Getting to Why (Ethnography 102)
Updated: Jan 23
Asking questions and listening to responses are some of the best ways to begin to understand how our neighbors think and feel. This all starts with the power of wonder. As we suspend our preconceived ideas and assumptions to more fully participate in the amazing newness of life happening around us, do we wonder, “What is this?” or “What could this mean?” with a heart and mind to really learn from our neighbors? As we engage them in basic who, what, when, where, and how questions on all life topics, do we anticipate hearing everyday life stories within the texture of their responses? Can we begin to envision the deeper whys that may define what they believe and how they think?
This example is drawn from my experience with my neighbor, Hasan, and countless others among my neighbors who believe in the metaphysical power of the evil eye. I started with this working definition...
Evil eye: An impersonal, amoral force responsible for misfortune, applied to objects both animate and inanimate, providing meaning to people’s lives in the sense that it creates a cause-and-effect explanation, perhaps even an underlying connectedness between the metaphysical and physical realities of the universe.
...and then as I simply began asking my neighbors questions like these in our daily conversations:
Have you personally experienced the effects of this evil power?
Can you describe your experience?
Where and when did it happen?
How did it happen?
Were you able to protect yourself from it?
If not, could you have protected yourself from it?
Can you avoid it?
What doesn’t work?
How does it work?
What does it do for people?
Do you believe it works as protection against evil, or is it just superstition?
What do your parents believe?
What about your grandparents?
How long has this horseshoe been over this door?
Is it traditional to use colored pieces of glass and horseshoes as protection against evil?
How do you know when something bad happens because of evil?
How do you feel?
How would you protect yourself or others, such as your children or relatives, from evil.
And I received responses like these:
"Years ago, as a child I was sick. We had no medicine. My parents and grandparents read the holy book and then blew on me. I somehow survived. We are now educated and have medicine, but I still do it all."
"From your eye comes energy. That's the evil. It's very real. And that's how it works. The first time you look at something, energy passes from you to that thing. If the energy in your glance is negative then it could somehow destroy whatever you look at, unless it was protected by a specific object or action."
"The reason that is there [pointing to a blue eye painted on a truck] is because that is exactly what people see when they first look at the truck. It protects the truck from envy. It protects the driver from accidents."
"We still like to give beads to one another as gifts, for sentimental reasons, but also to preserve the tradition of believing in cosmic protection, whether or not we truly believe it."
"It's tradition. It's just a little piece of glass on your clothing. It's like footballers kissing their shoes before the big match. I don’t believe it actually protects us. People like to use these little blue glass beads because they are pretty and traditional. But, let's not forget, belief and tradition are mixed. If people stop believing, then tradition dies. That's not good.”
"My grandparents used to force me to wear a blue bead until I reached the age of ten. It's a tradition. Sometimes, I still put the blue bead on my son.”
"This horseshoe has been over our door for 40 years. Do I believe it keeps the evil away? I don't know. Some people believe and some don’t. It's tradition. It's good luck."
"Sometimes we don't want our kids to play on the street, so we say something like, ‘There’s a crazy person down the street!’ and this will make them afraid and they won't want to go outside to play. Or, if our kids are eating candy before bedtime, instead of forcing them to spit the candy out, we might say, ‘The ghost of your ancestors will get you if you don’t!’ Of course, we don’t believe this, but they are influenced by it."
"I believe in evil, sure. But I don't think there is anything I can to do avoid it."
Responses like these emerged from many conversations with neighbors, helping me to understand just a little bit more about their fear of this metaphysical evil power, and the all-consuming burden they carried to protect themselves against it. I began to see how these beliefs and practices were deeply woven into the fabric of their lives and culture. When asked, some acknowledged the power of the evil eye, while others dismissed it. But it seemed everyone respected or at least practiced the tradition of believing in the power of the evil eye and doing all they could to protect themselves against it. Perhaps this near-universal will to sustain the tradition and practice of warding off the evil eye represented a deep-set fear that even influenced those who brushed it off as mere superstition.
I have come to these insights cautiously and carry them gently as I continue to ask questions in an effort to peel back the layers of this evil, fearful world in which my neighbors live. I realize how much more I have yet to uncover. Asking my neighbors open-minded questions starting with the surface realities of daily experience that can lead to deeper questions of belief and worldview helps me to better understand them. As I've said, I just ask the questions. They tell the stories.
Update: I just read this article in AJ reminding me how prevalent (threatening?) this belief is in my part of the world.