Saudi News Notes: That Old Black Magic

jinnBaseball players are a notoriously superstitious lot. Lucky socks, rally hats, pre-game rituals, all as much a part of the game as the ball itself. My beloved Colorado Rockies, while on a record-breaking winning streak years ago, were noticed wearing the same dark vests at every game. In an effort to break the streak, an opponent decided to wear their darks, forcing the Rockies to go to the white-based pinstripes they hadn’t worn in some time. The result? Rockies won! Ha! EVERYTHING they touched was magic!

That’s a weird conclusion. Not “the shirts have no magical power” but “we have an even MORE magical power than shirts!” That’s also a lot of grownups making decisions based on superstition. Sure, they laughed at themselves. But they did it anyway.

We seem to come pre-wired for superstition, always analyzing cause and effect, desperately connecting one action to another to make the world more predictable. Ask a kid why he’s doing something puzzling and you’re sure to get a really well thought out, reasoned answer that’s COMPLETELY wrong. And usually based on the idea that the world revolves around what he does. (“I broke the vase. My dog died. I can’t touch anything glass again.”) In a child’s mind, the only proof required is his own observations and thoughts. Magic explains everything else. In the absence of education, those naive interpretations hang on tight, leading to shamans and talismans and magic ceremonies intended to make the universe bend to human will. Lucky socks, without the laughter.

Of course, we now live in the world of computers and airplanes and cell phones, not the one of masks and feathered staves, so perhaps I might be forgiven for finding this local article worth calling out:


RIYADH — Members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) have found signs of black magic concealed in a sheep head left in the backyard of a family’s house in Riyadh. Sources said the family has long been complaining of health and psychological problems. After finding the sheep’s head in their backyard, the family notified the Haia, which claimed its members visited the house, nullified the effect of the black magic and brought an end to the family’s suffering.

Yes, psychological problems, I’m sure. The really sad lack in the article is a description of what procedure was followed to “nullify the effect of the black magic.”

There was just one comment:

Can you please give us the contact details of Haia… Many may be facing these types of problems too..

In other words, “Great to know about a good exterminator! Can you give us their number?” The comment had 27 likes, and 19 dislikes.

You’d understand where he was coming from if you were aware that “statistics revealed by the Saudi Ministry of Justice reveal a worrying increase in the incidence of black magic and witchcraft.” Worrying, indeed. In response to this threat, members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice have gotten special training on how to deal with cases of black magic. Seriously. Here’s a picture of a bunch of students in a classroom learning the steps:

Haia instructed on black magicThe training must be working because they’ve achieved “remarkable successes in combating black magicians.” They’ve also opened nine special offices around the Kingdom “to deal with black magicians.”

I’ve been watching stories like this for some time:

  • There’s this story of a foreign maid, accused by her employer of black magic and sentenced to death, requiring royal pardon to not be executed and be allowed to return home. Y’all read The Crucible, right? Not just a high school discussion exercise.
  • Or this one, of an Egyptian man threatening the police who were trying to arrest him for sorcery with unleashing jinn against them. Kinda incriminated himself there, didn’t he? My favorite line: “Despite his arrest, he did not carry out his threat.” Or maybe it was “His jinn did not protect him.” Tough call. (In Islam, jinn are spirits, not necessarily evil, but capable of influencing mortals. More here—it’s pretty interesting.)
  • And finally, the story of a judge who embezzled the equivalent of about $160 million and attempted to defend himself by saying he’d been possessed by jinn who made him do it. The court, however, didn’t buy it, and he and his 36 accomplices were found guilty of corruption. I think his “I didn’t know what I was doing” argument broke down somewhere around about, maybe, the 15th accomplice.

The last article is an editorial calling on the Saudi legal system to follow the lead of the Medina Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution in what it did with this case and rely only on facts and evidence, rather than stories of black magic and sorcery. Baby steps.

But reshaping the cultural landscape is harder. Dogs are rare in Saudi Arabia because of a widespread belief that angels will not visit a home in which there is a dog. Some Arabs will not dig a hole when they need to relieve themselves in the desert because jinn are believed to live underground and are not only released when the hole is opened but VERY unhappy with whoever put excrement all over their heads. And then, of course, we have the boy beside me in the hospital a few months ago whose parents needed to hear the doctor tell them that removing the boy’s tonsils would make him smarter. Backward steps.

