Blood cupping (Hejamat) and leeching (zaloo andakhtan) – both forms of bloodletting – have been practiced in Iran for hundreds of years. If you traveled the old parts of Tehran and knew where to look, you would still find the medical buildings and offices that were in operation. Some people in older, more traditional parts of towns still insist on going through the procedure at least once a year, during spring time.
The whole method is strongly woven into religious teachings, most evident by the doctor or practitioner asking you to say a salawat before he lets the blood pour. In the event that you’re Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, etc he asks you to “say god’s name in whichever way you please”.
What if I’m an atheist?
As he’s making little cuts on your back and letting the blood come out, I guess you just don’t want to argue theological matters.
Such practices have been forgotten for decades now, but they are slowly gaining momentum.
My friends’ mothers, educated, beautiful women who enthusiastically pursue yoga, mountain climbing and Chanel reissue 2.55 have leeches put on their face religiously once ever year, around spring time, and they claim “that nothing in this world makes our skin look as radiant”.
My own grandmother, who would have raised a fit at the slight mention just a few years ago, now has it done on her hands once a year. The terrible hand pain that a dozen surgeons and specialists couldn’t fix, she says, was cured by the black ugly creatures.
The Ministry of Health closely watches these institutions and their practices. As my grandmother jokingly says the leeches they use are “beautifully packaged and sealed” (the leeches must come from the ministry where they are stored in neat, stamped jugs of water). They must be placed in the bottle after use, where salt is poured on them for their demise. Then, the practitioner must return the dead corpses to the ministry, exactly the number he took. This is to make sure that they are not reused. In old days, one told me, they used to let the leeches roam in water, and they would be reused – a surefire way to spread all sorts of unmentionable diseases.
This particular practitioner is a very tall 30 something year old man who lives on Tehran’s Mowlavi street. His family has lived there for generations, and operates a tekkiyeh [tents which are raised for the ten days of Shi'a mourning during Ashura] at the neighborhood mosque. His father has a small stand in the bazaar where he sells socks. He got into this profession by taking classes at the Ministry of Health, and getting his license. He works for a doctor, and if you’ve made a prior appointment, they both visit your house with the lovely leeches. They charge per leech. Around 7000 Tomans [$7] per leech.
As for me? I went to the “Moasseyeh Tahghighateh Hejamateh Iran” [The Iranian Blood Cupping Research Institute] to try it out and see what it was all about. But I went a few days after having survived the worst case of diarrhea I’ve experienced during my adult life (I’m guessing the culprit to be a small, dirty but delicious sandwich I had in Ferdowsi Square). The doctor took one look at me and said: “why did you come? You’re way too weak to do this, I can just tell from under your eyes. Eat some warm foods for ten days and then come back.” (the Ministry of Health also requires licensed MDs to be stationed at these institutions).
This particular office is a beautiful old house with gorgeous Aubretia Purple Cascade, in Tehran’s Forsat street. The flowers are in full bloom, a fusion of purple buds everywhere surrounding the entire area, making you feel like you’re swimming in a purple cup … it is the start of spring after all. Everything is different here, it’s like stepping into a different period all together. It is a feeling I rarely get in Tehran anymore and I travel the city, from place to place to place, trying to find it, if only for a few minutes at a time. Maybe it is 1930s Tehran? Dashmashdi is what I would call it, even the female doctor is, even the jovial caretaker who stands by the door.
I didn’t get to try out hejamat, so I went to the bookstore, a tiny room in the middle of the yard. When I asked the salesman for a book to recommend, he reached out for a book by a “German doctor who has been reseraching Hejamat in the Middle East for 20 years”. I told him that it was a book by an Iranian researcher I preferred, since I wanted to know more about the history of Hejamat in Iran. He looked at me and said: “oh, most people disregard the books by Iranian authors, migan een Iraniha hichi sareshoon nemishe [they believe that the Iranian don't know much about anything] that’s why I recommended the book by the German guy. Dr. Neshat [the head of the institute] himself has written on hejamat extensively. I’ll give you some of his work.”
And so failed my first attempt at hejamat.
But here are some photos from a Hejamat Institution in Mashad, in north eastern Iran.
In the last photo, where the man is getting his shirt, the poster to the left says: “Hejamat is good for the teeth”.
You can also check out this article in the journal of Complementary Therapies in Medicine: “The effectiveness of wet-cupping for nonspecific low back pain in Iran: A randomized controlled trial”.