That Old Black Magic II: An End to Sorcery

I’m not in the habit of writing about the same topic twice (special exception for the Princess Souk—Volume III in the near future, I’m sure), but then this happened:

Arab News Headline: Alleged Sorcerer Arrested in RiyadhActually, the headline didn’t inspire me by itself. I’ve seen plenty like it and already posted on the topic. Though I confess that the closing line gave me some pause:

“The sorcerer should be asked to break his black magic spells before being beheaded.”

That thought elevated the article to a place where I at least rolled my eyes and shared it on Facebook so others could do the same, but that’s about it. Then I refreshed it a few hours later. That’s when the comments appeared, with the predictable Western reaction first, short and to the point, from “Lorraine”:

How can any educated, civilized person still believe in sorcery?

And that’s when I found my muse, “S Patel”:

Dear Lorraine, it does exist for real unfortunately. You may think its [sic] is impossible, but let me tell you that the supernatural world coexists side by side with us humans. You may not have seen sorcery or sorcerers because you live in a protected environment but it is totally rampant in Asia and Africa and sorcerers exist everywhere even in Europe and the US. It is really a shame and the kinds of things the sorcerers do completely destroy lives and families.

“Oh, Lorraine,” S Patel seems to be saying. “You silly, sheltered Westerner. You live ‘in a protected environment’ and have no idea what you’re talking about out here, in the big, wide, real world.”

If I were Lorraine, I wouldn’t care for that tone. So I’d like to ask S Patel a few questions on her behalf:

What is it exactly that has protected Lorraine, that has given her a life untouched by sorcery? Is it money? Education? Infidel-hood? (Wait—but—being an infidel is good?) By saying “environment” you suggest it has something to do with where she lives. (Although you say that sorcerers DO exist everywhere. So confusing.) So is there a sandbag effect in having other Westerners around, holding back the lapping waters of sorcery? What about Western-ness does that? But presumably she lives in Saudi Arabia now. Possibly still sandbagged by Westerners or Western-ness? Oh! Hold on a sec—are sorcerers only poor and dark, and come from benighted countries, so you don’t come in contact with them when you have a rich, pale life?

Ah…now we’re onto something. “Protected” people have no contact with the types that traffic in voodoo and sorcery and all those things that happen among dark, idolatrous people. The spells. The filth. The crime. The depraved morals and strange religions. The foreignness and frunky food smells. The diseases.

And there it is. Fear of sorcery is accompanied by racism, tribalism, and ignorance. Suspicion that the kid with the strange-smelling lunch is the reason your favorite pencil is missing. I have yet to see a charge of sorcery reported in Saudi Arabia (and I’ve seen quite a few) where the accused is not African or Asian. Surely a Saudi would never dabble in such things! Evil comes from the Other.

It’s been everywhere throughout history. Jews, gypsies, African slaves, native inhabitants—a few hundred years ago any marginalized group could be accused of dabbling in some sort of evil magic. After science and enlightenment banished belief in actual spell-casting powers, the problem (magically) shape-shifted. They’re dirty. They steal our money. They’re inferior and incapable, but they take our jobs. (How those two go together has never been quite clear to me.) They’re prone to disease and violence and crime and welfare fraud.

At least in Saudi Arabia nobody tries to paper over it. “Expats” are the Other. The overwhelming majority (85% according to a recent report) are laborers from Asia and Africa—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines, Yemen, Indonesia, Sudan. These are the people who clean and build, fix and serve, and by and large live in poverty, sending home all they can to family members who would be even worse off without the remittances. They have no hope of citizenship, and work under Byzantine (ironic, eh?) visa and sponsorship requirements that effectively place them under indentured servitude. According to one commenter, “They steal toilet tissue to save money.” Those people. Or “The area [the Jeddah vegetable market] is filled with illegal expats, many of whom suffer from infectious diseases that they can pass on to customers.” Is sanitation and food safety the problem at the vegetable market? Nope. Them.

Might as well accuse them of magic while you’re at it.

