(View from inside)
The Herb Seller- "Ataara" (-or- "Hawwaaj")
August 24, 2001
All it takes is a trip to any of the old style Kuwaiti souks in order to find a local herb seller. These old-fashioned local herb sellers are called "ataara" or "hawwaaj" in Kuwait. They are generally either Yemeni or Iranian run, and have all sorts of the most interesting things, all piled into heaps in front of and all around the stall, hanging from the ceiling, or stacked up to the sky on endless shelves. Every kind of traditional Arabian herb, cosmetic, bath item, and more are available at these places, and every time you go back you will see plenty of items that you hadn't noticed before, because there are so many different things, that it's hard to keep track. In old Salmiyah you can find a couple of these herb sellers, well-stocked with their wares, and in Feheheel, Jahra, and Farwaniyah, among other areas, but by far the best and most densely populated with "ataara" has to be Mubarakiyah, in the city. This is an old traditional souk that is absolutely teeming with these shops (and everything else that is traditionally Kuwaiti too)!
I have always had an intense fascination with the "hawwaaj" shops, and love to go and ask questions about all the interesting and unusual items that they stock (which includes tons and tons of different old and new things). Of course, their main role is as the herb seller. In this capacity they have stocks of hundreds of old-fashioned, traditionally used Arabic herbs purchased from all sorts of exotic Eastern places, like India, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, and others. You can go to them and tell them your complaint and they will advise you on which special herb or mineral is the one for you. Many of them, but not all, are experts in Arabic medicine, and will even make up prescriptions for you, based on the ancient knowledge of the Arabs. (Beware of those that aren't herbal medicine experts though, since they aren't regulated on their herbal expertise, it is better to go to one that has been recommended to you).
Some of the more well-known herbs that they carry have even become famous outside of the Arabic world, for instance, black seed, known in herbal medicine as Nigella sativa, and in Kuwait as "habba soada" or "habbat al-baraka" (which means the seed of blessings). Both of these names are very appropriate for this herb, since the seed is indeed black, and it is so powerful a healing agent, that it is said in Islam that it has a cure for every disease. Black seed is now widely known in the West as well as the East for its amazing healing properties, and is often sold with honey in the West. Here it is also used in baking, often decorating the outsides of fragrant breads. Another herb widely used in the traditional Arabian herbal tradition that is gaining popularity in the West is fenugreek seed, known in Kuwait as "helba". The Arabs believe that it strengthens bones and helps with the recovery of new mothers. This herb appears in many traditional herb blends, for all sorts of diseases, even diabetes! There are many more herbs, some that Westerners would never have heard of before, or seen, like "rashaad", which is a tiny seed-like herb, or "shabba", which is a kind of clear white salt-like crystal that comes in big chunks. Others have been long known in the Western herbal pharmacy as well, such as licorice, and cardamom. The wonderful herbal aroma that emanates a fair distance away from the shop comes in great part from these traditional Arabian herbs.
At the ataara you will also find every sort of traditional Arabian cosmetic. Even with the glut of Western cosmetics that are now available everywhere in Kuwait, you still see many women, even ones that are dressed modernly, buying traditional cosmetics items from these old style shops. Henna is one of the biggest selling cosmetics (which you will find sourced from several different countries, including Yemen, India, and Iran), and is probably still the number one hair color in the Gulf, as well as being used as a beautiful cosmetic decoration of the hands and feet. Also abundant is the traditional natural kohl powder (and everyone knows that Arabian women are most famous for their sultry kohl lined eyes), coming in every imaginable type and in all sorts of containers. The real stuff being made either from herbs or minerals and being considered very healthy for the eyes, a theory that has been scientifically acknowledged. There are always plenty of hair treatments available at the ataara, mostly coming from India, with every imaginable combination of herb and oil. Some have wonderful scents of rose, and other perfumes, and some smell rather unappealing by Western standards, but all of them are most fascinating. It's enough entertainment to just go to ask about what they all are supposed to do. Some of the amazing claims, although being rather difficult to believe are certainly candidates for wishful thinking!
Another abundant item is incense. At the ataara you will find plenty of the delicious smelling stuff. The type that is most widely sold here, though are the less expensive kinds that are mostly used for removing undesirable household odors, cooking smells, and to perfume clothing after it has been washed. This type is called "ma'amool", and comes in several different forms, although they mostly look like pieces of wood, or wood powder. And then you have the gems of the traditional herb seller, the Frankincense and Myrrh. These are two items that most Westerners have only heard about but never seen. Perhaps if you have been a member of, or attended, the Catholic church at any point, you would have had the opportunity to have come into contact with one of them, for example during Christmas Mass, or another important occasion. I'm talking about that wafting white smoke, coming out of the brass incense burner, that the priest goes around the congregation with, that has such a regal and interesting, yet unusual aroma. Well, you can get it readily at any of the traditional herb sellers, and it is not at all expensive. In the old days, way back centuries ago, it used to be valued just like gold, and other precious materials, and even today, in some places in Kuwait, you can get super high qualities of Frankincense that are still quite expensive. It mostly comes out of Yemen and Oman, although it is also known in some other areas of the East as well. Both frankincense and myrrh are actually the sap of special bush-like trees that are tapped in a method similar to maple trees in the USA. When this sap comes out it forms hard, sometimes tear-like, or rock crystal-like substances that are then either used as is, or broken into smaller crumbly pieces or powdered. Also, both of these are known in herbal medicine, in both the East and the West, in both traditional herbal medicine, and more recently aromatherapy. In any case their ancient history is fascinating and also mysterious, enough of a reason, all on its own to pay the ataara a visit.
Whether you were born in Kuwait, have lived here for many years, or are new to this part of the world, the ataara (or hawwaaj) definitely deserves a trip, if for no other reason than to just get acquainted with something new. Even if you have been here for ages, you are sure to find something new and interesting, and who knows, you might even find a new hobby. (But hopefully your hobby won't be sweeping the carpets with a hand-made date palm broom, like I did, because that wasn't fun. If I ever get carpal tunnel syndrome I will definitely attribute it to that, and, frankly, if I never sweep another speck of dust up with one, I will not miss it. But, still, whenever I see them at the souk I remember with nostalgia the days in the beginning when I did use them. Let's just say I prefer the modern conveniences in this particular case! Still, do not miss the chance to go to the ataara, it's surely worth the trip.
*The ataara shop pictured in this article is one I have been going to for years, and is in the middle of "Mubarakiyyah", next to "Souk al-Kuwait", and is run by Yemenis.