Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Local heroes

Spiritual leaders in rural Egyptian communities were expected to take on different roles to help the people who depended on them. Jenny Jobbins looks at the part played by sheikhs and sheikhas

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Egypt of the 21st century is thoroughly modern and, as befits a major birthplace of science and medicine, Egyptians are among not only some of the most technologically astute but also some of the best surgeons and physicians in the world. Amongst the general public, attitudes to science have changed rapidly in recent decades to keep pace with modernity, especially among the young urban population, but a generation ago many ordinary Egyptians saw magic, medicine and religion as being closely intertwined.
When I first came to Egypt I was fascinated by the observations earlier foreigners made of their travels in Egypt, particularly Edward William Lane, who lived in Egypt in the early 1830s, and Winifred Blackman almost a century later. As an interested journalist in the 1970s, I wanted to see how much of this secret Egypt could still be found.
All I needed to do was ask. Before long I was sitting in people’s houses in Upper Egypt and along the Red Sea coast, listening to their tales. To seek a cure for problems concerning health or happiness; to gain success; to insure his or her worldly goods against loss or theft; a person in rural or poorer urban areas would turn to the local religious leader — usually a lay person, either Muslim or Christian — who may utter the appropriate words from a much-ruffled book or prepare a hegab, a written charm to ward off ill-health, theft or the evil eye. Any man who dabbled in folk magic was given the honorary title of sheikh, while his female counterpart was a sheikha.
One universally accepted rule is that sheikhs do not accept payment for their services. They could still make a living: their clients provided them with gifts, and if they needed to buy a special piece of wood or other ingredients for a charm they could ask for a few piastres to cover the cost. Strictly speaking, the sheikhs would tell me, any form of magic that attempted to exercise control over another (such as a love charm or potion) and was not in the immediate interest of the petitioner alone was black magic. This included asking for a charm to make sure your son passed an exam, as well any form of divination or the use of jinn; no matter how harmless or well-intentioned the appeal might be, it was haram (religiously forbidden).
That was not to say that no one dabbled in black magic. Sheikhs tended to specialise; they might be healers, or expert in removing spells, or Sufi guides. Or they may be snake charmers. Edward Lane thought these dervishes were “generally acquainted with some real physical means of discovering the presence of serpents without seeing them, and of attracting them from their lurking places.” Even when I was seeking out this secret sect, the Rifaaiyah, the government was employing trappers to catch snakes and the activities of the sect were strictly controlled.
The Rifaaiyah gathered after Friday prayers at the Rifaai Mosque in Cairo to perform a zikr (rhythmic chant) — a profoundly moving experience for one who witnessed it. An elderly devotee explained their veneration of snakes to me after one such zikr. All adult snakes, he assured me, grew wings and flew to the burial place of the sect’s founder, Sheikh Said Ahmed Rifaai Al-Kebir, at Basra in Iraq. He said that the Rifaaiyah practised elaborate initiation rites that included swallowing a concoction of snake venom, snake fat and other ingredients and chanting ritual prayers. On initiation they were offered a lifetime of immunity to snake venom, and entered a secret pact that they and the snakes would never cause one another harm. Such beliefs may have been passed down through the Ophites, a sect that flourished in Egypt at the beginning of the Christian era, from origins in the remote past. One informant told me that the odd rogue snake, which he described as “deaf’, did exist — although he had never come across one — and this type alone could be killed as it had already broken the pact. I was reminded of the biblical passage in Psalm 58:
“Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies. Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skilful the enchanter may be. (New International Bible)
Several sects claimed affiliation to the Rifaaiyah, my informant told me, but most snake charmers were impostors. Not only did these fake charmers remove the venom from the snakes they caught, but they even planted the snakes in the first place, hiding them up their sleeves. They then put the snakes into baskets and used them in public performances, refilling the baskets as the snakes died. They never killed the snakes, but they did not feed them either, and often popped a scorpion into the basket to finish the job.
Of all the magicians I met when I began conducting my “participant observation” research in Egyptian communities, it was the “white” magician who was in most demand. Not only could he or she be trusted to identify and remove any spells cast on his client by another magician, he would also prepare magical hegabs, and offer comfort to those in distress. He was seen visiting the mosque frequently. He was often a Sufi and a leader of his tariqah (sect), and would attend zikrs, gatherings where members of the tariqah perform ritual chants and movements. He must organise and play host at the moulid (local commemorative feast), often held in honour of one of his forebears.
However skilled at communication and judging character they might be, I found that these sheikhs were notoriously bad at keeping appointments. They were seldom in the expected place at the appointed time, and one would frequently come across a line of people waiting patiently for an audience, pre-arranged or not. It was not uncommon to be told to come back the next day and be turned away in a similar fashion day after day.
I heard many stories about sheikhs who performed minor miracles: of an elderly sheikh in Luxor (by then deceased) who, when he wished to cross the river, did not bother to wait for the ferry but simply placed his handkerchief on the water, sat on it, and floated across. Or the sheikh who kept money under his pillow which he handed out to needy people. One day a man came to see him with a fictitious tale of needing money to bury his son. The sheikh handed him the money, but the man arrived home only to find that his son was dead. Punishments like this might be swift and harsh, but they were regarded as just desserts.
