Venturing into the unknown

July 19, 2011

On July 15, I lined up with hundreds of loyal Harry Potter fans outside a movie theatre complex in a faraway land waiting to watch the final Harry Potter movie on the day of its release.

I admit I have a soft spot for the best-selling book series, which brought joy and magic to millions and instilled a love of reading in children worldwide. For 14 years we read, we watched, we wondered and we waited for more.

As I stood in line, a young woman in a headscarf standing behind me asked where I was from. After hearing that I was from Salalah, she said she was Kuwaiti and that many of her friends had been to Salalah during the Khareef, but her family refused to go because Oman was famous for witchcraft and black magic.

It took me a few moments to fully comprehend what she had said before I could respond. Judging by the distance between our spot in line and the entrance to the theatre, I had about three minutes to clear my country's name.

First of all, Oman is not 'famous' for witchcraft. Yes, some Omanis from Bahla and Dhofar especially have been known to dwell in the dark arts, but in no way do they represent the rest of us. Many ignorant people out there tend to lump all our old healing traditions and superstitions under one label: Magic.

Can a woman who collects herbs and plants from the mountains of Dhofar to create traditional medicine be called a witch? No. The same applies to local healers who perform branding on sick people and bloodletting on local divers before abalone season. These ancient practices can be categorised as traditional medicine and are in no way linked to magic.

Moving on to local superstitions, I recently watched an interesting video on YouTube. The person filming was obviously hiding, and despite the low quality of the video, it was clear that an old woman was standing on Al Haffa Beach in Salalah chanting to the crashing waves of the ocean while her 'helper' was down on his knees in the water slaughtering a goat.

I did not find the video surprising at all. For thousands of years, people have been making sacrifices to the sea when it gets rough. In Salalah, many people continue to make such sacrifices when the monsoon starts in order to protect the town and our fishermen.

It's pure superstition, not black magic. It's also a dying tradition, performed only by members of the older generation who are afraid of what will happen if they stop.

Superstitious people from the mountains of Dhofar also make sacrifices to water springs when they dry up in hopes of hearing the sound of gushing water again.

Many Omani families burn frankincense at sunrise and sunset in order to ward off evil spirits, black eyeliner is often applied to new-borns to protect them from the evil eye, and naturally, black cats are believed to be associated with demons. Oman is full of superstitions – that's for sure – even though there is no place for superstitions in Islam.

As for witchcraft, people tell me there are witches in Salalah who can put spells on people and perform hexes, but I have yet to meet one. I'm told they lie low and avoid mingling with the public because everyone knows playing around with magic is forbidden in Islam.

Several years ago when I was taking driving lessons, my instructor forbade me from driving into a small neighbourhood nicknamed Salt Alley on the outskirts of Salalah because he claimed witches and bad spirits lived there. The reason it's called Salt Alley is that families throw salt in front of their doors to protect their homes from witchcraft.

The valley of Khor Ruri east of Salalah is known to locals as the valley of the witches, and I'd say 99 per cent of the people I know won't go anywhere near there. Again, that could be pure superstition.

I know of several people who travel to Bahla and Kenya in order to find experts who can break spells performed by local witches or sorcerers, but I've never actually followed up with anyone to see if it actually worked.

Quite often in Salalah, you hear of stories involving little bundles of animals' bones and verses written backwards found under newlyweds' beds, or the occasional unwound cassette tape surrounding someone's house, but such cases are rare.

Hexes may be true, but in many cases people can't distinguish between conditions like epilepsy and a curse. I knew a girl in school who was epileptic, and her parents took her to India in order to have an exorcism performed when all she needed was proper medical attention!

The aim of this week's column was not to judge or come to any conclusions on this subject, because there are no conclusions. I just felt the need to gently clarify some of our local traditions.

Personally, I think if you truly believe in the power of elements such as black magic, then you open yourself up to things that are best kept at bay. Stay away and you should be fine!

Susan Mubarak is a Salalah-based HR professional in the private sector. She is an avid reader and writer, and enjoys photography and travelling. You can contact her at