At Halloween I always recall that .whenever my friends and I, out riding late in the soft California evenings, heard an owl hoot, a little uneasiness came over the group and we knew it was time to be home.
Myself, I always rather liked to hear the owls, especially two of the small ones telegraphing hoots back and forth in the dark outside my home. A soft "hoo!" somewhere; a pause, then an answering one somewhere else nearby. It could go on for hours.
But I grew up with the impression that at least in California my tastes were not shared—I never knew quite why—and when I came to live in Lebanon two years ago, I found my friend Fatima and her mother sharing the sentiments of California.
"I saw an owl this evening on a lamppost—a very small one. I wouldn't have noticed him if he hadn't hooted..."
"Yiii! Don't talk about it!..."
Fatima explains that many people think seeing a booma is very bad luck; hearing it hoot, worse. She doesn't believe in such things, of course, but...
Intrigued, I asked her what she would do if she spilled salt.
"Wipe it up, of course!" she said. "But if we let coffee boil over we say 'Kheir!' ( Good! ) It's supposed to bring good luck; and look out if you mention your plans and don't say 'Duqq 'ala khashab!' "
"What does that mean?"
"Knock on wood."
Out of this idle conversation came a study of what, over the next two years, Fatima in the United States and I in the Middle East would call Comparative Superstition. Intrigued by the obvious parallels we had stumbled on, we launched a haphazard, but still informative investigation into the extraordinary similarities of folk beliefs in the East and West.
One of the first things that struck us was the stringent Islamic prohibition of the manifestations of superstition. Orthodox Islam, particularly, views superstition as virtual heresy and wages a continuing battle to stamp it out.
As in all societies, however, superstition persists in the Arab world, particularly among those without real education or religious learning. The most striking example is the 'ain, the "evil eye", largely because in most Middle East cities the devices to ward it off are so vivid and ubiquitous, hung, tied, wound around and nailed up in the hearts of the cities as they are.
What the origins of the evil eye are is anyone's guess. Judging from the mentality of primitive peoples, which identifies the wish with the act, it might have been the equation of ill-will with positive power to harm. Very primitive peoples of today—Australian aborigines and certain African tribesmen—can demonstrably be killed simply by the wish of an enemy; the conviction that an enemy's ill-will can kill them so robs them of the will to live that they do die.
The belief is of immense antiquity. Egyptian tombs have yielded ceramic talismen almost identical to amulets sold throughout the Middle East today. And through the ages it has survived, to the distress of eccentrics in places and eras as far apart as medieval Europe and witch-hunting New England, where they were accused, tried and burned with a chilling disregard for both justice and common sense. Even in America it is not unknown, and the roots of the belief are still in evidence in Britain where, in rural areas, a person who looks run down is still thought of as "wisht"—ill-wished—and a sick animal or child who shows unfamiliar symptoms may still be suspected of having been "over-looked."
One of the most illustrious evil eyes showed up in Italy in the unconscious countenance of Pope Pius IX, before whom many of the devout while kneeling for his blessing, were reported to have surreptitiously made the "horns" sign. That sign, another ingrained belief, supposedly annulled the effects of an evil eye and is thought to have given rise to the American children's game of trying to hold horns above the head of a second child without the latter noticing it.
Anyone, it seems, may possess an evil eye: cripples, old women, handicapped children and people with widely spaced teeth, red hair or blue eyes. Not the least unpleasant characteristic is that its possessor—like Pius IX—may be totally unaware of having it.
In some instances reasons for the belief can be found. The conviction that redheads possess the 'ain possibly stems from a long tradition both in English-speaking countries and the Arab world that Judas, accursed of all Christendom, had red hair. Blue eyes were suspect because for many years they were such a rarity in much of the Middle East. T. E. Lawrence illustrates this with the horror of an old Bedouin woman at his blue eyes—which she described as looking like the sky shining through the eye-sockets of an empty skull, her uneasiness perhaps in half-memory of an Arab tradition that the examining angels of the Day of Judgment have red hair and blue eyes.
