Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Evil Eye

Published Tuesday April 24th, 2012 - Click here to view article on Muscat Daily website.

A few weeks ago I was sitting with a group of women from my extended family sipping tea and exchanging tribal news. One woman was asked about her newborn granddaughter.

The grandmother immediately started speaking loudly 'the baby has dark skin and big ears! She's so ugly!' All the other women nodded. I sat up furiously and said 'Hey, that's not true. She's absolutely adorable!' I had been holding the baby a couple of days earlier and she was one of the sweetest bundles of joy I had ever seen.

The protective grandmother gave me a furious look. My mother nudged me and whispered 'You're not supposed to say that', so I settled back down into my chair and let them get on with the conversation. I had forgotten about how superstitious my family is. The woman was simply trying to protect her grandchild from the evil eye.

Although superstitions are a big part of our culture here in Dhofar and in other parts of Oman as well, the evil eye isn't just superstition. It is considered an everyday hazard. If you're not familiar with the concept of the evil eye, it is a 'look' that is believed to be able to cause harm or bad luck for the person at whom it is directed. It is often fueled by envy.

In Islam, the evil eye is a common belief that humans have the power to look at other living creatures or objects to cause them harm. Although talismans are not commonly used as protection among Muslims, certain verses from the Holy Q’uran are used to ward off the evil eye. It is also a tradition among us that if a compliment is to be made you must say 'Masha'Allah' (God has willed it) as protection against such evil.

In Dhofar, many locals believe that the evil eye can bestow a curse on victims and may even cause death. In fact, I have heard of a few people in this town who are actually well-known for the power of their evil eye. Apparently, they have a history and many eyewitnesses to prove it. Sometimes I think my people find it hard to distinguish between the evil eye and hardcore black magic. Salalah is a peculiar town when it comes to dwelling in the unknown.

For the first few months of a baby's life, it is not uncommon to see small amulets containing verses from the Q’uran pinned to the child's clothing. Babies are thought to be the main victims of the evil eye especially when praised by childless women or strangers.

I remember an incident a year ago when I smiled at a baby in the middle of a supermarket in Salalah. Its mother saw me and immediately grabbed my arm and said 'Say Masha'Allah! Say Masha'Allah! Quick!' It took me a few seconds to realise what was going on before I could mumble the words and put her at ease.

Remember my last column on the bridal fiasco? During our three hours with the makeup artist, I had to sew verses of the Q’uran into the bride's wedding gown to protect her from the evil eye.

Other common practices include slaughtering an animal at the door of your newly built house to ward off evil. When buying a new car, locals often play recorded Q’uran CDs in it for the first few days to protect it from envy. Until recently it was not uncommon for Dhofaris to slaughter animals before harvest in order to pour their blood into water springs and throw scraps of flesh throughout their fields to ward off envy.

Naturally, I am a little superstitious as well because it's part of my Dhofari upbringing. However, I most certainly do not let it affect my day to day life. I'm sure there are plenty of evil forces out there, but I choose not to obsess about them!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bridal Woes

Published April 10, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article.

Don't be fooled by the title of this column. Fortunately my current woes are limited to work and academia. After five years of procrastination, I decided to dust off my nerd glasses and start a post-graduate degree.

Having just survived my first intensive session of classes, I'm afraid my brain isn't as focused as it should be right now on tackling social issues in Oman. I shouldn't feel too bad, though. The day after my recent column on women's rights was published, it was announced that Oman will be establishing a committee to work with CEDAW to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in Oman. Coincidence? Who knows!

In the meantime, let me entertain you with a story. On a quiet afternoon a few weeks ago I was packing for a business trip to Muscat. My plan was to be in bed by 8pm in order to be up in time to catch my flight out of Salalah at 5am. My phone rang suddenly and I recognised the number of a bride whose wedding was taking place that same night. When I answered, I heard the frantic voice of the bride's mother shouting into the phone 'We need your help! You need to accompany the bride!'

Accompanying a Dhofari bride is a task usually given to an unrelated female with a vehicle. It involves picking up the bride from her home, driving her to beauty appointments, and then making sure she arrives at the wedding on time. My friend's companion had cancelled at the last moment. It was clear what needed to be done.

Within a few minutes I was on my way. As we loaded her humongous wedding dress into the back of my car, the make-up artist called in a panic demanding we pick up three sizes of fake eyelashes on the way over.

Half an hour and three eyelash shops later, we arrived at our destination. We were escorted by a nervous housemaid through a dark alleyway and into a house hidden in the shadows.

We were then shown into a room with a sofa set and no mirrors. Sitting on a large armchair in the centre of the room was a tough-looking woman who introduced herself as the infamous makeup artist.

On a coffee table next to her sat the largest collection of makeup this person has ever seen. On the floor was a young bride who was receiving the final touches to her bizarre wedding makeup, (think Michael Jackson's Thriller video meets Nicki Minaj). The so-called final touches took over an hour. It was going to be a long night.

For the next three and a half hours (I kid you not) I watched the woman plaster my friend's face and shoulders with white paint then proceed to use every colour of the rainbow on her twitching eyelids. Towards the end of the session, we got into an argument about the amount of glitter I was allowing her to apply to my friend's face. She wouldn't take no for an answer. The makeup scene ended at 11pm with the artist running down the hall behind the bride with a pot of glitter swearing she'd apply 'just a little more!' We escaped just in time.

The next two hours were spent with the hair stylist who ran an illegal salon business from her spare bedroom. I watched her glue my friend's hair to her scalp then attach a huge wig using what looked like 100 hair pins. She then proceeded to curl every single lock of fake hair using an entire can of hairspray and a curling iron. By the time we left, it was 1am.

We finally made it to the hotel only to discover the wedding photographer had failed to show up. The patient groom was sitting in the parking lot in his car counting the hours. As we helped the bride into her dress, it became apparent that I would have to be the spare wedding photographer as I appeared to be the only person among the 400 guests with a professional camera.

To cut a long story short, I managed to get home at 3am. I had 30 minutes before the airport check-in counter closed. Fortunately, I decided to be sensible. I called Oman Air and postponed my flight to the week after. I then sent explanatory e-mails to my colleagues who were expecting me in Muscat.

And that, my friends, is what most brides go through on their wedding day here in Dhofar. Not a very happy occasion, don't you think? My ordeal was a harsh reminder of why I removed myself from the Dhofari wedding scene several years ago. Never again!