Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Blue demons

Exorcism, sorcery and time-honoured superstitions persist in Egypt despite the current wave of religious conservatism, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“Not necessity, not desire. No, the love of power is the demon of men. Let them have everything, health, food, a place to live, entertainment, they are and remain unhappy and low-spirited: for the demon waits and waits and will be satisfied” – Friedrich Nietzsche


Blue demons, Al-Afarit Al-Zurq, are a peculiar feature of colloquial Egyptian Arabic. The connotations of colours exist in all cultures. In much of Asia, orange, yellow and reds of all shades denote spirituality: the colour favoured by Buddhist monks. In the West, blue was traditionally considered the colour of devotion and spiritual consecration. The Virgin Mary is invariably depicted wearing blue. Not so in Egypt, where the very word blue, navy as opposed to cerulean, is a demonic symbol.

Ironically, some of the colours associated with the very essence of Egypt, “Nila” or Nilotic, are also ill omens. Gattak Nila, “Go to Hell,” is to this day a popular colloquial Egyptian curse unheard of in other Arabic dialects. And, so is kohli, the colour of Egyptian women’s cosmetic fixture and beautifying accessory, kohl, a black galena. Kohl, or black eyeliner, reflecting the almond-shaped eye of the god Horus, was the most powerful of cosmetics that ostensibly had bewitching magical powers.

Casting out demons is a venerable tradition that has survived for many millennia in Egypt. The intriguing aspect is that the spine-chilling sorcerers responsible were not traditionally Egyptian. At some distant historical point in time it became prevalent to attribute illness or a spate of ill-fortune to spirit possession.

I came across Basma, not her real name, by sheer coincidence. I name her Basma because of her sweet smile. Basma means “smile”, a fairly common name in Egypt. “I am Tunisian,” she introduced herself by saying. “

Tunisian-Italian.” “Then you must be the daughter of Hannibal,” I said in jest. “That is very unusual,” she chuckled. “No one has ever called me that before,” she said and searched for images of Hannibal, the Great Carthaginian warlord who crossed the Alps in a vain attempt to conquer Rome, on her iPad.  

“I am writing an article about exorcism and sorcery in contemporary Egypt,” I ventured. “Wow, no kidding, my mother is a witch. We are not on speaking terms,” she gasped for breath. “Clashing with your mother is a curse in Islam. You are doomed,” I replied. “No, not if she is a witch,” came her prompt reply. In Egypt, Moroccans and Tunisians, people from North Africa, the Arab Maghreb, are considered the most feared kind of sorcerers. Incidentally, they are also the most venerated and holiest of saints.

Galena, a black ore derived primarily of lead, has been used in Egypt since time immemorial as an eyeliner and is composed of two components, lauroinite and phosgenite. Curiously neither of the two minerals is readily available in Egypt. These minerals must have come from distant lands across the sprawling deserts surrounding Egypt’s Nile Valley, explaining the ancient association with the Maghreb.

The later, represented as the “Land of the Dead,” is associated with the sunset and the netherworld. Kohl was used not only as an adornment and to prevent ocular infections, but also to ward off evil spirits. Only when the deceased applied eye-makeup, kohl, did he enter the realm of the god Osiris, “Lord of the Afterlife,” in ancient Egypt. So was alchemy a metaphor for what Basma’s mother did? No, like so many sorcerers she was an alchemist of bloodcurdling incantations.

Petite, plump and greying Nesma, another sorceress, led the zar procession, hurling her toff, or Egyptian tambourine, and leading the dancers into a frenzy that supposedly is designed to exorcise evil spirits and demons.

Ancient Egyptian magical spells implied that symbolic or ritual actions had practical purposes for mortals in this life and in the afterlife to assist the dead to rebirth. Lector priests in ancient Egypt were the primary practitioners of the art of magic and sorcery, the custodians of secret knowledge. Ironically, in Islam the art is known as Alm Al-Ghaib, or «science of the unknown or unseen,» and is likewise seen as a means to ward off the hazards of fate.

Wise women were consulted in ancient times, and they still perform the same function in contemporary Egypt. Amulets were and are indispensable. When I started researching exorcism and sorcery in contemporary Egypt, I was under the impression that only women were possessed by evil spirits. It is a common sexist belief, and it is hogwash.

