Jiddoh (formally known as “grandpa”) mixes lemon juice with honey and black cumin an hour before going to sleep every night. Yummah (formally known as “grandma”) takes a teaspoon of asafetida once she wakes up every morning. Each knows the names and benefits of different herbs, seeds and spices like the back of their hands. They don’t use scripts or written recipes — they rely on memory.
I learned about “family doctors” from movies and health forms I started filling out when I came to the United States. I never had one and still don’t. Whenever my siblings and I experienced any sickness, we’d list all of the symptoms to my parents, and if they couldn’t identify a helpful ingredient from our kitchen, they’d refer us to one of my grandparents. Doctors were and are always the last resort — they’re an option only if the sickness gets out of control and can’t be treated with teucrium tea or olive oil.
Yummah’s and Jiddoh’s recipes always magically helped, alleviating any symptoms. (Once, I vomited for three consecutive days, but stopped completely after Yummah made me tea.) But by Western research standards, they didn’t strictly have any evidence to prove the value of their recipes or expertise. Yummah is illiterate (I hate the connotation this word has so much), and Jiddoh was one of the few who got an education in his village, but all his medicinal knowledge was inherited from his illiterate parents. Regardless of the magical effectiveness of their recipes, however, Western science told me that their herbs could cause more harm than good to us.
Science classes at school were my favorite. No myths, mysteries or magic. Supposedly unlike Yummah’s and Jiddoh’s medicines, everything in my textbooks always seemed to take years and years to prove — as if that made it better. Taking these classes was my way of rebelling against our beliefs, whether religious or traditional, that we took for granted. Every theory or law began by questioning the way we see reality and followed a rigorous scientific method to earn credibility. These classes “enlightened” me in a way no knowledge inherited through memory or oral history could. So I, too, wanted to enlighten others.
There are 96 million Arabic-speaking internet users. Arabic content on the internet, however, barely constitutes 3% of the content, while English-language content makes up more than 50%. The “quality” of the Arabic content is also an issue, especially when it comes to science communication. I knew many who, like me, struggled with myths about science circulating in daily conversations in WhatsApp groups with medicines similar to Jiddoh’s and Yummah’s. I started volunteering for a platform that aimed to enrich the Arabic scientific content by translating the latest news and articles from English. Oh, how good it felt to enlighten my fellow Arabic-speaking people by translating from the superior language that is English to our backward language.
All the discoveries and scientists in the news I read came from prominent universities in the West and had names I couldn’t pronounce. Unless it started with “A study from Harvard” or “A British scientist discovered,” it seemed to have no credibility. Even the myths on WhatsApp started catching up to that. It started listing Western countries’ and universities’ names before stating the myth to add more credibility to it. It came to be expected that Arabic couldn’t indicate anything but backwardness and terrorism.
I was once assigned an article, however, that gave me a reality check and motivated me to write this column. It was my first article addressing research being conducted in Saudi Arabia. Researchers Timothy Ravasi and Christian Voolstra lead a lab at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology looking for cost-effective cancer treatments. The title of the article explaining their latest cancer treatment was “Herbal medicine shows potential to treat cancer: Herbal remedy plants native to Saudi Arabia are shown to have potential as treatments for cancer.”
It immediately reminded me of my grandparents’ herbs, which I’d been taught to frown upon. Now that those herbs were being investigated in laboratories and written about in scientific journals, their effectiveness became unquestionable. In fact, one of the doctoral students in the lab, Dina Hajjar, shared some of my concerns. Although the use of herbal medicine is so common, “there are almost no scientific studies,” she said. “Saudi people tend to use information inherited from their families to decide about these plants without validated knowledge of their biological or chemical activity.”
It should go without saying that my belief in science has not been shaken. What I’m mourning is my faulty belief that “real” science had to involve dismissing and rejecting Yummah’s and Jiddoh’s expertise and knowledge. There was no world where both types of knowledge coexisted. It was either the rigorously proven facts or the ridiculed inherited “myths” — it’s clear who came out on top in this hierarchy of knowledge. This binary way of seeing the world, as either myths or facts, conditioned me to presume certain knowledge and expertise were more valuable and valid: probably Stanford professors’, not my illiterate grandma’s.
Dwight Conquergood, a performance studies professor, dedicated one of his articles to this hierarchy of knowledge (and may have come for me about my translating to “enlighten” people).
“Since the enlightenment project of modernity, the first way of knowing has been preeminent,” Conquergood wrote. “Marching under the banner of science and reason, it has disqualified and repressed other ways of knowing that are rooted in embodied experience, orality, and local contingencies.”
While dismissing and disqualifying this sort of knowledge, I became skeptical of years and years of people’s expertise, practices whose wisdom had been passed down to my grandparents, and later to my parents, and eventually, to me. I foolishly refused to see that they, too, had their own kind of scientific method and research; my rejection of it was rooted in my deep desire to disassociate myself from the purported ignorance and backwardness of this language and, implicitly, its people.
“Between objective knowledge that is consolidated in texts, and local know-how that circulates on the ground within a community of memory and practice, there is no contest.” Conquergood describes this hierarchy as “the choice between science and ‘old wives’ tales.”
I may have tried to wash the Arabic off my tongue, as if rejecting the bitterness of some of the herbs Jiddoh and Yummah made me drink. I also may have refused to take a role in passing on our memory and history so that I could climb a (Western) ladder to get a superior role instead, one built around objectivity and “enlightenment.” And in doing so, I had been tricked by the illusion of doing the “right” thing: I left behind the community and people who have healed and continue to heal me through generations of handmade, homespun science.