Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 September 2009
Issue No. 963
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

To untie or knot

Mohammed Rashed has been studying quasi-psychiatric phenomena in the Dakhla oasis for months, but it was rabt -- a form of spirit possession to which the local population proves particularly susceptible -- that got him thinking

Destination: Mut, the "urban" centre of the Dakhla oasis. As I get off the flea-ridden, cramped Upper Egypt Travel bus and onto streets emptied by the August afternoon siesta, it is the enormity of my mission that dawns on me. After many years in England I have come back not to Cairo but to Mut, an unfamiliar Egyptian setting if ever there was one, and I am here to investigate madness in the Western Desert for the practical part of my doctoral thesis. I am as prepared as I can be: I have done my literature reviews, I have some grasp of the kind of representations people employ to make sense of psychological and behavioural deviance, and I know of the ubiquity of djinn possession and magic, not only in the Western Desert but all over Egypt. It does not take long for my initial fears to be dispelled: access to the community is not as difficult as I have been thinking; and within a few days I am well into my Dakhla-world view initiation. The one thing I am not prepared for is the extent to which I will need to stretch my rational and moral sensibilities to accommodate what this is all about. It is one thing to understand why people do what they do, quite another to take a moral stance towards their beliefs and practices. And here I was, fighting the urge to throw off the anthropologist's hat as I constantly reminded myself that I am here to understand , not to judge.

At such moments I would mull over the tarnished history of anthropology. It is no secret that the systematic study of alien cultures started life as the intellectual arm of the late imperialist enterprise. Back then (up until the late 19th-early 20th century) the world was simple: you were either civilised (meaning Euro-American) or not. Within the world-view prevalent at the time, the belief systems, practices, and more generally the way of life of the communities studied were judged against an intellectually, morally and technologically advanced Europe and obviously found wanting, inferior. Magic was at best seen as a symbolic practice, at worst a form of proto-technology, a primitive attempt to control events in the world, something science can do much, much better. (These were the same sentiments expressed in the myth of the Arian race -- and eugenics.) But things have changed so much that it is now commonplace for scholars to pride themselves on cultural relativism, the notion that humans live in a variety of moral and cognitive worlds, shunning all vestiges of linear progress.

Relativism, it seems, has become a moral imperative, a doctrine no serious thinker or good man can write off. One major objective of relativism is to eliminate the possibility of hierarchical judgment, mainly by highlighting the coherence and meaningfulness of beliefs and practices seen in the context of an overarching world-view. It may be obvious that sacrificial offerings to the rain gods are inferior to rain-making technologies like cloud seeding as a way to actually obtain rain, but it would be missing the point of sacrificial practises entirely to judge them within the kind of secular and scientific world view that produces rain seeding. The idea of appeasing the rain gods, rather, is to reaffirm and re-create the individual's affinity with society and society's affinity with a god-imbued nature.

And that is why it was with an open mind and a gentle heart that I approached everything I heard and saw once I made the acquaintance of a feisty 34-year-old who practically accosted me at the coffee-shop near the old city. Old Mut, by now mostly deserted, is a cornucopia of interlocking mud-brick dwellings on a low hilltop once surrounded by ramparts and a gate locked at night. Some two decades ago the residents of the old city began to descend on the flat land below, and the surge of concrete construction still shows no sign of abating. All over town you see one- and two-floor buildings with concrete pillars jutting out of the roofs, bare steel rods curling upwards, like giant insects helplessly turned on their backs. Far more beautiful are the pastel fields bordered by sand dunes just outside town, at sunset -- a magnificence, it seemed to me, strangely invisible to the people who own it.

I spent many evenings with my feisty friend in the vicinity of the old city, and I that was how I found out about the healers and magicians in town. He introduced me to the local madmen, shared his insider's knowledge of the local prostitutes, and briefed me on the extent of djinn possession. Naturally muscular and fairly handsome, he has tiny, mischievous eyes with a non-conformist demeanour. Of all the people I spent time with after meeting him, he seemed the most critical of his people's arguably gullible belief in magic and the tendency to invoke possession as an explanation for most ills. So it came as a surprise when, several weeks later, he told me that he himself had sought one of the local healers to help him with a domestic problem. For a week his wife had not been her usual self; she was pushing him away in bed, demanding to leave home, neglecting her duties, and displaying uncharacteristic anger and unexplainable tempers. This, he explained, was obviously rabt -- the word translates literally to "tying up" -- and a healer must be sought out to undo it. Until Mut my acquaintance with rabt was very limited; I might have heard the term, but it struck no chords. Yet it was this and no other phenomenon that would most challenge all my relativistic tendencies.

