Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The magical touch.

Some months ago, a family friend came over, with one of many magical cures for my mother's illness. All these superstitious cures brought back a memory of when a cure was being sought for my sister's condition, which after many 'witch doctors', massage cures, physiotherapy, and doctor visits later, was found out to be hereditary (!).

So this woman, whom I'll call Kak Pah, came along with her sister. Kak Pah started telling my mum about a friend of hers that does urut, or massage, with her elbows. Apparently this masseuse was rather gifted at it because Kak Pah was experiencing irregular menstruation, and these elbow massages made her menstruation come.

What I remarked from listening to their conversation was how she kept using the word ikhlas (Arabic/Malay, lit. sincere) in describing the masseuse's actions. She was sincere in wanting to help people, so even though she did not have any massage techniques, her mere touch could help to cure. Furthermore, her magical massages were made more credible because she does not ask for payment in return.

Kak Pah continued that the masseuse's husband was part of a tariqa (Arabic, lit. path/method) when he was alive, and suggested that the pesan (Malay, lit. advice) he gave her before he died could have contributed to her massage 'powers'. A tariqa/tarikat is a kind of Sufistic, or mystical religious order, where a group of students learns from a guide, in seeking truth. (A half-joke: you can often identify followers of such groups by looking at the number of men in beards and turbans they exalt like celebrities on Facebook.)

The husband of the masseuse also had some 'powers' of his own. Apparently, he could tell when people were going to die. Kak Pah countered this borderline polytheistic suggestion by adding that he died himself a few months later after this power was revealed, so that he would not be deified by others -- this was "God's mercy".

Kak Pah was so firmly convinced by the 'powers' of the masseuse that she wanted her to come and visit my mum so that inshallah with her usaha (Malay, lit. efforts), my mum's paralysis and blood circulation could be improved.

Newsflash: using Arabic and religious terms like inshallah and ikhlas does not make this way of thinking any less superstitious! The Qur'an is a highly pragmatic book, and states that God has power in the whole of creation (6:73, 7:54, 45:22...) According to S. Ahmed's (2008) research, the Qur'an "negates the existence of witchcraft, black magic, soothsaying, astrology, palm-reading... fortune-telling, clairvoyance, and all superstition"

To me it's quite clear that it's not about God's physical and biological laws of menstruation, or God reducing someone's adversity or pain. God does things as God deems fit, and to get this woman to ‘cure’ my mum with the 'powers' she received through her connections with men and religious orders is practically thinking that she has the ability, not God.

And why did her words have such authority, that she was taken so seriously? Because she looked like a purist, pious, traditional Muslim woman in her waist-length headscarf in a neutral colour, her arm sleeves which covered her wristbones, and her use of words with strong religious connotations.

It's an image that is constructed to be the very epitome of good female Muslim-ness, so when you say something related to Islam, people will believe you more easily. I'm not saying they are doing it on purpose (I'm sure Kak Pah had the best of intentions in suggesting this cure for my mum), but I think in this case the maxim to not 'judge a book by its cover' also applies to positive images, and not only the bad ones.


qrratugai said...

Very interesting stuff!
I am hesitant to completely reject these things as unreal. The Qur'an condemns black magic, especially when it's done to break a marriage, but it clearly acknowledges that black magic is real and that it *does* work. Muslims all over the world believe in them, and there's currently a very interesting but sad phenomenon of black magic in Swat, Pakistan, a practice the Swati women seem to have adopted from their counterparts in Mardan and other nearby districts when they (the Swatis) were guests/internally displaced persons during the Taliban rule around late 2008 to early 2010. At least that's what people in Swat were telling me when I Was there last summer.

Basically, what happens is: during funeral, a wedding ceremony, or any other occasion during which you have a lot of people over at your house, *someone* will insert a piece of paper in a little hole or crack in one of walls in your home. That paper will have some vicious things drawn and written on it. These things are called "ta'weez," which is an Arabic term related to "protection." A common ta'weez will have an image of a doll with a lot of needles in her, say, legs and shoulders or stomach pinned/drawn into it. People were telling me that this means that the person who drew or posted these wanted a particular woman in that household to have pains in those parts of the body. And they believed it so strongly that they actually worked on the woman it was intended to work on! At least two of my cousins were telling me they have been victims of these ta'weezes.

They also believe that as long as these ta'weezes are in your house and you have not yet discovered them, you will be suffering from its effects. Only once you discover it and do something about it can you actually heal and no longer be suffering as a result of them.

Then, if you're rich enough, you take the ta'weez to a local mullah who specializes in reading and interpreting these ta'weezes; he can actually tell you who wrote them and what they mean and how to prevent its effects! One of my cousins told me that the mullah wouldn't tell her directly who had written it but that he gave her hints about who it was -- and she concluded who it was.

So now, in many, many households, any time a woman is suffering from any sorts of pains, like pains that she's never experienced before, the household assumes that there is some ta'weez in the house somewhere, and they go on a mission to find it.

Sya said...

That's fascinating -- thanks for sharing!

In Morocco there are often pieces of paper in cracks of old houses for protection -- my friend discovered one in an old house he bought.

In my country and culture, there are some phenomena similar to what you describe, but in my family instances of black magic often turned out to be something less sinister. For example, once I had a cousin that everyone thought to be possessed, but she responded well to anti-psychotic schizophrenia medication.

However, I definitely think superstition plays a strong sociological role. And I'm definitely interested in 'black magic' in a way similar to saint worship in 'Women, Saints and Sanctuaries' by Fatima Mernissi.


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