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The Herbalist
The crowning achievement of his life was his treatment of gonorrhea and syphilis.

March 21, 2000
The Iranian

Every family has an anchor, a source of light, mantle of honor. Ours came to Tehran at the turn of the last century, amid the rumors of the Qajar demise and the sparks of the Constitutional Revolution. It was 1906 when my family began to be uprooted.

A week after his arrival, Taghi went to Hakim Akhtar's house, on Ark Street, behind frisky elms and spirited plane trees. Directions in hand, he found it, a modest house of learning in a prime neighborhood, with white columns and elaborate windows that opened to the sun, something out of a storybook. The front yard tiles were rinsed as they were every morning, and the flowers' musky perfume sent its invitation to the farthest beehives.

Hakim Akhtar's scantily furnished clinic, one side of which covered by a chest with glass panes almost touching the ceiling, was in the front of the house, sunlit, easily accessible from the street. Jars and tin boxes of medicinal potions (barium carbonate, soda bicarbonate, magnesium carbonate, magnesium sulfate) and baneful herbs sat stoically side by side on the top three shelves of the wooden chest in a grand posture. Then there were scorpion oil, snake's oil, sesame seeds, balsam oil, gray oil, essence of turpentine, Glycerin, dried herbage, white powder and blue liquid, humbled on the lower shelves. And on the bottom shelf were stocky cloth bags, a cast iron scale with brass plates, stone weights and pestles impatiently resting in rock mortars. An oil portrait of Imam Ali adorned the adjacent wall, his daring eyes piercing the air.

The scholar of herbs was a thickset gentleman in the advanced stages of life. Sitting behind a short-legged desk on the floor, leaning on a long, embroidered cushion, playfully telling his beads, he was in a constant state of hilarity. Later in the day, Taghi would describe the interview to his friends as a joyful experience. His inexperience had amused the Hakim so, he laughed the whole time. Taghi embellished his stories to make them more comical than they were, so he could look at this phenomenon a while longer. He did this even as he was egged on.

If he were to talk about his life experiences, Hakim Akhtar could babble on for days. He would probably start by saying that his younger years were spent satisfying two powerful urges: a relentless pursuit of the tender sex, and an excessive indulgence of cannabis delight. He would have begun by saying that, as a young aristocrat, he enjoyed a great amount of undeserved influence with which he did no good at all. Before an interest in botany and the herbal sciences "saved" him from a life of lechery -- the exact wording he would use -- he was a drifter who associated with the like-minded offspring of the upper classes. They went on binges, exploiting an assortment of narcotics and intoxicants. A life of lechery.

"Henbane, opium, Indian hemp juice, hash stew, opium residue," he would have enunciated. "You name it." And, of course, that ultimate narcotic of the nobility, cocaine, the stimulant of the senses, the shedder of all guilt, the charmer, the magnet. If he were to relate all that to Taghi, a highly unlikely proposition, he would have had to characterize the cholera epidemic of 1871 a miracle, because that was what saved him from throwing his life into the gutter, even though the epidemic was so harsh, taking more than ten thousand lives in a relatively short span of time. A Miracle. Smack in the middle of that cholera epidemic, Hakim Akhtar met Doctor Tholozane, personal physician to Nasseruddin Shah, the martyred shah of the Qajar dynasty, who was heading a committee of foreign doctors to combat the deadly catastrophe. Hakim Akhtar became instrumental in the French doctor's struggle to defeat the epidemic, and received much praise for his role in recruiting couriers who would carry important parcels around town, sometimes sample drugs or directives to the southern ports and back. This was before he chose herbal medicine over other kinds of medicine, and a while after bailing out of debauchery and mischief.

Dr. Tholozane opened his young assistance's mind to the mysteries of the human body. Though turned off by so much vomit and diarrhea, the seed of curiosity planted in Hakim Akhtar by the good doctor raised his moral sense like a sobering call. In a way, he was ashamed that it took such an extreme calamity to wake him up, but God had spoken to him, and who can criticize God's means of communication? After the epidemic ended, having left scores of dead in the streets of major cities, Doctor Tholozane persuaded his young apprentice to seriously consider taking up medicine as a profession, and helped him obtain good references from the committee. From then, Akhtar's life followed its natural course. He signed up at the Daurul Fonoon, and easily shuffled among Tholozane's pupils there. The quick study that he was, soon he became known as one of the best and brightest students at school, so much so that the good doctor often took him around on house calls to the monarch, and used his services at almost every endeavor he undertook. Toward the end of his schooling, Akhtar even helped the stout Frenchman to write a book on auscultation that became known as Wonders of Christian Science. Imagine the places he could have gone.