The zar is an ancient ritual that persists to this day in contemporary Egypt even though it is frowned upon by religious zealots who perceive it to be a kind of pre-Islamic heresy. The women dance in a trance-like fashion, twisting and turning until the bedeviled one hurls herself into the midst of the dancers and begs the sheikha, or exorcist, to stop tormenting her.

The divinatory arts have long been closely associated with pagan, animistic, and in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula with Africa south of the Sahara and India. Notwithstanding their specific connection with pre-Islamic Arabia, they survived both Christianity and Islam in the collective folk memory.

The fine art of exorcism is practiced by Muslims and Coptic Christians alike, except that among Muslims a sheikh is summoned to exorcise the demons just as a priest does with Christians. The Muslim sheikh recites the Qur’an even as the Christian priest uses the cross to cast out demons. Nevertheless, Muslims often attend Church exorcism ceremonies even as Christians occasionally are seen at Muslim exorcism rituals.

The Biblical Gerasene Demonaic survives in the collective psyche of contemporary Egypt. A colleague of mine once recalled how a relative of his was saved from demons by a saintly sheikh. “She was a young woman, beautiful but deeply troubled. She visited many medical practitioners and psychiatrists, but she still remained a tortured soul. Her family instinctively knew that she needed spiritual support. And so a sheikh was summoned,” he said.

“Her submissive solicitations mysteriously metamorphosed into contentious threats and she adopted a menacing demeanor. Her voice changed into that of a man. She growled and four strong young men had to restrain her. ‘What is your name,’ the sheikh demanded. ‘My name is Legion, for we are many,’ scowled the demon.” The story was eerily reminiscent of the Biblical Gerasene demon mentioned in the Gospel of Mark.

“I adjure by God, do not torment me,” is a plea often repeated by demons to this day. When confronted with the cross of a Christian priest or the Qur’anic recitals of a Muslim sheikh, they become aggressive and self-destructive. Priest and sheikh command the demons to depart; they remonstrate and ultimately yield.

In the Biblical book of Ephesians, we read of the “cosmic powers of darkness.” Again, colour is accentuated. “The Kingdom of Darkness” is the implacable enemy of the “Kingdom of Light”. This is a concept common in Christianity and Judaism, but it is also articulated in Islam. However, its roots predate the monotheistic religions and go back to the ancient Iranian religious philosopher Zoroaster. He extrapolated the pantheon of ancient Iranian gods into “Dark and Evil” versus “Light and Good” forces: Angra Mainyu, or destructive mentality, versus Spenta Mainyu, or “progressive mentality.”

Somehow, the ancient myths have prevailed. The Biblical “Sons of God” versus the “Daughters of Men” in the book of Genesis was interpreted by the founder of Christian chronology Julius Africanus (160-240 CE) as the righteous sons of Adam and the evil descendants of Cain. Nevertheless, the sexist implications tenaciously have lingered on over the centuries.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, the three chief goddesses, daughters of Allah, were Al-Uzza, Allat and Manat. They were removed from the Qur’an as part of the infamous “Satanic Verses”. Curiously enough, they survive as demons and reappear as central features of exorcism superstitions.

Later, I discovered that men, too, were subjected to demonic possession. Scorpion charmers and cobra manipulators, mostly men, are as common today in Luxor and Upper Egypt as they were during the days of the pharaohs.

 The tale of a young man, I will call him Hassan, is indicative. He was supposedly possessed by an evil spirit, a female spirit to be precise. He used to attend the Sufi processions and moulids, or festivals, in the Al-Hussein district in the heart of Islamic Cairo. The demon in his case was the goddess Allat.

A friend witnessed an unscheduled performance of the pre-Islamic Arabian goddess. A sheikh was summoned to exorcise Allat. Hassan’s voice turned into that of an embittered and bellicose woman. Goddess in Arabic is ilahah, and hence in a manner of speaking Allat implies the feminine plural of “Legion”. Allat is also an ancient Mesopotamian appellation of the “Goddess of the Netherworld”.

