Widow Aziza's Eye
Which pathway home?
Dust spiralled around each hoof like a miniature tornado, unwound in the hot air and drifted to earth again. The donkey trotted along the canal path, torn ears twitching at the inquisitive flies. Its searching nose savoured the poppy scent rising amid the cotton fields of the Nile's delta. A protective turquoise bead jiggled on its string around the animal's muddied neck. The donkey could find its own way.
Ahmed, astride its hind haunches with his flowing blue robe tucked up round his waist, certainly believed it could. He was enjoying his game of pretend. Really he was balanced on a camel, silhouetted high above the desert. He was a nomad, like the Bedouin who passed through his home village on their occasional forays into the brick world of settled Egypt. Ahmad admired those rough, noble men, lacking in this world's wealth but proud and free lords of their families and herds.
During the Bedouin's visit of last summer, Ahmad had also grown to admire the middle daughter of their leader, Abu Suleiman. Amina, as he had eventually discovered her name to be after bribing her youngest brother with a catapult, was just blossoming from girlhood to womanhood. Ahmad was aware of changes taking place in his own fourteen-year-old body, and it struck him as unfair. Just when he was proving his adulthood by keeping the fast of Ramadan, the nubile daughter of Abu Suleiman had to mark her growing maturity by taking the veil and staying carefully with the womenfolk of her clan.
Still, he had caught some glimpses of Amina at the canal where she had gone with a gaggle of black-robed chatterers, gossiping all the way, to give the cooking trays their daily wash. The eyes that peeped out from the mystery of that dark covering seemed too bright to be so imprisoned, too bright and rather mischievous, taunting. He longed to study the slender neck that vanished in a swathe of black cotton. It was doubtless adorned with gold and silver chains and little silver "hands of Fatima" to protect Amina from the evil eye. Yes, and to make her pretty! Staring casually from the small wooden bridge a little upstream, Ahmad had willed her to turn in his direction. In one flash of a glance he was sure that fire had met fire. If it hadn't been that the older women were beginning to notice this adolescent infatuation, he would have settled on the bridge lazily, hungrily to keep watch. But widows and aunts have sharp tongues and big vocabularies!
Now high on his camel, leader of a Saharan Bedouin family, Ahmad the Tall reckoned out the bargaining procedure which would procure for himself a necklaced, bright-eyed bride.
"Three buffaloes is the least to be dreamed of, and by the Prophet they had better be strong!"
"By God, the girl is lame! One weak buffalo is too much!"
"She is the only daughter of my second wife, Selima the beautiful. In God's name I would rather die than accept less than two female buffaloes!"
The imaginary argument was well under way when Ahmad's donkey-camel came to the point where the path divided. A narrow track set off diagonally from the canal towards the near outskirts of the village. From the fields where Ahmad had been working, the quickest way home would have been to take that path. His father's brick and mortar house sat solidly in the centre of the village, on the main street. At the bottom of the street, near the well, was the bicycle repair shop where big Fikry seemed to spend all day sleeping and all night welding and hammering. The shortest route lay down the diagonal path, round the well at the end of the village, on to the main street and home past Fikry's bicycle shop. Ahmad was tired, too. He had had a long day, irrigating the fast-drying earth, hoeing it and coaxing the rich soil to yield its third crop of the year. He would be glad to get home.
Almost without realising it, Ahmad's mind leaped from the bargaining encounter to the choice of path before him. Hardly any villager ever used the diagonal passage and Ahmad was not about to touch it now. It led, en route to the well, past Widow Aziza's house. Widow Aziza was renowned for her evil eye. Ahmad had been warned from childhood that his family did not use that walk to and from their fields. The story of why had been repeatedly told at family get-togethers and their tale was confirmed by others circulating among many neighbours. Ahmad's thoughts shifted to the anecdote about his grandfather and father as he carefully steered the donkey past the turn-off and along the longer canal route to the village centre.
Towards the end of his life, Ahmad's grandfather pawned a basketful of gold earrings and anklets. With the money, he bought a female buffalo. The cow proved to be pregnant and quickly became the pride of his old age, especially when it calved and began producing milk. Ahmad's grandfather used to bring a pot of freshly drawn milk into the house, and the children would fight to swallow the most. Sometimes milk was sent across the street to uncles who lived nearby. Arrangements were even made for milk to be given to some neighbors, in return for part ownership of some sheep. A new lease of life seemed to have come to Ahmad's grandfather and also to the rest of the family--until the day when Ahmad's father mistakenly steered the graceful, hairy beauty home from the fields past Widow Aziza's house. That was when the family learned the power of that woman's eye.
Widow Aziza's husband had died about three years before and relationships between her and the rest of his family were not happy. Widow Aziza had been brought to her husband's home from a distant village. Her husband had been a sick man when he became engaged to her. Widow Aziza's family had fought for a contract that would leave the property to Widow Aziza should her husband die first. They had won the unusual concession, but the marriage suffered as a result; Widow Aziza and her husband fought over everything. The battles continued after his death as Widow Aziza laid claim to her contractual rights to the property. It was siad by some that she used more than human powers to help her in her combat. A rumour circulated that she had command over a certain jinni who helped her accomplish her aims. She was certainly a tenacious fighter, even though she came from far away and had no relatives at hand to support her.
