30 May 2012

The Search for the Shawafa

This is not a story of Oman, but rather, one of the most amazing days I've had in Morocco since before I was a volunteer.  I leave for Oman tomorrow, but, until then, I hope this story will keep you entertained.


A shawafa is a Moroccan witch.  Although Islam forbids the practice of witchcraft, with Morocco's Berber heritage, the connection to witchcraft, and black (and white!) magic is still pretty strong.  So strong in fact, that it has been an informal research project of mine to find out more about this side of Morocco life for the past few years.

One day I spent 5 hours talking with our van driver (one of my most favorite people in all of Morocco) about the kinz or treasure that is supposedly buried throughout the Arab world, and curses all those who find it with djinns... or is it that you have to be cursed with bad djinns to find it... I forget.  For those of you who don't know, a djinn is a spirit that inhabits the world, and shares it with humans.  Jinns can be evil and good, but tend, in most peoples characterization, to be evil.  Although all Muslims are required by a creed to believe in jinns, the Moroccan pictures of jinns and how they interact with humans tends to take on more of a magical, folklore-ish bent.

Another day I spent listening to a male colleague's complains about how many Gulf women think the Moroccan women who come are using black magic to bewitch their Gulf husbands, and entrance them into sex with them.  I don't know many Moroccan women who use black magic, but this rumor definitely shows how the fear/use/belief in black magic is not confined only to Morocco.  Perhaps (and I really have no way of validating my guesses) this accusation of magic is a way for these Gulf women to deal with the fact that many Gulf men do travel to Morocco to participate in sexual tourism in Morocco, a practice which ultimately led to the Saudi government revoking all visas for Moroccan women under the age of 40, except for those who were participating the major pilgrimage or the Hajj.

But my story now is not one of black or good magic.  At first I thought it would be, but it turned out to be something so much different.

It begins on a hot day in Chefchaouen.  My companion and I were sitting, Spanish style, in the shade of the cafe, enjoying our cigarette and coffee (respectively), watching both Moroccan and Western tourists mosey lazily across the central square.  He got a call from his boss, saying that he had one last task to do in Chefchaouen, which was to find a shawafa to talk to the group of students who were going to arrive in June.  These students wanted to learn about all kinds of medicine in Morocco, including traditional medicine, much of which derives from beliefs about magic and jinns and Islam all mixed together.

I had heard about shawafas, so I was very excited to find one, and perhaps meet her, and know more about the customs about which I had only read or heard gossip.  My companion and I got up from our cafe, and went first to visit a guy he knew at the spice shop.  Of course, this was a spice shop I had frequented many times in my various visits to Chefchaouen through work over the past year, but I had never thought to ask about their connections with shawafas, even though the shop was full of herbs, soaps, and incenses of all kinds.

We met with one man in a white, wool jellaba named (of course) Mohammed, who, in his guise as a tourist faux guide, also wore the more traditional red tarboush (hat), but you could tell from the jewelry he wore and the way he talked that as soon as he went home at the end of the day, he would probably rip off these traditional clothes.  I also remember noticing he had big hands.  Anyway, my companion told our story, and what we were looking for, and because I speak Moroccan Arabic, and, probably because I am European-looking, Mohammed kept trying to justify to me, and not to my Moroccan companion, why this guy, Abdo-something, he knew, was the best for the job.

"Oh yes, he speaks English, oh yes, and he's very knowledgable about witchcraft, but no no no, he doesn't practice it himself.  No, no, he's a very good Muslim, yes, very good.  He's like a fiqh (expert in Islam) in his spare time, and his English is so good because he's an Official Guide, yes yes."

At least that's how I imagine his spiel in English would sound.  And I didn't know a shawafa could be a guy... but apparently that's how it goes.

We arranged for Mohammed to bring us Abdo-something, the English-speaking, non-black-magic-practicing, fiqh, and we would meet and talk for coffee later in the day, or perhaps tomorrow morning for coffee.

