Laurie attempts to explain Middle East evil eye superstition.
Can a lingering look with a penetrating gaze cause catastrophe in another’s life? If you’re Jordanian, you might think so (and your grandmother certainly does): it’s the pseudoscience of the “evil eye”. In Turkey, people with Frida Kahlo unibrows or pale color eyes are considered prime candidates to dish out disaster. Bedouin mothers keep their children unkempt for fear that attractiveness will invite what’s also called the “eye of envy”. I’m told this mojo’s real in the Middle East.
But hold your horses: crying American toddler Laurie was often whisked down the street by her Irish ma and plunked in the kitchen of Zia Fran (Italian matriarch of our New Jersey block). Zia would fill a tub-sized pasta pot with salted water, get it boiling, and tuck into some decidedly un-Catholic voodoo. She dropped olive oil into the water, tiny plops growing into a central yolk, and mutter in Italian until the oil bubble burst. Only when the oil splattered would the “mal occhio” (translation: bad eye) be broken. Zia was skillful, she could’ve dissipated the oil slick from the Exxon Valdez. My mother swears I’d stop crying on cue.
Olives, tomatoes, chickpeas and eggplant are mainstays of most Mediterranean cuisines, so it’s not a stretch to see how the origins of regional superstitions also blur between nations. The differential when it comes to the “evil eye” is that it’s actually described in the Holy Qu’ran, the Torah, and the Old Testament, which places its origins squarely in the Middle East. In his book Diwan Baladna, author Ahmad Kamal Azban lists some creepy Arab proverbs that demonstrate the “potent role of the eye in ill-fated events”:
- The envying eye has a rod in it, and most of his days are black.
- The eye fractured the stone.
- The envying eye causes blindness.
Many cultures maintain that envy and malintent work through the power of the human eye. Think of how uncomfortable it is to be stared at, and how taboo it is to stare.
Loads of books and websites provide a back story to the phenomenon. In an essay, “Wet and Dry: The Evil Eye”, Alan Dundes maps out how the belief was born.
He theorizes that the evil eye is based upon ancient associations of water with life and dryness with death. The desirous eye dries up liquids inside living beings, including milking animals, young fruit trees, and nursing mothers, which Dundes says point to its MidEast desert origins. He suggests that the superstition spread out geographically in a radiating ring from its origins in ancient Sumer.
There’s no accounting for people’s beliefs. Those considered to have the covetous gaze are generally avoided even in contemporary culture and in modern cities like Amman. A friend hid her best artwork before a dinner party so a suspected “envier” would not wreak havoc with her beautiful home. Wouldn’t it be simpler to keep the guest off her list? She laughed and told me “Now that would be ridiculous.”
Be sure to carry protection.
Funny to see that advice in a new light. The most popular way to ward off trouble is to carry a blue amulet, which itself looks like an eye.
In Arab mythology, it’s said that the “jinn” (evil spirits) will transform into a blue opal as a means of self-protection. If the predator senses the jinn within the gem, and if they urinate on it, they forever trap the spirit inside the stone. The story goes that only a human hand can free a spirit from its blue prison, putting that spirit in service of his rescuer. (Even the promise of a genie sidekick wouldn’t get me to touch a peed-on stone, but as usual, I digress.)
Amulets to ward off evil typically take the form of the human eye, and are usually brilliant blue. Eye-in-hand pendants (called Hand of Fatima), bluegreen faience stones and blue glass “eyes” can be found throughout this region, sold as souvenirs, hung over shop doors, hanging from rearview car mirrors.
By thanking God, all grace remains.
But the best defense is an Oprah-endorsed “attitude of gratitude”. This could be a factor in the classic Arab characteristic of giving to the admirer the object of their admiration.
It’s wise to be self-effacing. In Arab culture, if someone gives you a compliment, you respond with “Masha’Allah” to ward off the evil eye. It translates literally to “It is as God has willed.” In other words, implied with a virtual shrug, don’t blame me.
You can also recite passages from the Qu’ran. Surah Falaq (The Daybreak) and Surah Nas (Mankind) are used for specific protection.
Or take a page from Zia Fran’s mal occhio playbook. This way, if you don’t break the spell, you can at least take solace in a nice dish of pasta.
Image of evil eye from Shutterstock