Amulet Makers Work Their Charms

Love potions and other traditional mystical remedies are growing in popularity, to the annoyance of many Islamic scholars.

Amulet Makers Work Their Charms

Love potions and other traditional mystical remedies are growing in popularity, to the annoyance of many Islamic scholars.

Ajmal was in love with his cousin for four years, but her family rejected him because they wanted her to marry a wealthy man. In desperation, he went to mullah Qandahari and bought an amulet - one week later, his cousin's family changed their minds.


Now married to his love, Ajmal came to Qandahari with presents of clothes and shoes to thank him. To the mullah, who has practiced the art of making amulets in Kabul for 16 years, it's all in a day's work.


He has around 20 customers a day - male and female - most of whom want help with their love lives. "I give the amulets on the condition that they are not used to deceive or encourage unlawful relationships - only to solve problems or promote a marriage," he told IWPR.


The old tradition has been revived in the Afghan capital since the fall of the Taleban regime. Qandahari had been forced to pursue his craft in secret during that time, hiring guards to stand outside his house and warn him if the student militia were approaching.


But the 40-year-old mullah now practices openly from the basement of his house.


Qandahari sits in a dim room before a low table, a serious expression on his bearded face. He dips a wooden stick pen into a shoe-polish bottle filled with ink, and writes his incantations - usually verses from the Koran, or the hadiths describing the life of Mohammad - on pieces of paper.


This inscribed paper is then folded into a small, complex shape and covered with layers of cloth or leather, or sometimes placed inside tiny metal boxes, before being threaded with twisted string or leather bands.


It's up to the buyer how the amulet is worn, but the upper arm or neck are the most common places to tie it - although a woman who is having difficulty nursing her newborn may wear the charm as a brooch over her breast.


Qandahari's amulets don't have a fixed price tag. Instead, he accepts whatever each customer is able or willing to pay - whether it is five afghanis or 500 - and they always go away happy.


Wakeela, 20, came to him because her boss had been making advances toward her. At first she didn't like him, but soon found herself unaccountably drawn. "I felt something happening when I went to the office - I would think about him all the time," she told IWPR.


Convinced that her boss was using a love charm to seduce her, she visited Qandahari for an amulet to fight back. Initially, it worked well, but the feeling of attraction soon returned and she felt she needed the mullah to prescribe something stronger.


"I want to be free from his [the boss'] disturbance so I can continue working there," she said when she returned to the mullah for another amulet.


The art of amulet-making has been in Qandahari's family for generations, and he is now training a number of apprentices to ensure that the skill is not lost.


The craft is also open to women. Waheeda, 21, has been making amulets for six years, following instruction from both her father and grandfather. However, she concentrates on health charms and refuses to deal directly with male customers, insisting that they send a female representative.


However, not all amulet-makers are as well established - or as successful - as Qandahari or Waheeda.


Karbalai works the city streets, selling charms to passers-by. He sits on an old blanket near a hospital, fingering his prayer beads, surrounded by religious books. Besides making amulets, he throws dice to tell fortunes.


One woman came up and asked him for an amulet so that her son, who returned from Iran five months ago, could find a job. Then a former customer came up to complain about Karbalai's work and demand a refund.


The man alleged that he'd been told a false fortune - the dice predicted that he was going to make a dangerous journey, but he returned safely. In addition, an amulet he bought to solve a family dispute failed to work properly. Karbalai, though, refused to give a refund.


The art of amulet-making has not been without controversy.


Many Islamic scholars - including Ghulam Mohammad Gharib, head of the council of clerics in the Haj ministry - have condemned the use of love charms as these could be used to persuade a girl to submit to a boy. They say, however, that amulets using only verses from the Koran are fine.


But others are not so flexible. Fazil Bari, a mullah in Dehsabz district outside Kabul city, told IWPR that the work of fortune-tellers, potion makers and astrologers was illegal. And well-known Islamic scholar Sheik Asif Muhsini dismissed amulet sellers and those who claim to control genies as frauds.


"If these potions had any effect, they could be used on rich people to make them hand over their money - and these peddlers wouldn't have to sit by the side of the road," he said.


Shabudin Tarakhel is an independent journalist in Kabul.


Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran
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