One afternoon last April, I stood in the doorway of my daughter’s room, watching her prepare for a big recital. She was going to perform with her middle-school orchestra in Santa Monica. She packed her violin, rosined her bow, put on a black dress and tamed her wild hair into a bun. ‘‘There,’’ she said. ‘‘I’m ready.’’ How lovely she looked, how determined. Had I been half as confident as this when I was 11?
‘‘Wait,’’ I said. From my pocket I pulled out a brown suede pouch bearing the name of a little jeweler in Rabat, the kind of place you send your friends to and say, tell him I sent you. In the pouch was a necklace with a silver khamsa — a charm in the shape of an open palm.
Her eyes widened at the unexpected gift. ‘‘Thank you,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s so pretty.’’
‘‘It’s to protect you,’’ I said.
When I was a child in Morocco, khamsas cast their protective shadows on everything. They were embroidered on tablecloths, hammered into brass trays, painted on the bumpers of big trucks. They served as door knockers or kept vigil on the outer walls of homes. As jewelry, they were wrought from pewter, silver or gold and inlaid with enamel or precious stones.
Why? Because the evil eye is serious business. If your husband went from adoring you to neglecting you, it was the evil eye that caused it. If your healthy child suddenly landed in the hospital, it was the evil eye. If you wore a white linen dress and ended up with an ugly green stain before lunch, it was the evil eye.
Of course it doesn’t make sense. But then again, how much about personal disaster makes any sense at all? In the face of unexpected calamity, we tend to say, it started out as just an ordinary day! Well, yes, it started out as just an ordinary day, until an envious neighbor evil-eyed you.
That, at least, is what my grandmother believed. She wore a khamsa all the time. Years ago, when I was about to sit for my ninth-grade examinations, she insisted that I wear one, too. These exams were important: They would determine not only whether I would graduate from middle school but also whether I would study science or literature in high school, and even whether I could apply to certain colleges later. When my grandmother handed me the necklace, I smiled, barely suppressing my condescension. I was 14; I knew everything. ‘‘It’s a silly superstition,’’ I said.
She fixed her milky eyes upon me. Her chin was marked with tattoos, and her hands were perpetually hennaed. She didn’t know how to read or write, but she knew which leaves to brew if I caught a cold, which seeds could restore my appetite, which concoction could clear my skin. It was knowledge passed on to her by her foremothers, women who had little to rely on in the world but themselves. ‘‘Laila,’’ she said. ‘‘Put it on.’’
No one worried more about me than she did. So I put the khamsa on to make her happy. I passed my exams and went on to high school and college and graduate school. Over the years, my head filled with other kinds of knowledge, handed down to me in the form of books, a wealth of logic and reason and certainties. They provided me with explanations for many things, though not for the mysteries of luck.
Once, rushing for an elevator, I called for the man inside to hold it. He did. Now he is my husband. Good luck, you might say. Some years ago, my younger brother was admitted to a hospital, complaining of back pain. Kidney failure. Bad luck.
I could not see a reason that fortune and misfortune struck with such randomness. Eventually, the distance between my grandmother’s world and mine, a distance I had thought unbridgeable, began to shrink. What once seemed a foolish superstition became something else: the expression of a human desire to somehow tilt the odds in your favor. I took to wearing a khamsa. The silver amulet rests close to my heart, as if my grandmother’s hand were reaching back across time to touch me.
My daughter uncoiled the necklace I had placed in her palm and held it aloft. ‘‘Protect me from what?’’ she asked.
‘‘The evil eye.’’
‘‘I don’t believe in that stuff.’’
‘‘Well, it looks great on you.’’
Then the moment I have dreaded since I gave birth to her arrived: She rolled her eyes. ‘‘O.K. Whatever.’’
We went to the school recital. I sat in the second row and watched as my daughter filed onto the stage with her classmates. The conductor came in, and the audience settled into a reverent silence. The first notes of Zach Wallmark’s ‘‘Rue de Royal’’ filled the auditorium. Then it was the first four movements of Grieg’s ‘‘Peer Gynt,’’ and for a finale a selection from ‘‘Phantom of the Opera.’’ Not a single misstep. A phenomenal success. See?
Laila Lalami, 47, is the author of ‘‘The Moor’s Account,’’ a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, which will be published in paperback next month.
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