Earlier this Spring, I sat on a rooftop overlooking Chefchaouen, Morocco’s “Blue City,” and— unbeknownst to me at the time—gave myself and my friend Leah the curse of the Evil Eye.
We had arrived in town a few hours prior, after a road trip from Marrakech with my mom and her two sisters. Despite the comfortably warm weather along the way, my aunts—bless their hearts—were relentless. Anytime Leah and I asked them to put the AC on, they’d beg us to cover up our chests lest we get sick—the same when we rolled down the windows. And at my grandfather’s house in Fes, they’d squeal, “ wili, wili, wili!” (the Moroccan equivalent of “oh my god”) when we walked around barefoot in our pajama shorts and tank tops. At least five times a day, they’d warn us that we were going to get sick, and at least five times a day, we’d laugh off their worries as nonsensical.
Back on the rooftop in Chefchaouen, Leah had just gotten out of the shower and her hair was making two water stains on the pockets of the jean jacket she was wearing over a short dress. In Arabic, my aunt turned to me: “I tried to tell your friend before we left the house, but she doesn’t listen. She’s gonna get sick!” I was over hearing it, “Khalti, we leave the house with our hair wet back home all the time, and we never get sick,” I snapped back. “You’ll see, we’ll be fine.”
The next morning, I woke up to the sound of Leah clearing her throat. Moments later, I erupted in a sneezing fit of my own. We looked at each other and laughed. We were both sick for the rest of the trip.
The culprit was clear: My boast about our tough immune systems the night before had given us the Evil Eye.
The Evil Eye or al-ayn (simply “the eye” in Arabic) is a curse that is said to cause harm in varying degrees, from miniscule annoyances, to making one’s fortune dissolve, to igniting a string of bad luck—whatever that entails. It is said that one gets the Evil Eye by way of another person’s glare, praises, or compliments, whether ill-intentioned or not. A person can even give themselves the curse by acting without humility. For example, stubbornly refusing your aunts’ wisdom as you brag about your impeccable immune system is a solid way to curse yourself into getting sick, I can attest. Giving yourself the Evil Eye can even happen without the presence of others. A woman who stares in the mirror admiring her perfect skin one day might find she’s given herself the Evil Eye when she wakes up the next morning to a fresh breakout across her forehead.
Belief in the curse dates back at least 5,000 years to the Sumerians of the Euphrates Valley, though historians have found cave drawings up to 10,000 years old in Spain and amulets from 3,300 BC Syria that they believe were used to ward off the Evil Eye. Like all traditions, belief in the Evil Eye and what it entails differs from region to region, but its existence in cultures across oceans, religions, and millennia is remarkable. Today, belief in the curse exists in nearly every content, and Evil Eye charms can be found everywhere from street vendors in Greece to department stores like Bloomingdales (which has an entire Evil Eye jewelry collection).
There are dozens of amulets, prayers, and rituals that people across the world believe they can use to both protect themselves from the curse and get rid of it. One of the most popular is a talisman called the khamsa (in Arabic) or hamsa (in Hebrew) that resembles an intricately carved hand. There’s also the nazar (most popular in Turkey), a royal blue glass bead with circles in the middle resembling a pupil. These symbols can be found in homes and on people of every faith from West Asia to Central America, placed on front doors, made into door knobs, worn as jewelry, draped on furniture, or simply placed around the person being protected. And although devoutly religious monotheists condemn amulets as superstitious and therefore sinful, talismans remain extremely common in homes of every faith. And in many parts of the world, prayer or invoking God’s name is considered one of the strongest ways to ward off the Evil Eye.
As a little girl, I had hair so long I could sit on it, and it was often the topic of conversation when I met someone new. “Wow!” they’d say. “What beautiful, long hair she has.” And if they forgot or didn’t know to say it, my mom would wait for them to walk away and whisper, “mashallah, mashallah,” attributing my long hair to God’s will and therefore protecting me from the Evil Eye. Often, as I brushed through my hair and strands would gather in the brush, she would shake her head and say, “It’s falling out! I knew it when that lady at the store complimented you— al-ayn.”
While many religious people use prayer as defense against the Evil Eye, an unwavering belief in the curse is not unique to Muslims, Jews, or even monotheists, though the Evil Eye is mentioned or alluded to in each holy text of the Abrahamic religions respectively.
In Brazil, people place plants that belong to indigenous gods of fire like Caboclo in the entryways of homes and businesses to protect from the Evil Eye; in parts of Central America, people treat the Evil Eye, or mal de ojo , with the help of a curandero, a shaman or traditional folk healer who uses a ritual involving a raw egg to heal the afflicted; and in Greece and Italy, some people drop olive oil into holy water to test whether or not someone has the Evil Eye. If it floats, the person is safe, if not, they’re cursed.
Of course, despite the Evil Eye’s significance across time and space, it is not without its skeptics. Religious conservatives, dogmatic nihilists, and spiritual cynics have long scoffed at the idea of the curse, as have many people living within the regions where its presence is ingrained in culture.
I myself have rolled my eyes at my mom as she begged me not to share good news or prayed over my siblings and I after someone gave us a strange look. “You can laugh as much as you want,” she recently told me. “Sometimes I think it’s a coincidence, but sometimes it’s too much of a coincidence.”