suppose I just have a knack for it,” said Barbara as she sat in her living room festooned in multi-coloured blankets and an embroidered black shawl befitting her station. Barbara is what’s known as a ‘Curandera’ in southern Spain and people have been coming to her for 63 years with their children, pets, and even plants for her to cure the ‘Mal de Ojo’ or ‘Evil Eye’. “I’ve had doctors, lawyers, and priests come to my house for help, I’ve even had people sending me letters stuffed with locks of hair from Germany.”
Barbara is part of a long line of men and women who have taken on the mantel of curing people of the Mal de Ojo in Murcia, Spain. The so-called Evil Eye appears in Judaic, Islamic, and Christian cultures from west Asia through Greece, north Africa, southern Spain and on to South America from there. Belief in the Evil Eye is nuanced. You may have seen the famous blue apotropaic talismans popular in the Middle East and Greece for their presumed ability to ward off the curse. These are known as ‘nazars’ in Turkey and, according to my wise Curandera, do absolutely sweet fuck all for defending yourself from the Evil Eye in Murcia.
“It’s evil and it’s out there, everywhere. There’s no avoiding it, you just have to deal with it once you’ve got it.”
So how does one become afflicted with Mal de Ojo? You ‘receive’ the Evil Eye whenever anybody looks at you with envy. If you’re wearing a nice jacket and you’ve just had your hair done and somebody has the slightest inclination to wish you were without both, then you’re likely to get Mal de Ojo and the effects can be pretty nasty.
Mal de Ojo has been believed to cause symptoms very similar to Herpes gladiatorum, which produces a rash of incredibly painful blisters that the Curanderas believe can join together and end up physically suffocating you. This, I’m told, is only in more extreme cases, however. Most cases involve bouts of lethargy or depression, or extended periods of flu-like symptoms. And it doesn’t just affect humans.
Barbara told me about how a farmer once brought a young heifer to her door as it was having trouble regurgitating its food to be chewed again, as they do. Barbara made her way to the street outside her house where the farmer stood with the animal and cured it. I asked how.
“Prayers,” she told me and her lips twitched into a mischievous grin. It was at this point that it dawned on me, the lady who had sat there talking to me about the effects of Mal de Ojo, and all of the many people her work had brought her into contact with over the years, despite never having to leave the comfort of her front room, was 83. Admittedly, she did have an oxygen tank and a full-time caregiver, but where her body failed her, her mind definitely did not.
“Could you show me any of the prayers you use to cure Evil Eye?” I asked, lulled into a false sense of security by this charmingly youthful octogenarian. She looked me in the eyes and she lit up, this naïve young foreigner had come to her house, asked her a whole load of questions, the likes of which a true believer wouldn’t have dared, and then asked her how to bloody do it.
“No.” It was unequivocal, I gave her that.
As it turns out, there aren’t actually any obstacles to me learning how to become a Curandero. Originally I thought my ethnicity or gender would be problems, but instead it was more of a problem of timing. “Today,” Barbara informed me, “is not Good Friday.” Apparently, generations (and in Barbara’s case, that’d be at least five) of Curanderos have passed down their craft to literally anybody who wanted to learn it on that one particular day every year. She couldn’t tell me exactly why it was that day and no other but it did smack of exactly the kind of strict syncretism that makes me giddy and I left it at that.
Barbara herself has taught countless people on Good Friday, including her own children, but she tells me that it doesn’t always stick. “There was a woman who came to me to learn how to cure the Evil Eye and she wrote down all of the prayers and conjurations I taught her to the letter. I told her, I said that’ll not do her a bit of good. You have to memorize them, you see. It’s all in the intention and if you don’t have that, no amount of prayers typed into your phone will help you.”
I was beginning to like Barbara more and more but I wasn’t about to let her off from telling me something about the process. “Can you tell me how you know if you’ve got the Evil Eye, at least?” She waved her hand at the question, not as if it were a stupid question—she’s way too polite for that—but certainly as if the answer was something I should have known. Even still, she humoured me. “It’s all in the oil. You take your middle finger—the ‘heart’ as it’s known in Spanish—and you dip it into some olive oil. Give it a good, liberal amount on the tip and then hold your hand up and point the finger straight down. If it sticks, you’re good. If it distends and then drops, you’ve got it. Another way, is for me to touch your hair.”
