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White Magic in Northern Afghanistan

Whether it is love, money or health, Mazar-e-Sharif’s healers have the cure.
By IWPR Afghanistan
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Relieve any illness, find lost items, remove the evil eye!”

The hucksters around the beautiful Hazrat Ali shrine in Mazar-e-Sharif do a brisk business. Whether customer wants their fortune told or their life prospects improved, they will find an energetic fortune-teller or faith-healer willing to help.

Some are mullahs who enlist the power of religion for their remedies. Others claim to have traditional healing powers, handed down through generations. Still others predict the future by examining a customer’s palm.

No problem is too great or too small for the small army of faith healers, psychic advisers, and outright charlatans who populate the area around Mazar’s most famous site and earn a living by offering help to those in distress.

“I have been in love with a girl for three years,” said one customer, Abdul Latif, 28. “I adore her with all my heart, but she doesn’t really like me. So for the past month I have been getting amulets from a mullah here.”

The amulet is a piece of paper on which is written some verses, perhaps a few numbers, or some astrological signs. The customer is advised to wrap the charm in at least three layers of multi-coloured cloth, and then either wear it on his body, or – as in Abdul Latif’s case - place it in a strategic location.

“I’ve buried the amulet under her gate,” confided Abdul Latif. “Each time she steps over it, her passion for me increases. I will marry her in a month or so.”

If he can afford it, that is – he has spent close to 600 US dollars on his magic amulets, which might leave him a bit short on cash for the wedding ceremony.

Afghanistan’s faith-healing tradition goes back many hundreds of years. Some say it goes back to Alexander the Great, who brought in a lot of foreign practices when he traversed the region in the fourth century BC.

Through Afghanistan’s many wars, the faith healers have flourished. Briefly banned under the Taleban, they are back with a vengeance. Even highly educated people express a grudging faith in the “falbin”, as fortune-tellers are known.

The Muslim clerics in charge of the Hazrat Ali shrine strongly disapprove of superstitious beliefs, and periodically attempt to drive the motley crew of falbin away from their buildings. Despite one such eviction earlier this year, this reporter can confirm that they are back.

All around the shrine, which includes a magnificent mosque and extensive grounds, healers and fortune-tellers camp out under the trees. Surrounded by carpets, cushions, books and the various tools of their trade, they vie for customers.

Some display small banners depicting the palm of a hand or magical animals. Others go for a more literary approach, listing their specialisations on signboards - “increase your income”, “repel black magic”, or “cures for illnesses”.

Still others advertise their services via portable loudspeakers, creating a din as they compete to drown each other out.

Mullah Ayub Nazar has attracted a particularly large crowd. His eight-year-old son is beside him, loudhailer in hand.

At 43, Mullah Nazar has spent half his life writing out amulet charms.

“People have so many needs, so many problems,” he told IWPR. “I had to set up this business. I wanted to serve my people.”

Nazar specialises in charms which can be used in a variety of ways. Some are submerged in water, which the petitioner then drinks. Others are burned and the smoke inhaled by those seeking some cure or relief. Nazar also makes amulets that people can wear around their necks.

“People believe in my work,” he said confidently. “One hundred per cent of those to whom I have given amulets have been helped.”

Those who have tried conventional medicine come to him as a last resort, he explained.

“I can cure even the most serious diseases,” he said. “Ordinary illnesses take just one charm. I have cured patients who’d been to the best hospitals in India and still hadn’t got better.”

Sayed Kateb, 31, has abscesses on his face, and has come to ask for help.

“I have a skin disease. I’ve been to normal doctors but they weren’t able to help me,” he told IWPR. “I got a charm from the mullah and now I’m better. I’ve been doing the treatment for a week now. I place the charm in water, then bathe in it. I have also got another charm which I have buried in my home.”

Nazar charges between 20 and 500 afghani (40 cents to ten dollars), depending on the service required.

“Some things take a lot of time, so they cost more,” he said.

Women and girls are particularly keen to amulets, or charms, and many in the crowd around Mullah Nazar are female.

Zulaikha, 36, has come to him with her younger sister, who has yet to find a husband.

“Her fate has been stalled,” said Zulaikha, pointing at her sister.

Zulaikha was sure the mullah would be able to help. “Our neighbour’s daughter came and got a few charms, and then she got married. My sister’s fate will also be resolved,” she said.

