Miswak: Medicine for the Mouth

Cleaning My Teeth With Miswak

From spending over nine months in the Middle East, I’ve become an avid natural toothbrush or Miswak user.  As I try to remember where I first came across the herbal stick or twig that is an integral part of daily life in this vast region, my memory recalls the early days here when I’d aimlessly walk for miles looking for new dive restaurants.  I once saw a man selling Miswak outside of a traditional eatery.  After that evening, I wasn’t able to find this twig again until a coworker told me that the best place to get it is outside of a mosque right when the day’s fifth and final prayer has ended.

Since then I’ve purchased Miswak on an average of once a week from outside of the mosque that’s close to my temporary home.

Miswak comes from the Arak tree or Salvadora Persica.  It’s found in arid areas, mostly across the Middle East and India.  Still, it’s something that I didn’t discover during my many months on the subcontinent.

Men Browsing Miswak Outside of the Mosque Near My Temporary HomeHere two men are browsing various Miswak sticks outside of the Mosque near my dwelling after the last prayer had finished.

Benefits

In addition to strengthening the gums, preventing tooth decay and eliminating toothaches, Miswak is also said to halt further increase in decay that has already set in. It’s also been claimed that rubbing this stick on your teeth can reverse cavities. It creates a fragrance in the mouth, eliminates bad breath, improves the sensitivity of taste buds and promotes overall cleaner teeth.

This magic medicinal earth stick also prevents gingivitis and plaque, kills bad oral bacteria, and helps to digest food.  While chewing on Miswak, small amounts of a natural juice is formed and swallowed.  This elixir is supposed to boost the body’s immune system.

A vintage proverb says:

If the eyes are a window to the soul, then the mouth is the doorway to the body.

To me, this quote sums up the importance of oral health.

Miswak Dealer Outside of MosqueI typically buy my Miswak from either the man you see posing who was kind enough to give me permission to snap this photo or the guy you see selling in the background who doesn’t like to have his picture taken. The man in the background always shakes my hand when and he sees me and then prepares a bundle of the exact sticks I want, typically 11 thick ones for 20 Riyal or $5.33. As you see, they come in different widths and lengths.  I’ve come to prefer the thickset variety.  Everyone seems to have different preferences.

The sticks that I typically purchaseHere’s a closer view of the sticks I typically purchase.  It doesn’t matter how beat up the bark is as it needs to be carved off before being put in the mouth and chewed, then gently pressed against the teeth and gums. One stick can easily last for days.  I usually buy extras and give one to coworkers, shop workers who I know in my neighborhood,  the janitor who cleans my office, the guys who work in my hotel, taxi drivers and others who are so kind to give me rides.

An Array of Miswak Left Unattended Outside of the MosqueHere is an array of Miswak left unattended outside of the mosque. I relaxed there and snapped a few photos while waiting for the vendors to return from praying inside.

An Array of Miswak Found in Riyadh's Batha MarketThis Miswak table sits in Riyadh’s large Batha Market.  Pliers are used to cut the long sticks or twigs.

An Indian vendor in BathaAn Indian vendor arranges Miswak in the Batha market.  At Batha you feel more like you’re in India or the Philipines than in Saudi Arabia.

Vendor Selling Organic Toothbrushes in Addis Ababa, EthiopiaI bought an herbal twig from this street vendor during my 30 hours in Addis.  Ethiopia isn’t part of the Middle East but it’s nestled just beside and under it.

For months now, I’ve been using this oral health stick most nights after flossing and brushing.  Here, unlike in India or Perú, I haven’t felt the need to go to the dentist for a cleaning.

As my time in the kingdom begins to wind down, I realize that I’ll miss my new mouth cleansing discovery; so I’ve decided to pick up the pace and use this natural wonder more often throughout each day.  It’s OK etiquette to have it in your mouth under most circumstances, even when you’re teaching.

One of the best things to me about experiencing new parts of the world is the therapeutic opportunities I come across.  Personally, Miswak is the greatest surprise I’ve found and embraced here in Arabia.

Have you ever come across something new and wonderfully therapeutic while abroad?