Akhtar's progress at the Daurul Fonoon was so above the rest of his classmates that the following summer, although still very green, Doctor Tholozane recruited him for a commission to combat a wave of typhoid sweeping Persia. There, the young student sat at the same table with such gods of medicine as Drs. Tholozane, Castaldi, Dickson (the very doctor who saved Nasseruddin Shah, on his first trip to Europe, from a bout with malaria) and lesser known notables such as Kuzmingi of the Russian legation, Baker of the Indo-European Telegraph Department, and Hack, an English doctor practicing independently in Tehran, which was a rare puzzle in and of itself. Now, three decades later, Hakim Akhtar had become the parody of his young self. Nothing of the desire for the opposite sex had been lost on him. The intensity, perhaps, had abated, but not the passion, the spark of his soul. He yearned for the soft flesh and cool skin of the portly matrons he had seduced in his youth, and spent his days in a dreamy stupor. Sometimes, from beyond the decades of regret, his victims appeared in his office in a variety of postures, and he breathed in their heavenly attar as his member responded haphazardly. At times like this his dreamy eyes would shed a drop or two as if pleading with them to go away and leave him in peace. Sometimes he would catch himself delivering a pat to the protruding posterior of a female patient, but never anything more.

Taghi's interview with Hakim Akhtar took up the entire morning, and was interrupted around noon by a child brought in with a minor injury. His spirit lifted, Taghi almost ran all the way home. Having accepted the job, he could hardly contain himself until he told everyone about his new employer and his wild appearance. The salary was small, but would increase in time. There were other benefits, too. Hakim Akhtar would train Taghi to become an herbal doctor like himself, just as he would his own blood. Who knows, perhaps one day he would even leave the business to his earnest student. In his advanced years, that day could not have been far away. Such was life! And such was the beginning of my tribe in Tehran.

Hakim Akhtar was known for his dexterity among his patients. His practice was based on treatment of small afflictions and minor lacerations, nothing life-threatening or remotely critical, and all his prescriptions had proven effective at one time or another. For example the one for curing alcoholism had won him the backing of the Ulama, the clergy. It was an invention of his; a medicine that generated such an extraordinary distaste for wine in the buds that his patients never relapsed into drinking again. (He made them drink a glass of wine in which a grain of the dung of a lion had been dissolved.) Strong stuff! Also famous for administering a fool proof test of virginity, his method had become an overnight success. For this, he used a powder made of ground-up red borax with equal parts of oyster shell that he instilled into the nose of adolescent girls. Consequently, it would cause a sneeze, if she were a virgin. If she did not sneeze, she was not a virgin. It was as simple as that and, folks, ever curious about salutary proofs of morality bought into it like crazy. That's how he kept up a good reputation: without meddling with serious diseases that had plagued the town earlier. In the cholera epidemic of 1903, he had fled with his family to the mountain village of Shemiran for the whole four months that cholera wreaked havoc in Tehran, and no one accused him of cowardice. If I may jump ahead to the typhus fever of 1918, unleashed by famine caused by a dearth of rainfall in autumn and winter of 1917, again he would leave the town and take refuge in the countryside. However, the fever would catch up with him and take his life in the summer of 1919; but for now, the crowning achievement of his life was his treatment of gonorrhea and syphilis.

Optimism was his forte, a belief in the possibility and even inevitability of finding a cure for all diseases. If science had not yet found cure for so many, and if thousands of people still fell victim to different maladies, it was because not enough of the useful herbs and plants had been collected. And that would become his hobby. Gathering dried weeds, vegetation and leaves of different origins, mixing them in several ways to achieve certain effects.

