To Wish and Bewitch


May 1, 2022 / Zuena Karim



Hide your happiness, or else the spirits will find you.


Everyone always said my grandmother’s house was haunted.

After 19 summers of visiting her house in England, I still jolted past the ominous stairwell leading to the basement, holding my breath as I made it to her room tucked at the end of the hallway. In every crevice of that Victorian-era townhouse, I felt looming gazes emanating from the shadows. My relatives would chatter about evil spirits lurking around, making it seem like the home was alive in the darkness, and the eyes in the family portraits were following me with every step. The only safe place was my grandmother’s bedroom. I knew evil spirits would scurry away from the prayers inscribed on her wall, the burning incense, and the warmth of her aura.

Though I felt protected in her space, I was timid about conversing with my grandmother. My Bengali skills were limited, and I struggled even more to understand her strong dialect. I listened intently to her speak, grasping at every nonverbal cue, knowing I would have to ask my mother to be my translator. My subpar language abilities left me longing to hear my grandmother recount the stories of her past—her immigration experience to England, her days working at a sewing factory, and how she raised my mother and her five other siblings on her own. Instead, I picked up the fragments of her stories from my relatives, piecing together the messages she passed on.

My grandmother’s tales were often abundant with warnings. Don’t tell others your plans, don’t cut your nails during the day, and don’t go down to the basement.
While I listened to my relatives translate these stories, I learned how my grandmother was highly opposed to anyone going out at night because it was an invitation to welcome jinns, supernatural spirits that roamed the world hidden from sight. During this exchange, I felt my surroundings grow eerie, and my palms began to sweat as I checked to make sure nothing was lurking over my shoulder. My relatives told me that I was not safe during the day either, for others could bestow nazar, a curse sprouting from a glimmer of jealousy that could harm the good things in my life. I began to worry about the misfortune outside my door, waiting for me to step out. Already afraid of what I could not see, I was now becoming fearful of what others would notice in me.

***

Over the summers, my grandmother’s dementia progressively worsened, and her stage-four cancer diagnosis shrouded the house in gloom. It was unnervingly quiet when everyone left for work. The silence amplified the screeching of her wheelchair against the mosaic tile as I transported her down the narrow corridor to the dining room. I warmed a plate of soft foods and served her lunch, as she no longer had the strength to do so herself. We often had one-way conversations, where she muttered sentences that I could not comprehend, except for the terms jinns and nazar. I wasn’t sure if she thought I was a complete stranger.





After I tucked my grandmother back into bed, I closely monitored her sleep. To see her in pain and not know if I was fulfilling her needs was devastating. I laid down on the sofa across from her, frantically going through a mental checklist to make sure I cared for her in every way without understanding what she truly wanted.

The emotional exhaustion made it difficult to rest. Scared that she would go while I slumbered, I kept my eyes peeled as I awaited my mother’s return from work to tell me how my grandmother felt. But, as the heat of the fireplace encapsulated the room, my body succumbed to tiredness, and I drifted off into a midday nap.

Later that afternoon, my mother nudged me awake. She kept a cheerful smile on her face, despite knowing my grandmother’s health was rapidly deteriorating. My mother brewed warm cups of tea for herself, my grandmother, and me, which was her post-work ritual. As we sat together on the couch, I asked her what my grandmother was trying to tell me all day.

“Always protect yourself from nazar, and you will live a happy life,” my mother translated.

And so, I heeded my grandmother’s advice, but I lived my life in paranoia.

***

My grandmother passed away two months after I left England. The news came via a WhatsApp message during a meeting in college, where the words of my peers became inaudible. I refused to process what I had read, pretending as if those words were never sent to me. I bit my tongue and kept a poker face until I stepped on the bus to commute back home, staring out at the starless, deep blue sky that soon blurred with copious tears overflowing my eyes.





I clung to her superstitions, as they were the only thing I could remember her by. However, when my mother returned from England, she handed me a small red box left for me by my grandmother before she passed away. My heart wrenched as I opened the present, realizing she remembered me despite her condition. Inside was a gold amulet, intricately engraved with an Arabic prayer that radiated her warmth and was meant to protect me from nazar as I navigated the boundless perils of the world.

But as I clasped the amulet around my neck every day, I began to think that if others were to see my proudest moments, I should expect them to be fleeting, snatched by the envy of those around me. If I refrained from sharing my accomplishments with my peers or posting any pictures from my day, then surely, I would never be jinxed by their jealousy. The only way to live contentedly seemed to be alienating myself in the shadows, away from the looming evil forces waiting to devour any joy they came across.





Living a secluded life by concealing my every thought and action only led me to become the bewitcher myself. Jealousy sprouted within me towards the friends who confidently shared pictures of their days and their achievements. They had control over their fates—joy would not vanish from their fingertips because of supernatural forces. I, who incessantly checked over my shoulder, scrutinized every action and based my happiness on whether the amulet protected me throughout college, longed to be like them.

As I traced my finger over the indentations of the pendant, I couldn’t hold it in the palm of my hand without hearing echoes of her premonitions⁠—protect yourself, for others will curse you. The memory of my grandmother’s warnings cautioned me not to share my joyous moments, but I wanted to rebel. So, I locked the amulet away and silenced the buzzing in my head, simultaneously feeling a sense of peace and guilt for keeping her gift out of sight.

Later that night, I peered out at the stars veiling the sky outside my bedroom window, thinking back to the summers I spent with my grandmother. Although I didn’t hear about her experiences over her lifetime, I felt connected to her world when I listened to her superstitious stories. The more I reminisced, the more I recognized that the amulet was the only remnant of comfort from my grandmother that I possessed.
Though we could not understand each other because of our language barriers, I knew she sought to look after me in ways beyond words. I remembered when she would sneak me candy, rub my irritated stomach while singing a prayer, and gently kiss my forehead. Perhaps, the messages she conveyed to me were distorted in translation. All along, she wanted to protect me from the evil roaming the Earth, not make me live in fear of misfortune.





I will never attain a true grasp of my grandmother’s lessons, but I realized her amulet was not whispering ill-fated prophecies. It was infused with her blessings—a reminder that she was gazing over my shoulder as I navigated my life.

So, there I held the amulet back in my palm, feeling like I was back in my grandmother’s room. It was my safe place.■




by: Zuena Karim

layout: Stevie Harvel

photographer: Alyssa Olvera

videographer: Maddie Abdalla

stylist: Maleni Arredondo, Nikki Shah

hmua: Varsha Vasu, Lily Rosenstein

models: Moyosola Akinsipe, Genesis Pieri


View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
ABOUT        CONTACT        FAQ