She also obtained an amulet for her own one-year-old son, who is not sleeping and cries constantly.

Shamsia is an older woman in a burqa who has come to see Mullah Nazar because she suffers from irrational fears.

“I have nightmares all the time, and during the day I am afraid of everything,” she said. “I’m losing my mind because of it.”

Advised by a neighbour to seek treatment with Nazar, she is hoping for the best.

“Where else could I go?” she said. “I have come for a charm, and, God willing, it will help me to calm down.”

Nazar loves his profession, and hopes to create a dynasty. “I will never stop practicing my craft,” he said. “I will pass it down to my sons.”

There are many different specialisms at the shrine.

Hanif, who has installed himself some way away from Mullah Nazar, is a palm-reader, who tells prospective clients that his craft is rooted in science.

“We measure palms; it is based on mathematics and it is exact,” he said. “The fate of each man and woman is printed on their palm, and no two hands are the same. We tell people about their future, and they are able to act to rid themselves of their problems.”

Hanif charges 100 afghani (two dollars) for his services, which is a bit steep by local standards. “But they can save hundreds of thousands of afghani with my advice,” he insisted. “They can even save themselves from death.”

One young man getting his fortune told bears out Hanif’s testimony.

“I have no reason to lie,” said Hayatullah, 21. “What this man has told me about my past is almost all true, and I hope his predictions will also prove correct. He told me that my life has been spared twice, and that is exactly right. Now he has said I will marry the girl of my dreams. I hope he is right.”

There is a good deal of rivalry between the mullahs, fortune-tellers, and healers competing for business at the shrine. Some of the banter is far from collegial.

“Those others are just charlatans,” said Shah Mohammad, sitting under the broad branches of a mulberry tree, surrounded by books and pens of various colours. “I use verses from the Koran to cure illnesses. That is legitimate and based on Sharia law. The others are wrong.”

Shah Mohammad, 53, has a colour-coded system for treatment.

“Verses about love should be written out in red,” he explained. “Money matters go in black. Education requires blue ink, and disease is in green.”

The efficacy of the treatment, however, depends on the patient’s degree of faith.

“We do our work, and if someone believes in us completely, and does not doubt the Koran, God will help him,” said Shah Mohammad.

Nasrullah came to the Hazrat Ali shrine after being told his intestinal tumour was incurable.

“I went to India and they said there was nothing they could do for me,” he said. “But for three months, I have been undergoing the amulet cure, and now I am getting better day by day.”

The mainstream clergy condemns soothsaying and other forms of speculative prediction as fraudulent and irreligious. Maulavi Mohammad Qasem, an Islamic scholar, said those who peddled such ideas were preying on human weaknesses.

At the same time, he indicated that properly used, religious texts could alleviate illness.

“If we use verses of the Koran honestly for the treatment of illnesses, not just to cheat people out of their money, then it is fine. The Koran can cure all diseases,” he said.

But Qasem insisted this should be left to those who knew how to do it.

“Amulet-writing should be done by those who are pious, virtuous, and knowledgeable about Islamic principles,” he said. “Other practices, such as changing one’s fortune, getting rid of evil spirits, and other such beliefs are not true. Those who believe in them have no knowledge of Islam, and are taking advantage of people’s weaknesses.”

Some members of the medical profession are ambivalent about faith healers. Dr Nur Alam Sherzai told IWPR that while he had seen many patients failed by the faith healers, there might nevertheless be some psychological benefits.

“Mental disorders in most modern countries are treated by various methods including therapeutic dialogue, group workshops, consultations and psychotherapy,” he told IWPR. “Unfortunately, Afghanistan lacks the facilities for that. When someone faces a psychological difficulty, they put their faith in an amulet. After many visits to a [faith-healing] mullah, a patient may recover his or her mental health. It’s a kind of psychotherapy.”

For those who believe, there is no substitute for the falbin.

“Amulets are better than prescriptions,” insisted another women also called Zulaikha, 34, who brings her four children along to get protective amulets once a month. “Doctors just prescribe medicine which never has any effect. I used to go to the doctor frequently because one of my children was always crying. Then I began the amulet treatment, and now I feel a bit more comfortable.”

She concluded, “If we get positive results, it doesn’t matter what doctors or others who don’t understand might think.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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