Fortunately for those who believe in such things, there are numerous shields against the 'ain, one of the most effective being the amulet. The belief in amulets may have begun in a fit of faulty reasoning, when some remote Neanderthal picked up a pretty stone or a bear claw, wore it for decoration, and had a run of good luck. In any case, they now come in a variety of sizes, materials and forms. Most common, most ubiquitous and most striking are the bright blue beads wound around the grilles and hood ornaments of cars, trucks and buses, sewn onto or wound around the harness and bridle of every second horse or mule that passes, pinned to a child's clothing or worn in fat bracelets sold in every suq of the Arab world.
There are other amulets also. A bus on the road to Damascus, for example, bears above its front windows two great painted eyes, each two feet across. The walls of small cafes are brightened by vividly colored prints of the hand-and-eye, with Ya Hafiz —"O Preserver"—above it. License plate shops carry metal hands with a single staring eye set into the palm. And there are the cowrie shells and brass bells, the big beads of amber in the necklaces of the Kurds.
One reason that these amulets so leap to the eye is that they are meant to. If the 'ain's first glance, the most potent, is caught by an amulet, the person wearing it will escape evil effects.
Oral amulets exist too. Since all good fortune, health or handsomeness may draw envy, the primary cause of a conscious evil eye, some unsophisticated villagers consider open admiration of anything the worst of luck. The most appropriate way to admire something is to merely say "Bismallah!"—usually shortened in Lebanon to "Smallah!" —"In God's name!" The expression is much used, even in middle-class and westernized circles, when admiring a baby or small child. Some villagers may wax extremely uncomplimentary over a favorite child to "fool" the 'ain, a practice very similar to the old American theatrical expression used to wish luck to someone about to go on stage without hexing him: "Break a leg!"
United States amulets have no such clearcut objectives as those against the 'ain; rather they aim at a general prevention of bad luck, or promotion of good luck. There are, of course, the rabbit's foot, the four-leaf clover, the mascots for sporting organizations; to say nothing of the significantly named charm bracelet, that with small imagination one can see dangling from the wrist or neck of some tribal medicine-man, hung with eye of newt and toe of frog. The horseshoe, in use in East and West as a charm against spirits, might have its rationale in an old belief in England that "cold iron" is anathema to all spirits. A Scottish folktale explains the belief by recounting that one day the devil, in the form of a great black horse, came to a smithy. to be shod and made the mistake of asking for the service in a human voice. The smith, in no doubt as to the identity of his visitor, obliged by shoeing him backside-to. In great pain, the devil was constrained to promise before he was properly shod that he would never enter a door with a horseshoe above it.
Besides the 'ain, there are other supernatural dangers to be feared from one's fellow humans. The belief in sympathetic magic—roughly, magical practices that work on resemblances or imitations, on the lines of the Voodoo doll stuck with pins—goes back to very primitive times and persists to the present. The belief probably accounts for three outwardly very dissimilar beliefs, one in the United States and two in the Arab world: the taboos against breaking a mirror, being photographed and scattering one's nail clippings around.
If an American breaks a mirror, he is letting himself in for just bad luck, generally or, specifically, for seven years' bad luck, or even for a death in the family within the year. Why? Because he has destroyed something that has reflected his own image—something more a part of him than his arm or leg, like Peter Pan's shadow.
The dislike, among some Arabs, of having a photograph taken is generally accepted as a reflection of a traditionalist interpretation of the Koran's prohibition against making images. In many cases the assumption is correct; however the opposition to photographs is not confined to Muslims. It crops up among many groups of people around the world. In the Arab world as elsewhere it may stem from the primitive fear that if an enemy should acquire a piece of clothing, a lock of hair, an image of someone, he would be able to harm its owner by "injuring" it.
The same basic beliefs, common to many simpler societies, probably are at the heart of one of the Arab world's more intriguing after-life punishments: the belief that the person who is so slovenly as to scatter his nail-clippings around will regret it on the Day of Judgment, when he will have to pick them all up with his eyelashes, rather like the Irish girl who, if she sews on Sunday, will have to take all the stitches out with her nose.
Another taboo common to both societies is whistling. Up to a few years ago, the worst thing an American sailor could do was whistle aboard ship; it was sure to raise a "whistling wind". And many American girls can still quote an irritating little saying their mothers probably repeated for their benefit during tomboy days:
Whistling girls and crowing hens
Always come to some bad ends.
The point of this is probably that it isn't wise for females to act like males, but it could also be an English-Irish belief that if a crowing hen is not immediately caught and executed for a chicken dinner, someone in her owner's family will die within the year. Superstition aside, it is undeniably unlucky for the hen.
