He Who Eats Alone Chokes

The global mythology of the evil eye

Envy is as old as desire, and belief in the evil eye has probably been around just as long. Also called the “envious eye,” the old British term for the evil eye is “overlooking” suggesting that to admire an object of desire overlong, is to do it harm. In Hebrew it is called ayin ha’ra, in Italian mal occhio and in Spanish simply el ojo (the eye). While the notion of the evil eye is prereligious, it is sanctified by the monotheistic religions, with some mention of it in the three holy books. A verse in the Qur’an is an explicit appeal to God for protection [113:1-5]: “I seek refuge in the Lord of daybreak… From the evils of the envious when they envy.” In contemporary Egypt, belief in the envious eye cuts across classes. Somewhere at the busy crossroads of culture and religion, this vestigial belief in magic continues to enjoy a broad currency.

If mind over matter is the mantra of the empirical, then spirit over matter is that of the irrational or spiritual, depending where you fall on the belief spectrum. Some perceive the air as dense with stray spirits, and believe the spirit world to be the invisible double of the apparent world. Within this worldview, there are those considered more receptive to negative energies, and euphemistically referred to as possessing eineen midawarra, or round eyes. In most cases, these unfortunates transmit the evil eye unwittingly, and are not regarded as bad people per se.

“Only something supernatural can express the supernatural,” pronounces Wittgenstein. And in much the same way, these maladies of the spirit are not diagnosed by men of science. A medicinal antidote won’t do for this otherworldly poison, so only those versed in these arcane arts may prescribe a remedy to undo or avert evileye contamination.

Children, perhaps unsurprisingly, are considered most susceptible to the evil eye, with the least developed immune systems to fend off such harmful energies. To protect kids, voodoo-like paper dolls may be repeatedly pierced and burnt, with the ashes smeared all over the bewildered child, or newborns may be given unattractive nicknames, and declared ugly, to deflect the evil eye. Likewise, baby boys — the coveted sex — maybe dressed as girls for the first two years of their lives. (Which helps explain why my conservative grandfather, from macho Upper Egypt, had both his ears pierced).

But, it’s not just children who are at risk. Any good fortune: wealth, good health, relations with family and loved ones, or even a boon such as a new possession, is not safe. Which is why if you compliment someone about their new shoes, they will reflexively offer them to you. Or if you should happen to pass someone enjoying a quiet meal they will automatically ask you to join them, since according to a proverb: He who eats alone, chokes (Elly yakoll liwahdoo yizwar).

Greater good fortune, like getting a promotion, getting married or passing an exam requires greater sacrifices at the altar of the ubiquitous evil eye. Depending on your budget, that could mean anything from slaughtering a calf and sharing it with the poor, to throwing a lavish party for well-off but less fortunate friends, or distributing free sweets and cold drinks to your neighbors.

As a precautionary measure, for example, beautiful girls and/or healthy boys will periodically be blessed, with chants and incense, by the elders of their families. The definition of good fortune even extends to being in a good mood; so that if someone forgets themselves long enough for a good laugh, they hastily mutter: May everything turn out all right, God-willing (Kheir Allaho maga’aloo kheir).

Another strategy is simply to play down your good fortune. So that say, if someone asks you how you’re doing, you might sigh and suggest you’re just scraping by when in fact things are going quite well. According to another proverb, complaining is one way of avoiding the unwanted attentions of the envious: “a complaint is preferable to 100 blessings [against the evil eye]” (Shakwah bi meet ra’wah). By the same token, if you’re expecting something, or embarking on a new endeavor — travel, business, romance — one is advised to keep quiet, or “cover your candle if you wish for it to light.” (Another injunction against the evil winds of “overlooking.”)

On a daily basis, most of the 16 million Cairenes are exposed to a fantasy version of a city they cannot participate in, through provocative society pages in glossy magazines or popular youth films flaunting a privileged lifestyle. Given these circumstances — the appalling gulf between those who have too much and those who don’t have enough — it’s a miracle there isn’t more rancor.

What remains is a paradox: a people downplaying their good fortune (to shield it from envy) out of one side of their mouth and noisily thankful out of the other side for what little they do possess, lest they seem ungrateful. And they will remind you, no matter how pitiable their situation, that God created us of different stations in order to better serve one another. Or, in the shrewd wording of yet another proverb: He who looks up, tires. The result is a people disproportionately afraid of envy and yet, to an astonishing degree, remarkably free of it.