Many stories survive to show that there were many such famous magicians in ancient Egypt, particularly in such chronicles as the Westcar Papyrus. These tales from the Old Kingdom were written down on 12 papyrus scrolls during the Middle Kingdom — presumably taken from earlier copies or oral tradition — and tell five stories about magicians, their wax models and magic books, and indicate that the elderly wizards involved were respected, if not revered, by even Pharaoh himself.
It was not always easy for me to gain the confidence of a modern-day sheikh and persuade him or her to meet me, and many refused. One sheikha said flatly that she would never see me. When I was taken to the house of an elderly man, said to be very holy, who lived in a walled up — that is, sealed — room, I even kissed his hand extended through the hole in the wall by which his son-in-law gave him food, but although he agreed to speak to me, his son–in-law said, for several days, “Tomorrow”. It seemed that I did not push the right buttons.
This all changed a few years later. I was living in Singapore when Singapore Airlines inaugurated its Cairo service. The airline held a banquet to celebrate: Egyptian food served in an enormous tent, complete with a belly dancer. On the corner of each invitation was a raffle number, and the first prize was a return ticket to Cairo. It came at a time when I wanted desperately to return to Egypt to continue my research into folk magic. As the prizes were read out I glanced round the room filled with diplomats, businessmen and local dignitaries, and it occurred to me that no one there wanted that ticket as much as I did. Yet when my number was called out I walked up to the podium in a daze.
For a while after that the wheels of my life ran as though they were well oiled. Getting my Egyptian visa took a few minutes over coffee in the ambassador’s private office, and soon I was en route to Cairo. I left the city almost immediately to spend the next month in Luxor.
When I got there I was amazed at the change in the way I was received. Suddenly, doors that had previously been closed were opened wide. The sheikha, having heard how I won the ticket, declared that it was meant to be and called for me to visit her so she could show me how she helped women with childbearing and other personal problems. My old friend Sheikh Abdallah also sent word from his village that he was waiting to see me. Someone recognised me on the ferry and told Ahmed, who usually acted as my driver when I was in town, and before long I was fitting a busy schedule into my diary.
My most memorable visit to Sheikh Abdallah was my last. It was two years after I won the ticket and my family had returned to live in Egypt, but quite soon afterwards my husband was called back to London to head the BBC Arabic Service, leaving me to pack up the house and entertain an influx of house guests wanting a last chance to stay in our villa in Zamalek (now the Irish Embassy). It was 1987, and I was eager to complete the guide book to the Red Sea I was writing for AUC Press as well as carry on with research on magic in Upper Egypt, so when a Canadian visitor wanted to see Luxor I went along too. I told my friend, a medical doctor, that I would show him the sights as long as he didn’t mind joining in some unorthodox expeditions.
No sooner had we arrived at the Winter Palace than I received via desert telegraph an invitation to Sheikh Abdallah’s house in his remote village on the west bank. We set out with driver Ahmed and Adel, who had long acted as guide and translator. As we passed the village well, women filling their water jars waved and called out that Sheikh Abdallah was expecting us. The elderly sheikh, slightly built, in his blue galabiya and spotless white turban, welcomed us into his mud-brick house and sent for karkade (hibiscus tea). Then, regarding me intently, he asked why I looked so tired. I was startled: we weren’t there to talk about me, but I found myself telling him how anxious I was about the packing, and the workload, and the houseguests and travelling. Before I knew what was happening he had fixed the forefinger and little finger of one hand on either side of my temple and given them a little shake. I felt an odd buzz, and then I almost passed out. For several minutes I could neither speak or move, and as the fuzziness began to fade I noticed the bemused expressions on my friends’ faces.
I sat in a blur of my own, totally relaxed and totally at peace. Further questioning of the sheikh on sheikh-related topics was out of the question. Yet despite my inertia I can remember clearly what happened next. Sheikh Abdallah suddenly asked the Canadian doctor if he would take a look at his infant grandson, who was sick. He summoned his daughter-in-law, who entered a few moments later with a baby boy of about nine months. He was a chubby, lovely baby in every respect — apart from an enormous swelling on one side of his head.
The doctor leapt to his feet. In less than a second he changed from interested tourist to alert medical practitioner. Without even a stethoscope, he ran expert hands over the baby and quickly came up with a diagnosis. He told the mother that she would need to place clean, hot compresses on the swelling. Later he told me that the baby should have been admitted to hospital, but he knew that for a family so far from help this was not an option and so he did what he could.
After this drama we had another glass of hot karkade, and the doctor and the sheikh exchanged compliments of mutual admiration. They agreed that Sheikh Abdallah did not know how to help the baby, and that the doctor would have been unable to help me without a prescription for pills. “You see, we can learn from each other,” Sheikh Abdallah said.
Afterwards my friend said this visit was the highlight of his holiday in Egypt, and an experience he would never forget. We heard that the baby recovered, and that Sheikh Abdallah had greatly valued our visit. As for me, I was so refreshed that I coped effortlessly with the remaining houseguests and packing. I still had more to learn about this secret Egypt, but this would wait until my next visit. Meanwhile, I had enough information to make interesting writing.

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