We then spent the rest of the afternoon before kaskroot (6pm non-dinner snack-meal) walking around to all the store owners and cafe owners and restaurant owners we knew, asking them if they knew a shawafa.  We even asked Mohammed-with-the-dreads, who sells mainly sells bracelets to stoner tourists.  They all said they knew of someone who knew of someone, but wouldn't we be better served to go to Fez or Sefrou or some other town?  My companion told me later that because he looks like a touristic-police guy and because I'm obviously a foreigner, everyone was automatically reluctant to tell us directly where the shawafa could be.  Even so, the people we deemed to be genuine could not help us, and so we were forced to wander back to our first cafe, sit, and wait on the good graces of Mohammed to bring us Abdo-something.

We waited, and waited, and waited.  The sun had set by this point, and the cool, relaxing night mountain air was coming in.  And still we waited some more.  We were sitting at a table so close to the square I almost felt like we were in the square, and eating our chicken kabobs for dinner, when Mohammed finally came by, dragging his young son behind him.  Unfortunately, he was not dragging anyone else, and I assumed that an 8-year-old could not be a shawafa.  After a rather unconvincing explanation about how Abdo-something was not free, even though he actually WAS a "real" shawafa, my companion got very frustrated - not obviously, he only told me later - and decided that interacting with Mohammed was not worth his time.  I should have realized this, because he didn't even offer to buy Mohammed a coffee, but trying to concentrate on fast negotiations in Moroccan Arabic was taking up all of my brain power at this point.

And so the search continued.

Imagine here a movie montage of us running around Chefchaouen, the next morning, before we were ment to leave, asking everyone we could both think of, "Do you know a shawafa?"  "Do YOU know a shawafa?"  Again, we were met with either reluctance or a genuine sad look of, "Sorry I can't help you."

After what felt like the 16th person we'd talked to, we finally shrugged our shoulder, and hoped that Abdo-something would appear.  At least we had, in all our running around, arranged for the American students to visit a licensed herbalist...

But then our luck began to change.  It was one of those situations where you can feel that things are going to work out.  It was, at this point, 3pm, and the sun on the back of my neck, almost sizzling, was making me slightly tired and yawny.  We found the owner of our hotel, to pay, and, in a last ditch effort we asked him.  After explaining that, no, we didn't want to find our long lost exes and get them back for dumping us, and no, we just wanted to show American students the many ways that Moroccans approach health, the man, also conveniently named Mohammed, smiled widely and secretively, and brought us in.

"I think I know someone who can help you! Come, follow me."

He took us through the infamous windy, blue streets of Chefchaouen, back and forth, up and down.  I could feel the anticipation in our walk, I could feel that finally, we were on the right track, and that I might actually meet a shawafa today.  In talking with my companion, he realized that we did not actually want a shawafa, but actually would prefer a woman less witch-like, and more steeped in "good" and "traditional" Islamic methods of healing. Skreeeeeetch.  We made an abrupt stop, took one fork in the maze instead of another, and suddenly, we were back at our hotel.


As it turns out, we were actually across the alley from our hotel, knocking on a very modest door of a very modest house.  A woman stuck her head out of the window above, looked down at two men and a foreign girl, and asked suspiciously what we wanted.  After Mohammed clarified who he was, the cousin of her cousin's cousin or something, she lit up into a smile, and disappeared.

The very modest door of the very modest house opened, and two smiling women ushered us in.  As soon as we were out of the sun, I could feel the chill of the adobe/cement house, and I felt just the slightest bit less anxious, though no less excited.  And then the negotiations began.  These two women we had met were the daughters of the old woman of the house, and at first, my companion thought that one of them was the medicine woman.  "Why do you want to talk to my mother?  Who are these people who are coming?  What do they want?  No, it's not me, it's my mother?  Ah, here she is."  As soon as their mother poked her head out of the curtain that led to the living room, we could both tell who she was.

Visually, there was nothing unique about her.  She was like any other ambiguously old Moroccan woman I had ever met.  Less than a full mouth of teeth, white cloth tied on her head, pajamas stained with food from cooking, and a light cloth hastily thrown over her head at the sound of male visitors.

