Looking for a back to basics approach to dental care? Jamie Rosen explores miswak, the root of the arak tree, which has been in use for over 7,000 years. Photography by Gentl and Hyers.
Among health-conscious and envionmentally minded consumers, a case can be made for the use of any natural or organic product. And with the organic label now being put on everything from food and household cleaning products to furniture, linens and even building materials, there is no shortage of options to choose from. Often, it’s everyday substances that have been around for centuries, entrenched in the history of a place and its people, that are worth revisiting.
Such is the case with miswak. Anyone who has grown up in Islamic culture is likely to be familiar with the root of the arak plant - or Salvadora persica - which is traditionally chewed in lieu of toothbrushing to clean the teeth and gums. Though it’s not known exactly how it was discovered, miswak has been used for more than 7,000 years, first by the Babylonians and then by the ancient Romans and Greeks, before it was appropriated by the Muslim community.
These days it is studied by dentists and doctors all over the world, many of whom verify its purported benefits, including antibacterial properties and the ability to reduce plaque and inflammation. Its distinctive flavor has been added to oral hygiene products in countries from India to Qatar. And it is still used by a narrow but devoted slice of the younger generation.
Growing up in Riyadh, Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al Rajhi, a freshman at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar, was introduced to miswak by his father after Friday prayer. Today he uses it primarily as a way to stave off hunger during Ramadan and other periods of fasting throughout the year. But he’s also attracted to miswak’s farm-to-table approach to personal care. “You get it from the tree and there’s nothing in between,” he says.
“It’s popular over here in Doha,” adds Tamim Alnuweiri, a sophomore at Georgetown. “It’s a very new city. [People here] are not as modern as in most of the surrounding areas, so they tend to rely more heavily on miswak.” She says that while it’s common to see men using it in public (on the street, in class), plenty of women also use it in private. But the one place no one will ever bring miswak, which is traditionally softened with rosewater, is the washroom. “It’s a cultural taboo,” she adds. “They see the washroom as dirty and the miswak as clean.”
The unique flavor, which Alnuweiri describes as “herbal but also perfumey”, is now being used in toothpaste made by the Asian company Aria Cosmetics, the India-based Dabur, and even Colgate, as well as in toothbrushes claiming to be modeled after miswak. Sticks from the plant itself can be found in flavored versions such as mint, lime, clove, and cinnamon. In addition to the arak tree, it can also be made from the roots of lime and orange trees.
But for some in the Arab world, it’s more of a novelty than an everyday tool. Dr. Michael Apa, a New York–based cosmetic dentist who also practices in Dubai, had his first encounter with miswak while treating an Emirati there last year. He was struck by the plant’s rich past but conceded that, to his knowledge, it is not used by his patients. “It’s like dial-up internet,” Apa says. While “it’ll get you there”, it’s not the most effective way currently available to clean teeth. George Aoun, a dentist who practices in Doha and Beirut, also says that miswak use is low among his patients, with just 5 percent regularly using it.
But perhaps the appeal of miswak-chewing lies less in its use as a primary source of oral care than as a practice that continues as it did thousands of years ago, with roots —both literal and figurative — in the past, present, and future.