“Do you sometimes feel someone is there,” the woman asks me. Her name is Asma Begum. She does full Ninja-turtle style hijab, smells of incense and the tips of her fingernails are just growing out henna from three weeks ago. She is lower-middle class or middle-lower, I can’t decide. After all, she must be taking money from an aunt in whose swanky clinic I was forced to do this “consultation” – even if it is spiritual.
“Do you sometimes sense that someone or something is in the room with you,” she presses on.
Up till this point I had been an amused sceptic. But this question of hers makes my blood run cold.
I have a habit of staying up late at night. I emerge from the newsroom at about midnight. By the time I get home, eat dinner and finish watching two back-to-back episodes of Law and Order Season 1 (from the 1980s), it is already about 2am. Then, when I still can’t sleep I start reading. These days it’s the Bund Manual for irrigation engineers, a kind gentleman sent all the way from Larkano. The floods last year were one of the worst disasters Pakistan has seen. I’ve been working with reporters on a series of articles on embankments or levees or dykes. And for the life of me have no idea what stone pitching, sluices and aprons entail. Thus the late-night reading. I’m boring like that.
But as I read – and I’ve been noticing this for the last six months or so – I’ve been seeing things from the corner of my eye. All this time I had been dismissing it as a cockroach scurry past, or a lizard. Sometimes it’s the swish of the muslin curtain or the flutter of a book cover because of the fan rotating ahead.
I had a feeling I was ignoring something. As a Muslim, as non-practising but believing as they come – I firmly acknowledge the presence of djinns in our lives on this earth. During my worst phase of skepticism, I still held that there are phenomena that we do not understand in this world. Energies are invisible. Just because we don’t see them… you catch my drift.
And while I know that the all of two people who read this blog (who happen to be my enemies with mistake-seeking missiles up their sleeves) believe that I just mention Jewish stuff because it’s for the Jewish Journal, it is actually true that I have been quite influenced by certain aspects of its “culture”. So when Herky Halpert told me in Montreal years ago that it was not kosher to say the name of God (YWH), I believed him when he explained that it was because of how powerful the word is. While I may have misunderstood his explanation, and have not independently verified it from a rabbi as such, I did at the time and have since then believed this element of what I perceived to be Jewish faith. I figured that the sonic energies of that particular combination could be supremely powerful. It had an energy – unseen – that could do things beyond my ken.
This was not too far from what I had been taught about Islam. After all, we recite the 99 names of Allah, verses and prayers to various ends. If you recite Surah Falaq, you are protected from evil. The same goes for Surah Nas. The sound, the sonic energy must matter here at some level.
Thus, the unseen, the Golem, the djinn, and other bits and pieces of folklore, religion, grandmother’s tales were all embedded in me. (To add for good measure I had the Russian Baba Yga who had a house that spun on chicken feet in the forest).
Coming back to Asma Begum. When she asked me this question, I froze. What if some djinn were in my room, around me? I had been reading a book on the history of these forms. It was in my room. Was it attracting something from the toilet? Apparently they hide in sewers.
I did not answer Asma Begum. But she had seen my face.
Let me explain why I was having a “consultation” with her in the first place.
My family believes that there is some curse as a result of which I have not gotten married yet. Yes. Deep down, there is a fear that someone has done black magic on me. I’m 34 years old and well, chronically unmarried. It’s abnormal. Forget the fact that I have a robust newsroom career and became the youngest ever female city editor in the country (at least from what I have been told).
Asma Begum is a special kind of woman. She has managed to make friends in high places. Bored housewives in the upscale Defence neighbourhood have her come over and dispel the magic or remove the evil eye.
“I know the D___s,” she told me while referring to a family I happen to know. “I never take money from them, from anyone. I just do what God has gifted me with.”
Right. And I’m from Riga and sell Matryoushka dolls for a living.
A worried aunt (who is a doctor) had met Asma Begum whose talent is to close her eyes and see the future. She told this aunt that there was some “rukawat” or “deliberate” obstacle in me getting married. As I did not want to offend my aunt for going the extra length to ensure I get married (sic) I was forced to see Asma Begum.
She started off with giving me a spiel about her special talent, naturally bestowed by God. What she didn’t realize was that I was a journalist.
“Where do you live,” I asked.
She first responded by saying far away, but didn’t realize that I had trawled most parts of Karachi. Liaquatabad was just a hop skip and a jump away from Teen Hatti and Gurumandir, Martin Quarters, where I had spent a fair bit of time.
I kept asking questions and it surfaced that she was from the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (“People of the traditions of Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] and the broad community”). This is the Barelvi school of thought (as opposed to the reformist Deobandi). But I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that I baulk from any kind of differentiation in Islam these days. I am not impressed by any “sect” that says they have it right and the others will go to hell.