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24 Responses to Miswak: Medicine for the Mouth

  1. Jeska says:

    What an interesting concept! So how big of a piece do you chew? How long are you suppose to chew on it for? How many times a day? Sorry, I’m so intrigued! lol

    • Mike says:

      JESKA: There didn’t seem to be regulations. Different people prefer differently sized twigs and for various periods of time. I used to do it after flossing and brushing in the evenings and sometimes on the way to work. I’d even have it in my mouth while teaching a class if a student had given me a piece as a gift.

  2. Sarah says:

    How cool! I love it how you embrace these unique, local therapies.

  3. Very interesting article – I love being educated this way in words and pictures and a story.

    What is the response when you offer a miswak twig to shopkeepers, etc?

    I am trying to think of an English equivalent – maybe offering someone a peppermint.

    What does miswak actually taste of?

    In India I was offered something that may be similar. I kept the twig for a while and it’s still knocking about somewhere. I think it was kind of peppery – but my memory of it is fading, so I might be wrong.

    [Found your blog via Maria's 'Wordless Wednesday'.]

    • Mike says:

      DAVID: Thanks! Most people I gave Miswak to are Muslims. A person who practices that faith must wholeheartedly accept the twig. I neglected to point out that there are many religious associations tied to this natural oral tool.

      I’m pretty sure that what you got in India is the same thing. Maybe it goes by a different name. It’s very hard to pinpoint the taste. Peppermint/pepper yes, gingery maybe. The taste is mild.

  4. jill says:

    How interesting… I’m curious how firm/soft those branches are. Do your teeth/jaws hurt when you started out and eventually got used to it?

    • Mike says:

      JILL: Thanks! Firm means fresh; thus better for purchasing. I put them in the refrigerator so they stay firmer longer. Your gums can hurt if you press too hard on them, happened to me once, but there’s no problem with the teeth/jaw. You just chew lightly till you get the bristly effect like a toothbrush.

  5. Ayngelina says:

    Wow, what an interesting cultural difference

  6. This sounds like a bit of magic for the mouth! If it really does reverse cavities you need to send me a couple. I get a cavity just by looking at a piece of chocolate!

    • Mike says:

      ANNETTE: Natural magic indeed. :-) Cavity reversal may require habitual use. Unfortunately the Miswak wouldn’t last long enough to get through the mail unless I sent it express, but I’m not sure that’s cost effective. I agree, sweets like chocolate are just screaming: Cavities because of all the added sugar. If only chocolate in its raw form was available and equally as tasty.

  7. Arianwen says:

    It’s really weird how different cultures have such different ways of maintaining hygiene. I remember teaching kids hygiene in Tanzania and the textbook I was using for the lesson included toothbrushes, flannels, soap and…corn on the cob!!!

    • Mike says:

      ARIANWEN: So true. It’s fascinating how different the world can be. I understand toothbrushes and soap, but flannels and corn on the cob, so interesting.

      In India I saw people bathing in the Ganges with their clothes on. It shows you that almost anything is easy and doable if you’re used to it.

  8. Mamma says:

    So very interesting !

  9. TheTuscan says:

    I think that if a natural remedy lasts for millennia it has to be effective. Not to mention the fact that there’s been a time when islam world was the most developed area in the world in medicine.
    It is very interesting to learn of these cultural aspects of middle-east.

    • Mike says:

      TUSCAN: Thanks! The words algebra and mathematics came from Arabic. Yes, Miswak has been used for the teeth for thousands of years, way before the first toothbrush and toothpaste was invented.

  10. Maria says:

    Mike, I have been told that eating Balut, or even Dog will increase your prowess, strength of character, etc… but I’ve not come across something new and wonderfully therapeutic while abroad like the Miswak. So much more than a toothpick. Pretty cool over all – bet you could fit a few in your pack. :-D

    • Mike says:

      MARIA: Yeah and eating monkey brain is supposed to enhance cognitive ability. If I end up heading straight back to the states then I’ll shove a bunch in my pack and refrigerate them when I get there. It stays fresh much longer that way.

  11. seanwilken says:

    very interesting…do they use any form of toothpaste with it, or is the miswak alone their primary method of oral hygiene?

    • Mike says:

      SEAN: There’s Miswak toothpaste which I use now. Also, yes, many people brush with regular toothpaste/toothbrushes and use Miswak as a supplement. Before traditional toothbrushes and toothpaste, people in this part of the world used Miswak for thousands of years.

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