Ahmad's grandfather had once scolded Widow Aziza in the village square for evil words she had spoken loudly concerning her husband's family. It would seem that Widow Aziza never forgot nor forgave that scolding. Her anger burst out on the day she discovered Ahmad's father leading the prized buffalo cow past her house on the short cut home. Widow Aziza slipped out into the pathway, bent over and stared at the udders of the cow as it passed. Then, with a chuckle, she disappeared into the dark interior of her home. Ahmad's father was badly frightened and squealed the Fatiha, the opening sura of the Qur'an, all the way home. He told the family what had occurred. When grandfather next went to bring in some milk for the children, they knew that the thing they most dreaded had happened. The cow could yield no milk. Indeed, it never produced milk again. Widow Aziza had envied it, and her envy had dried up the milk.
At the next feast of sacrifice, Ahmad's grandfather took the lovely beast along to the slaughterhouse and sold it to Uncle Hasan, who had arrived there at the same time as grandfather. He was looking for a buffalo, especially one he could get cheaply, to offer in thanksgiving for the recovery to health of his youngest son. Ahmad's family reverted to occasional goat's milk, the share in the sheep was lost, and a little more family history was engraved in their memories.
Young Ahmad would never risk falling under the influence of the eyes of Widow Aziza. Nor, he knew, would any of his friends. He could so clearly recall Nasser's frightened shivering while he recounted to Ahmad his family's experience of Widow Aziza's evil eye. Nasser's family lived at the other end of the diagonal path, close to the well, round the ocrner from the nocturnal Fikry. Ahmad and Nasser grew up together. They had done dares together and respected each other's strength of mind and will. Nasser, however, had trembled over Widow Aziza, and no dare would take either of them near her home.
Somehow, an argument had developed only a year ago between Nasser's father and Widow Aziza. It was about the ownership of the date palm that stood between their properties. It was a large tree and produced delicious fruit, as most people in the village could testify. The community elders had eventually agreed to mediate, and the argument had been settled, mostly in favor of Nasser's father.
About that time, Nasser's family had bought a goat. They kept it carefully hidden in the central courtyard of their home. Like the other villagers, they knew the value of an animal like that. The only way to be sure that the goat would be safe from harm, and especially from the harm of the evil eye, was to keep it carefully concealed in the inner courtyard. It was a valuable asset to the family, and they enjoyed the warm milk. It tasted doubly good on cold winter mornings. One day in spring, however, a tragedy occurred. The goat somehow managed to wander into the open space outside the enclosed yard, and Widow Aziza caught sight of it. It wasn't that Widow Aziza needed anything, for she kept goats and sheep of her own. The following day, Widow Aziza came to Nasser's family with a bowl and asked for some goat's milk. She had that knowing look, and the family could almost feel the bad power coming form her. Nasser's father feared the worst. Indeed, when he tried to milk the goat, it gave only blood. The goat ended up with the butcher, and the family never tried to keep livestock again. The risk of Widow Aziza's eye was too great.
The breeze was cool and the dusk prayers were being called as Ahmad guided the donkey across the wooden bridge. He headed down the main street towards home, his mind still occupied with dreams and memories.
Ordinary Muslims recognise the power of the evil eye. Its force can devastate their lives--so much so that a humorous proverb from Palestine asserts that two-thirds of mankind die from the attacking influence of the evil eye upon them; the remaining third dies because it is careless in protecting itself against the evil eye! The evil eye touches all.
A friend wrote me recently about Nadja, a young lady, married for about eighteen months and living in Wadi Hadramaut, Yemen. Nadja was unable to breastfeed her newborn child. When asked why, Nadja told my friend that another woman had 'thrown the evil eye on her breast' so that it developed a lot of red pimples. As a result of the pimples, the mild dried up.
Pastor Malek recalls working as a young pharmacist for a Middle-Eastern Muslim who was a three-star general. The officer had a prosperous pharmaceutical business. In order to ward off the evil eye and bring his business good luck, this well-educated an successful man would leave a sandal in the cash register at the close of work each evening.
The fundamental concept of the evil eye is that precious persons or things are constantly vulnerable to hurt or destruction caused by other people's envy. Such envy or jealousy is projected through the eye. In the story of Widow Aziza, animals were the object of the evil eye, for they represented the possibility of increase in wealth or prestige in the families concerned. Carelessness, or chance, exposed the cow and goat to the evil eye of Widow Aziza, and the potential for economic or social growth in each family was undermined.
Envy (hasad) is seen almost as a tangible force. In many Muslims' minds it assumes the negative opposite of the positive force known as baraka. Baraka comprises the blessing or boon deriving, ultimately, from God. It is found in intense form in the Qur'an, which is a 'blessed' book, in prophets, saints, shrines, and a multitude of other forms. But whereas baraka is nearly always obtained or conveyed by some kind of touch, the evil eye transfers its effect by non-tactile communication. It would seem that while the spread of blessing requires contact, a mere 'look' will suffice to bring harm upon someone.
The kinds of eye counted as evil vary, as the following illustrations from Iran exemplify. The rarest and most powerful genus of evil eye known in Iran is called 'the salty eye'. This eye has a permanent effect. It may be acquired by a child during gestation if, for example, its mother happens to view the face of a corpse. Whatever the resultant infant looks at, whether intentionally or inadvertently, is likely to come to harm. A person with this kind of eye could stop tractors or topple buildings with a glance. Such a condition is incurable, and a person diagnosed as possessing a 'salty eye' is carefully guarded.
The commonest Iranian expression of the evil eye is known as 'the bad eye'. It comes as a transitory condition. When a person grows jealous, envious or puffed up with undue pride, the glance that his eye then gives is likely to be evil. Usually this kind of eye is cast unintentionally, so its effects need be only minor or temporary.