Magazine article Geographical

A Veiled Resistance

Magazine article Geographical

A Veiled Resistance

Article excerpt

The ancient magic tradition in Morocco has long been the domain of men. But, as Moroccan women move into the public sphere, they are appropriating this knowledge as a means of empowerment. As Sara Chamberlain discovers among the colour and energy of the Moroccan bazaars, women are practising their own brand of magic

HER BLACK, KOHL-RINGED EYES follow the movement of the crowds in the central square of Djemaa el Fna, or `Place of the Dead' in Marrakech, Morocco. Around her, eerily lit by flickering hurricane lamps, roast goats' heads stare out from street-stall restaurants, where cooks in white aprons stir vats of steaming mussels. Juice salesman sweat behind mountains of oranges, dried figs, dates and pistachio nuts. As the sky turns scarlet, acrobats flip backwards across the square, landing in pyramids on each other's shoulders. Her body shrouded in a blood-red, tunic-like jallaba, Fouzia sits surrounded by the tools of her trade. A sorceress trained in Morocco's ancient magical tradition, she sells talismans and amulets to ward off the evil eye; incense, sulphur, and yellow amber; porcupine spikes for exorcisms; and live chameleons for love potions.

On the surface, Morocco is a traditional Islamic country dominated by men. But behind old city walls and beneath the heavy black veils many women still wear, lurks a country whose psyche and imagination are dominated by magic. "Despite the condemnation of Islam and a rationalist Arabic medical tradition dating back several centuries, the belief in magical effects and miraculous remedies is still vitally alive in Morocco," says anthropologist Dr Mustapha Akhmisse.

Handed from father, to husband, to son, most Moroccan women have little control over their lives. Still governed by the Sharia, the often oppressive Islamic legal system, women can be thrown in prison for premarital sex or having a child out of wedlock, and must have two male witnesses to establish rape, or the infidelity of a husband. For these women, whose status within society is dependent on a man who can divorce her in an instant, magic is a way of gaining power and control in a desperately unequal situation. "Magic is about empowerment, empowerment in the face of polygamy, social impotence, and lack of choice in one's conjugal destiny," writes Deborah Kapchan, author of `Gender on the market: Moroccan women and the revoicing of tradition.'

The magic square

Outside the red earth walls of a crumbling kasbah, its delicately tiled courtyard cracked by the roots of an old fig tree and scattered with the feathers and droppings of doves, squats Hadija. With the aid of a propane stove and a few lumps of lead, she tells people's fortunes. Melting the lead in a long-handled pot, she pours it into a bucket of water balanced on the head of her client, and then reads the contorted lead-shards like tea leaves.

Married when she was 20, Hadija had seven children in 15 years. These years were not easy -- her husband beat her frequently and she lived in fear of his violence, her body often bruised and cracked by his fists. "But," she says, "one day, quite suddenly, I was possessed by a djin -- an invisible being. He was a good djin, a Muslim djin, but he took a terrible dislike to my husband." Hadija continues, "In the beginning, the djin was uncontrollable, and when he possessed me I would lash out at my husband who became terrified. Whenever my husband would try to touch me, the djin would take over and I would have convulsions. Eventually he drove my husband away. He fled far from here, to the Middle Atlas Mountains, where I believe he has re-married. Now the djin and I are like husband and wife. I can control him and use him to see the future."

Becoming a magician or sorceress is an extreme way of gaining control over one's life. More frequently, women employ magicians and sorceresses to do their magic for them. But, until recently, street-corner-witches were a rarity in Morocco. …

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