Friday, August 06, 2004

Chiefly about the supernatural

Every once in a while it does one some good to escape the mundane details of daily life (or death in the Iraqi case) to the fascinating realm of the unkown and the mysterious. It doesn't happen very frequently but I find it a pleasant and welcome distraction, and instead of discussing the endless politics, the explosions, the abductions, and the beheadings, we will turn to something more interesting, at least for once.

By the way, I just recalled an angry email from a reader who announced, quite rudely, that she won't be reading my blog any more. I believe it was three or four months ago. She mentioned that it was because I was losing touch with reality since the whole country was in chaos at the time and here I was blogging about some cheerful topic! She almost stopped short of saying that I was losing my sanity. Anyway, my point is don't expect me to comment or blog about every bad thing that goes on in Iraq because the truth is that sometimes I am either so depressed to write about it or I may not even have a reaction that can be easily put into words, or maybe I just don't care any more. Sometimes you have to take that into consideration, I am not a machine and I think there are enough blogs and websites out there that have in depth coverage of every small thing that goes on in Iraq.

So, there were three of us last night at the doctors residence, me, the Baghdadi pharmacist, and our humorous cook. We were heatedly discussing, as we always do, the many ideological differences between Sunnis and Shia (we had started this habit a couple of months ago after they had realised, with some shock, that I don't pray or fast in Ramadan and that I have absolutely nothing to do with religion). The conversation slowly drifted to discussing death and the afterlife, we cracked a couple of popular jokes, and the pharmacist carefully flirted with the idea that it may all be an elaborate trick and that there is nothing but nothingness after death. Our cook got a bit uneasy on hearing this and started to recount some supernatural experiences that had occured to him or his friends, offering them as proof of there being an afterlife.

He was once out with his cousin on a walk in the country side south of Basrah, an area which is densely packed with palm groves, hundreds of small canals from Shatt Al-Arab running between them, and tens of scattered villages and habitations. Most roads here are unpaved and the whole place feels desolate and eerie at night especially during winter, dogs and wolves howl endlessly as in fear. They passed by some old ruins and a small graveyard which belonged to some Sadah (pl. of Sayyed, a descendant of Muhammed through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali bin Abi Talib), it was very dark and a bit misty although it was a full moon.

They noticed some light shining from behind a grave stone in their direction, they stopped, wondering who would be in his right mind to be at such a place in the night. My cook described it as a white light that was getting stronger and stronger until what resembled a tall human figure emerged from it. He said they froze in horror at the sight of the strange figure. It looked as if it was dressed completely in a shiny white robe 'that was almost made of light', that it was faceless but it had a long white beard. The figure was about 20 metres away from them and it was moving closer to them as if it was gliding on the ground. They both snapped and started running for all they were worth, but the figure flyed behind them because they could see their shadows in the light. At one point his cousin looked behind while he was running and he missed the small bridge over one of the canals and plunged into the water. Our cook said he didn't pause for his cousin and that he kept running for his life until he was home.

On asking him what happened to his cousin, he said the cousin grew really strange after that incident, and denied seeing a ghost at all. When we started to joke about the Sadah, our cook recoiled in fear and begged us not to. It is a common superstition in southern Iraq that holy figures such as the Twelve Imams of the Shia, or basically any Sayyed can put a curse on anyone who says bad things about them. They describe Imam Al-Abbas as abu ras alhar (the hot-head) because he is supposedly known to punish people who swear falsely by his name. They tell the story of a woman who lied and sweared by the name of Abbas. She mysteriously disappeared afterwards and later they found her earrings hanging high on the ceiling of Al-Abbas' shrine in Karbala. During the last century it was common practice for the Iraqi government to ask witnesses to swear by Abbas when taking oaths in courtrooms instead of the Quran.

On this occasion, and seeing that I continued to joke about them, my cook predicted that something bad would befall me soon. He kept eyeing me and looked a bit hurt to see that nothing wrong happened to me.

There was a famous story during the nineties that took place in Najaf which is home to the largest graveyard in the world (This is because most Shia from all over the Middle East desire to be buried in holy Najaf close to the shrine of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, to this day corpses are brought from Iran, Pakistan, even India to be buried there, this was also how several plagues spread to Iraq centuries ago). Two friends challenged a third to enter the graveyard in the middle of the night and to hammer a large nail into a well known grave which belonged to a Sayyed. The man entered the graveyard, his friends waited for hours but there was no sign of their friend returning. They headed to the mentioned grave the next morning, and they found him at the grave babbling and acting as if he had lost his mind. On closer look, they found that he had driven the nail through the sleeve of his dishdasha and into the tomb. Since it was pitch dark the previous night, the man had apparently hammered the nail through his shirt unknowingly and on trying to leave imagined it as something or someone had snatched his hand and he went crazy on the spot.

Personally, I have no such experiences with ghosts. The only one that can be described as one was at high school when a friend of mine handed me a small khirza (a stone with purported magical powers). There are many kinds of these (that come in different colours and shapes) in Iraq, some bring good luck, some bring fortune, and some are used to entice ladies (something close to that is the chest bone of woodpeckers, adhm alhudhud). He said the stone would bring luck. It first rotated between a circle of our friends. One of them was kicked out of home by his father, another had a car accident, and the last failed miserably in a series of exams.

I accepted it because I was dubious and was instructed to put it under my bed pillow. Nothing happened on the first night, on the second I had some extremely erotic dreams that had me trying to keep the stone for myself and some of our friends, on hearing this, impatiently asked me for their turns to try the stone. The third night something strange happened, I felt the room was getting really hot, almost as if it was on fire. My imagination was running wild and I thought that I saw shadows on the wall dancing in fire. I returned the stone next morning and said I didn't want anything to do with it any more. Someone else took it and claimed that he lost it afterwards, he probably enjoyed those dreams too much!

At the time, my grandmother (who is a psychic) insisted that I was ridden by a Jinn (djinn) and she gave me a special hijab (not a headscarf!), which was an old faded paper with Quranic verses and strange numbers and triangular figures on it, she said it would scare the Jinn away. I admit that I did feel better then. She also has several of these stones that she keeps in a small bag of cloth. She claims that she bathes them and feeds them salt, and that they even have conversations with her.

Jinn stories are very popular in Iraq. Needless to say that Muslims are supposed to believe in Jinn because their existence is mentioned in the Quran, therefore it almost blasphemy to deny that they exist. The same as the human race, they say there are good Jinn and evil Jinn (even Muslim Jinn), they are also supposed to live in a parallel dimension so we can't perceive each other's presence. Some people are known to have contact with Jinn and can use their powers. In my family there is an old story that was passed down to us involving my father's great grandmother and her friendly relation with the Jinn. His great grandfather was a drunkard and he returned home every night and beat up his wife with a stick. On one of these nights, he entered the house to find his wife with the lamp in her hand standing in the hallway waiting for him with a strange expression on her face. She was surrounded by evil looking dwarves that sounded like elves from their description. He died on the spot, they found him the next day with his eyes wide open and with a gruesome look of sheer horror on his face.

Two popular supernatural figures in Iraqi folklore are the Tanttel and the Su'luwwa. The first is a tall and black hairy creature common in dark alleys and abandoned places. Old women are known to scare children with it. The second is a wicked woman that lives in the river and snatches young men from their boats at night. Some fishermen from Rawa even claimed to have captured one in a net.


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