It was at this point that my friend and guide Silvia took over, not least because she has hair and I don’t. It was through Silvia that I’d heard of Barbara; she’d been going to her for years. This had always been something of an anomaly for me since I had met Silvia three years earlier: Here was a woman who had succeeded in every terrestrial, non-esoteric endeavour in life and yet she still seemed to have this superstition. She had opened a private academy in her native Murcia and a hotel in India, she’d saved my freewheeling bum on more than one occasion with her capacity for logic and a hyper-sensitive radar for bullshit, and yet, she still believed in the Evil Eye.
Years of conversations and a slowly emerging love for the city of Murcia helped me to realize that the Evil Eye wasn’t just a simple superstition. It was felt—lived, even—in the environs of Murcia and beyond. It wasn’t a matter of concrete ‘this is why’s’ and ‘that’s how you do it’s’. It was a deep-rooted belief system at the heart of which are people like Barbara who take pride in helping strangers and loved ones alike. The beauty of it struck me in that instant.
Silvia asked Barbara if she could check to see if she had the Evil Eye and the Curandera gestured for her to come and sit next to her. Like a mother soothing her child, she began stroking Silvia’s hair in long, smooth motions. Her eyes closed, Barbara began reciting something so far under her breath it seemed she wasn’t breathing at all. All I could hear was the incomprehensible tapping of a tongue that had fallen into the line of a dance it had danced countless times before. I felt my eyes falling to the ground; I closed my notebook and let the comfortable silence wash over me. It was as if I was party to some mother-daughter intimacy that, being British and male, I felt entirely ill equipped to deal with. But I didn’t feel unwelcome. I was an observer but that part of my role was so distant, so negligible in light of the solemnity of Barbara’s much stronger role as Curandera. She was a healer and as I watched Silvia’s calm, smiling face—neither ecstatic nor pietistic, just quietly happy—I realized why Barbara did what she did.
Barbara doesn’t charge for her services as a Curandera and yet she tells me that, when she performs the conjurations on somebody she believes has the Evil Eye, she can be sick for days. Flu symptoms seem about the best of what she says she suffers after helping somebody and as I watched her touching Silvia I couldn’t help asking myself why she would do it. For that matter, I couldn’t help asking her either. “Pity,” she says “I feel bad for them. They bring me children who cry and those who don’t, babies that won’t suckle and plants that won’t give food. I just do what my mother taught me and it seems to help them.”
When she touched the hair or clothes of a potential victim of the Evil Eye, she told me she yawns or gets shivers if they have it. Silvia didn’t. Despite not being a ‘believer’ I couldn’t help feeling relieved. I’m not going to go around worrying if somebody “strong in sight” is going to look at my favourite pen or most comfortable jeans and give me the Evil Eye unintentionally, but I still couldn’t help breathing a sigh of relief that this lovely old lady from Murcia wasn’t going to come down with something as a result of me taking an interest in what she does. And that seemed to be the point.
Whether it exists or doesn’t, I still think there’s something to be said for the power of belief. Call it a ‘placebo effect’ if you will but people do believe this lady has the ability to make them feel better and, invariably, they feel better. These people aren’t simpletons or fools, they don’t go to her to cure their cancer or to provide an alternative to vaccines for their children, they go to her for something else. They go to her because she’s part of their story.
Just as she was festooned in blankets, her front room was festooned with photos. Black and white, sepia and modern digital, there were dozens of smiling faces scattered around the room. “I can remember all their names,” she told me, and she could, and not just her family members. She could remember the sufferings of countless people and their names to go with them. She’d taught everybody in her village who wanted to know how to cast off the Evil Eye and she seemed to care for each and every one of them. “If I had Facebook I suppose I’d have thousands of ‘friends,’” she quipped. References to social media and ancient orations in the same sitting? Not bad for an 83 year old, I figured.
Then the moment came: I’d run out of questions. She had been so candid, direct, and funny with all her answers I found myself desperately padding through pages in my notebook just to keep the interview going. My quiet frenzy wasn’t lost on Barbara, though, and she threw me a lifeline. “Most of the people I’ve helped get together for a big dinner in the village every year in May, you should go to that,” she said, obviously noticing my dismay at not being able to think of more to ask her. “I’d love to,” I said, in the tones of an overeager schoolboy. “I’ll see you there.” She looked at me with her playful smile and eyes of a 20 year old. “If I’m still alive.”
Looking into those eyes, I couldn’t help thinking, what on this plane or any another would be able to make you anything else?