Originally written in February 1995 for the Middle East Times.
CAIRO, Egypt — It is a windy night in Maasara, one of Cairo’s poorest suburbs. The brightly colored lamps Egyptians hang during the holy month of Ramadan are strung across claustrophobic alleyways, and they sway in the breeze, making shadows dance. Inside one home, however, the mood is anything but festive.
“Humankind is not the only thinking race in this universe,” Mohammed Labib says. By day, Labib, 50, a short, neatly groomed man with graying hair and a quick smile, is a Cairo school supervisor. In his off-hours, he practices the ancient art of exorcism.
Labib is a member of the mystical Sufi sect of Islam. He performed his first exorcism almost 20 years ago, on a friend’s sister.
The existence of jinn, who are repeatedly mentioned in the Koran, is an article of faith for many Egyptian Muslims. Belief in the invisible beings is widespread here, just as belief in UFOs and ghosts is common in the United States. While exorcists do not exactly advertise their services, those in need are able to find one fairly easily.
Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the world’s oldest Islamic university and the home of official Egyptian religious doctrine, is divided on the subject, corroborating the existence of jinn but making no comment on the subject of possession.
Labib’s patient, “YM,” a 25-year-old, gangly, bespectacled Cairo accountant says he has been plagued by troubles for some time now, including a broken engagement.
Last year, he spent a week in the hospital, where he says his heart repeatedly stopped for no apparent reason. His older brother heard a rumor YM was the victim of magic, and suggested they visit Labib, who has allegedly discovered and exorcised several jinn behind many of his problems.
“When you are ill, you go to the doctor and you say ‘God and my doctor may make me well,’” YM says. “I came to Mr. Mohammed just like coming to the doctor. My soul is ill.”
Over the course of the evening, Labib chants passages from the Koran and brings YM in and out of trances, in which the young man grunts and snorts like a wild animal, vibrates violently and moans like a person gripped by pain or passion. The women of the household cluster outside the room, listening to the screams.
After three and a half hours, Labib’s persistence bears fruit. YM writhes, his arms and legs slamming against the concrete floor, padded by only a threadbare blue carpet, and he alternates between shrieks and a cat-like hissing. The existence or non-existence of jinn is irrelevant: YM clearly believes himself possessed, and tomorrow will have the sore throat and battered limbs to prove it.
Gone is the quiet, somewhat mousy accountant. His bearing is assertive now, even arrogant. His skin is much paler and his facial features appear sharper. His eyes, now heavily lidded, roll around in their sockets. His body jerks back and forth and his fists clench and unclench spasmodically.
Labib says he has mystically trapped the jinni in YM’s body, which he has rendered useless. After another half hour of thrashing and screaming, the jinni begins to talk.
He says his name is “Hawgiin,” meaning “something fixable” in Arabic, and claims a magician sent him to kill YM. Labib warns the jinni he will not be released until he renounces his evil intentions. When the jinni refuses, Labib calls upon another jinni to punish Hawgiin, evoking more screams. The jinni finally relents after five-and-a-half hours of exorcism. Before dismissing it, Labib and the half-dozen observers sitting around the edge of the room quiz the jinni.
There is a pattern to YM’s possessions: Labib convinces each jinni, who originally intended the young man harm, to promise not to hurt him. In the weeks following, however, a new jinni appears. Over the months he has been coming to see Labib, four different jinn have manifested, and have begun to do so in the course of his ordinary life as well. Some claim Iblis (Satan) himself sent them to torment him. Recently, a jinni warned it was no use trying to purge YM of his demons: “He’s ours.”
According to Labib, YM’s unusual piety — “I never touched wine, I never touched a girl, I always pray,” the accountant says before the exorcism — was what attracted the evil attentions of the jinn to begin with. When he emerges from the trance, YM breaks down in tears.
Some dismiss possession as a hold-over from a previous era, when mental illness was less understood, and the parallels to the American Salem witch trials are obvious.
“Folklore and culture are impregnated in a person, regardless of their education,” says Dr. Ahmed Okasha, the president of the Egyptian Psychiatric Association and the Arab Federation of Psychiatrists. “You come to 1995 and some psychiatrists are still seeing ‘possession’ as a factor in mental illness … We are going back to the Middle Ages.”
Labib investigates other supernatural events as well.
Eight months ago, Yehia, a foreign affairs correspondent for one of Egypt’s daily newspapers, contacted Labib after his wife, Elham, saw a strange man in their apartment in Heliopolis, another suburb of Cairo.
Yehia had gone to work one morning and Elham, 28, was sleeping when she heard the door slam. She lay in bed on her side, facing a bedroom mirror, which reflected the front door. Seeing nothing in the mirror, she turned to find a large man wearing a green suit standing in her bedroom doorway.
“I was so terrified, I shut my eyes,” she says.
When she opened them again, he was standing at the foot of her bed, staring at her. Each time she closed and reopened her eyes, the man was in a different position in the bedroom, facing her, his face an emotionless mask.
Elham, sure he meant to rob and kill her, was paralyzed with fear. She shut her eyes and began reciting from the Koran. After a moment, the bathroom window — a tiny window hinging inwards for ventilation opening onto an eight-story drop to the street — slammed shut. Then the man was back in her doorway. He stared at her a moment, then vanished.
Elham called Yehia, 34, at the paper. Her husband returned home and searched the apartment, finding no sign of an intruder or robbery. He then began reciting the first sura (verse) of the Koran, which is thought to have power over jinn. After furniture began vibrating, Yehia and Elham moved in with her mother.
Labib examined the apartment, paying special attention to his emotions while there, then drove the jinni away with recitations from the Koran, incantations and mystically significant numbers.
While normally invisible and intangible, the exorcist says jinn have all-too-human hearts and sometimes fall in love with humans and attempt to ruin their relationships. Elham’s visitor was one such jinni, he explained.
A devout Muslim, Yehia is an educated man, with a passion for Western culture. Yet he had no trouble believing a jinni was in his apartment.
“I know my wife: She is not crazy. … She has a healthy emotional life, so of course I thought it might be something supernatural.”
While Sufis claim there are jinn throughout the world, spirits play little part in modern culture outside the Middle East. The captive jinni, Hawgiin, was unwilling or unable to clear up the discrepancy.
“Hey, man,” Hawgiin says, in a near-perfect American accent, unlike YM’s hesitant English, “Don’t ask me that question. Ask those people.”
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