Five cases of exorcism

Facing each others’ shadows but not actually facing each other, seculars and Islamists were at daggers drawn, writes Youssef Rakha. Then came the Revolution

 

THE PARABLE OF THE OTHERS

Once upon a time there was an ancient house and it was haunted by two families of ghosts, let us call them the Fundies and the Drunks; by the time this happens, all the inhabitants of the house are long dead; the house is in perpetual darkness. Each ghost family thinks it is alive and being haunted by the other family; each dreams of moving out to a warmer house. Scared of the dead, they are the dead; and they are kept apart by the lie that they are alive. The Drunks died much earlier; it is their attachment to physical and perishable things that makes them think they are alive, but they show fewer signs of vitality. The Fundies, a seamless block of the more recently deceased, draw their delusional breath from things supposedly eternal. They are aggressive and noisy, the Fundies; sometimes they even seem convincingly human, for ghosts. For the longest time the house stands immovable. Everyone is dead, but there remains in both families something perhaps truly eternal even as it remains physical and perishable and, for the longest time, completely hidden from view. That thing is shared by every member of every family; no one knows yet, but it can turn each back into a living human being. Perhaps no one has been quite so dead after all; perhaps death itself is reversible. One day the house begins to rock, softly, barely perceptibly at first. A shaft of sunlight penetrates to the centre and for the first time in their memory the Drunks, suddenly energetic in the light, feel the warmth on their skin. They cherish the blood pumping in their newly taut veins and, while their pupils dilate, realise that they have been dead. At this moment it dawns on them that, if they were dead, it cannot be that they were haunted by the Fundies, that the Fundies too may be alive by now, and that everyone has an equal claim to the house. While the house leaves the ground, the Fundies join the Drunks and, resuscitated likewise, they are unexpectedly peaceful and calm. Eventually the two families grow so friendly and secure in company that, by the time the house flies, no one is sacred of anyone.

 

ZAR: BINDING BY OATH

The original meaning of exorcism is “binding by oath”; in this sense the former Egyptian regime was worse than a demon. No oath could bind it, and people were too aware of this to be affected by the intimidation and manipulation to which they were subjected. During the last few days before Mubarak’s stepping down, the Tahrir protesters were creative enough to stage a zar, the most popular form of exorcism in grassroots culture, to drive the stubborn, by then clearly blood-stained president from the country. In reality a zar is an African-rooted, indoor and female-only rite, in which a particular drum beat and collective circular movement, gaining in velocity as time passes, force a demon out of the body of a possessed woman, who will normally pass out at the end; but in the popular imagination the procedure is synonymous with irrational desperation, and for the protesters it was a theatrical expression of just that: Mubarak had proved so impervious to the demands of the unequivocal majority, so blind to reality, so steeped in fabricated consent, it took him longer than anyone to give in to the inevitable. By the time the zar took place, the mafia of the so called authorities had already tried everything (I think the events of 25 Jan-11 Feb establish beyond any doubt that the authorities were just that: a mafia; and it is well to remember that elements of that mafia continue to operate freely – to what end, no one knows for sure). Police, thugs, snipers on the one hand and, on the other, rumours, fear- and xenophobia-mongering as well as systematic misinformation: nothing could put an end to the revolution. Yet, like a mulish djinn of apostate ancestry (the worst kind), Mubarak continued to use the term “I will” to Thursday 10 Feb. But whether or not the zar had any part in it, that will of his was duly exorcised.

 

JIHAD SANS JIAHDIS

The Revolution goes beyond what just may be a sustainable rapprochement between secular and Islamist components of the unarmed constituency. It goes beyond the tendency to draw on spiritual references like the zar for moral sustenance under attack – and the indefinite and gruelling wait for Mubarak to see the light which sparked it. By Friday 28 Jan the government already had blood on its hands; and the security forces, after committing atrocious crimes against protesters and then abandoning their posts – who emptied the prisons? who attacked the police stations? who if not the police is ultimately responsible? – were no longer visible. One strong response to government cronies objecting to Mubarak stepping down on the grounds that it was not in “our culture” to humiliate elders and leaders was to point out that, in that same culture of ours, the spilling of blood does not go unpunished. (To this day neither Mubarak nor those under and around him have been forgiven; they are unlikely to ever be until they are brought to justice.) References to the martyrs – another grassroots religious concept – quickly became central to the protests – and the lineage of the Revolution as a whole; its patience stretched, the mafia in charge of Egypt – is it still in charge of Egypt? – had been exposed. By the second Friday of the Revolution, following the horrendous Battle of the Camel featuring NDP militias and the coldblooded murder of protesters by as yet unidentified (but very probably State Security) operatives on Wednesday 2 Feb, non-Islamist Muslims among the protesters were reclaiming a legacy that had for the longest time been appropriated by political Islam but that should in all fairness be shared by all Muslims, including secular Muslims as well as fundamentalists: the legacy of jihad, which means not blowing yourself up to bring down America but simply fighting the good fight where and when you are able to. We all undertook jihad during the Revolution, many Muslim Brothers and some Salafis were with us not in their capacity as Islamists but as Egyptians fighting the good fight. We all practised jihad in Tahrir, but none of us were jihadis.