Spiritually, emotionally, however, she took my breath away.  Perhaps it was her smile, or her eyes, or perhaps it was the respect and awe she instilled in Mohammed and my companion.  In subsequent descriptions of her, I fail for words, and usually end up joking.  But she was just.... full of light, full of God.  You could feel it, even though my eyes were telling me everything was "normal."

We three visitors immediate bent down to kiss her hand in greeting, and her smile got wider and wider, especially when she saw me, the obvious foreigner, follow the correct, respectful Moroccan protocol.  I couldn't have greeted her wrong if I wanted to, but I also couldn't think of a single word to say, except mumbling some rather half-hearted greeting and a "thank you" when she called me "kind-looking."

During my mini-revelation, my companion and Mohammed were talking with her, explaining the program, what we wanted, and who we were.  I barely remember much of this part, just that she had the same questions as everyone else, but was very excited to be involved.  "I have the baraka," she said.  "It came from Allah, and I am blessed with this healing ability.  I don't have much money, and my husband (God rest his soul) died a few years back, and so I, Allah's humble servant, use my gift from Him to support me and my girls."  Baraka is this case is truly what she had.  It means blessing, but it was more than that in this case.  It was that light, that spirit, that love, that essence of God.

We finished our meeting with this amazing woman, and we all left, almost falling over ourself, backing out of the house, and we all had these stupid grins on our faces.  I kept talking and talking, and my companion and Mohammed smiled knowingly.  I caught their smiles, and fell into silence as we made our way through the downward-sloping alleyways towards the bus station.  The two men made arrangements to make sure the medicine woman was available on the day in June when the students would come.

All I could think to myself was, "Damn, if this woman is for real, she'll have the students either smiling or balling for the rest of the day."

The story really ends here, and yet, it's still going on.  That day, a tightness in my chest that I carry with me whenever I am nervous or stressed went away, and it hasn't been back since.  Moreover, any feelings of dread and worries about the future lessened, and every time I think of her, or Morocco, or even my upcoming trip to Oman, I am taken back to that "happy place."

In someways, I believe it was my love for Morocco returning, in a powerful way, to remind me, in a very stressful time in my life, why I fell in love in the first place, and why I keep coming back.

My enduring memory of that day is during the grande-taxi ride home, despite the winding roads and normally nausea-inducing curves through the mountains, I was perfectly content, joyous even, so happy and so in love with everything in life.  The sun was beating down on me like it usually does, but it was an enjoyable warmth, and with the breeze in my face, and love in my heart, life was good.


Nicole Anderson said...

This is beautiful, Colleen. Thank you for sharing. I'm in tears at work.

Ailsa Sachdev said...

Hi, I am writing an article on American tourists in Morocco and their experience with shewafas. Is there any way I can interview you to talk about this?

Ailsa Sachdev

Colleen Daley said...

Hi Alisa-

Where can I contact you?


Anonymous said...

I'd like to see this Shawafa as well, it sounds like a wonderful experience. Do you have contact details? Thanks! - Sara sparkledust13@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

i would also like to speak to this shawafa ... could you send the details if you have them? bntmaksorah@outlook.com

Anonymous said...

id also love to speak to this shawafa, can you please pass on the details

Brianna Griesinger said...

Hi Colleen,

I am doing research on Shawafas as I travel in Morocco this winter. I was wondering if you might be able to contact me at briannagriesinger@gmail.com with more information? I'd love to get in contact with you and learn more about your experiences. Thanks so much,


Kat said...

Hi Colleen,

I am an American student reporting on sherefas, similar to shawafas, to shed light on ways Moroccan's approach health care.

I'd love to talk to you about your findings!
My email is: katmcmillin@gmail.com

All best,

robert said...

Colleen,i just red your blog ,terrific,i could feel the energy coming from it as i read ,i would love to talk more to you about this and related subjects,,my skype is ,merrywizard31,,and my yahoo is ,,painterman3406..and finaly email,,painterman3406@yahoo.co.uk...I look forward to seeing and chatting to yourself real soon,,,Robert Sneddon.