Haidar al-Hajam carefully placed the glass jars over the slight incisions on his patient's back and then began to pump out the air. In the ensuing vacuum, the thick dark blood slowly oozed out of the cuts and into the clear containers.
"The Assyrians, the Chinese and the ancient Egyptians all used to practice cupping to draw out the corrupt blood," said Hajam as he deftly drained a few more spots on his patient's back in his office in Baghdad's Sadr City slum.
Murtada Abu Ali, 45, has become a regular for this ancient treatment known by its Arabic name of 'hijama', or sucking, and says it helps him in a way no modern medicine can.
"I got fed up with the painkillers doctors were prescribing for my neck ache, so I decided to use hijama and it's great -- I urge others to try it," he said. Increasingly Iraqis are following this advice and the ancient technique is finding renewed popularity in central and southern Iraq as people use it to cope with the stress of the country's unending bloodshed.
The idea behind cupping, which was promoted by ancient Greek physician Galen and medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West), is to stimulate the skin and muscles to release toxins and improve blood and lymph circulation. The process is also believed to stimulate the release of histamine-like substances in the skin which boosts the immune system.
The immediate result, however, is circular discoloration and bruising where the glass has been placed, but many testify that the process leaves them rejuvenated. The technique has long been used in the Arabian countries of the Gulf and traditionally sections of horn were used, with the vacuum caused either by the healer sucking out air or burning bits of cotton or paper to eliminate the oxygen.
Hajam's tools have progressed with the times, however, and are equipped with tiny pumps to remove the air and grip the skin. In addition to just aches and pains, the technique has been prescribed for fevers and disorders of the inner organs, including liver, stomach, intestines and kidneys and has a firm position on the Western alternative medicine scene.
"The percentage of those who recover is very high, especially those who have diseases of the heart and arteries, as well as diabetes," said Hajam, who sees up to 30 patients a day.
At first, Hajam asks the patient where it hurts and then places his cup on the spot, sucks out the air, and leaves it for a few minutes, before removing the cup. He then makes a number of small cuts, replaces the cup and once again sucks out the air, bleeding the wound for several minutes before sterilizing and bandaging the spot.
The back is the most common areas to be cupped, because the "blood stream is slow there and a continuous bleeding is ruled out, furthermore it is less sensitive than other areas," Hajam explained. "Prophet Mohammed himself used hijama. It is for many diseases, from headache to arthritis and sciatica, even for sterility for men and women," he added.
The technique was also traditionally used by the historic pearl divers of the Gulf to prevent diseases before they embarked on their three-month-long pearling expeditions out at sea. "I sought out many physicians but they were all useless, so I decided to try this," said Abu Tareq, 56, now one of Hajam's regulars. "I feel energetic and revived now and will continue doing it."
Mushtaq Razzaq, 20, said it was his uncle who turned him on to the technique. "Before I was always sluggish for no apparent reason, but now I feel this wonderful change come over my body," he said.