It is a strange thing, indeed, to see this conversation going on in a world of global communication and technology. I’m reading these articles online, for heaven’s sake. While sitting in front of my satellite TV. Perhaps the time-travel strain can be best represented in this sentence: “Taking a quick reaction to stop the increasing phenomenon, Haia took to social networking sites to spread awareness and close in on sorcerers.” There you go: “social networking” and “sorcerers” in the same sentence. Head explodes.

I’m well aware of Western superstition, to be sure. Most Americans will walk around a ladder, rather than under it, or make some comment about seven years of bad luck after breaking a mirror. But they laugh at it—and themselves—at the same time. As much as your old-maid great-grand auntie may insist that she never married because her sister cursed her because she was jealous…okay, whatever. You have the luxury of rolling your eyes at her. She never had the opportunity to take her sister to court and accuse her of practicing black magic. Here, honestly, she could. I’m not saying she’d prevail, but the case would be taken seriously. And whether or not she would prevail would depend entirely on the judge before whom the feuding ladies appeared. The Saudi legal system is religious, and the judges are clerics with Qur’anic but no other legal training. Criminal or civil matters, family law, probate, litigation, business law—all are decided by a single judge’s interpretation of the Qur’an. There is no such thing as legal precedent to guide him, and no guidelines for sentencing or legal remedies. The judge’s rulings reflect the will of God. Foreign companies come here v-e-r-y carefully, and I understand that businesses often draw up extra-judicial agreements to sidestep the courts should there be any future disputes. I’m not holding my breath for my Rubio’s Fish Tacos anytime soon.

As I was writing this, this editorial, “Black Magic and Its Negative Consequences,” popped up in my Twitter feed. It goes into more detail on the sheep’s head incident, pointing out some rather glaring holes in the story and decrying the gullibility of those involved. It also cites a “majority” of Saudis who seek help breaking evil spells that they blame for their troubles, then calls on people to give up their “delusions.” Belief in black magic is not universal. Educated Saudis are mortified by these stories.

There it is—”educated.” The solution and the problem, as in most things, is education. I’m pretty sure that there’s an inverse relationship between education level and belief in the supernatural. Not a lot of Ph.D.s among those snake-handlers in Appalachia. And probably the single greatest incrimination of the Saudi educational system is that so many adults coming out of it are prone to believe that humans exercising black magic can have an influence on their lives. But perhaps it is easier to believe in a sorcerer than that one’s own incompetence is responsible for a business failure.

After seeing so many black magic stories over the last few months, imagine my delight at finding this on the sale shelf at Target when I was home over the summer:

Jinn in a BoxAmerica the great Satan! There’s the proof! They not only sell jinn to children, but they have so many that they have to mark them down! ($4.98) To Americans, though, this box represents the opposite: so weird it was downright laughable and didn’t sell at all.

This culture gap is not going to be easy to cure. Saudi Arabia wants to play on the world stage, wants to comport itself with gravitas, and there’s just no way for these stories to look any less ridiculous in the West than that jinn doll at Target. The only successful way I’ve ever found to combat laughter is to join in, so if you’re going to buy the jinn doll anyway, be aware that it’s funny. Wear the lucky socks, the vest, and the rally hat. Just, like the baseball players, be ready to laugh.

7 thoughts on “Saudi News Notes: That Old Black Magic

    • margocatts says:

      Always two options for customs officers: (a) 1-100 Find it and take it away. (b) 100-1 Keep on texting and ignoring the monitor and it sails right through. To their credit, even if they were paying attention I’m sure a toy wouldn’t show up as anything weird on xray, unlike a cooler full of bacon or six bottles of wine. So…make your Parma ham look like a child’s toy?


      • EA says:

        Dear Mrs Catts
        i spent the last 3 hours reading and hovering this blog …. and simply i find it as what John Finnemore always said : Brilliant !! 🙂
        although i was born and almost spent my entire life in Riyadh , i’m still finding this blog really , really really interesting and above all very amusing .
        i’m eager for reading more and more of your updates 🙂
        sincerely 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂


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