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’

  • 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.”

Paris exhibition sheds light on the now-departed Jews of Morocco

Updated 38 min 19 sec ago

Paris exhibition sheds light on the now-departed Jews of Morocco

  • Co-curator explains extraordinary tale of discovering an image of her then-teenage father in French photographer’s collection of shots from the 1930s

DUBAI: The largest Jewish population that ever existed in the Arab world was in Morocco, which was home to over 250,000 Jews by the 1940s. A free photography exhibition, which runs at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism (mahJ) in Paris until May next year, offers a rare insight into their lives there.

“Juifs du Maroc” showcases around 60 black-and-white photographs and drawings by the late French photographer and painter Jean Besancenot, who travelled to Morocco several times and became enamored with the culture there.

The images on display were photographed between 1934 and 1937. They are both intimate and a documentary-like portrayal of Morocco’s Jewish community — some of men, women and children posing in elaborate attire against a neutral background, others of people practicing daily activities of baking, brewing, and reading. Overall, the exhibition preserves and presents “a priceless record of rural Jewish communities in Morocco no longer in existence,” according to a statement published by the museum.

Erfoud, Tafilalet Region Rouhama and Sarah Abehassera in Wedding Suits mahJ. (Adagp, Paris, 2020) 

One of the driving forces behind “Juifs du Maroc” is co-curator Hannah Assouline, a French photographer with more than 30 years of experience, who was born in Algeria and resides in Paris. The exhibition is a particularly personal endeavor for Assouline, since one of the photographs on display is of her father, a then-adolescent Rabbi Messaoud Assouline, who came from a destitute family. The story of how she found this valuable photograph is one of coming full circle and an unlikely coincidence.

“I met Jean Besancenot in 1985, when my interest in photography began,” Assouline told Arab News with some translation help from her assistant Paul. “As soon as Besancenot saw me, he immediately knew where I was from. He told me, ‘You come from Tafilalet (a region in southern Morocco) and you are a Jew.’

“I wanted to buy pictures from him, but since I didn’t have enough money I couldn’t buy a lot,” she continued, adding that Besancenot had 2,800 photographs portraying the Jewish world of Morocco. “He showed me more than 100 pictures — all of Jewish people, among them were many girls and young women.”

Goulmima, Tafilalet Region Young Woman in White mahJ. (Adagp, Paris, 2020)

By chance, Assouline came across a snapshot from 1935 of a very young married couple, and noticed that the boy resembled one of her nephews. Intrigued, Assouline purchased the photograph — along with six more as gifts for her siblings — and was eager to show it to her family.

“I went to my parents’ home to show them the pictures on a Friday night, which is Shabbat,” she said. “My father was very religious and didn’t want to see the pictures on Shabbat. When he finally agreed to look at the pictures, he said in Arabic: ‘It’s me!’ He had never seen this picture before — it took him 50 years to see it. He went through exile, war, moved to a new country with a new story and, in the end, he found his picture.”

It turned out that Assouline’s then-13-year-old father — timid and barefoot — was only playing the part of a groom and was photographed in Erfoud, one of the centers of Moroccan Jewish life at a time when the North African country was a French protectorate.

Erfoud, Tafilalet Region Messaoud Assouline (Tinghir, 1922 – Jerusalem, 2007), 13 years old, in Wedding Suit 
Hannah Assouline Collection. (Adagp, Paris, 2020)

The reason why Besancenot was exploring and documenting these closed-off regions was that he was commissioned by the Foreign Ministry and the then newly built Musée de l’Homme in Paris to carry out ethnographical work — through detailed notes, films, and colorful drawings — of traditional Moroccan clothing. In the publicity for the exhibition, the museum notes of the female costumes and adornments that their “repertoire is sometimes common with that of Muslim women.”

The presence of Jewish women dominates Besancenot’s work. Their imposing headpieces and voluminous layering of necklaces, earrings and bracelets was central to their identity, beauty, and in some cases, social status. “In some of the pictures, you’ll see women wearing torn, old clothes but they’re still wearing all their jewelry,” Assouline noted.

“I love the pictures, because Besancenot was a real human,” she said of the photographer’s compositions. “He took pictures without judgment. The pictures are very sensible and he was very close to the sitters. He came often to Morocco to see the people. It was not a one-time shoot – he came day after day to talk with everyone and then he took the pictures. The exhibition is set between 1934 and 1937, but he always came back to Morocco. All his life, he circled around that country.”