Msysh: The power of the eye

Patiently Edona explained to me, “Evil eye gets unleashed when someone thinks ‘Oh this is good, this is nice.’ It will also happen when someone thinks that you are looking good or pretty and, finally, it can occur when someone wishes that her son or daughter would look just as good as you do.”

Then she got up from her couch and shuffled towards the window to look out over her busy farmyard where her lively grandchildren were chasing each other around the farm machinery that her sons were in the process of repairing. Turning around, she warned: “This is the power of the eye. You must take care, Hanna.”

With a sigh she returned to the couch where I was sitting scribbling notes and sipping piping-hot mountain tea.

“Do you think that people have experienced more evil eye since the war?” I asked. Inwardly, I scolded myself for asking such a question. It was not as if the annual evil eye survey had just been published in the local news.

Nevertheless, Edona entertained my question by saying that she felt it was on the rise because this was a time of great uncertainty with an erosion of social cohesion, a steep rise in unemployment and poverty, and widespread corruption. “There is so much misfortune and people feel stuck. Nothing seems to work for us even though we try so hard to get things going, to have our own independent state, to have a good life.” People, she explained, were mistrustful and afraid that the little they had could be taken away from them by friends filled with too much admiration, hateful neighbours, or even envious family members. Hence, they were on their guard, monitoring conversations and actions for signs and symptoms to manage any potential misfortune and keep malefactors in their place.

One day, I found Elma sitting exhausted on the floor rocking her little granddaughter in a wooden cradle. I joined her and waited for her to tell me what was going on. Finally, she said, “Kaltrina suffered from msysh (evil eye) and cried non-stop for what seemed like an eternity.”

“Why? How did that happen?” I asked curiously.

“Her mother took her to the house of the dajë (uncle from mother’s side). When they returned home, Kaltrina cried and cried and cried. The nusja (daughter-in-law) said that she suffers from msysh. She always gets it when she visits her uncle’s place.” Lowering her voice, she added “I looked at her and it was true.”

I wondered out loud, “How did you see that she has msysh?”

Resting her foot, with which she was pushing the cradle back and forth for a moment, she explained patiently, “You have to place the baby on a blanket and move your hand three times from your chin to your forehead.” She imitated the movement making kissing sounds when her hand passed over her mouth. “When the baby yawns, it has msysh.”

In a hushed tone she continued, “When Kaltrina was at her uncle’s place, she always yawns when I do this. So, I took a bit of salt between my fingers and covered her eyes with a cloth. Three times, I circulated my hand that held the salt around her head. Then, I threw the salt into the fire and washed Kaltrina’s head.”

Elma went on to explain that this was why she tried to keep family relations in line. She felt discomfort observing how her nusja’s relatives gained greater and greater influence over her family by strengthening their emotional bonds with Kaltrina. “Hanna, here in Kosova children belong to their father’s family. You know that, right?”

“Mhm, I do. It’s to do with blood and milk lines” I replied.

“Ha! Yes,” said Elma, moving her foot vigorously up and down again giving the cradle a good push. “The father’s line is the blood line – it is strong and sustains the family. The mother’s line is the milk line – much weaker but also somehow nourishing. It’s not like we don’t need our mothers’ relatives. Especially the dajë is important.”

She said that the maternal uncles often had strong emotional ties to their nieces and nephews, were considered the main guests at all rites of passage, such as circumcisions, weddings, and births, and helped financially when debts needed to be repaid, there wasn’t enough money to put food on the table, or an investment needed to be made. But these relations had to be managed tactfully, and tensions could arise when maternal influence on family affairs went too far. Raising her eyebrows, Elma said scornfully, “sometimes they demand more influence over family affairs than they are supposed to. They can even go so far as claiming the children in a case that a woman’s husband dies, or her husband divorces her.”

To me, it sounded like a constant balancing act to keep family networks running smoothly especially when one’s livelihood depended on them at a time when state support was almost absent, the socio-economic environment was rapidly changing, and resources were hard to come by.[1] I wondered if evil eye was more than an expression of distress in the face of such uncertainty and precarity. Maybe it was a sign for women to pause, review family relations, and rebalance the formal kinship system in case it had got out of hand while drying the tears of their offspring.