In the Arab world, Bedouins frown upon whistling, at least outdoors at night, for fear it will call up an evil jinn. Jinns, incidentally, are mentioned often in the Koran, which they predated in pagan times in Arabia. The angels are made out of light, but the jinns are of fire; they can be good or evil, having free will (Iblis, who rebelled against God, was not an angel but one of the jinns; on the other hand, a "company" of jinns is mentioned in the Koran as listening to and approving the teachings of Islam), but in popular belief they are best avoided.
Another tribute to the presence of the jinns is the back-country Egyptian custom of saying "Destoor!" ("Watch out!") before pouring hot water down a sink—a jinn might be passing through the pipes, and not take kindly to a scalding. This practice has its counterpart in the Irish custom of saying "Take care!" when throwing water out after dark. The leprechauns might be passing and would resent having their green garments spoiled. In the Arab world and in America sneezing must be followed by an invocation of God: "God bless you!" or "Al-hamdu l'allah!"—"God be praised!"—because primitive peoples believed that the soul of the sneezer was momentarily expelled and unless the name of God was pronounced, evil spirits might injure it. Spilling salt, in the Arab world, seems to be no more than carelessness; in the United States it's bad luck, unless whoever spilled the salt throws a pinch of it over his left shoulder, where in East and West evil spirits always lurk.
Another treasurehouse of superstitions is the body of beliefs about the natural and supernatural powers of animals. Some beliefs in the United States probably originated in the conviction, in medieval Europe and puritan New England, that certain animals—black cats!—were the familiars of witches. Again there are beliefs that have their origin in some peculiar feature of the animal itself which gives it a supernatural character.
First and foremost producer of tall tales in Arab animal lore is the hyena. The hyena story is the shaggy dog story of the Middle East: seldom credible, always fascinating. Its weird reputation dates back at least to the days of the Roman Empire when the famous naturalist Pliny left it on record that men of his time claimed it "allured human beings and deprived them of their senses," and could render a man immobile and speechless if it saw him before he saw it.
Arabs have many stories about how the hyena "allures" its victims, some told seriously, most, one guesses, for the pleasure of a good tall tale. One, told me by an officer in the Jordanian army, goes like this:
The officer and several men under his command were returning to Ma'an in their Land Rover one evening when they saw a hyena. One of the soldiers began to shoot at it, but although the beast followed at a tantalizing distance, its eyes gleaming in the dusk, he had no luck. Apparently unable to resist showing his marksmanship, the soldier went after the animal. A moment later his friends noticed with astonishment that he had left his gun behind. The commanding officer, alarmed and angry, shouted at the top of his voice, "Come back immediately—this is an order!"
The soldier paused a moment, turned and walked back to the car. "What is it?" he asked. He remembered getting out of the Land Rover—and nothing more.
Whether in America or in the Middle East, howling dogs are bad omens, presumably because animals are credited with being able to perceive supernatural presences. In American folklore, spiders, toads, robin redbreasts, ladybugs and crickets were all bad luck—if you killed them. Other curious American beasts are the bat, the bane of many an elderly woman, which likes to tangle itself in a woman's hair—a predicament which according to all students of natural history would be infinitely more traumatic for the bat than for the lady—the dragonfly (darning needle) which sews up the ears of misbehaving children, and the saltable bird which, according to an old tradition whose usefulness must have been tested at least once by every child who heard it, was certain to be caught, if you could put salt on its tail.
The common superstitions of two cultures are beliefs one can laugh at, or deplore, as survivals of a past age that should have been buried with it. Like poetry, however, superstitions are not necessarily true, yet impose an order on life, give some reassurance of a logic in existence—like religion, science, and philosophy, of which they are the great-great-half-uncles, and of which in each superstition, however wild, there is often a fragment. If now useless in themselves, such beliefs still serve as useful reminders that some of the science and religion and philosophy of the present, may someday go the way of the immutable scientific law of a few years ago: matter is neither created or destroyed—that one day after the splitting of the atom was quietly penciled out of school textbooks.
Leslie Farmer, an American free-lance writer, speaks fluent Arabic, has lived and worked in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, and once wrote for the Jerusalem Star.