Bat’s blood: Hair removal potion or old wives’ tale?

BEIRUT: Women looking to remove unsightly body hair have a host of options at their disposal in Beirut, from expensive regular laser treatments and painful monthly waxes to more traditional sugaring and threading methods. But in some Lebanese mountain villages new parents still rely on a traditional depilatory technique that hasn’t been widely practiced for over 50 years: applying the blood of a freshly slaughtered bat to a newborn baby’s body.

Sheikh Hasan Tarabai, a tour guide from the Chouf who has relied on natural medical treatments for his entire life and never once visited a doctor, was coated with the blood of a bat when he was born and has rubbed it on the bodies of his children and grandchildren ever since.

“I am 53 years old and completely hairless,” Tarabai told The Daily Star, proudly displaying arms as smooth as a newborn’s that most women would kill for. “It’s a tradition that has been going on for many years [and] all of us who live in the mountains still use it. If you ask those who are 50 and over, they will all tell you they received bat’s blood, but if you talk to the new generation they would say it’s just a myth.”

Tarabai began hunting for bats when his wife and daughters were nine months pregnant and killed the flying creatures before they were each due to deliver. “Once the child is born we rub oil on its body and a week after that we use the bat’s blood two times a day for around 10 days,” he explained. “The blood has to stay on the child’s body for at least two hours and at the same time we would be boiling water and salt to wash it off with after two hours.”

Tarabai personally killed the bats whose blood he slathered on both his male and female descendants, but he said anyone could do it. “They just need to have a strong heart, especially when dealing with the blood.”

He believes it’s unfortunate that the current generation of new parents dismiss bat’s blood as an old wives’ tale and force their children to pay for modern depilatory treatments that are “harmful to the body” as adults.

In fact, four of the five doctors interviewed by The Daily Star said that they had either received inquiries about it from expectant mothers or heard about it from elderly female relatives, though none said they would recommend it to patients.

“We’ve all heard of this ritual quite a bit and I have a few patients whose moms and grandmothers have done it and they swear it really works, but I haven’t been able to find any scientific evidence to support this except that bat’s blood was used as an ingredient in hair removal products a long time ago [during the Roman era],” said Dr. Labib Ghulmiyyah, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at AUB.

He has had about six patients ask him about it over the past few years, but is not aware of anyone who actually applied the blood to their newborns.

“I won’t deny it, but scientifically I cannot explain it and I worry about the potential risks. There are viruses that have been associated with bats and I’m not sure if it’s 100 percent safe. Plus what kind of bats are you going to use? Where will you get them? Is it fair to the bats?”

Alicia Simonian, a new mom who lives just outside Beirut, confronted this dilemma when she delivered her daughter 16 months ago. “My friend from Fanar put the blood on her baby’s arms and legs when she was born and her daughter is 21 and hasn’t grown any hair there yet so I called a pet store about it,” she said.

Simonian said the store told her they didn’t carry any bats but appeared to be unfazed by the request. “They acted as if it was normal.”

Dr. Fadi Mirza, Obstetrician-Gynecologist and Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist at AUB medical center said that as long as the blood does not penetrate a puncture in a newborn’s skin, the treatment would probably not be too dangerous.

“There is a slight risk of rabies from bats,” Mirza said, “but the way that [the blood] is applied does not really pose a risk of rabies transmission.”

As for the many hairless seniors in Lebanon who swear by bat’s blood, Mirza attributes this to “some sort of recall bias.”

“In Chouf let’s say, 100 people have done it and it hasn’t worked on 99 of them, people tend to remember what they want to remember and forget the instances that were unsuccessful,” Mirza said.

Ihab Usta, another doctor at AUB specializing in maternal health, was equally flummoxed about the scientific explanation for the many anecdotes she has heard about hairless adults attributed to bat’s blood.

“I have no idea why this would work but a lot of people are adamant that it [does],” Usta said. “Short of a study, no physician would dare to recommend it. I believe it is also a risky thing since any treatment that involves blood would also involve infections. As for the mechanism, I really do not know, I can speculate that it must be something that destroys the hair follicle [if it is real].”

Jeanette Daoud, a 56-year-old mother from Beino Akkar whose parents applied bat’s blood on her at birth, said the ritual was common for newborn girls of her generation, though she remembered it a little differently than Tarabai. “Whenever they knew that a woman was pregnant, they would catch a bat and keep it until she gave birth. If the newborn was a girl then they would kill the bat and put the blood all over the baby’s body on the spot the moment the baby was born, even before it was bathed. They did it to me when I was born and all my life I’ve been completely hairless,” she said.

Daoud added that she would have put bat’s blood on her own children when she gave birth to them in hospitals a couple of decades later, but no bats were available.

“All my life I have been envied by my friends and even my children ask me why I didn’t use bat’s blood on them,” she said.

“It stopped because of all the urbanization and development. This generation doesn’t even know what a bat is. Now, if you tell a woman to use bat’s blood on her newborn she would go, ‘no no, I prefer using laser [removal] than bat’s blood.’ I wish they could use the technology for something useful. Maybe they can preserve [the blood] and eventually use it as a cream that can be applied when it is needed. It would make things a lot easier,” Daoud said. “Everything old is gold.”

Amera, an Egyptian-born manicurist and aesthetician at the Wissam Hair Studio in Gemmayzeh whose grandmother received the bat’s blood treatment when she was born, said clients often asked her whether anyone in Lebanon still administered the procedure, but she didn’t know of anywhere outside the Lower Sinai in Egypt where it was still common.

“I think it stopped because of technology,” Amera said. “People no longer follow natural things; all they want are artificial and expensive things. Due to my experience I would definitely recommend that women do it. It is a lot easier. I even told my own child to use bat’s blood but she refused. My granddaughter is full of hair now.” – Ghinwa Obeid contributed reporting to this article

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 13, 2013, on page 2.




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