Street scene from the city of Ibb, southeast of the capital Sana'a
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Street scene from the city of Ibb, southeast of the capital Sana'a
Last updated: May 29, 2013

Magic and sooth-saying in Yemen

Banner Icon We looked under Yemen's surface and found a world beyond reality. But this is secret business, so remember to remain cautious...

More than any other monotheist religion, Islam embraces and recognizes the existence of what many call the paranormal or supernatural. Although warning against the practice of magic as sooth-saying, with clerics waving the flag of heresy to discourage the curious, Muslim countries house a flurry of adepts of the black arts.

While sorcerers and fortune-tellers are not exactly legion in Yemen, one should not have too many difficulties finding its way to one's house, armed with the right letter of recommendation. Since the practice of magic and fortune telling carry severe consequences for their practitioners, "newcomers" are deemed highly suspicious.

Sorcerers and soothsayers will ensure that their visitors have a genuine interest in their services before opening up to them.

And again if there are surely a myriad of charlatans preying on people's needs and desires, once in a while, one will come across individuals whose "revelations" might shaken one's understanding of worldly realities.

Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has often been rumored to use the services of sorcerers to out-maneuver his enemies

A sorcerer's tale

A few hours southeast of the capital Sana'a lies the luscious province of Ibb, tucked away in a sea of green and mist. Sheikh Ahmed (names have been changed), a third-generation sorcerer, lives there on the edge of the city Ibb amid a crowd of chickens and other farm animals, inconspicuous and seemingly a gentle old man.

Sheikh Ahmed works after the motto that visitors only need to pay when they are satisfied. "I always tell my clients to pay me once they feel I fulfilled my purpose ... They always come back. Wouldn't you?"

The Sheikh explains that unlike several darker sorcerers, he only helps people get rid of spells and cure ailments.

"My magic is clean you see ... I only seek to alleviate pain and allow people to return to their normal life. Black magic seeks to destroy, I seek to heal."

The belief that evil forces or magic could at a moment’s notice destroy one's life – separating a husband and a wife, rendering someone ill, possession or bad luck – is a concept many Yemenis share, from successful businessmen to doctors, intellectuals and housewives.

While Sheikh Ahmed was keen to keep his cards close to his chest not wanting to allow anyone to witness his actual work, he was however willing to shed some lights on his activities.

"People come to me with all sorts of problems... Some people seek to free themselves from unnatural bad luck, strange ailments which medicine cannot explain. Others are convinced their home is being hunted by evil spirits... Some simply seek power and riches,” he says.

“I never agree to use my knowledge to harm others, I only try to restore balance when harm has been done. But for that I had to understand, study and master magic. I don't see my work as evil. I do what I do because people need me. I use all kinds of techniques, I can't really go into details but let's just say that I can talk and see the other side. Doing what I do put you in touch with different realities. Our worlds are one and the same while in different planes. My eyes can see what you can't...”

In most instances visitors will be asked to perform some sort of ritual or carry a token to ward off evil sprits.

One man recalled he had to bathe in a river three days in a row and drink special concoctions to free himself from a spell which an enemy had put on him.

Others carefully carry in their pocket a stone supposedly vested with supernatural powers to attract success. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has often been rumored to use the services of sorcerers to out-maneuver his enemies and remain in power as long as he did.

But as Sheikh Ahmed warned "there is a price to such powers. Nothing is ever for nothing. No one truly can pretend to control magic."

A soothsayer's tale

Myriam lives in a northern district of the capital in a comfortable apartment with her daughter Najat. Originally from Sudan, Myriam came to Yemen many decades ago when her late husband found work as a civil engineer.

Warm and inviting, Myriam welcomes her visitors to coffee and Arabic sweets, always the gracious hostess. Settling herself on a myriad of cushions spattered on the floor, Myriam lights up a cigarette, recites a few verses of the Quran before gathering in the palm of her hands several small shells.

"What is your father's name my dear," she will ask before throwing the shells in front of her, carefully studying their patterns.

Silent and wide-eyed Myriam’s "clients" state in dismay as she goes on talking about what problems they encountered and what lay ahead. Far from telling people what they want to hear, Myriam is disarmingly direct in her observations, never holding back on bad news.

When asked how it worked she said "I see pictures in my mind. It's like watching TV; I see and hear the past the present and the future."

When asked why the shells, she revealed "I was about 10 when I had a dream in which a man told me I would find the shells buried in my garden. Next day I went and found them. If I stop doing what I do I become restless. I love helping people, it is what I do,” she says.

“My daughter Najat has the same ability. She can see things by touching people. She dreams too, but unlike me she refuses to practice."

Myriam says she predicted with great precision Yemen’s 2011 uprising. As Yemenis were clamoring for the end of the regime she warned President Saleh would chose his successor and his party retain 50% of power.

She also cautioned that Yemen will erupt once again and blood flow in the streets.

"It will come suddenly and without warning. More violently than ever before. An important man will die and all fighting will stop at once. Yemen will be at peace and new leaders will emerge."

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Catherine Shakdam
Catherine is a political analyst for the Middle East with a special focus on Yemen and radical movements. The Associate Director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies, she has contributed her analyses to the Middle East Monitor, Foreign Policy Association, IslamistGate, Majalla, ABNA, Open Democracy, International Policy Digest, Eurasia Review and many more. A regular commentator on NewsMax and Etijah TV she has also worked as a contributing analyst for Wikistrat.
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