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Pakistan: a country obsessed with black magic

4 January 2013

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Daily Times (Lahore)

by Syed Kamran Hashmi

Years ago, I suffered from a common yet severe bacterial infection and typhoid fever in Pakistan. As I was considered ‘charming’ and ‘nice’ (a rare combination in my family), I was initially diagnosed by our in-house physician (my mom) with the usual suspect: black magic. Notwithstanding that I lived in Lahore and belonged to an educated family, my first ‘clinical’ assessment was made by a renowned, well-respected, and experienced professional, an ‘amil’ (faith healer)’ to get rid of the spell (delirium associated with the ailment).

Interestingly, as I had fallen ill, my mom also found some coils of black hair in a desolate corner of our old house. In itself, it is not an unusual finding (since hair can roll anywhere if not disposed of properly), but it helped my mother tremendously to ‘confirm’ her suspicions about sorcery at our house. To the best of my knowledge, she was suspicious about it from day one (the day of my birth or the day she got married to my dad, pick one), like the majority of Pakistanis, and would have made this diagnosis herself even without the ‘expert’ approval or the ball of hair. In any case, I had high-grade temperature, bloody diarrhoea and had lost weight, all of which were considered to be the ‘typical’ presenting complaints of Salmonella Typhi and/or witchcraft simultaneously. With the solid piece of evidence in her hands, she did not have much of a choice except to do the ‘right’ thing first. Therefore, she changed my name immediately to get rid of the evil spirits as a precaution. She then prepared a course of a special ‘anecdotal syrup’ made from the bones of dead animals and birds, including bats as advised by healers (although I am not sure if bats are available in Lahore). If that was not enough, a horrible tasting soup of questionable origin was imported on special request from India, which regrettably arrived faster than a fighter plane.

Even after being on the ‘proper treatment’ for days, I did not show any signs of recovery and continued to be sick with blood draining out of my body. My mom, at that time, finally decided to take the risk of letting a board certified pediatrician evaluate me. On my first visit, Dr Shah made a presumptive diagnosis of ‘gastric fever,’ after listening to the whole story (minus the soup and the syrup) and prescribed me an empiric course of antibiotics manufactured for a total of two weeks duration. With that, I convalesced completely in just a few days. My fever subsided, diarrhoea resolved, and I regained weight without any long-term physical disability except for the ‘brain damage’ from the ‘spell’, which is probably permanent because I think it still persists. To be fair, it has never caused me any problems professionally, but personally, it is a different story.

My story is neither new nor unusual for most of us. We have all heard about it or have personally gone through it, since black magic is so commonly accused of performing ‘divine’ tasks in our minds for centuries. It has built an evasive, slave-like mentality in the subcontinent to explain our personal failures, ill health or business misfortunes by shifting the onus from personal responsibility to someone’s harmful agenda or sorcery. It is also one of the most commonly discussed issues in every household, besides jealousy, servants, religion and of course, in-laws.

Logically speaking, people who claim to create the ‘spell’, diagnose its presence, or provide an anecdote for its cure, all of them share one common characteristic: ignorance (in which they are not alone). Far less educated than even an ordinary middle school graduate, they are clueless about scientific research or the modern ideas in medicine. Lost in snakeskin, bat droppings and animal bones, they learn a few tricks, cram a few terms, and memorise a few verses to extort money from gullible people. Without a doubt, a majority of them, if investigated ‘professionally’, would be found involved in drug abuse (or the drugs business), pathological gambling or running the house, and suspicious pagan practices, breaking all laws of the land that no one cares about in the first place, but that is not the point. In short, they are incapable of casting any spell, causing any harm to people or treating any medical illness.

My mother also learnt her lesson that year, the hard way. She promised herself not to delay the visit to a pediatrician even for a single day, and since then she always took us to the physician and a healer simultaneously. I have grown up healthy enough to write about it, but I still dread getting sick, especially the fevers. Usually, with every degree rise in temperature, the sour taste of a brown coloured, gluey soup intensifies in my damaged brain and I get severe anxiety episodes (which my wife calls ‘spells!’)

The writer is a US-based freelance columnist. He tweets at @KaamranHashmi and can be reached at skamranhashmi at


The above article from Daily Times is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use