Macedonian village healer changed my life in a way I didn’t expect

Alastair Stewart found he had imagined himself as one of the characters played by Sean Connery or Michael Caine in the film The Man Who Would Be King
Alastair Stewart found he had imagined himself as one of the characters played by Sean Connery or Michael Caine in the film The Man Who Would Be King
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Macedonian healer changed my life in unexpected way – Alastair Stewart

“If she can fix you, she’ll fix you. She’ll touch your back and tell you outright if she can help you. Everyone around here knows her. Rumour has it a football team tried to recruit her once, but she wouldn’t take the job.”

For over a year I’d endured crippling lower back pain. For weeks at a time, it would leave me paralysed, but it was always a constant agony. Doctors had a few theories, but endless referrals had yielded no conclusive diagnosis. My pain meds were at knock-out limits and doing little more than sending me into a midday coma.

I was not, shall we say, in the best of moods when my future mother-in-law suggested visiting a mononymous healer called simply Shinka. I’ll never forget the casualness of the suggestion. We were having a coffee with some of her colleagues in Gevgelija, Macedonia. It was all very ordinary as I was running her office through the day’s gloomy spinal forecast.

“Oh yeah, she helped me with a sprain,” said one of her co-workers. “I took my daughter after a football game last week,” said another. “Dad took me when I pulled a leg muscle when I was ten,” my fiancée chipped in. I tried to discern what it was Shinka actually did, but the best I could gather was she had a proven track record of realignments and adjustments. The sad part was I was in too much pain to even treat myself to a Hitchens-style tirade against what, at the time, sounded like shamanism. These five businesswomen were, nevertheless, in agreement that this lady stood an on-par chance with the MRI we had scheduled for the end of the week, so off I went.

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The irony of my in-laws making a quick phone call to a ‘mystic’ wasn’t lost. What else could this elderly woman be? She wasn’t a medical professional as I understood it and lived in the foothills. “Alternative medicine,” I grumbled as we left the office, “is always the last refuge of the desperate and mysticism is the home of the mad.” The best I could muster.

As my future father-in-law drove us up through the winding hill roads, the parallels between the tranquil, green vistas and the history he was recalling became stark. For decades the region was a battleground in the Balkans Wars, the Greek Civil War and both World Wars (there’s a British cemetery just outside Skopje, the capital). After an hour and a half, we arrived in Murtino, near the city of Strumica.

The small village is a mix of luxury houses and working farms. Periodically my father-in-law would stop to ask for Shinka, and everyone from children to elderly people knew who he meant. When we found the house, I can tell you to my shame that I was half expecting a yurt or a vardo. The house was remarkably modern but, like all things Macedonian, was a juxtaposition to the traditions it held within. I had never considered that there might be a mystic’s waiting room, but there it was on the patio. Every ten minutes or so someone would take off their shoes and pass through the beaded doorway of the house.

And when it was my turn, with true bravery, I insisted by father-in-law came inside what turned out to be a typical living room along with my fiancée. My in-laws spoke with brevity and Shinka turned me around to face away from her. After pointing to where the pain in my back was, this little old lady took the hardest two knuckles I’ve ever felt and begun nuzzling my disks. I’m convinced I shrieked, the pain was blinding. She started speaking to my family, my in-laws got up to leave, helped me up, and as we went, we placed a few notes in a silver tray, offered our thanks, and left.

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They translated that Shinka had found serious issues with my disks, and I should consult a doctor immediately. I did my best to be graceful with my limp, but I felt a little cheated (of what, I later learnt, was the equivalent of three or four euros).

It was the first and only time in my life I’ve truly understood banal racism. Here I was, son-in-law-to-be presuming this was all a nonsense. How was it possible that I’d presumed so readily that this woman must be spiritual when it was evident she was a non-formal chiropractor. I was the product of a lifetime of hackneyed old stories and stereotypes about a misunderstood region and unintentionally imagined myself as Connery or Caine in The Man Who Would Be King.

I didn’t dismiss what she said as we walked back to the car, but it was over too quickly to give it any more serious thought. I held out hope for the MRI at the end of the week, but in the meantime, honour had been satisfied while I was in exacerbated pain from the journey.

Western condescension to Eastern non-formal practices is a prevailing stereotype. It’s usually cast of as spiritualism or rubbish.

It’s up there with what Spike Lee called the “super-duper magical Negro” – mythical soothsayers and folklorists who all happen to be black (think The Shining, The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance for starters). If you see a fortune teller or town shamen in a film, half the time they’ll be of some eastern persuasion or background.

At the end of the week, we set out once more, this time to Ohrid for the MRI. The scan showed disk degeneration in my spine and a protruding disk (I’ve since named the backstabbing brute Judas).

Shinka had been entirely on the mark if light on the technical details. Even as the neurosurgeon unequivocally yielded the bad news, it was a thought I couldn’t quite shake from my head. Why had I been so wrong?

There’s a pragmatism in Macedonia that incorporates the practical and the modern in a swirl of cultural identity. To ever label it “backwards” – as some presume, or some outright do – is to commit a heinous fallacy while ignoring the opportunity to experience something unique. My future mother-in-law and wife-to-be swore innocence later on, but I’m convinced that coffee morning in the office was a stitch-up. They fine well knew I’d outright refuse, so strength in numbers.

In retrospect, sitting in a modern office, drinking Turkish coffee, and discussing practical, non-formal medicine as casually as you would a trip to the dentist was the absolute summation of the Balkans. In one fell swoop here was the melting pot of centuries of influences in one place, the meeting of old and new.

What some people crudely call mysticism, others call old wives’ tales. In this case, neither was applicable. What, after all, is medicine if not the acquired and cumulative experience of what works and what doesn’t? Macedonia is very much the same.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He writes regular features on politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart.