The sign over the door read “Animal Shelter.”
It tipped our fragile determination off the center of its balance. Had we misunderstood the directions? They had been fairly cryptic – which had seemed only fitting to the nature of our quest. Or was this a clever ruse, perhaps – were we about to engage in something so taboo that a simple unmarked door was not enough disguise? … would we then need a special password to penetrate this curtain of appearance?
My nervous thoughts were interrupted by the sound of keys turning in the lock. The heavy iron door opened to reveal a young girl in pink headscarf and pajamas. She smiled sweetly, and gestured for us to come inside.
I hesitated for a moment, confused by the unexpected normalcy of this encounter. Then, in an attempt to reach out and restore some semblance of balance, we whispered the blunt statement that would yank away the shroud – and either confirm or deny the reality of the mystery we had come in search of.
“Uhm… We’re here for the exorcism?”
The girl nodded again, her expression unchanged. “Right this way,” she said with an encouraging smile, and ushered us in. We were led down a sterile, eggshell hallway; windows along its right-hand wall revealed a patio-turned-terrarium-turned-site of feline urban sprawl. Hundreds of cats darted in, out, and between the iron-grid walls of a metropolis constructed of animal cages.
“You don’t mind cats, do you?” The girl asked, inevitably rhetorically. “We run a shelter for stray animals here.” She turned left, and gestured toward a bare-walled sitting room down the corridor. “He will be right with you.”
With another polite smile she left us there, and returned to her cats. For a moment we stood there silently, awkwardly in the doorway, and regarded the room in front of us. Though perhaps less fancy than usual, it was a Moroccan sitting room like any other. Brocaded sdader (1) lined all four walls, a well-worn rug spanned the sea between them, and a mobile coffee table stood at attention in the center, ready to be rolled to any of the four corners. An overeager, high wattage bulb hung from a wire in the ceiling and boldly shed light on every crevice, depriving the space of any intimacy. This room, too, was populated by a citizenry of cats. A group of kittens huddled, close together, in the corners between couch cushions while their older, more adventurous cousins chased each other around the room in games of adventure and daring. Underneath the coffee table, a few others were enjoying a dinner of fish carcasses – all the while keeping a wary eye on potential thieves.
We took the plunge; stepping over slithering tails and writhing mounds of fur we made our way to a corner of sofa, and carefully sat down. Silently we waited, though not quite knowing for what. Across the room, an older cat tirelessly jumped from one cardboard box to another, in a game of its own invention. It became ever wilder in its jumps, their force propelling the boxes all over the room. Claire and I looked at each other and laughed at the thought that had crossed both our minds:
“You think that cat’s possessed?”
With a broad smile and a “bon soir,” the exorcist then made his entrance. A short, thin, big-bearded old man dressed in white of ambiguous meaning: traditional sarwal down below, Nike dry-fit t-shirt on top.
We returned his greeting with an ambivalent smile: nervousness down below, eagerness on top. Once again, we uttered that strange sentence that seemed so unexpectedly out of place here: “we’re here for the exorcism?”
“Yes, yes,” the man responded nonchalantly. “Marhba, marhba.” Welcome.
“Other foreigners have come to my exorcisms, too,” he continued, in fluent French. “They’re very interested. And of course I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe, myself. But they don’t like Moroccans in Europe. Yes, I’ve been to France, Switzerland; I even studied in Sweden. My father was a diplomat; I had a diplomatic passport. I have a son, now, who studies in France. Oh, but despite that diplomatic passport, I had so many issues at airports. I was always searched. Of course back then, I didn’t understand why. …”
So began an hour-long monologue; a mental voyage back in time, around the world, and – as we had hoped – into the mysterious world of spirits and possession. He wove his theories into the fabric of his stories as though the topic was no more surreal than the hundreds of cats crawling around us. I sat perched on the edge of the couch, my mouth perpetually open in an attempted question – but the man tirelessly spoke, seemingly deaf to our occasional comments.
Meanwhile, the normal activities of an animal shelter continued around us. A family of three had come in and was now being tended to by the girl in pink – undoubtedly the exorcist’s daughter. At their request she picked up and displayed a sequence of cats, helped them choose the perfect pet, packed it in an aerated cardboard box, and then sent the family on its way with all requisite materials.
“… Of course, possession is extremely common in Morocco,” the exorcist continued. He had pulled up a stool and seated himself in front of us – back turned to the daughter, who was now covered in crawling cats. “At least 80% of all Moroccan women are possessed.”
He had anticipated the surprise in our eyes. “Yes, really,” he said. “It’s the parents’ fault. They go see a sorcerer, thinking that they’re protecting their daughters against extramarital sexual encounters, but once the time comes to get them married off, they discover it’s not that easy to get rid of a demon.”
The exorcist’s daughter seemed oblivious to the surreal stories her father was telling us. Her attention was claimed entirely by the throng of unruly cats climbing across her shoulders. Gently she attempted now to instill some discipline, picking each one off her body to administer a dosage of medication and releasing it onto the floor – only to have it crawl back up her legs.
I managed to interject a question. “Does possession always occur through a sorcerer?”
“Not always,” the exorcist responded. “There’s also the evil eye. But most of the time it’s a sorcerer (2). They’re all charlatans. They’ll do anything for those poor naïve parents, as long as they pay – but they’re playing dangerous games. By the time the daughter’s old enough to get married and you need him to undo the spell, the sorcerer will be gone, or dead, and there’ll be no way of finding out where he buried it (3). And then they come to me, in the hopes that I can help them out.”
“And do boys get possessed too?”
“Yes, yes, sometimes parents do it for boys as well. But most often it’s girls. Of course, I’m possessed. I have been, since childhood. I found out because someone told me. Some people can see demons, you know, just like they can see human beings. This person saw my demon – he saw him, with horns and everything – and he told me, ‘you have a demon up there on your shoulder.”
The exorcist leaned down, gently purred at and petted the cat that had nestled itself in between his feet, then continued. “I can see them, too – but I usually see them wrapped up in sheets. I can’t see their face.
“I’ve been possessed since I was six, but for a long time the demon didn’t bother me. It wasn’t until I became more religious that he tried to conquer me. Demons can’t stand prayer, or the Qur’an. But I dealt with it, I still prayed.”
The exorcist here segued into a tangent about his religious credentials, and described what it was like to be the only Arab in a Saudi Arabian class on Islamic theology (4). In terms of piety, he explained, he had been somewhat of a late bloomer.
His stories were only marginally disturbed by the entrance of a tall young man. Thin as a rod, he regarded us shyly with sallow, sunken eyes and announced his presence with a soft and polite “salam aleikum.” Behind him followed a woman, his mother: half as long and three times as wide as he, wrapped up in scarves and jellaba. The exorcist briefly acknowledged them both with another “marhba,” and gestured toward a spot on the sofa. He had just been telling us of the many other foreigners he had had at his exorcisms, and now wanted to know what had brought us to Morocco.
“Ah, the Clinic, yes, I know it well!” The exorcist exclaimed, upon learning the topic of my research. “Yes, I used to live right there, I know some of the doctors (5). Of course, psychiatrists are all charlatans. All they want is money. In fact, hardly anyone really has a psychiatric illness. 90% of the people at that hospital aren’t sick at all; they’re possessed. Psychiatrists can’t help them. In fact, psychiatric medication does more harm than good. You know, those anti-depressants can even increase the risk of suicide. Is Dr. Chikri still there at the Clinic? Yes, he’s the biggest quack of all.”
He now eyed the pair that had been quietly sitting on the sofa for upwards of 10 minutes. “This young man, for example. He was hospitalized at the Clinic for a while. But they couldn’t do a thing for him. He’s not sick; he’s just possessed. That’s why they come to see me, now. I’ve been treating him for a while. His mother, too. Last time they were here and I recited the Qur’an, she began to cry; this means that she’s probably possessed, too.”
The exorcist now got up from his stool, and began to rearrange the cushions by a particular corner of the sofa. He was preparing for his treatment, he clarified. He would have us all sit down right there, so that we could look into his eyes as he recited from the Qur’an.
“Now, demons cannot stand the Qur’an,” the exorcist explained as he worked. “So when they hear my recitation they’ll rebel, and this will lead the possessed person to react violently. Don’t be afraid, come and sit here, and look into my eyes while I recite. If you feel anything – anger, or sadness perhaps – you might be possessed. Possession isn’t as common in the West, but you never know. I’m going to assume you are possessed, because I always do, but let me ask you a few questions, first.”
The exorcist proceeded to take a brief history. “Do you ever have any trouble sleeping? Any nightmares?”
We shook our head in denial, and with a bit of relief.
“Do you ever see any strange shadows?”
Again, we denied.
“Are you married?”
Our negative answer this time constituted a potential warning sign. “Hmmm,” the exorcist responded. “How old are you?”
My revelation raised his eyebrows. He looked at me for a second, as though looking for something in my eyes, and then turned away. “Well,” he then decided, “let’s see how you react to the Qur’an.”
He headed to the other side of the room, and finished up his preparations by unscrewing the top off a 2-gallon-size water bottle that had been placed on top of a wooden dresser. Behind them, a grey kitten sat perched atop a neat row of books - Qur’ans alternated with literature on the proper care of cats. “This water burns the demons,” the exorcist explained as he pushed the kitten’s outstretched nose away from the bottle’s mouth. Along with his recitation, these bottles were meant to render the living room a severely hostile climate for any demon present.
The exorcist then collected the cats present in the room, and exited. The young man’s mother turned to us and smiled, gesturing politely toward the makeshift treatment chair. “No, no,” I responded with a polite smile of my own. “We’re just here to observe today. Please, go ahead, tfeddli.”
“You were at the Clinic?” She then asked, eagerly. Her eyes were soft, tired. I nodded, and explained that I work there.
“My son spent a few weeks there,” she then revealed, in echo with the exorcist. She cocked her head to the side, implicitly gesturing toward the young man beside her.
“Were the doctors able to help him?”