As far as this belief goes, I will sit and listen to anyone from any sect or religion or belief as long as they make sense to me. I’ll mull over what they’ve offered. But I still have my beliefs which develop because I think that Islam, even if you’re born in to it, is a lifelong journey of discovery.
I asked Asma Begum about the black magic. She said that she had seen something like this. She had also predicted that one of my sisters would get married at X time and the other at Y time etc. etc. She does this thing by closing her eyes and covering them with her palm as if to shield herself from sunlight.
She then makes pronouncements.
The cure, she went on to tell me, was that we’d have to remove the evil eye from me. She took a spool of blue thread from her purse and asked me to stand up. She then measured one length of it from the top of my forehead to the tips of my toes. This was then multiplied 11 times. This skein was then held out and 11 knots had to be tied from its length. But before she closed each loop of each knot, I had to breathe Surah Falaq through it. I obliged.
After this was done, I offered to drive her home. The clinic is located in the upscale neighbourhood I mentioned. When I told my aunt that I was going to drop Asma Begum home, she retorted that there was absolutely no need to traipse halfway across the city. It wasn’t safe.
Well, obviously, I had to then.
When I dropped Asma Begum home, I met her husband who was a Hari Pagri wallah (as street slang goes). The ASWJ followers have a uniform – white shalvar kameez and a green turban. People stared at me in the neighbourhood. 1. I was a woman driving a car and 2. I wasn’t wearing a dupatta scarf across my chest (which she lectured me on all the way there).
Back at the office, I first went to fulfill her instructions to burn the knotted thread. All the subeditors stood around to watch, snickering.
But it wouldn’t burn.
I’d light it up and it would die out, just blackening the thread.
That’s when the laughter died out and they scurried back to their desks.
It took me 20 tries. And even then, it was a bad burning. My heart sank. I was definitely cursed. Someone did point out, however, that perhaps the thread had some kind of coating or had been soaked in something to delay the burning.
After work, after I had my dinner and lay in bed, I started thinking. About the entire episode. About everything I believed and what this encounter had meant.
And then it hit me.
As children we are told the Islamic story of how black magic was done on the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Someone had tied knots and hidden them in a well. I forget what material it was. Apparently the magic was extremely strong. But then Allah revealed the verses. And the knots started to come undone as they were read. From that day on, all Muslims are taught that all you need to counter black magic is Surah Falaq, Surah Nas and the Ayat-al Kursi among others.
In the Indian sub-continent, however, as we are essentially (going way back) a brown people who were Hindus and other assortments and converted, and continued to live among people of other beliefs, certain cultural practises, beliefs and superstitions never quite went away.
Thus, we try to break black magic with more black magic. Even though all you really need to do is recite some specific surahs straight from the Quran.
When I recalled the knot episode from the Prophet’s (pbuh) life, I grew perplexed. That was an undoing of knots. Why the hell did Asma Begum make me MAKE knots. Then I started to grow paranoid. Had I unwittingly participated in the black magicking of myself?
Then I really started thinking. I went back, back into my mind. All the tales my grandmother told me came floating back. She had once seen someone rise from the dead. There was a good djinn who used to pray on the rooftop of their old house.
But then I remembered one thing that I had read clearly in the Quran. We are not supposed to try and predict the future. Horoscopes and tarot cards, soothsayers and astrology for these purposes are not kosher. Palm reading, the dark arts. Er… widgee boards. You cannot divine things from the stars.
So how could Asma Begum purport to tell my future? [On a side note, I should mention an older man I know who told me once that when he was young he used to read Tahajjud - which is regular prayers you say in the middle of the night out of love for God. The idea is to give up sleep for Allah. He did it regularly for 11 years and then he says he started to see things. One night he saw his best friend in a car crash, and it happened the next day. So I believe that - like all the things we do not understand - some people are closer to God than others] But perhaps it is what they do with that, that matters.]
While the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat affiliation bothered me at some level, I wasn’t going to hold it against her. Until, while driving back, I passed the Old Sabzi Mandi to get through to a shortcut to work. I passed the Faizan-e-Madina or the Dawat-e-Islami headquarters where the ASWJ people congregate. In 2006 there was a stampede in the building and nearly 20 women died (I think). They had gathered for a large event and all the women were in the basement. Someone yelled bomb! and all these women and children panicked. We had covered it when I was running the Daily Times city section. The men in the green turbans didn’t let the rescue teams get to the women because they were na-mehram or not meant to be touched or seen by men outside the family. This was an organization that couldn’t make proper exit/escape routes in the building by following established worldwide codes for safety.
The tricky thing about religion is that you can start feeling superior real fast – as if your reasoning and beliefs, your interpretation of the Quran is the better one. I took a step back from the hubris. To Asma Begum her religion, to me mine.
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