“Say ‘mashallah’” is a request, or more of a command, that my family gave me habitually when I first moved back from the US.
A prolonged absence from the Emirates had denied me the opportunity to see the newest members of my family until my return, when I got to meet the babies for the first time.
From the moment I set eyes on my infant nieces and nephews it was impossible not to mention how cute, adorable, beautiful and smart they were.
But every one of those praises directed at the little ones was quickly met with the insistence to say “mashallah”.
Even though I knew the words meant “God has willed it”, usually used to show appreciation, thankfulness and serve as a reminder of Allah’s will in all good news, what I quickly learnt was that in this case, the Arabic phrase was being employed as protection against jealousy, envy and ill intentions or, more specifically, the “evil eye”.
It would be hard to claim the kids’ uncle was jealous of his loveable nieces and nephews but his compliments, minus the Islamic version of knocking on wood, amounted to jinxing the children and asking for trouble.
Not limited to this region and time, the evil eye has been around since ancient Egypt and classical antiquity, with references to it in the Greek and Spanish languages. These societies held and hold different beliefs, views, fears and methods of protection against its strong powers.
Whereas in some cultures talismans, such as the popular Turkish Nazar, are used as defence against the eye, in the region it is held that Allah is the only protector against its evil.
The preferred local methods for distancing the evil are through reciting Quranic verses and/or voicing “mashallah”. The imperativeness of warding this all too evident evil eye off is common among local communities. Not only did the absence of a “mashallah” tempt fate, but it is also believed certain individuals have the power to conjure up the dark forces of the evil eye.
Just as I had endangered my brothers’ kids, many of these unfortunate souls unwillingly carry and spread the evil eye’s bad luck everywhere they go.
“My uncle has it,” one Emirati explained. “Wherever he goes something breaks, or someone gets injured, without fail.”
Keeping the evil eye at bay becomes more of a concern the more fortunate you are.
Another Emirati, who was lucky enough to get a better job away from a company disliked by most of the employees, told me he had to work overtime to keep the “eye” away as they congratulated him on getting out.
More than a superstition, the notion of the evil eye is a tradition that has been passed down for millennia.
So next time you tell an Emirati – or even Arab – parent how cute their baby is, try to remember to add “mashallah” somewhere in the compliment.
But if you forget, do not worry. They’ll surely say it on your behalf.
Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter for The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US
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