She nodded. “It was good,” she explained, her story now diverging from that of the exorcist. “He got better. And the medication helped. He took Nozinan?” (6). The question mark in her expression and tone sought recognition. I nodded again; “Yes, I know that medication. I’m glad it helped your son.” She smiled, then sighed.
“But the hospital is far away, and those pills are expensive. So now we come here. This is good, too.”
The exorcist now walked back in, his wet forearms suggesting that he had just performed the ritual ablutions required in preparation for any reading of the Qur’an. With an outstretched hand he invited us to take our seats. We politely but firmly declined, explaining that today, we would just be observing.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come and sit here?” He urged again, smiling seductively. “Don’t be afraid!”
We declined once more, and he moved on to invite mother and son. He helped them settle in, adjusting cushions and encouraging the mother to lean back, take a load off. He then placed a hand flatly on top of her head, locked eyes with her, and simply began.
His recitation was melodic; a calm trickling stream of words that seemed instantly to soothe his two patients. They drifted back into the cushions, limbs visibly releasing muscle tension, and their eyes gradually fell shut.
I looked around the room as he recited. Its bright light snuffed out any hint of ceremony. In fact, the exorcist had done nothing to mark the occasion of a ritual. Other than the washing of his forearms, nothing signified any departure from the ordinary flow of day-to-day activity. Through the open living room doors, we could hear the exorcist’s daughter tending to her daily responsibilities in the kitchen; cats settling squabbles over in their feline village. An open window sent in the sounds and smells of the busy street below. Cats wandered in and out, settling down on the carpet and joining in on the recitation with a baseline of purrs.
The exorcist occasionally broke up the steady flow of his words with unexpected bursts of volume or tone. But even these vocal surprises failed to trigger the kind of reaction that he was looking for. His patients remained frustratingly calm. After about 10 minutes of unsuccessful recitation, he stopped.
“Do you feel anything?” He asked. Mother and son shook their head in denial, never losing eye contact with the exorcist. “Nothing?” He asked again, to verify. “Any anger, sadness?” Again, a negative response. He turned to us with the same question; we, likewise, could only deny. The shaking of my head gave expression to my silent sense of relief.
And so the exorcist continued, returning to the calm cadence of Qur’anic Arabic. The two patients sank back into the cushions, closed their eyes, and drifted off once again. A group of cats had now begun to stir. A creature or two secured the grappling hooks of their nails securely in the fabric of the sofas, and proceeded to climb up, down, and across the cliffs and rises of its cushions.
With a jolt, the young man suddenly sat up and opened his eyes.
A kitten had made a leap from the couch cushion behind him, and landed with a thud on the young man’s shoulder. He looked down at the creature, bewildered. Then picked it up, and put it down on the sofa beside him. He tried to settle back into his groove, but his concentration was gone; the cats’ invasion of the sofa was irreversible.
The exorcist continued, seemingly oblivious to the feline interference. He coaxed and pleaded with the demons he believed to be present, playing good-cop-bad-cop with a voice that alternated between soothing recitation and violent syllabic bursts.
When, after 30 minutes, he still had not produced the desired response, the exorcist finally gave up. “Nothing?” he asked, once more. His patients once again shook their heads in denial, their expression almost apologetic. They thanked the exorcist with a shake of the hand, and left the apartment as silently as they had come.
The exorcist turned back to us with the same question. “Nothing?”
We, too, shook our heads in synchronized denial. We scootched forward on the sofa, eager now to end this evening and return to a sense of reality.
“I’m sorry that tonight wasn’t more interesting,” the exorcist continued. “Sometimes recitation just doesn’t work. I know why; it’s those sorcerers, they make… what do you call those? That you hang around your neck?”
“talismans?” Claire offered.
“Yes, talismans. They protect the demons against the Qur’an, so my treatment doesn’t work. Anyway, you must come back some evening; hopefully next time it’ll be more exciting. Marhba, Marhba.”
We had, subtly but surely, managed to stand up and inch our way out of the living room. We moved as though we were trying to slip out unnoticed, an abrupt goodbye seeming like too rude a gesture after this man’s generous though bizarre form of hospitality; too rude a rupture to the natural flow of his stories. We walked to the door with the exorcist in tow, soliloquizing; until our hands on the door knob harmonized with another “marhba, please come back,” and the click of the door unlocking put a final period behind this evening’s odd experience.
(1) Moroccan sofas
(2) Between the evil eye and a sorcerer, the exorcist here suggested that possession always occurs through the interference of a willful, flesh-and-blood agent. As far as I know, this theory is a departure from the general popular lore on spirits – which holds that possession could occur any time one crosses a spirit the wrong way.
(3) Implicit in this account is a theory that I’ve heard elsewhere: sorcerers employ physical objects in the casting of their spells. These objects are then buried in a secret location; finding that location is the key to undoing the spell.
(4) The exorcist discussed his religious education, but never actually gave himself a title. But, given his methods and knowledge of the Qur’an, I assume that he would be considered a fqih.
(5) The exorcist used the word “to live;” he specifically did not use the word ‘hospitalization’, but I wonder if that is what he meant.
(6) Nozinan is an anti-psychotic.