Witchcraft peddlers thrive in today’s Iraq
From outside, it looks like any other tailor’s shop straddling the popular al-Shaab market in northern Baghdad. Once inside, however, there are no sewing machines or tailoring materials to be found. The sign at the entrance reading “Al Qumma Tailoring” is a front for the sorcery and witchery practices of the shop owner.
Ziad al-Saby is among hundreds of sorcerers and witchcraft practitioners offering their services to Iraqis. He is known in the area for his trade and speaks confidently about his supernatural abilities, which he says are meant “to help people who experience exceptional and difficult conditions.”
“I can do anything… bring back the missing, exorcise bad spirits from the possessed, read one’s future and dispel bad fortune, etc. Most visitors to the souq have heard about my abilities, which I inherited from my father and forefathers,” said Saby, who belongs to the Sabian religion in southern Iraq, which is known for its witchcraft practices.
One client sought Saby’s services to preserve her faltering marriage, which she said had been cursed by her in-laws. “I turned to Ziad on the advice of a colleague of mine. I don’t care what people think. For me, the end justifies the means,” said the 30-year-old woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
To remove the spell, the sorcerer gave her a purse that she was asked to burn, as well as talismans and candles that she was to light for seven days to fulfil a certain ritual.
The phenomena of magic, superstition and belief in supernatural creatures — jinns — have become widespread and popular amid the lawlessness of post-2003 Iraq. The practitioners of the dark arts prey on people who have family, social or financial troubles with the promise of quick solutions.
“Oum Aya” claims to be a certified astrologist from a specialised Egyptian institute. She does not hide her activities, practising them at her luxurious home in Baghdad’s posh al-Waziriya neighbourhood. Her clients are from all different socio-economic backgrounds and include politicians and government officials.
“They (politicians) are mostly interested in preserving their posts and seek (magic) assistance to stay in their (lucrative) functions as much as possible,” she said, noting that she was most solicited during election time with candidates visiting her to increase their chances to win parliamentary seats.
The cost of Oum Aya’s services ranges from $20 for reading the lines of the hand to $20,000 depending on the complexity of the case and the effort it entails. Responding to accusations of unethical doings, she said: “I don’t force anyone to come to me. Everyone is free to do what he wants and I offer my services to whoever can afford them and believe in them.”
Superstition, magic and sorcery are no longer limited to the modest and poor in Iraq but have permeated other social circles as well.
“Ignorance and backwardness are spreading in Iraqi society due to unstable conditions, especially on the economic and social levels,” said Ibtisam Musawi, who holds a doctorate in psychology. “Violence and poverty, the collapse of educational institutions and the failure of consecutive governments have pushed people to embrace old superstitions and resort to witchcraft and sorcery to resolve their problems.”
Musawi said charlatans have opened “spiritual healing” centres where they practise magic and sorcery. “They are causing big problems in the society as they interfere in the privacy of families promising to bring back a spouse or install love in a couple through illogical and irrational practices,” she said.
“The lack of social awareness and the absence of laws addressing this phenomenon have led to its unprecedented outspread,” she added.
The “spiritual healing” centres often claim to treat people with the help of the Quran, which acknowledges the existence of jinns. The Quran states in several verses that jinns worship God just as people do. There is a sura of the Quran called Surat al-Jinn.
“Regardless of what they claim, these are charlatans practising magic and sorcery under the guise of religion,” said General Khaled al-Mahna, director of Baghdad’s community police. “We have detected some 65 sorcery centres operating openly but there are as many, if not more, operating clandestinely in the low-income popular areas.”
Mahna warned of the growing trend of witchcraft, which he said caused dissent and divorces within families and conflicts among tribes that led to legal cases.
“This growing phenomenon, notably in southern governorates and Baghdad, requires government action in addition to efforts to raise religious and cultural awareness,” he said, adding that “charlatans have been abusing Quranic verses about jinns and jealousy to extort money from people, including university educated.”
Working in this field can be a lucrative trade. The cost of Saby’s services ranges from $300-$5,000. The price increases if the case necessitates the intervention of spirits and jinns. Oumayma Omar, based in Baghdad, is a contributor to the Culture and Society sections of The Arab Weekly. This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.