Baghdad: Every day dozens of people flock to Salman Al Khafaji’s clinic in central Baghdad, hoping the octogenarian can treat their ailments where the Iraqi capital’s hospitals and doctors have failed.
Al Khafaji is one of a dwindling number of mostly men who have filled gaps in Iraq’s health system which during the 1990s was short on medicine as a result of the embargo imposed on the country for Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait.
And later, following the 2003 invasion, the system was overwhelmed by countless victims of violence.
The 82-year-old specialises — to the extent that such a thing is possible — in concocting mixtures of ointments, medicines and creams to treat skin problems.
He also carries out circumcisions in a room in his home, and has done so for 53 years.
“Sometimes I receive people suffering from burns who have come directly from Yarmuk hospital, or Medical City, or others,” he says, referring to some of the city’s largest hospitals.
“They need constant care for long sessions, and that is not always available in hospitals.”
The walls of Al Khafaji’s house in Karrada, Baghdad’s main commercial district, are lined with framed verses from the Quran and also paintings of the Virgin Mary.
Patients walk along a short corridor to a waiting room in the corner of his home and are then treated in an adjoining area that is separated only by a two-metre-high (6.5 feet) curtain.
Al Khafaji also maintains another room for patients who need to fully disrobe for treatment.
And while he dons a clean white doctor’s coat, none of his patients refer to him as such, instead calling him simply Hajji — a title literally given to those who have undertaken Haj.
In many cases, Hajji is also used as an honorific for older men.
The worst are the burns
On one day, 16-year-old Mohammad Hassan lay on Al Khafaji’s bed, with bandages and gauze covering parts of his head, arms and legs.
The teenager, a resident of the Baghdad Jadidah neighbourhood in the east of the capital, was burned in a fire that broke out in a car he was in.
“After I left the hospital having been treated, doctors said I just needed some time to recover,” he says.
“But the effects of the burns and the pain continued, and I did not feel better until I came here.”
Al Khafaji trained as a nurse in 1957, working in government-run hospitals for 21 years in Baghdad, the western province of Anbar and the southern province of Wasit.
Two years later, he opened his own clinic in his parents’ home.
During the late 1970s, he quit his job as a nurse and focused full-time on the clinic, which is open seven days a week and where individual sessions cost 40,000 dinars, or about $32 (Dh117).
“The worst cases we receive are people who have suffered burns because of incidents involving electricity short-circuits or hot asphalt,” says Safa’a Al Khafaji, one of the clinician’s three sons who work with him.
The situation is a far cry from the peak of Iraq’s sectarian war from 2006 to 2008, when the clinic treated countless victims of violence.
Over the years, Al Khafaji, a father of five and grandfather of 15, has treated family members of top officials, including the sons of Tareq Aziz, Saddam Hussain’s deputy prime minister who is now in an Iraqi jail awaiting execution.
He says his patients also include foreigners living in Iraq — people from Bangladesh, India, and from other Arab countries including, most recently, a Lebanese woman earlier this year who sought his help for a skin problem.
Throughout, he has used home-made therapeutic concoctions, mostly for the treatment of burn victims, helping to ease their pain and covering their scars.
Iraqi medical officials insist that patients should be treated only in hospitals or by qualified doctors, but acknowledge that because of long-held traditions, Iraqis still visit traditional healers like Al Khafaji.
“I checked with four doctors in Iraq and I travelled to Egypt twice for treatment, but there was limited improvement in my condition,” says Adil Mohammad, who travelled from Hilla, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad, to be treated by Al Khafaji.
Mohammad, 47, had lesions on his right thigh and said that while doctors advised him to pursue laser treatment, “after a few treatment sessions here, I feel much better”.