra. Men still prefer buying his wasfah, he claims, to talking to their doctor. "No man can hold his head high after saying to the doctor: 'Please give me some Viagra so that I can keep my woman.'"

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