Palestinians soak their feet in tank stocked with fish at a cafe in Gaza City. The Gaza cafe operator said his business is booming after launching the fish pedicure service in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, Dec. 26, 2018.
Palestinians soak their feet in tank stocked with fish at a cafe in Gaza City. The Gaza cafe operator said his business is booming after launching the fish pedicure service in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, Dec. 26, 2018.

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP - When Mahmoud Othman tried to figure a way to save his cafe business in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, he was amazed by online videos of tourists in Turkey getting fish pedicures.

That got him thinking and a unique idea was born.

After getting Israeli approval, he recently imported hundreds of Garra rufa fish, a species of small freshwater fish nicknamed “doctor fish,” from Turkey and added a fish spa section to his hookah bar and cafe in Gaza.

The fish, which feed off the top layers of the toughened, dead skin of the feet, have been used in spas as a peeling method for years around the world.

“We wanted to introduce a new idea and service at the cafe,” Othman said. “Doctor fish has remedial and recreational sides.”

Among the benefits, he believes the treatment “helps the body get rid of negative energy.”

A 30-minute session costs 30 shekels, about $8, a hefty sum for most of Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants. Gazans in the coastal territory are struggling to get by under an 11-year-old blockade by Israel and Egypt that has devastated the local economy.

Palestinian children hold bread patties during a protest against aid cuts, outside the United Nations' offices in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2018.
UN Appeals for Reduced Funds for Palestinians Amid US Cuts
The United Nations on Monday urged donor states to give $350 million in aid for Palestinians in 2019, saying it needed more but had to be "realistic" following swathing U.S. cuts. The U.N. said the appeal, down from $539 million in 2018, was due to a lack of available donor funds across the globe. It aims to support 1.4 million Palestinians through more than 200 projects. The United States has announced it will cut almost all of its aid to Palestinians, having previously provided around $500…

The Israeli blockade has made it difficult to import many goods into the strip. Othman said it took him three attempts and over a month to get the necessary permits to bring the fish into Gaza.

Director Amos Gitai and actor Maisa Adb Elhadi are pictured during a photo call for the films "A Letter to a Friend in Gaza" and "A Tramway in Jerusalem" at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, Sept. 3, 2018.
Israeli Filmmaker Gitai Raps Israel in 'Letter to a Friend in Gaza'
Amos Gitai's Letter to a Friend in Gaza offers unflinching criticism of Israel's blockade of Gaza and its lethal response to Palestinian protesters, in which the filmmaker asks fellow Israelis to examine their consciences. In the nonfiction short, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival this week, Israeli and Palestinian actors read out stories and poetry, including a piece by journalist Amira Hass published in Haaretz called 'I Was Just Following Orders': What Will You Tell Your Children? "It's…

He didn’t know what to expect but business has been surprisingly brisk — despite unemployment soaring over 50 percent and half of Gaza residents living under the poverty line.

Othman said he gets 30 to 40 customers a day. Many of them see the service not only as good for the health, but also as a small luxury and temporary escape from the difficult situation around them.

For four years, Mohammed al-Omari, 25, has suffered from warts that made it hard for him to wear shoes. Upon an advice from a friend, he tried the fish treatment and now believes it works for his condition.

“The first time I tried it, I had a very beautiful feeling. I came for a second, third and today a fourth time,” he said after drying his feet and putting on socks. “When I find something to relieve the pain and improve my mentality, 30 shekels becomes nothing.”

On a recent evening, seven young men sat in a room lit by blue neon lights, pants rolled to the knee and feet dipped into glass tubs. As the tiny fish clustered around their toes, the customers chatted or touched and swiped their smartphones.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Mahmoud al-Dairi, who came for the leisure factor.

Many of those frequenting the cafe are unaware of widespread health warnings over fish pedicures — especially the high possibility of infections. Several U.S. states and Canadian provinces consider the practice unsanitary and some animal rights groups denounce it altogether.

But Othman is aware of the pitfalls.

He said he has a strict set of procedures to sanitize the 16 tubs by giving the fish a respite of half an hour after every session and obliging the customers to wash their feet twice and apply sterilizers before dunking their feet.


Special Project

More Coverage