Allat was also venerated in Carthage, contemporary Tunis, under the name of Allatu. My mind raced back to Basma. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the pre-Islamic Arabs believed in two gods: Allah and Allat. Hassan was a student of history.   

“I want him to be blinded, so that he will not set eyes on any other women, for I have been in love with him for years and I cannot let go,” the she-devil screeched. “Leave him from his foot,” the sheikh insisted. And I recalled something the Tunisian Basma had told me: that a demon’s blood was blue.

Indigo, the colour of the Nile at midnight, is to this day considered a fateful hue and is associated with yet another female demon, the “Bride of the Nile”. This particular demon was supposed to lure handsome young men into the depths of the river at night. In ancient times, an unfortunate virgin was sacrificed to placate the river and hence the festival of the “Bride of the Nile” began.

There is also the curious question of what religion demons adopt. Another possessed man, Ibrahim, was asked to relinquish the animism of the demon who bedeviled him. “I would like you to convert to Islam before you leave him,” the sheikh requested. The demon resisted at first and then reluctantly consented. “Fly to Mecca and see the Kaaba,” the sheikh demanded. Demons are believed to be either Muslim, Christian or atheist.  

Apparently, the demon did fly to Mecca and returned in an ecstatic state. “I believe,” the demon conceded. “Islam is a beautiful religion”. And he left the bedeviled youth.  

 Magic is also a feature of the silver screen. Egyptian cinema has made sorcery and exorcism a recurrent theme in countless films. Afrita Hanem, «Madam Demon», is one classic film starring legendary dancer Samia Gamal and singer/songwriter Farid al-Atrash. Al-Taweiza, meaning pouches, lockets or amulets, pendants with prayers or Qur’anic verses, is another classic Egyptian film dealing with the belief in the protective powers of amulets. It features Mahmoud Yassin, Yousra and Abla Kamel. Last but not least, and perhaps the most poignant of these films, is Al-Ins Wa-l-Jinn, or “Man and Genie.”  

The film features actress Yousra and veteran actor Adel Imam. The jinn, of course, are notorious supernatural creatures born of fire, but whose blood is blue. They can be evil, but they can also be benevolent. They cooperate with magicians and fortune tellers. Their existence is sanctioned in Islam, and there is a Surat al-Jinn (“Chapter of the Genies» in the Qur’an.  

Again, the Biblical appellation «Legion» springs to mind, for in Arabic the word jinn is a collective number. Marid is the most powerful form of the jinn, loosely translated as “giant.” But demons are as much a part of the Christian folklore of Egypt as they are a presence among Muslims.

The Church of the Moqattam, meaning «cut off» in Arabic, is located on an ancient ridge overlooking eastern Cairo that in ancient times was a quarry for the limestone used in the construction of pyramids and temples.

Legend has it that Coptic Pope Abraham of Alexandria referred to it in order to prove to the Shia Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz that the Christian Gospel is true when it professes that if one has faith then like a grain of mustard it can move a mountain. The Caliph gave the Pope and his servant Simon the Cobbler three days, after which the Coptic Christians of Egypt would be butchered. Sure enough the mountain moved.    

Despite confessional schisms, there was an early interchange of religious concepts, and the lives of Christians in Egypt were spared and pluralism assured. The Caliph’s own mother was also a Christian.

Al-Muizz acquired a reputation for deviousness, and he later disappeared in the wilderness. His followers today are the Druze of Syria and Lebanon. Farid al-Atrash, the star of Afrita Hanem, was himself a Druze from Syria who charted his artistic career in Egypt. The Moqattam Church, hewed in a cave in the mountain, has become one of the most venerable venues of exorcism.

Years ago, intrigued by the subject, I visited the Morqosiya Church in downtown Cairo, the Church of Saint Mark. There I found a wizened Coptic Christian priest known for his powers of exorcising evil spirits. There were thousands of spectators when I visited the Church, and I watched a procession of seven women possessed by demons. It was a spell-binding affair. The women screeched and howled grotesquely.

The priest sat majestically in the centre next to the altar, as if on a splendid throne. The Church was bathed in surreal light as if the dome was a celestial sphere, like in a planetarium. The priest gave a loud cry, brandished his cross, and the demons vanished without a fight.

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