 

THE SECOND TERM

Already underway is the debate about the second term of the constitution, which states that legislation should be derived from the Shari’a, that Islam is the official religion of Egypt and Arabic its official language. (Apart from personal-affairs laws which restrict private lives and have arguably contributed to sexual violence and frustration, legislation is not actually derived from Shari’a and, barring the emergence of a theocracy, is not likely to be. In the light of this and the fact that Arabic is the first language of nearly every Egyptian, I am not sure what the second term actually means.) The seculars – writers, artists, intellectuals, activists and a few enlightened men of religion – are calling for its removal in the course of ongoing or later amendments; they see the Revolution as an opportunity to build a truly non-sectarian state, cutting off political from spiritual affairs once and for all and respecting the rights of a citizen like myself to profess no religion at all while remaining fully Egyptian. Many (including, paradoxically, the Coptic clergy) feel that Islam and the language of the Quran are an essential facet of national identity and that their inclusion in the country’s  document of self-definition is a necessary shield against loss of direction, cultural (and other) invasion, and moral erosion of every kind. As late as the 1990s Islamists were actively killing seculars and seculars condoning a government they knew to be corrupt and illegitimate from the liberal-democratic standpoint simply because it actively terrorised (thereby also strengthening) Islamists. It is a credit to the Egyptian people that, while this debate goes on, while both sides feel strongly about it, no clashes have occurred at any level. The majority seems rightly aware that the priority is to establish a representative, participatory political system; and many are willing to put off resolving this particular point of contention for now. I think it is fair to say that if the majority of Egyptians want an Islamic state (whatever that means), an Islamic state is what the majority of Egyptians should get; but it is also important to remember that the second term has been used to control the religious establishment and manipulate both Islamists and seculars far more often than to uphold religious, let alone national identity. The second term should not become yet another evil spirit to be cast out, at least not yet. The second term is an opportunity for democratic interaction, for binding by oath the infinitely more evil spirit of Islamist-secular hatred and suspicion, whose only beneficiary since the 1970s has been an abusive regime despoiling the country in perpetuity.

 

DIVINITY AT LARGE

I do not remember which of the many arrivals at Tahrir this was. We waited a very long time on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge. Arms raised, identity cards in hand, we were searched and given a loud hero’s welcome. It did not even register then, but those who checked our identities, those who apologised as they felt our pockets while others, clapping, chanted essawra bte-k-bar, “the Revolution is growing”, came in all shapes and sizes. Some had what were evidently religious beards, different kinds denoting different affiliations (Azharite, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi). Others had pony tails or fros, or neat, military-like crew cuts. The most “westernised” worked hand in hand with the most “fundamentalist” and you did not even notice. That time a little old man who as I later found out had a communist background told us a story; he had been camping out in Tahrir for a week and last night he had had a dream. The Prophet Muhammad appeared to him, he said, in the company of unidentified Companions. There were injured protesters in the vicinity, one of whom was in his death throes, and the Prophet – bathed in light – placed his hand on the dying young man’s forehead and smiled. As is almost always the case in a dream of this kind, regarded by Muslims as the closest thing in this lifetime to an actual encounter with their Messenger, the dreamer could not see the Prophet’s face, but he watched, awe-struck, as the young man’s health visibly improved and heard the Prophet’s voice advising him and other protesters not to give up. “Victory is near,” the Prophet said, before the little old communist woke up with a smile of hope and gratitude imprinted on his face: the same smile he presented us with while we shuffled towards the statue of Omar Makram, near the Qasr Al-Nil entry point. “You look like progressive young men and I can tell you I never used to pray,” he said. “I never thought the Prophet would ever visit me in my sleep. Maybe I was not even a believer,” he muttered, eventually raising his voice with such conviction it was all I could do not to break down in tears: “Rest assured, however. We will win this battle. The Prophet Muhammad told me so.”

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One flew over the Dhakla oasis

THE NATIONAL

After a few hours, Youssef Rakha writes, the presence of djinns seemed wholly unremarkable

Eight months ago, my London-based Egyptian friend came home to carry out the field-work component of his doctoral thesis, which explores the assumptions involved in treating the mentally ill. All he needed was an isolated, relatively self-contained spot where there was no modern psychiatric care. So, rather than learning a new language on top of everything else (the endless required literature reviews, etc), he decided to return to his home country.

For posterity’s sake I should say I am speaking of Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed: frustrated astronaut turned orthopaedic surgeon-in-training turned disgruntled psychiatrist turned, finally, philosopher and doctoral candidate. Mohammed had always liked the Western Desert. And so, like the old caricature of the Colonialist desperately in search of nutty Natives, he set off from Cairo to research all five of its oases. Eventually he settled on Mut, the capital of Dakhla – according to him “the most baseline”, the most typical and unremarkable of all, and of course without a single psychiatrist to its name. The idea was to live there on and off for six months, researching how the local approaches to madness – exorcism, for example – measured up to the western status quo.

