Life & Culture

My Yemeni safta knew about health

Why don't we value treatments like massage?


Closeup of masseur hands pouring aroma oil on woman back. Masseuse prepare to do oriental spa procedure for relaxing treatment. Therapist doing aromatherapy oil massage on woman body.

My Safta-in-law was born in Sanaa, Yemen. Betrothed at nine and married when she became a woman (common practice in those days to protect unwed Jewish girls), she was around 18 when she and her husband escaped from Yemen in the 1920s, arriving in Israel long before Operation Magic Carpet flew 49,000 Yemenite Jews there in 1949.

With a baby and another on the way, they travelled 2000 miles through the desert on donkeys, up via Suez to Sinai, before falling on their knees and kissing the ground when they reached the Holy Land.

The young couple left their families behind but went on to have ten children —my father-in-law is their second youngest. He remembers their Yemenite neighbours bringing sick people to his mother: she knew which soup or tea to make them, and she massaged women to aid in pregnancy and childbirth, and did the same for babies so they would grow strong. She knew natural ways of healing disease and keeping people healthy, and I only wish I’d had the language skills and foresight to learn them from her before she died aged 96 in 2001. All that knowledge was lost.

Archaeological studies show herbal medicine practices date back 60,000 years but it’s safe to say that since our earliest days, humans have used plants, animals, metals and minerals to combat sickness and promote health. Thanks to pharmaceuticals, people might live longer now, but I’m not sure we live healthier.

A few days ago, lying on a couch in a therapies room about to have the second of what will undoubtedly be a series of massages, I considered how little credit we give natural treatments like massage as a means of well-being. Seen as a pampered indulgence these days, massage has been fundamental to health for thousands of years. Probably originating in India as part of the Ayurvedic system of natural healing, it developed in ancient China as Tuina, Egypt as reflexology, Japan as Shiatsu, Rome as part of the spa treatments, and in ancient Greece was used to repair injury and foster peak performance in athletes. In Sweden, in the early 1800s, a doctor, gymnast and teacher developed the “Swedish” method of massage to combat chronic pain.

I massaged all four of my babies with oil after their bath every evening. Even so, even knowing how beneficial massage is, do I have them myself? I do not. I have Thai massages in Thailand but never have them here: I don’t have the patience to undress and listen to floaty music. I only went recently because I was given a gift voucher, and it took me eight months to book it. But I’m very glad I did.

I’ve had right arm problems for nearly three years, and after an occupational therapist consultation, two bouts of physio, acupuncture and years of resigning myself to daily pain and the possibility of permanent nerve damage, a muscular skeletal consultant recently suggested massage to alleviate the rock-like knot in my shoulder— so the nerves travelling through it wouldn’t be compressed and cause agony from my neck to my hand.

Thanks to the gift voucher, the consultant’s advice and divine provenance, I’ve met an intuitive and skilful Romanian masseuse. After my first massage, I told her how impressed and grateful I was, adding that I knew she was good because I came from a massagey family (my mother is an aromatherapist and reflexologist, and my stepfather in Texas is a Shiatsu practitioner). She said, “Yes, me too, but we don’t say ‘masseuse’ in my family - we say ‘healer’.” Which explains everything.

I returned a few days ago. I’d been in pain for a week. That evening, it didn’t hurt at all. It hurts again today but as I can’t have daily treatment, I’ll have to settle for once a fortnight unless one of my books goes Harry Potter. But — and this is my point: it’s just taken me a while to get here —it doesn’t have to be a paid interaction. We should massage each other more. It’s so, so good for us. Crack out the massage oil. Drink lemon verbena when you’ve got indigestion and stomach issues, and get that turmeric-y chicken soup in you.
We need to get back feeling great, not just treating sickness. It’s time to return to the old ways. Apart from betrothals at nine. That one we can definitely leave behind.

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