Middle Eastern millennials, social media and the ‘evil eye’

Middle Eastern millennials, social media and the ‘evil eye’
Emad Arshad is a Dubai-based YouTuber. (Supplied)
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Updated 31 July 2020

Middle Eastern millennials, social media and the ‘evil eye’

Middle Eastern millennials, social media and the ‘evil eye’
  • Some say it’s just superstition, while others believe intention, humility and authenticity can help thwart ‘hasad’

DUBAI: In season two of Hulu’s hit television series “Ramy,” viewers get a glimpse into the widely-held, yet rarely publicly explored belief that publicizing your good news puts you at risk of attracting the ‘evil eye’ — a concept known as hasad in Arabic and nazar in Urdu.

“Ramy,” written by and starring Egyptian-American actor Ramy Youssef, explores the fictional life of an Egyptian Muslim living in the US whose journey of self-discovery involves the ever-present struggle of finding a balance between the customs and culture of his parents and those of Western society.

One episode focuses on Ramy’s sister, Dena (played by Bahraini actress May Calamawy), who quarrels with her mother after announcing her law-school scholarship on Facebook. Instead of congratulating her, Dena’s mother admonishes her for posting the news on social media, and warns her that she’s now vulnerable to envious ill-wishers. Paranoid that her hair loss is a result of the evil eye, Dena turns into a miserable mess. This wasn’t a completely fictional tale. The episode was loosely based on Calamawy’s real-life experiences of dealing with hair loss and feeling she was cursed.

Many young Middle Easterners and Asians are similarly caught between the modern-day norm of posting attention-grabbing updates on social media and cultural traditions which advise hiding good news from others. Dubai-based YouTuber Emad Arshad, who has lived between the UAE and Canada and is an avid social-media user, faced a similar ordeal to the experience portrayed in “Ramy.”

“A few years ago my wife got sick, then I got sick all of a sudden and my kid got sick, and this started happening around the time when I had released a travel vlog about our family trip to Turkey. My family pointed out that I released this vlog and was now getting nazar. We constantly have these debates — I agree and disagree with them,” he says, verbalizing the inner battles faced by many of his peers.

Nabeela Ismail is an artist and photographer of Zanzibari descent. (Supplied)

A recent poll on Instagram of 165 millennials of Middle Eastern and Asian heritage revealed that 76 percent of them worried about, or at least contemplated, possible nazar-related repercussions when posting about their lives on social media. While some add the distinctive eye-bearing amulet (a symbol culturally regarded as protection against the evil eye, but also referred to as nazar) emoji to their captions, or type “#mashallah” (stressing that their good fortune is the will of God) in the hope that will cover them, others avoid posting potentially envy-inviting images altogether.

Many, of course, simply dismiss the belief in nazar as paranoia and superstition. “I think it’s sad how much it scares people,” says Algerian-Finnish Safi Ahmed-Messaoud. “It allows others to hold you back and affects your life for no reason.”

But beliefs about hasad and nazar are deeply rooted in both religion and culture across Asia. The Qur’an, in an invocation of protection from evil, states: “Say, ‘I seek refuge in the Lord of daybreak…from the evil of an envier when he envies.” And a Prophetic hadith — Sunan Abu Dawood 4903 — condemns malicious envy, stating, “Beware of envy, for verily it destroys good deeds the way fire destroys wood.”

And it is by no means solely an Islamic belief — in Judaism, the evil eye is known as “ayin hara” and casting off the evil eye is also engrained in Hindu traditions.

Historically entrenched customs however, are often at odds with modern-day trends — particularly those that involve posting exciting personal updates on social media.

Emad Arshad has lived between the UAE and Canada and is an avid social-media user. (Supplied)

“I constantly face that question about how much should I post, and the fear of the evil eye. I firmly believe that it exists,” says Arshad, who describes his family as “Orthodox Muslim”. Nonetheless, he spends hours creating content to share his adventures and thoughts through his YouTube channel, Evlogs. “It allows me to share my creativity, and helps me connect with friends, family and people with similar passions to me,” he explains.

Author Shelina Janmohamed uses the phrase “Generation M” to refer to the young Muslims finding ways to balance faith with modernity. “These Muslims are not rejecting modernity, they are shaping it,” she writes in her book, “Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World.” “Affordable, accessible and democratic, the Internet, mobile and social media are tools for Generation M to achieve their aspirations and become part of a worldwide network of peers who share their values.”

From fashion bloggers to business owners, social media is employed as a necessary marketing tool by entrepreneurs, and apps like Instagram are being used by countless other Middle Eastern and Asian millennials, who post about everything from the food on their plates to the shoes they’re wearing.

Nabeela Ismail, an artist and photographer of Zanzibari descent who works with The Threelancers — a Middle East-based content creation and photography platform for restaurants and cafés — believes that there’s a balance between using Instagram to inform and engage with fellow users, and becoming an outright exhibitionist on it, which may very well attract negative vibes from envious followers.

“I think there is a fine line between seeming like you’re showing off or showing something simply because of the fact that Instagram is a visual platform,” she says. “As a creative you want to create content and aesthetically pleasing pictures — it’s such a tough balance. But, I definitely do say a little prayer more often now, when I post something.”

Sidrah Zahid is the founder of lifestyle and accessories brand Aina. (Supplied) 

Arshad meanwhile, checks his intentions before making a post. “If anything has remotely to do with showing off or showing that I may have a better life than someone around me then I’ll hold off,” he says. “For example, we were just on a staycation, so I didn’t want to vlog that entirely because there are a lot of people who may not be able to afford it. Things are tough during COVID, so I try to show the reality of things, and not just the fancy, bling-bling of everything.

“My intention is never to portray something that’s fake,” he continues. “I try to always keep things very real and honest, and try to stay humble so my audience connect with me on an authentic level.”

Dubai-based Sidrah Zahid, founder of lifestyle and accessories brand Aina — which has been producing face masks since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, also believes intention is key, and she believes social media and faith can coexist without negative repercussions for entrepreneurs.

“In this day and age, it is essential to use social media for your business to flourish. It’s really one of the main ways to create brand awareness or attract any sort of attention to your product,” she says. “I do believe in the evil eye because it exists in our religion, and I do believe it can impact your life, personally or workwise. But I also believe the power of God is bigger than all of those things and if you just have enough faith and maintain positive energy around you, and have a very strong belief that the intention (behind) your work is pure and positive, then God will save you from that evil eye.”