Rabt is common all over Egypt, but particularly so in Dakhla. It is brought up in a range of contexts from what I like to term "the painful irony of a flaccid penis on the wedding night" to marital discord or spinsterhood. It is a form of magic, and therefore involves an envious or evil person taking the trouble to visit a magician with the goal of hurting or embarrassing some foe or nemesis. Like all magic, the harmful effects are mediated through a jinni, or simply a direct consequence of scripts embedded in a'mal (amulets intended to harm, not protect) . The jinni may wreak havoc in a variety of ways: it may enter the body and settle inside the corpora of the penis, preventing erection on the wedding night; it may aggravate the person's qarin (some sort of spirit double) resulting in bad tempers and mood swings (a.k.a marital discord), it may infatuate the person to the point of making them irresponsive to human attraction and possibly leading to spinsterhood. In short rabt works through a conglomerate of effects on its victims, ranging from the crudely physical to the psycho-emotional.

In my moral commitment to neutrality, I tried to understand rabt in the context of the values and social constraints of this community. An ingenious explanation for failing to perform on the one night when you can after at least a decade of sexual expectation, for example. Externalising causation, I reasoned, may indeed be more effective at protecting the married couple and their families from the disastrous possibility of male impotence, however temporarily. Better to blame the evil actions of others for interpersonal problems than consider the actual relationship, its faults and merits, a consideration that may lead to divorce, which remains an evil that must be painstakingly avoided. Yes, I thought, rabt makes a lot of sense, if only we are charitable enough to see it within the wider context of a society trying to maintain the status quo, to keep things as they are, and in the process to avoid facing the darker inevitabilities of life: some women and men will never marry, may not even want to marry, and some relationships just don't work and must be brought to an end. Rabt then is a major device of mystification, side- stepping the working through that I am personally inclined to see as essential to managing relationships and life situations in general. And herein, all open-mindedness and gentleness of heart aside, lies the problem.

I can no longer keep on the anthropologist's hat; I have understood, indeed, but that doesn't seem to make me less inclined to judge. I have no trouble (maybe just a little) stretching my rational sensibilities and accepting folk theories of spirits entering and exiting bodies and settling in penises, in fact I find them somewhat endearing. But this does not resolve the issue that stares me in the face of a framework that functions to limit human potential, to nip change in the bud, and to subvert freedom by allowing no space for individual expression. This seems to me a powerful ideological onslaught targeting the individual, an onslaught that tries to deny my prerogative to express my wishes and desires, to be able to express my discontent at a failed relationship through my tempers and moods, and not to have my mental states subverted of all possible referents, save for one that functions to keep me where I am: in a failed relationship. Yet it is an onslaught maintained by each and every person who subscribes to it. My friend, who was not devoid of intelligence or critical tendencies, could not see in his wife's revolt anything more than the doings of a malicious person. This is not to say he wasn't aware that their relationship was far from ideal. It was clear from our extended conversations that their personalities frequently clashed: he is a wilful authoritarian, she a spoilt only child. But such is the power of subversive representations: they do not leave us with the truth; instead they appease our fears in the interest of collective rather than individual interests, the greater good.

I still like my friend. I enjoy his energy, his impressive capacity at transforming a potentially boring coffee-shop in to a locus of contention, mainly by cheekily infuriating everyone and arguing over every little thing: without him the place would be far too serious. But I just can't shake the thought that we are fundamentally different. Whereas I carry through life privileging experience and change over social stasis, he is happy to fall back on constraining traditional representations whenever the potential for change presents itself. And while I can understand the power of society over the hapless individual, I cannot bring myself to regard this haplessness as absolute. I am therefore entitled to conceive an order of things, an order where rabt is morally inferior. To judge is to be human, and it is a myth of anthropological discourse that we must omit judgement from our interpretive, descriptive account of how things are. To be sure we need to understand before we hasten to make judgments, but in the absence of a moral and rational ordering of things, the whole research endeavour would suffer from a sterility that renders it merely a topic of scholarly debate, with little relevance to the important, constructive vision of how the confrontation of world views can lead to a critical assessment of both.

But this is a different story.

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