Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Evil Eye: Traditional Superstitions and Mental Illness in Saudi Arabia | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- The ‘evil eye’ [a superstition in which it is believed that the envy elicited by the good luck of fortunate people may result in their misfortune] has long been a topic of interest in Saudi society. Misfortunes are often pegged on these superstitions and justified as such.

In a generally superstitious society, it is often believed that people suffering from severe mental illnesses have been struck by the evil eye. For many, the prospect of being victims of the evil eye is far more convincing than the diagnosis of psychiatrists.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Dr. Mahdi al Anezi, a Saudi psychiatrist at the Al-Amal Complex for Mental Health in Riyadh, said that mental patients have a hard time acknowledging their illnesses due to the stigma it carries in Saudi society. The media, he believes, has only compounded this fear, as it often reduces mental illnesses, complex and numerous though they may be, to nothing more than insanity. It also often portrays doctors and clinicians as psychologically disturbed and the prevalent belief is that the medicines they prescribe are addictive tranquilizers.

Many patients, he adds, despite having undergone successful treatment, insist that the evil eye was the root cause of their illness. This is due to the fact, according to Dr. al Anezi, that these patients were raised in an environment and culture that is steeped in folklore about magic and the evil eye. Often, however, the people who believe in them are impressionable, he says, or only do for personal reasons.

When patients are insistent that the evil eye was the cause of their illness, it hinders the process of treatment as they become uncooperative and refuse to take their medicine, he said. He added that a significant amount of people have developed an irrational fear of the evil eye, even when they had not been ‘afflicted’ by it. Dr. al Anezi attributes this to the culture they had been exposed to from an early age.

But the fear of being struck by the evil eye is not a concept that is unique to Saudi Arabia, nor the Arab world alone, said al Anezi. He explained that this notion is one that is deeply rooted in numerous ancient cultures, such as Indian, Chinese, Pharaohs and Native Americans. Even European cultures, he said, believed in evil spirits during the Middle Ages, which increased the Church’s authority during that era but also spawned modern tales such as the ‘Harry Potter’ collection, among others.

Responding to the question of how psychiatrists should react when faced with a patient who believes that they have been struck by the evil eye, and whether, in fact, their claim can be verified, al Anezi answered in negation and said that there is no sure way of telling. He cites that there are no signs or symptoms accompanying it, and whilst it is mentioned in the Quran, there is no mention of such symptoms. He added that although some may perceive it to be the root of the illness, it is not an illness in its own right; that is, he cannot diagnose a patient to be suffering of the evil eye. It is thus the doctor’s job, he said, to decide whether or not the patient is mentally ill.

The best course of treatment for someone under the impression that they have been struck by the evil eye is to a combination between modern medicine, alternative herbal treatments and Quranic healing [incantation]. However, Dr. al Anezi stressed that the course of treatment must be accompanied by modern medicine.

He cited the example that if a girl were to fall down and break her leg while dancing at a social gathering, the majority of the people present would attribute her fall to the evil eye. And yet they would not hesitate to take her to the hospital to put her leg in a cast until it heals, while simultaneously maintaining that it was caused by the evil eye, he explained.

But the same cannot be applied to mental diseases, he added, as they will always be stigmatized in Saudi culture. Furthermore, the psychiatrist believes that it is a matter of cause-and-effect, a fact that he stresses throughout the interview. The cause should therefore be treated in whichever manner the patient chooses, he said, but the effect should be left to the professionals.

Al Anezi also stated that based on the cases he receives in his clinic, women seem to be more prone to attribute their illness to the evil eye than men. He said that perhaps this was owing to the fact that women are generally more impressionable and emotional by nature, which makes them more likely to believe the stories and rumors they hear about black magic and the evil eye. However, he added that this posit [that women are more prone to believe in superstition] requires a proper scientific study.

Ghada al Ghamdi, a female mental health specialist, however, begs to differ. She believes the gender disparity to be the result of men’s general contempt for asking other people for advice or consultation. She added that Saudi men are generally averse to asking for help, and even when the need arises, they postpone it to the last moment before doing so.

But she said that some women have a tendency to blame all their problems on the evil eye, which she believes is foolish and narcissistic. When you believe you have been struck by the evil eye, it indicates that you think that you have positive traits that no one else possesses.

Regarding the transformation of the ‘evil eye’ into a mental illness, rather than just being the ‘cause’ of it, Dr. al Ghamdi said that one must bear two things in mind: First, that patients sometimes prefer to hide under the all-encompassing cover of the evil eye. It makes them more comfortable with their illness. Second, doctors must find out the patient’s degree of conviction, as to whether the evil eye was the cause for their illness. And based on that, could that patient be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder? She stressed that the patient should be examined and diagnosed regardless.

“Undoubtedly, when one is overly anxious, it leads to the daily creation of new diseases. Instead, we should adapt to the constant stress in our ever-changing lives.”

When asked what diseases are more likely to be attributed to the evil eye, Al Ghamdi said that she had faith that the body and soul are bound together by a divine fabric and thus, what affects one dimension will ultimately manifest in the other. It is illnesses that fall under this category, she said, that are usually believed to be caused by the evil eye.

She cited some examples: “anxiety attacks, social phobia, hypochondria, and other psychosomatic disorders,” she said. “However, patients are usually put to ease when their symptoms are explained to them,” she concluded.