Women knew the signs well. They knew when social relations were unhinged, when the scale was off balance, when conflicts and tensions were brewing behind a façade of family and community harmony and solidarity. Their bodies knew too – reacting with sudden feelings of mërzitna[2] and experiences of strong headaches, crying without reason, nausea and vomiting, shaking, weakness, problems with breast feeding and the sensation of moving heat.

Sitting on shilte (foam mats) near the warm stove in Fatmire’s living room, a group of women had lingered on after a meeting with international humanitarian aid providers. The foreign women had left in their Jeep and Fatmire made more coffee for us while sharing her “West” cigarettes with those who felt like having a smoke while relaxing. Edona, who was sitting next to me, her legs tucked under her long tiger print skirt, nudged me and announced, chuckling to the group, that I had asked her recently about msysh. “Kuku! Msysh!” the women exclaimed clicking their tongues and shaking their heads. Finding she had an audience Edona continued her tale telling us that recently her nusja’s family had come for a visit to see her new-born baby. “When they left, she suddenly had problems breastfeeding, her face flushed red, and she felt heat in her head. You should have seen her, she looked terrible!” To lessen her nusja’s pain, Edona had prepared a nezra (offering) and brought it to the tyrbe nearby.

Learta, a woman in her early thirties chimed in recounting that she had recently returned from a wedding with a tremendous headache. “I had such a strong headache. It really hurt strongly, and the women told me, ‘Your head is separated into two halves.’ This can happen when you experience msysh.” The women nodded knowingly, shaking their heads disapprovingly from side to side while Nora picked up the thread revealing her adult daughter’s experience with evil eye. “After she had returned from Germany, she felt really sick. She had a high temperature and was very weak. We went to the doctor with her and to the hospital. The doctor told her to stop breastfeeding her child. The medication that he gave her didn’t help and we took her to the Sheh in Rahovec. While he was writing an amulet for her, she felt very hungry suddenly. She asked me to bring her qebapa, ate them all and felt much better afterwards.”

Fatmire who had poured the coffee, distributed the small steaming cups among us. The conversation shifted to the weather and from there to farm work and the low market price for sacks of peppers. Peppers, which had been grown first in green houses and then in the fields by the women and their children through back breaking labour over the summer. As I took in the smell of the sweet Turkish coffee, my mind filtered out the chatter and wandered back to the stories of the eye. Stories that told of tensions connected to estrangement and reintegration, heads splitting in half, and bodies becoming weak, even shutting down, no longer able to provide nourishment for their dependent babies. They also told of joyful events like family gatherings, celebrations and weddings that turned into hotbeds for overt admiration, jealousy and envy among friends and families. While valorised and celebrated, community ties appeared to be less stable and could easily split under pressure, rather like the splitting heads during episodes of strong headaches, while those affected experienced excruciating pains in the process.

“Doctors are incapable of dealing with msysh” Bukurije exclaimed while Luljeta said matter-of-factly, “God gave us people with healing breaths and prayers and amulets. We should consult them when we aren’t doing well.”[3] I followed this advice to learn more about the support they provided to women in distress. When I visited Valdete for the first time, she told me, not without pride: “Doctors and psychiatrists aren’t quite ready to heal the problems we are able to heal. I respect them, but they have a long way to go.” As I was taking notes, it didn’t pass me by that Valdete seemed to be a notetaker herself – there were several notebooks on her wooden table, on shelves that had insects crawling between them, and in the corners of the room wrapped in plastic bags between cobs of corn, fir cones, and kernels of grain. “Unlike these doctors, I don’t need to endlessly talk to people to find out what’s bothering them,” she said. “When I write their names in my book, I know what troubles them.”

The list of names grew while we were talking as people kept calling to make appointments which Valdete jotted down. “I should just throw this phone out. It doesn’t give me peace and people call whenever they feel like it,” she muttered annoyed, stuffing the phone into the pocket of her well-worn vest.

“What are they calling for?” I asked
“Oh different things” Valdete began vaguely. “Problems connected to love, childlessness, unemployment, strings of misfortune, pains with inexplicable causes, jealousy and conflicts.”