Hakim Akhtar's treatment of gonorrhea and syphilis was the subject of speculation, and in some circles even admiration. First off, he would get the patient to promise abstinence from intercourse until after the treatment was over. Moreover, all patients were to adopt a monogamous regime thereafter, though they would usually throw that part of the promise to the wind. However, here is the famous prescription for gonorrhea Hakim Akhtar followed for over twenty years, but a word of caution to the curious is in order first: Don't try this at home, for it only worked in Persia, due to the documented fact that syphilis among the Persians was of a very benign type. Also because there was a mysterious substance that Hakim Akhtar would sell directly to the patient and to the patient only, with a promise that it would be used as directed and that it may not be used otherwise. The prescription for syphilis reached by the distinguished Hakim Akhtar was a combined intake dosage of cucumber seeds, the gum of the tragacanth, gum arabic, purslane seeds, magnesium and Chinese rhubarb. He would mix and grind them in a mortar, to be stirred in sorrel sherbet and drunk as often as five times a day. The mysterious substance he would keep out of the prescription was the Chinese cubeb, which he ground in a brass mortar, to be dissolved in water and drunk three times daily. This was the prod of his cure, achieved in no longer than two weeks.

A few months had passed since the day Taghi had found employment at Hakim Akhtar's clinic for the mildly afflicted or injured. The sun was quickly setting on the freedom of a land that had seen its independence guaranteed by great powers. With Mohammad Ali Shah safely beyond the borders, a new tension between the Majlis and the Cabinet began to churn the city. Disagreeing over the definition of the revolution, each body pursued its own agenda; and the truth finally began to have more than one apostle. Although opposition to the ex-shah, who was attempting to organize a counterrevolution, was still the glue that held the various factions together, the bond was too fragile. In the general atmosphere of suspicion, the government invited the American Treasurer General, Mr. Morgan Schuster, to come to Persia and bring order into her finances. The ink of the firman (decree) still wet, Mr. Schuster demanded appointment of the British Military Attaché, Major Stokes, as the new Treasury gendarmerie who was to collect taxes and protect the revenue throughout Persia. Quite predictably, the idea displeased the Russians whose threats shook the members of the Majlis out of their cloaks. Appointment of a British officer to an important post with powers that extended into the Russian sphere of influence? What is the government thinking? What are the Russians to make of, say, Colonel Liakhoff's Cossacks sent by the Treasury Department to protect the trade routes leading from the Gulf, the British zone? Impossible!

The Majlis pointed out these conflicts of interest in no unclear terms, and the fight trickled into the yellow press. Russia and Great Britain being longtime rivals in Persia, having had signed a pact to respect Persia's integrity. Now the Russians were giving an ultimatum to Persia, because Schuster had employed a few Englishmen to help in the up-building of the state! And the British condoned the ultimatum, therefore aiding Russia in suppressing the progressive tide. Mr. Schuster, himself, wrote a heart wrenching letter to the Times, accusing both Russia and Great Britain of hindering the progress of the Persian Constitutional government. One extract of his letter read:

"If money is to be obtained for permanent improvements, it must be taken on impossible political terms; if railroads are to be built, they must be conterminous [bordering] with our old friends 'the spheres of influence'; if rifles are to be bought, they must be paid for to a rich and friendly foreign Government at just three times their market price; if officers of experience are to be taken into the Persian service to hasten progress, they must come from a minor Power, or prove themselves to have been of the spineless, nerveless type of which the tools of foreign interests are produced; even if they are from a minor Power, there must not be so many of them taken as to indicate a serious attempt at reform."

It became clear, to the American Schuster, that the foreign powers had already made up their minds about Persia -- they did not wish the Persians to work out their own liberation. They were not to have a fair shot. Under the second Russian ultimatum Schuster was to resign his post and leave the country, which he did, convinced that the Russian and British governments must have intended to destroy the hopes of Persia's awakening from the outset.

