Monday, October 27, 2008

The Devil Temptress

No figure is so quintessentially Moroccan as Aicha Qandisha. She is a jinn, arguably the most famous of jnoun, whose existence no Moroccan dares to fully deny. The various myths about her wily ways are told and retold to instill fear in little children, though according to Ilyas fear of ‘Lalla Aicha’ is not as acute as it once was. Whereas people had been afraid to even mention her name in the past,* she is nowadays the subject of many a Moroccan song and joke.

Jnoun exist all over the Muslim world, but Aicha exists only in Morocco. Everyone knows who she is, though the legends about her appearance and background vary greatly. Some say she is an ugly old hag, while others say that she is a beautiful woman – though with the feet of a camel or cow, which she cleverly hides underneath her skirts. A few legends claim that she is from the Sudan – and one of her epithets, correspondingly, is ‘Aicha Sudaniya’. But what is always central to her story is that she is ‘fatna’, a creator of ‘fitna’:** she seduces men, takes possession of them, and drives them mad with obsession. Underlying her story, then, is the very intriguing and very Freudian theme of the conflictual relationship between love, sex, beauty – and danger, madness, and chaos. Aicha Qandisha represents something so irresistible that men are driven to insanity trying to obtain it. She incites a love so all-consuming that it becomes – literally – possessive. Her story and figure express, in other words, the irresistible temptation of beauty, always accompanied by the paralyzing fear that its power may consume you whole.

Aside from this wealth of supernatural myths, there are a few more ‘concrete’ theories about her origins. I was introduced to two of these in Monday’s class, and wanted to share them here – because they are interesting enough not to detract from the mystery that is Aicha Qandisha – if anything (for me at least), they add to it.

One theory connects Aicha Qandisha to the goddesses of fertility and sexuality that were worshipped across the Mediterranean world and Fertile Crescent. In particular, one anthropologist (Westermarck) has linked her to the goddess Ishtar, claiming that her cult was introduced to the Maghreb by the Phoenicians and transformed to fit the cultural context. Indeed, as I discovered with a little internet research, a number of sites devoted to the topic of ancient religions mention Aicha on their lists of goddesses devoted to love and sex. This is not how she is seen in Morocco at all – in any case, this is not how I have ever heard her described; she is simply a jinn, powerful but decidedly dangerous. But it is a very interesting theory. And it may imply that the same kind of re-interpretation befell Aicha Qandisha as did divine female figures in Christianity. Did Islam do what Christianity did? Did the leaders of this compelling new religion consolidate power and patriarchy by transforming a female figure that represents sacred sexuality, and celebrates bodily pleasures, into a hallmark of danger and pollution? Did Aicha only become a jinn when monotheism took away her status as goddess?***

The other theory of origins claims her not as goddess, but as real woman – albeit a woman of great power. According to this story, Aicha was a woman of noble blood who lived in El Jdida (a town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, south of Casablanca) around the 15th century AD. When the Portuguese, who were at war with El Jdida at the time, murdered Aicha’s family, she sought revenge by joining the Moroccan army. Apparently she was so ruthless in her slaughter of foreign soldiers that the Portuguese, who knew her as Contessa Aicha (and indeed, it is very likely that ‘Qandisha’ comes from the word ‘contessa’), decided she could not actually be a woman of flesh and blood.**** This is the story Amma confirmed when I asked her about Aicha Qandisha, and it is also the one Ilyas said he thought was most plausible. It is, of course, the more concrete of the two theories on her origins. But I wonder if the truth may include a little of both. It seems equally plausible to me that the lore on female jnoun derives, at least in part, from the pre-Islamic fertility cults that worshiped goddesses of love around the Mediterranean world; cultures in this region have been in such contact with one another throughout time that it would be surprising if these cults had never made it to Morocco. So perhaps the introduction of Islam did occasion the fall of some particularly prominent divine female figure – her demotion from ‘goddess’ to ‘jinniya’ – and perhaps this figure eventually became mixed up with the legend about a certain supernaturally strong and patriotic woman named ‘Contessa’…

* It is a custom, Ilyas told me, to subtly make a spitting gesture toward your own chest as protection any time you mention the name ‘Aicha’. Being named after the Prophet’s favorite wife must not be an unambiguous honor… How do people conceive of the two very different meanings this name seems to carry? How do women named ‘Aicha’ feel about the two very different figures their name recalls?
** This word, in its most general sense, means chaos, but has all kinds of subtexts denoting madness, darkness, voids, emptiness, lawlessness, and so on.
*** Such powerful new religious traditions never ignore the existence of such pre-existing gods altogether; its leaders are smart enough to realize, I guess, that the lore on such gods will never completely die out among the people. Better to incorporate it into the new tradition and transform it to reinforce your own message, than to deny its existence and risk subversive and unsanctioned worship – a threat to your power…
**** There is another story, incidentally, that may explain the camel feet. This one also claims her as a contessa; a very beautiful one that liked to go swimming in the river and would then walk home wearing nothing but a pair of sandals with very high heels… And not surprisingly, this nude beauty strolling through town turned a number of male heads, permanently so…

1 comment:

Lisa said...

I'm trying to email you to ask more about Aicha and also henna in Morocco for a book I'm writing. I didn't see an email link. Could you email me at