Well, S Patel, I would LOVE to ask you some more questions: If spell-casting, jinn-invoking sorcery “is totally rampant,” how come there isn’t, well, more of it? I mean, you could do some serious shiz out there in the world with a little magic. Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, Obama, anybody you don’t like—all gone. West Bank settlers, covered in sores and wailing over their afflicted children. And why stop there? Anybody with access to magic could rule the WORLD. Too far-reaching? Magic has unstated, mysterious limits? Well, gosh, we know a lot of evildoers wish ill upon King Abdullah, right here close by. So why didn’t he die of a mysterious disease decades ago? Still too grand? Perhaps boils or lice would be more doable? Still too much? Then let’s bring it to the most personal level possible: Why are black magicians and their families so poor? If the magic worked, couldn’t they clear their own obstacles out of the way and all end up drinking from golden goblets?

Huh. Still nothing.

Funny how black magic gets blamed for, you know, only things that can be easily explained another way. It doesn’t seem capable of doing anything truly puzzling, like a good card trick. Even though it’s magic. Quite a coinkydink.

So, oddly, it turns out that black magic is real. S Patel’s problem is only in misidentifying the target. You see, while man may not have access to supernatural powers to do harm to others, man has remarkable power to undermine himself.

Blaming someone or something is a good way to avoid dealing with the realities that may be behind your miserable marriage, your ill-behaved children, your failure in business, your worsening health. Sure, external forces that you have no control over may be involved. Sure, statistical probability may have dropped you on the wrong side of things and you are not in any way responsible for your trouble. But how does focusing on that help you? Go ahead—tell me magic is to blame, or The Government, or God, or fate. How does that help you?

In case you’re struggling for an answer, let me speed things up: It doesn’t. It only creates enemies and enmity. For those who simultaneously fear magic and put their faith in God, does that sound like something God wants? More fear, more anger, more resentment, more suspicion, more enemies? Or would you think it more likely that God wants you to look within yourself and figure out what you can improve? Looking for blame harms yourself, stops your progress, frays your relationships, blocks learning, prevents improvement and future success. That’s some powerful black magic.

Oh, yeah, black magic is real, all right. All over the world. It grows out of the dark, immature part of ourselves that’s unwilling to accept responsibility for the problems in our lives, the childishness that wants to throw a tantrum rather than simply shoulder what must be borne and struggle on. Black magic is the power to take away our confidence: our confidence that we can do what we need to do with the gifts we already have or have ready access to. It is the power to make us think that our trials are somehow greater than us. That some dark power, somewhere, can defeat us. That we should either fear it, or that we are insufficient to take care of ourselves without its help.

Another commenter, “Muslim,” gave a long doctrinal discourse, and the core argument is spot-on: Belief in sorcery is belief in something—faith, in fact, in something, reliance on something—other than the truth. That means taking action based on confidence in something that’s untrue, rather than what is.

The accused sorcerer in this story purportedly charged SR20,000 (about $5,300) to sow discord in others’ marriages. Audacious, don’t you think? But I suppose if you’re going to get equally beheaded no matter what you charge, you might as well reach a little. Maybe there are some really expensive supplies. I do wonder, though, who the clients were. Dudes on the prowl for recently divorced women? Kids who want to punish their parents for being embarrassing always? A mother-in-law who thinks her son isn’t paying enough attention to her?

So, Saudi Arabia, take that final line of the article as a caution: Beheading your sorcerers does nothing to break their spells. Taking black magic so seriously only makes it more powerful. Try charging practitioners with fraud, instead. Make them pay back what they stole. Expose them as low-grade hustlers more pathetic than fearsome. Only that will take away their power. Then watch your people become stronger and less afraid, more reliant on truth than falsehood. And that’s not magic at all. Just pure, honest faith.

P.S. A couple of links to check are this one, which reports on a woman recently beaten to death in Brazil based on a Facebook accusation of witchcraft, and this one, which a reader sent me and beyond this post will lead you to an invaluable blog if you’re interested in Saudi Arabia in general.

