Couscous of the Dead, Part I - Witchcraft and Graveyard Theft in Morocco,Coimetrophobia - Fear of cemeteries
Why are Moroccan afraid of cemetaries ?
Some years later, in 1935, I happened to glance at the local newspaper and was startled.
Bodies were buried only a few spans deep, usually without a coffin, wrapped in cheap muslin. Nothing of value could be sought or found on them.
In a matter-of-fact style, the police were reported as having caught two women in the act of busily digging up a body in a graveyard. So these macabre happenings actually went on. It said so, in black and white.
I continued to be puzzled. Why should anyone want to mess around with corpses?
In a roundabout way, I sought information from those Arab acquaintances with whom we had established a certain tie of friendship. I received no satisfactory response, but soon became convinced that the oasis city of Marrakech hardly sheltered a single person unaware of the practice.
People wee evasive about the reasons–they merely expressed awe at the perpetrators’ stoutheartedness.
Those reckless ones weere not afraid of Aisha-Qandisha, the ogre who roamed the cemeteries at night.
Taller than a man, she had a woman’s torso, a camel’s legs, and a bloody wound beneath each eye. Her eyes glowing like coals, she pursued all humans, but was particularly fond of catching men.
I began to look at cemeteries more attentively. When passing by, I would sometimes step over the crumbling wall and walk among the mounds.
The Moroccan graveyards were–and still are–treeless and bushess patches of desert.
Skies glassy with the glowing sun made cemeteries look like mazes of trash piles or junk heaps dug up by moles.
No human hand ever cared for those haphazardly scattered mounds, and no flower ever decorated them: why be concerned about earthly remains destined by Allah to decay?
Only some of the most recent barrows had a tilting tile stuck into the ground at either end.
As I gradually became familiar with teh nuances of Arabic, my ear started to catch such strange comments as:
“Mohamed is going like mad after Lila, the dancing girl. She must be feeding him kneecap.”
“What else could Mustafa have died of but swallowing a ground tooth? And it happened right after he brought a new wife into the house, a really young one, in addition to his first wife.”
More frequently, it was said:
“These ashes are extremely potent against such and such an ailment–unfortunately they are also expensive.”
But I also overheard whispers:
“As soon as he had finished eating his dish of couscous, his guts were contorted by cramps. They probably stretched him out right next to the one whos ehand had rolled the couscous granules.”
Finding a single missing letter may solve a crossword puzzle, and a single word made me grasp, one day, the meaning of all these disparate utterances.
Add the word “corpse” to the teeth, kneecaps, and ashes, and you had the answer–one sought help from the dead against ailments of body and of soul.
Dead bones were to repel disease, and to help ward off witchcraft, widely practised in Morocco at that time. This practice was usually harmless, but there were many serious consequences too.
Polygamy bred intrigue and quarrelling among the wives, each of whom was on the look-out for her own interests and those of her children.
Small wonder, then that the more potent cures were brought in from the graveyard, when every other means had failed to soothe despair and rage.