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  • Writer's pictureLiz Totton

Sorcery in The UAE

Aladdin. Disney's Loveable Genie

Aladdin. Disney’s Lovable Jinn

In the short time that I have been living here, I seen more than a few stories in the local English-language newspapers about sorcery in the UAE. Yes, sorcery is apparently alive and well right here in Abu Dhabi and Dubai–enough to make the papers often and be prosecuted fairly regularly in a courtroom near me. Sorcery, really? Isn’t that just the stuff of fiction: Jinns and Spells? If you think that sorcery belongs on the pages of a Harry Potter novel and not in the 21st century Middle East, think again. 

The term genie comes from the Arabic word jinni, which referred to an evil spirit that could take the shape of an animal or person. It could be found in every kind of nonliving thing, even air and fire. Jinn (the plural of jinni) were said to have magical powers and are favorite figures in Islamic literature. Unlike witches, Jinn have free will and could be compelled to perform both good and evil acts, compared to a demon who would only hurt creatures or an angel with benevolent intentions. Knowing what to ask the spirit to perform is key: asking a spirit to perform a chore, counter its natural tendencies, would anger the spirit into retaliating against the sorcerer.

Genie in A Bottle

Genie in A Bottle

So, with that, every now and then I see a story in the papers here that seems so odd to my Western sensibility that I just want to cut and paste it somewhere. In the UAE papers, I regularly happen upon new stories involving sorcerers claiming to use supernatural powers or witchcraft to “help people fulfill their desires”, to unite estranged lovers, solve family disputes, provide miracle cures, find jobs and, of course, help people get rich quickly. Methods include the chanting of “strange words,” use of “witchcraft tools”, stones and herbs and, naturally, the handing over of large amounts of money.

Not long ago, Bahrain made sorcery and witchcraft a criminal offense, punishable with fines and jail terms. It already is a crime in Saudi Arabia, where 40 Indonesian guest workers are currently facing the death penalty accused of practising “witchcraft and sorcery”. There is no legal definition of witchcraft in Saudi Arabia, but horoscopes and fortune telling are condemned un-Islamic. It sounds to me like this century’s version of Salem. There are so many sorcery stories here to recount, but the funniest that I have seen so far is an older one. It is about a man, in Dubai, who told his victims he had “a lot of money,” but that witchcraft had turned it black – as proof, he produced black slips of paper with “$100” printed on them. He asked his victims for Dhs 300,000 (approximately $90,000), which he said he would use to buy special powder to remove the spell. He explained to the victims that he would put the money in a locker, sprinkle the powder on the notes and leave them there for 48 hours until they doubled, at which point the victim would receive double his money back. He must have been quite convincing because he managed to dupe a lot of people before Dubai Police caught him in a sting operation. Authorities in Bahrain have objected to the proposed plans to criminalize sorcery, offering that such cases should be brought to the court under the charges of embezzlement and cheating. Well, there is that, of course – but it isn’t half as interesting, is it? Other cases involve accoutrements, such as gazelle skin, which make these stories seem all the more attention-grabbing and bizarre to westerners.

Fear not, the countries of the Persian Gulf have identified this epidemic of sorcery as a mounting crisis and are dually and respectively clamping down on these charlatans. The authorities here see such examples of sorcery and black magic as a high crime and, perhaps worse, an insult to Islam. 

Holy Snake Handlers.

Holy Snake Handlers.  (Photo AP/Files)

On first read, this might sound so exotic and odd to westerners presumably because it involves jinns, witchcraft and gazelles rather than faith healers, speaking in tongues, casting out demons, and perhaps using snakes to do so–the latter are terms about which we are more accustomed to hearing. The awkward truth about snake-handling is that it’s in the Bible, just as jinns are mentioned in the Qu’ran. In the USA, we understand our local garden variety religious charlatan; they have been around since the pioneer days, if not longer. They too speak of miracle cures, secrets to great riches and promises of a greater experience in the afterlife, yet there is no U.S. governmental bureau cracking down on these churches and charlatans. To my understanding, these churches and scam artists practice their variety of “black magic” freely, at least, until someone dies from a snake bite or dies as a result of being treated with/by prayer. Thank goodness, UK papers report on cases like this. I did not see many reports online from US news outlets. Is the US still too lenient on so-called “faith healers”. Many say yes. Is the sorcery seen here in the Middle East so different to the individuals who eschew medical care for faith healers and snake handlers back home? I don’t know.

I initially jeered at these articles until I took that long, hard look at my own country and recognized, well, we are not so different after all, are we? The majority of the population doesn’t buy into sorcery here or faith healing there, and most people, in turn, do not advocate jihad or Christian Fundamentalism either, do they? When you stumble upon such articles here as a westerner, it’s easy to generalize and say things to yourself like “I cannot believe they believe in Jinns or sorcery,” with equal parts mockery and ridicule. But know when you do it, someone here might just be wondering the same thing about your country, your faith healers and snake handlers and make the very same generalization about your country and its charlatans. Next time, I will stop myself and try to read these articles more objectively. Though I still find Jinns and sorcery so much cooler sounding than holy snake handlers, maybe that’s just me?!


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