“Evil eye?”

“Lots of evil eye. It often triggers their conditions.”

Picking up a blackened metal spoon from the gas burner in front of her, she pointed to a glass bowl of water at the bottom of which splinters of lead had sunk. “While evil eye can be strong at times – people can die from it, it is mostly relatively easy to deal with. The person will feel relieved simply by being with me while I am melting the lead.” Lead, she explained was her preferred method to address evil eye. “It’s my way – it’s what has been gifted to me. Others have their own gifts – they might use blessed water, write amulets, pray or breathe on people with their healing breath.”

Just a few weeks before, I had met the village hoxhenica[4] who was blessed with healing breath and power to pray over evil eye. She had come to visit me one morning wearing a grey coat, bloomers and a white scarf covering her hair. Slowly she placed a brown bag on the living room floor, opened it and withdrew a yellow towel that she spread over the coffee table. I watched her curiously. The towel served as protection for a Koran and a book containing the verses of the jassin. She asked me to sit down, said bismillah, and started to sing the jassin in Arabic in a soft but confident voice. For fifteen minutes her singing filled the room and lulled me into a state of relaxation. After closing the book, she looked up saying, “I am ready to be interviewed by you.”

I was a little startled as I had not expected to interview her. At least not that day. So, a series of conversations started between us over the following months concerned with supporting and healing women in distress. “Some people need the doctor. Others need the Sheh, while again others need frym (healing breath) or prayer.” She explained with confidence that she knew immediately when someone suffered from msysh as her eyes would start tearing and her head became heavy. “When I feel like this, I start praying to God and ask him to transmit all his goodness to this person. I say the first two dove prayers seven times, the third and fourth dove prayer three times and the last two one time.”

Sitting back, she closed her eyes, and said the dove prayers in Arabic for me to listen to and record. She concluded, “I pray with all my heart and in between I blow on the person.”

For thirty years, she had been travelling from village to village to “sing and pray to grieving women and heal them from nervoz, mërzitna and msysh.” In the post-war years, she had become busier. “Women struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes they feel stuck in their lives and there seems to be no explanation for it. There are other forces at play that need dealing with.” These forces, she explained, are elusive and lack transparency. They are obscure, difficult to grasp, impossible to pin down. They have no name. And yet, they have tangible consequences as they keep people stuck in one place, ensnarl them in conflict, cause restlessness and bend bodies in pain.

The fountain powering these forces springs from community itself. From the networks of informal communication or “talk” that crisscross the social fabric, like veins on a stone, bringing about tense connection and friction between people and societal structures. This tension, in turn, makes visible suppressed grievances within familial power structures, community strife, and corruption that prevents those with limited social capital to grow beyond the ability of fulfilling their basic needs. It emboldens women with little sway over family affairs to keep relations at arm’s length justifying social exclusion for the sake of their own wellbeing, all the while exposing themselves to the same possible fate. It also helps them to deflect from their own responsibilities, choices, and personal difficulties, by projecting experiences of distress onto external culprits such as in-laws, friends, and neighbours. Such connected knowing and acting enmeshes women in moral webs that expose seemingly disconnected themes transforming them into patterns of critique of societal structures, power, and morality and make visible how these seldom talked about forces impact on precarious lives. Navigating these contradictions, tensions and uncertainties is uncomfortable, often painful and never straight forward – just as with anything else in the everyday life of a post-war and economically unstable society.

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

* Research for this piece was conducted between 2007-2009.

[1] For the importance of and tensions among family networks in post-war societies, see also Michaela Schäuble’s (2014) book “Narrating victimhood: Gender, religion and the making of place in post-war Croatia.

[2] Mërzitna translates into to be sad, worried, or bored. It signifies feelings of uneasiness, nagging concern, or listlessness. Its emotional force can be expressed through physical and emotional pain. See blog story “Mërzitna: A conspiracy of emotion

[3] Like Bukurije and Luljeta, many other women I met sought out traditional healers, fortune tellers, hoxhenicas, and shehs in the hope of receiving respite from their worries, pressures, and pains.

[4] Hoxhenica is a title used to refer to women who teach the Koran, sing during funerals and have healing powers.

Share This Post