Just then, the Majlis signed a handful of bills to promote progress among a people for whom written charms were holier than all medical principles. An article of the new law mandated that all practitioners of medicine had to apply for registration. To prevent mass riot or exodus of able hakims, the law provisioned that all who had already been in practice for ten years or more be inscribed without further question. However, it would become illegal for anyone to practice as a physician who did not hold a diploma or did not pass the mandatory examinations. Thus the post of the lecturer in Avicennan medicine was abolished. Also, nullified was the time-honored custom of serving a medical apprenticeship. Native hakims, like Hakim Akhtar, would be barred from taking pupils to whom they could impart their empirical knowledge and practical experience. This was the crux of the new law by the revolutionary Majlis that sunk Taghi into a mild depression over his future.

At the end he decided to leave his mentor before it was too late. He waited for the right moment and excuse to leave the kind man without breaking his ever so gentle heart. One day, the right moment and excuse materialized, out of the blue, in the form of a syphilitic patient. A gigantic mass of flesh, reeking of castor oil and tobacco smell, stormed into the clinic with the most unsavory attitude. Large-boned and ghoulish, well into his fifties with white hair and bad teeth. His eyes emanated the look of a hungry boar, and a fiendish smile played at the corner of his mouth as he complained about having a mild fever and chancrous wounds. The herbalist and his pupil were in the middle of taking inventory of the shelves, and dusting the jars. They looked at him as though he was a wild beast and they were in imminent danger of being attacked at any moment. Hakim Akhtar brought himself to tell the man to show them his sores. Ordered to take off his clothes, the man undid his pantaloons and lay down on the floor so that Hakim Akhtar could examine him.

He did so with no qualms. As he revealed a half-risen snake-like organ of formidable size, he acknowledged the glances of Hakim's young apprentice, clearly pleased that his massive member held the fascination of such fair audience. Presently, Hakim brought forth the statements that the patient was to sign before treatment could begin. In a routine monotone, he explained his conditions for treatment of the disease as the younger man dipped the pen in ink and offered it to the patient. It might have been an accident, but what happened next was alarming enough. Instead of taking the pen, the man's leathery fingers touched Taghi's unmanly hand, holding the pen quivering. As if bitten by a rattler Taghi pulled back, and the man gave him a lecherous stare. Hakim was too busy pounding in the mortar to notice any of this. Having understood, or not, the conditions set before him, the patient drew a double line at the bottom of both papers -- presumably his signatures. Hakim then worked the contents of the mortar to a greasy, doughy substance, and handed it to Taghi with instructions to rub it on the patient's genitals. He himself went to fetch the mysterious substance, the Chinese cubeb, from the inner quarters of the house, which would take him a few moments. He rose to leave the room, and Taghi felt his heart thump in his throat. Thus, he was left alone with this gruesome creature who was twice his size, but kept reminding himself that he had to do what needed to be done, that which was ordered by Hakim Akhtar.

Reminding himself of his duty to his mentor and the public, whispering a prayer under his breath, he sank his fingers into the pomade. The man, his eyes devouring the younger one, his moist, earth-toned lips twirling in anticipation. Finally, Taghi grabbed a handful of the lardy substance, approaching the patient who was lying expectantly on the floor. From then to the end of his career in medicine was but a couple of minutes away, for no sooner had he begun to rub the patient's penis when it shook off its torpor before his eyes, and rose from its half-sleep position. A few strokes more and the thing was a pole hard to contain. At this point Taghi felt the coarseness of the patient's large hand on his ankle. There was no mistaking it: the hand was traveling around, searching, exploring, as the man groaned lasciviously. Perhaps, at this time, Taghi invoked the name of the 14 Innocent Ones, or whispered the name of the prophet under his breath, before he picked up the mortar with all his might . . . and aimed it at the man's skull. Perhaps, he whispered a verse from the Koran, or recalled the image of his disgusted father, or his abandoned mother. Regardless of whether he did or not, the mortar came down with a thud, and he thought he heard the crackling of a bone. The hand that had taken liberties with his ankle and was on his knee, now quivered all over, and that was the last thing he remembered in that office -- fingers shaking in minuscule vibrations in a pool of redness. After that, it was Taghi who borrowed a pair of extra legs and fled the scene, his face twisted in a paroxysm of fear. Hakim Akhtar must have realized what had happened in his absence. Looking at the scene, he might have had profound thoughts about the nature of man. Maybe, he even had a good laugh before trying to stop the bleeding.

* Massud Alemi's features index

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