Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Desert Animals Part 1: What Does the Fox Say?

Below is a picture of a Fennec fox, the smallest of the fox family and a common predator found in the Northern Sahara.  This animal was captured by local children and is being shown off to tourists for tips.  The children lure the animals with dried fish and pieces of meat, then keep them on leashes and hold them like lap dogs.

In the desert camps, our guide explained that wild Fennecs will sometimes come into the tents when it was quiet and accept a few scraps of food before slinking away, much like feral cats.

Fennecs are small nocturnal members of the canid family known for their ability to survive in high heat, scarce water environments.  Large birds of prey can attack them, but they are also hunted by humans for their fur, and increasingly, the exotic pet trade.  Their large ears are used to locate their prey: insects, rodents and rabbits.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Jinn Part I: Aisa Qandisa

 The Jinn of Middle East and North Africa legend bear little relationship to the Western caricature of a bare-chested figure arising from an oil lamp to grant wishes.  Created before the race of man from smokeless fire, the Jinn, like humans, are mortal.  They are born, they can marry and bear children, and they die, although they live much longer than humans.  They have a societal structure and heirarchy, and follow different religions.  Like humans, they face eternal judgement for their actions on earth, and therefore have free will to chose a life of good, or a life of evil.

In Morocco, one of the worst of the evil Jinn is a female spirit known as Aisa Qandisa.  According to legend, she was a female shaman, or spirtual healer, who violated the tradition of dressing in white for 40 days after the death of her husband, when his spirit still hovered between the land of the living and the land of the dead.  Her punishment was to become one of the Jinn she bargained with to gain her powers.  Now a Jinn herself, she was tasked with haunting rivers and streams, taking the shape of a beautiful woman to lure young men to a watery grave.

Sitting beside the dying flames of a campfire, I listened as the director of our tour told me his own personal story of an encounter with this dark spirit.  Years ago, as a young man, he left a party late at night to return home.  Close to midnight, he crossed a small river, his car rolling over a rickety wooden bridge.  His headlights glanced off the figure of a solitary woman, her palm raised up in a gesture to ask for a ride.  Surprised that anyone, much less a woman, would be hitchhiking at such an unusual hour, he pulled his car over and invited her inside.

Looking back, he told me that nothing about the woman's appearance seemed out of the ordinary.  He chatted with her briefly about her destination and started up the car again, the wheels chattering along the planks of the bridge.  After a short distance, he decided some music might make his new-found companion enjoy the ride more.  He grabbed for a cassette tape, but it slipped from his hands and fell down in front of the woman's feet.  Expressing his apologies, he stopped the car, and reached down to pick the tape up off the floor.

As his fingers closed around the cassette, he froze.  Instead of human feet, the horned legs of an animal emerged from below her dress.  Bolting upright, he realized that his half-human, half-animal hitchhiker was a Jinn, and an evil one at that.  A fragment of story his grandfather had told him flashed through his mind.  Aisa Qandisa could be banished if a knife blade was thrust through thin air with only a single blow.  Any more strikes, and the Jinn could never be defeated, now matter how powerful the weapon.  He reached for small knife near his seat and thrust the blade downward, adding a prayer as he did so.  His heart pounding in his chest, he looked over to see that his front seat was empty.  The woman who had been sitting there had vanished.  Shaken, he turned back onto the road, driving as fast as he could to Marrakech.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Supernatural in the Souk

Deep in the heart of the souk of Marrakech, small shops sell darker goods than colorful sandals and clanging tea sets.  The stall pictured above has items for sale to aid in the casting of magic spells, both light and dark.  In the middle right of the photograph, small leather necklaces are designed to be hung around the neck of children suffering from nightmares and other ailments of supernatural origin.  On the back of the talisman, a small phrase from the Quran protects the wearer from harm.

The hanging skins of animals, from zebra pelts to the box of dried hedgehogs seen below, can be used to bring back a wayward lover or get revenge for a love affair gone wrong.  They can be strung up or burnt as a version of animal sacrifice.  

Woven baskets hold large quantities of dried plants used in traditional rural medicine.

Next, I'm off to the Sahara to listen to some ghostly tales around a night fire.

Magic in Marrakech

View of the Koutubia mosque from the roof-top restaurant of our hotel.

The hand of Miriam:

This is a beautiful example of a Jewish Hamsa, in an ancient synagogue in the traditional mellah, or Jewish quarter, of Marrakech.  The Star of David, not an  eye, is centered in the palm.  Our guide told us that although the small Jewish community of Marrakech resides largely in the 'French' quarter these days, every Saturday the local rabbi holds services in this ancient temple.  The box these were in also held polished animal horns:

Sometimes the Evil Eye itself can be a positive symbol, as seen in this close-up of a hand-knotted rug below.  Although we enjoyed the dramatic presentation of the rugs and the delicious mint tea, we didn't give into temptation and buy a carpet.  But we still have a free shopping day in Marrakech at the end of the trip....

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Off to Marrakech...

No, seriously, I'm doing research!

So today marks the first day of my vacation, I mean my fact-finding trip to Morocco.  I'm hoping to learn more about traditional beliefs about the Jinn and incorporate them into my novel.  I didn't need to look far to find some beautiful renditions of the Hand of Fatima to ward off the evil eye.  Above is a lovely embroidered hand on the riad's pillow.  Tomorrow we're heading into the twisting alleyways of the souk to look for more examples of the famous hamsa symbol, and perhaps pick up a magic potion or two.  Meanwhile, the weather and the sights in the salmon-pink city of Marrakech are gorgeous:

Above, roof top view of pigeons guarding the castle-like walls of the beautiful hotel we're staying in.  The riad has been renovated with works from local artists and originates from a collection of four buildings first built close to 500 years ago.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Hand of Fatima

Now that you're tossing and turning at night, worrying about the Evil Eye, you're probably eager to hear about ways to protect yourself from it.  In Italy, you might ward off Il Malocchio with the mano cornuto or sign of the horns :

The gesture also became a popular salute in heavy metal, and gained Satanic associations.

In Middle Eastern cultures, a similar hand protection symbol is the Hamsa (خمسة) also known as the Hand of Fatima, the Hand of Miriam, or the Hand of Mary, in Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions.  It's an open right hand with the palm facing forward, sometimes with an eye in the center.  

عين زرقاء the blue eye symbol that protects against the عين السد, the Evil Eye or Eye of Envy

The Hamsa is thought to predate all of these three religions and to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia.  In Islam, the number five has added significance, and the five fingers may represent Mohammed and his household members, or the five pillars of Islam.  Stylized versions are popular in design and jewelry.  Traditionally, silver might used for the amulet, with its associations of purity.

So, if you're looking to hedge your bets about the Evil Eye and perhaps add some luck, a beautiful Hamsa charm might be the perfect thing to shop for...