Myth and superstition: Sorcery in Yemen

Published on 2 September 2014 in Culture
Madiha Al-Junaid (author)

Madiha Al-Junaid

Examining the remains of coffee continues to be a common method of predicting peoples’ destiny. (Paranormal Arabia website)

Examining the remains of coffee continues to be a common method of predicting peoples’ destiny. (Paranormal Arabia website)

Embers burn incense, filling the room with smoke. A young female customer, her coffee cup overturned, waits for the old woman sitting in front of her to read her horoscope.

“Many times it turns out that all things she says are right,” Somayya Abdurrazaq, the young woman, says passionately. “The old woman previously told me about another friend who was not able to get married because one of her relatives cursed her,” she said. The old woman predicted that in order to break the curse, the sister of Abdurrazaq’s friend had to marry before her. “And that is exactly what happened and what allowed her to get married,” Abdurrazaq enthusiastically asserts.

With a sad yet anticipative look on her face, Abdurrazaq waits to learn her “destiny” and what further steps to take, putting all her “hope on what will come after I follow what the old woman says.”

Abdurrazaq pays a minimum of YR1,000 ($4.65) each time she asks for magic consultation.

Sorcery—a term which encompasses, among others, horoscope reading, palmistry, witchcraft and black magic—is an ancient business in Yemen. Its practitioners claim to predict the future or reveal one’s destiny.

A large part of Yemen’s population believes in magic and sorcery, with many relying on horoscopes and other future-telling practices for making life decisions. It is a customary tradition, inherited from one generation to another, prevailing over state laws and Islamic customs, both declaring sorcery to be forbidden.

Speaking about the public display of sorcery, Abdulaziz Al-Baghdadi, a lawyer and legal adviser, says that in legal terms “the act of sorcery is criminalized according to the Yemeni Penal Code.”

While article 310 in the Yemeni Penal Code does not specifically mention sorcery or any of its varieties, it does criminalize “roguery” or “deceit” and any related acts, which, according to Al-Baghdadi, include sorcery and carry a penalty of at least three years in prison.

In addition, both the practice and the seeking of sorcery are forbidden according to the Islamic faith, as only God can know people's destiny.  

Given these obstacles, sorcery operates under a low-profile in Yemen. Yet, people who so desire, have always found their way to seek guidance, healing, and knowledge from sorcerers. Witchcraft remains a profitable business for those who have built themselves a reputation.

A country-wide phenomenon

Abdurrazaq is hardly alone in seeking the help of the old fortune teller in Sana’a city. Hundreds of regular clients visit the old horoscope reader, including high ranking social and government figures, according to Abdurrazaq and residents who live nearby the horoscope reader.

“This old woman’s reputation reached governmental officials with high positions who seek her advice and help,” said Abdurrazaq, pointing to the old woman’s fame, which goes beyond the capital.

Bint Abdu, a university graduate who preferred to keep her first name private, was initially hesitant to visit Sana’a’s notorious fortune teller, as she knows that sorcery is forbidden (haram) in Islam.

“I was persuaded by my friend who told me that the truth will be revealed and that I can continue my life peacefully after having been depressed for a long time,” said Bint Abdu.

Bint Abdu fell in love with a man who showed interest in pursuing his life with her. He started to phone her and she became attached to him emotionally, refusing any other man who came to her family asking for her hand. It was real love, she says, and it was her choice, not her family’s.

However, Bint Abdu admits to becoming suspicious of the words and the long-time absence of the man she loved. “I was living in hell and wanted to know his real feelings toward me. The old woman was my only hope, whom I wanted to trust and ask what to do,” Bint Abdu said in a tone that made clear her regret and hesitation.

She continued, “I was convinced by what I have heard from my close friends who visited her and told me that she can predict the future.”

Eventually, Bint Abdu was told by the old woman that the man of her dreams was not loyal and that she had to stay away from him. Later on, she discovered that he was married.

Destiny and life choices aren’t the only things people seek when visiting houses of sorcery. Some people also seek wealth, good health, or even healing after having given up on the medication prescribed by their doctor.

In addition to Sana’a’s renowned fortune teller, it is a young girl in Taiz governorate that reached considerable fame inside and beyond Yemen as a sorcerer.

The “healing girl,” as Amatarrahmann Ayham and others refer to her, is said to be “like an angel of God.”

“They say that since she is a child, her soul is pure,” explains Ayham, who herself visits the “healing girl” regularly.

Ayham is a mother of four in her late forties who is originally from Taiz and lives in Sana’a, facing both marriage and health issues in her life.

She mainly visits the “healing girl” because of her continuous back problems, which she finds alleviated by the girl’s treatment and herbal pastes.

“She has a healing hand that is famous all around Taiz and the other governorates,” Ayham explains.

In fact, the girl’s fame is said to extend beyond the borders of Yemen.

Neighbors of the “healing girl” report that wealthy people come from Gulf countries to see her. “The expensive gifts they give this child are way beyond expectation,” Ayham adds.

Meeting the “healing girl” is not easy. A person must personally go to the building where she resides to book an appointment.

“Sometimes, you would have to wait for weeks, a minimum of one week, to meet her. People are lining up in front of her door, awaiting their turn,” Ayham explained.

People do not only seek the help of so-called sorcerers for good causes; sometimes magic is sought after to harm others.

Mohammed Saleh, an unemployed and single 30-year-old man living in Sana’a, recounts to having found a small sheet of paper underneath the carpet in his room, filled with non-existent words and expressions written in Arabic script.

He brought the paper to a nearby clergyman, who explained it to be harmful magic.

Lacking awareness and education

While the lure of discovering one’s destiny via sorcery attracts both literate and illiterate Yemenis, uneducated Yemenis appear to be more easily blackmailed by swindlers and more dependent on sorcery for help, according to Professor Salah Al-Juma'ee, a sociologist, psychotherapist, and lecturer in Amran and Sana'a universities.

“It is a major catastrophe if those who carry on the responsibility of the country or important positions in the government believe and engage in such practices,” Al-Juma'ee says angrily, adding that “they should be fired immediately from their positions.”

Bint Abdu hesitantly agrees with Al-Juma'ee, eventually saying “these are terrible problems. And firstly and lastly, they are religiously forbidden.”

She adds, “I blame the lack of awareness in a society where we don't know where to go and whom to seek.”

In response to what Bint Abdu said, Al-Juma'ee questions “why don't these people go to the hospitals and psychologists… instead of being taken advantage of?”

Preying on the unfortunate

Many people who fail to deal with the hardships they face or were unable to meet societal expectations regarding marriage or employment—circumstances which are not uncommon in post-uprising Yemen—perceive sorcery as a final hope.

Al-Juma'ee spoke to the Yemen Times about his former patients at the Psychological Clinic, which is part of the Counseling Center in Sana'a University.

Having worked in the clinic for ten years, Al-Juma’ee said that some of his customers came to him to seek therapy, after having unsuccessfully sought sorcerers for help. “They were in a severe state of depression,” Al-Juma’ee recalls. In his opinion, his patient’s vulnerable and desperate positions make them easy targets for self-proclaimed sorcerers.

Al-Juma'ee links the continuity of sorcery to several reasons: One is the reputation of sorcerers, which they themselves and others spread, calling sorcerers “scientists, sheikhs, therapists, and so on.”

Another reason mentioned by Al-Juma’ee is that sometimes those claiming to be sorcerers do in fact make correct predictions and heal people.  

“This is because their customers' minds are impacted by mystical and esoteric beliefs," he explains, referring to the placebo effect. Or, it’s just luck.