Over the span of five years, Omar Aboul Hassan has gathered a cult-following for his use of apitherapy - aka bee venom therapy.
While many of its practices date back centuries, alternative medicine is very much a contentious issue around the world. In Egypt, there’s been an increasing number of clinics and wellness centres offering them – everything from the familiar acupuncture and aromatherapy, to lesser known, and some might say wackier, practices such as gemstone healing. One of the latest to emerge, however, comes courtesy of bees. Not via their endlessly nutritious honey, but their venom.
Buried amidst the honking cars, fruit vendors, crowded streets and a particularly busy Metro station in the Cairo's Moneeb area, lies a clinic promising to heal you of ailments even doctors haven’t yet found the treatment for - and they do it with bee stings.
When bee-breeder, Omar Aboul Hassan, waltzed into the clinic with a suspicious box, which he placed carefully on a chair, there was more than a sense of panic in the air. It never occurred to us that we’d be conducting an interview in the same room as bees. It gets better though; the bees are released into the room with no introduction or prelude. Why would anyone do that you ask? Well, because bees need to be relaxed before going on camera, of course. Aboul Hassan, who's been healing people with bee-stings for five years, tells us that the bees need to be able to roam the room for a while, otherwise they'll be frenzied. Understandable. “When you’re moving bees in a box, they get agitated and start panicking because there’s a lot of movement," he explained. "To calm them down, you dim the lights in the room and let them fly freely so they can settle and get acquainted with the dimensions of the room. Stay out of their way and they won’t harm you.”
Once the bees settle, they do indeed roam freely in-and-out of the box until it’s time for the patient to get stung, at which point Aboul Hassan reaches for one of the bees huddled by the opening of the box, picks it up with a tweezers and places the tail on the patient’s hand.
“Bee venom heals a multitude of conditions. It heals rheumatism and rheumatoid, among other diseases. It strengthens the immunity and is good for your mental health, your state of mind and even your mood,” he told us with complete conviction. “You don't go above five or six stings per session and how many you get depends on your condition. Either way, it should never go above 10 stings, at most.”
Using bee venom, or apitoxin, as alternative medicine is a practice that can be traced back to Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, China, Korea and Russia. Dubbed 'Bee Venom Therapy' or Apitherapy, the method is not 100% scientifically backed, despite the venom being partially made up of proteins. Aboul Hassan himself was actually first convinced by the method when he was accidentally stung.
“I work with bees and every so often I do get stung,” explains Aboul Hassan. “The first time it happened to me though, I noticed that I started sleeping less, became more active and had more stamina. That’s when I realised there was really something there.”While Aboul Hassan has had people call his practice ignorant, he says that these attacks comes from a place of ignorance themselves. Usually, it's his patients who get the brunt of the criticism, though, particularly by their doctors.
“I’ve never had the doctors themselves actually attack me or accuse me of anything, but we do get patients sometimes who tell us their doctors aren't really okay with the treatment. It's usually a patient who's been taking a treatment with a doctor, that hasn't been yielding results. Then when they come here and it works out, they go tell their doctor, and the response is usually, what the hell you doing? It's not all doctors, though; we actually have some who come here to get treated. There are even products that use bee venom, so people are starting to realise the benefits. You can even heal bee allergies with bee venom."
Extracted mainly from honey-bees, the venom can be used on any part of the body, but Aboul Hassan usually administers them on the back of the neck or the hand.
“80% of people who come in for the bee sting treatment are usually scared because they’ve grown up with this instinct to fear bees,” says Aboul Hassan. “But really, all that happens is that the stung area goes a bit red and becomes swollen. The pain only lasts a minute or so, then you get all the benefits. In Egypt, however, treating with bee stings or venom is still under research. It’s not legal nor is it illegal. At a certain point, there was a medical organisation that used to offer the treatment, but then they stopped. I’m not really sure why.”
Once a bee stings, it ends up leaving behind it's digestive tract and part of its abdomen. From a religious viewpoint, it has been argued that the the practice is haram since the bee subsequently dies - and not in a very pleasant way, at that. However, Aboul Hassan disagrees.
"Bees, depending on their rank, don't live long anyway. They usually live for 45 days. If it's used for treatment then it's not haram. It's only if you kill another living being in vain."
Atef Abou Ahmad, a regular of Aboul Hassan's, has been getting bee-sting treatments for a year and swears by it.
"I had really bad pain in my knee and I couldn’t walk on it properly," he explains. "When I got stung around a year ago, my knee got much better. It does hurt and you'll sit there gritting your teeth for a while because it's a sharp sort-of pain. But once the pain subsides, you get this almost euphoric feeling. You obviously have those who criticise, but it's worked for me so I don't really listen to these people.“
Abou Ahmed is not the only patient that claims to have felt the almighty power of the treatment. Aboul Hassan claims that he's had several success cases where patients have healed completely from a number of conditions.
"We had this young medical student who'd dropped out of university come in once for treatment," he recalls. "She was really depressed and suicidal. We started her on the sting treatments for a while and she got better. She even went back to university," he continues quite proudly. "There was also this old woman who had trouble walking to the extent that she needed to be carried to the bathroom. Once she started taking the treatment, she got better and now she can walk unassisted and even goes to the market on her own.”
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