I wanted to fly out to see him, but only return tickets were available, and the flights were a week apart. I couldn’t be away that long. In time I accepted that a 12-hour bus journey was my only option. Which is how my story begins …

Madness is fascinating. But so was Mohammed’s description of Mut – named after the ancient mother goddess, but otherwise devoid of links to ancient Egypt. He described it to me in paradoxical terms: an urban community of subsistence farmers; its people of neither Nile Valley fellahin ancestry nor Bedouin stock. Many of the city’s residents, Mohammed told me, trace their ancestors to Suez, an origin so unexpected it might as well be Mars. Others claim Arabian, even Ottoman descent. They share a distinct lack of interest in the world beyond their little city, along with an encompassing belief in the power of djinns.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but these details must have gone straight to the exoticism antennae on my head. An insular community where the supernatural enjoys a stronger-than-average presence in the collective psyche: my voyeuristic, rationalist neurons were buzzing, informing me of my superiority, readying me for some kind of exotic encounter extraordinaire. By the time I arrived at the newfangled Cairo Land Port, I was feeling slightly guilty. Surely I should be suffering the 12 hours in solidarity with Mohammed, who complained of isolation and boredom every time he called me – not looking forward to indulging in some complicated Orientalism.

I had barely made it to the platform when I noticed a podgy midget in a Mao suit eyeing me with an unsettling mixture of curiosity and contempt. Though I already knew the answer, I walked over and asked him how long it takes to get to Dakhla. After answering non-committally, he launched into a sort of cross-examination: where was I from, where exactly was I going, what for, who with, for how long, why? Finally he stepped abruptly away with forced politeness – only to go on giving me sidelong glances for as long as I remained in his sight.

Over three days at the town’s central cafe – Mohammed’s centre of operations – I saw for myself that it was exactly as he told me: everyone did in fact believe in invisible, fire-based djinns who wander the town speaking Syriac, a dialect of Middle Aramaic that has been extinct for centuries. These djinns, it seemed, could do anything: from snidely controlling your thoughts (paranoid schizophrenia) to shrinking themselves down and lodging themselves in your prostrate (erectile dysfunction). Within a few hours of my first day, I had heard enough about them that their presence felt perfectly ordinary, mundane, unremarkable. It did not strike me as particularly strange that bachelors live in fear of wedding-night impotence caused by a supernatural “knot” commissioned by their enemies, tied by some evil “sheikh” who knows all the fail-proof hexes by heart.

Other, less mystical things perplexed me more. Why did people in Mut, unlike most anyone else in millennial Egypt, love Bollywood films so much? How did they not realise that the childish violence broadcast by World Wrestling Entertainment is all staged? And why did everyone I met apart from Mohammed’s few friends give me the same look I got from the midget in the Mao suit at the bus station? Divine retribution, perhaps: for the three-day duration of my stay, the remote Orientals taught the Cairene Orientalist that they distrusted and despised him more than he could ever mystify or objectify them.

The look trailed me everywhere, from the cigarette kiosk to the town’s sole kebab restaurant, in the dark, empty internet cafe with straw seats so shaky and uncomfortable you could barely sit on them, on sleepy street corners and in bustling corner shops. It identified me as precisely what I was: a westernised Cairene dissatisfied with bland Egyptian food, the discomforts of my filthy one-star hotel, the lack of activities beyond worship and shisha, the absence of women from social space, the hopelessness of culture and art, the insularity – the terrible, terrible ordinariness of life.

In the end only the Asian-looking straw hats on the heads of farmers – utterly unlike anything traditional anywhere in Egypt – struck me as in any way noteworthy. The landscape was no doubt distinct (even in autumn, daytime heat was unbearable), but the streets themselves looked so indistinguishable from a Nile Delta town that whenever I went out for a walk I headed reflexively for the nonexistent corniche. And talking expansively with Mohammed (there was nothing else to do), I came to see just how badly he had been disillusioned as well.

Mohammed hoped that spirit possession might turn out to be a partially viable alternative or supplement to the increasingly prevalent biomedical model of mental illness. Then the “sheikh” who was providing him with information, a Tramadol addict continually using needles on his own arms, came up with a new method of exorcism, one inspired by Mohammed’s modern medical presence: instead of beating his patients up, splashing them with water blessed by the Quran or simply breathing the verses onto their head, he would henceforth write the relevant verses on paper in gazelle’s blood, then soak that paper in tap water, then inject the possessed with the resulting solution.

A handful of madmen roamed the city freely – well fed, muttering about djinns, occasionally solicited for sex. But the truly memorable characters in Mut were the same ones you might encounter anywhere. On my last day, one of Mohammed’s case studies, a lost soul in his mid-fifties, approached our table at the cafe, looking more or less presentable. Everyone invited him to join in for a drink, but he did not oblige. Instead he stood there with a tortured expression on his face. “You want me to sit with you, do you?” he said. “How many cockroaches are you?”

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