9 thoughts on “That Old Black Magic II: An End to Sorcery

  1. 59steps says:

    Great post. I saw that piece also. Part of the background is that many Muslims sincerely believe in the existence of djinns, and quote from the Koran to justify their beliefs. As you undoubtedly know, there is a similar tradition in Christianity. John Burgess in Crossroads Arabia has commented on sorcery in KSA many times over the years. Here’s one of his posts:http://xrdarabia.org/2012/01/20/disconnect/. Steve

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    • margocatts says:

      THANK YOU! That link is invaluable and I look forward to exploring more there. And yes, I hope to be clear that I’m not commenting on the content of any belief system, but on what we do with what we believe. The existence of djinn or angels is not the issue; relinquishing your power to them is surely a far greater evil than they could do on their own.

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  2. Elizabeth Casey says:

    I have been reading your blog for a few months now…someone had referenced it on FB and it looked interesting and different, which it certainly is to this New Yorker ! I always wonder, why are you living there and why do you stay ???? Maybe I missed the reason somewhere along the way. Are you afraid of being punished for your opinions and of putting them in writing ? I consider myself to be a somewhat brave person but, I have to admit, I would constantly looking over my shoulder in that country….afraid I had done something wrong without even realizing it !!! Please, don’t take this as a criticism…I was just wondering.

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    • margocatts says:

      Thank you for writing! No problem at all. My husband is working here and I freelance and can live anywhere. There are certainly struggles and inconveniences here, but every foreign place has its own puzzles and I count them all as small payment for the colossal education I’m getting. Then as a totally free bonus I meet the most extraordinary people. I am right with you on being watchful! I’m a naturally cautious person, inclined to hang back and watch, anxious to not break rules, but even for me it didn’t take long to normalize to what’s around, understand the basic customs and routines, and feel at ease. As for what I’m writing, I take my cues from the local newspapers and commentary, and set my own boundaries somewhere shy of theirs. If you’re curious for yourself, check who I follow on Twitter, follow them yourself for a while, and you’ll see quite a lively conversation going on! Thanks again for writing–I’m glad to know you enjoy it.

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  3. S Patel says:

    Dear Margo,
    I was searching for some old saudigazette articles on the internet and stumbled upon this. I understand that you have some questions for me, which I will try and answer shortly. I am unfortunately not eloquent as you in my writing and might unintentionally come across as harsh. Thanks

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    • margocatts says:

      Oh, my goodness! THANK YOU for writing! How extraordinary of you to find this. Yes, the space one has to comment in response to a newspaper article is never enough to develop a thought thoroughly, and it doesn’t help that you have to do it so quickly, before the article is forgotten. I’ll be very eager to hear more, but the post isn’t going anywhere so take your time to say what you want, the way you want. I hope you don’t feel individually picked on–I just found that your comment very succinctly expressed a lot of ideas that I hear, but never hear explained. So please explain! Or email me if you prefer–I’d love to have more of a conversation where I can ask more questions and understand better. Or a guest post, perhaps? I’d love to know more!

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  4. Jitendra says:

    Hi Ms. Catts,

    I read your blog with interest. Really pithy writing. Anyway, regarding black magic, there is a lot of that stuff reported in India.

    Here are a few google searches.

    Sacrificing Children for better harvest / hidden wealth/vanquishing enemies etc
    https://www.google.co.in/search?q=black+magic+india&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&gws_rd=cr&ei=N_BuVfK7Gsm1uASTwoHoBA#q=child+sacrifice+india

    Murdering witches

    https://www.google.co.in/search?q=black+magic+india&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&gws_rd=cr&ei=N_BuVfK7Gsm1uASTwoHoBA#q=witch+sacrifice+india

    In India, atleast, the prevalence of black magic in rural areas is quite common and in urban areas is spreading rapidly.

    Here’s a movie that was a massive hit in South India. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=We54wQfHN3c.

    I will not comment on whether the belief in black magic is good or bad. Its faith ( in a perverse way though).
    Just thought that I will provide you with an alternative commentary to what you might be knowing about India.

    Best Wishes,

    Jitendra

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