Within some sectors of Moroccan society, herbs, enchantments, and rituals are still used as protection against the ‘evil eye’. Living in the backstreets of Casablanca’s Derb Sultan, I had my first foray into the world of Moroccan superstition.
Rabat – “I’ll boil lavender with melha heya to clean the flat. You need to ward off the evil eye.” Said by Kiwi, our toothless femme de menage, looking fearfully over my shoulder at the small glass bottle, filled with a dead snail and strange herbs, that I had found on the doorstep that morning.
“It’s black magic. You should put garlic in the doorways,” interjected the elderly butcher’s wife, who had just stepped in to use the school toilets.
“What’s going on? Who put that there? Mohammed, did you see you put this here?” This was shouted by Nadia, (called the gorilla by her neighbours because of her aggressive nature and enormous stature) who had just dropped her adopted son at school, and was pleased to join the search for someone to blame.
Then the opposite neighbour leaned out of her second storey window to join the debate, “You don’t look well; it’s working already!”
Throughout the protracted exchange I remained silent; partly because I had no idea why a bottle with a dead snail in it would cause such a reaction, and partly because it’s incredibly difficult to understand Darija at the best of times, but even harder when there are three women shouting at once.
This was a regular occurrence with my neighbours in the Casablanca district of Derb Sultan where I lived above my husband’s school until we recently moved to the more tranquil neighbourhood of Essaouira El Jadida.
Deciding I needed to do something, I leaned over to pick up the bottle, only to be violently restrained by Nadia (the gorilla). “Don’t touch it! It’s a curse,” she cried.
This was my initiation into the strange world of black magic in the backstreets of Casablanca, a stone’s throw from what is known to locals as “the witches market,” where vendors sit in their stalls surrounded by hedgehog skins, strange herbs, and dead lizards. Coming from the UK, the concept of the evil eye and being cursed seemed a bit far fetched, however, the insistence of Kiwi and Nadia on the need to deal with the dead snail in a bottle swept me along. And now I came to think of it, I did have a persistent headache…
Preparing for her bi-weekly clean of our flat, Kiwi, said she had to go and pick up some supplies. I protested. We had plenty of cleaning products – but that was not what she had in mind. She returned from her errand, armed with lavender and a sort of rock salt, which I presume is melha heya. She proceeded to prepare the potion she said would cure my headache and after that, enthusiastically scrubbed the floors and the walls with the lavender mixture, filling the flat with a clean fresh fragrance.
Kiwi explained that the lavender solution cleanses the space and wards off the evil eye, which would apparently make my headache go away. Her theory was that the snail jar curse was a manifestation of envy, and that I needed to be protected from the envious stares of our neighbours.
When my husband came home at lunch time, he just laughed, telling me to throw away the dead snail, and that my headache was probably a reaction to the new gas water heater he had installed the day before.
Meanwhile Nadia, the gorilla, just released from prison for beating another woman over the head with a glass bottle, had other ideas. Convinced that I was the victim of a terrible curse, she banged on the door (not helping my headache) accompanied by a large woman with dyed black hair, wearing a leopard print dressing gown and carrying a capacious bag. The woman was apparently a ‘white witch’ and Nadia had brought her to perform an ‘Aldune’ purification – I still don’t know what this is exactly. I am told it is a form of spiritual purification using objects. The woman looked at the dead snail and informed me in broken French that I had been cursed by two individuals, one short and fat and one tall and thin.
At this point, my husband intervened, thanking Nadia for her concern but dismissing the need for her black-haired friend’s services. Offended, ‘the gorilla’ and her leopard- print-embalmed companion bustled away, leaving an opening for Mohamed, the little old man who lived across the road, to have his turn to speculate who had left the snail jar. He claimed he had seen an old woman he didn’t know lurking outside the building in the early morning, and launched into a long testimony which I didn’t understand.
The next morning, after an early night and a lot of water in case it was just dehydration, I still had a headache. When I went downstairs to open the door for the preschool students, I discovered a strange bundle of herbs and hair, which had been pushed under the door. Nadia, dropping off 4-year-old Yahyah, again told me not to touch it. She said, if my husband didn’t want the purification, I should at least protect myself by putting garlic in the doorways. It turned out she had come prepared and immediately began stuffing peeled garlic cloves into the corners of the front door frame. This, she insisted, would ward off the evil eye.
Meanwhile, my husband had decided to move the gas canister out of the flat and suggested I visit his aunt for the day while he worked. When I arrived at her house, the aunt also remarked that I did not look well. I told her the story of the gas canister, the snail, the bundle of hair, and the headache and she too had a suggestion. Bustling off to look through the drawers of a sideboard, she came back with a small chunk of sandalwood. Burning this, she said, would make the headache go away.
So, having heated charcoal in a heatproof receptacle, she placed the tiny lump of wood on the glowing embers. Perfumed smoke began to drift into the air above us, sitting heavily near the ceiling. Then, to my surprise and confusion, she began to move the burning oud in circles around my hand, chanting quranic verses as she did so. Afterward, she explained to me that this, too, was a form of ‘Ruqyah acharaiya’, or spiritual purification using the power of God’s words.
That evening when I got home the gas canister had been removed to an appropriate location outside the flat. As I walked through the doorway with garlic in the corners, and into the lavender scented house, the opulent sandalwood odor still clinging to my clothes, I realized that my headache was gone.
While, rationally, all clues point to the removal of the gas canister, I’m afraid I can’t help but wonder…