In August 2015, a few days after her engagement party, Amal (not her real name) was enjoying tea with her sisters when she complained of a headache.
She got up and left the room before screaming and suddenly fainting. A seizure gripped her entire body and she began foaming at the mouth. Her terrified family held her tight and stopped her from hurting herself.
After a few minutes later Amal calmed down but still lay on the floor exhausted. She slept for two hours and when she woke up she acted as if nothing had happened.
“I think I dreamed of being chased by a snake, or was it a woman carrying a knife and wanting to slaughter me?” she said.
When she finished speaking her mother said, “My daughter is bewitched.”
A strong belief in sorcery is widespread among much of Idlib’s 1.7 million-strong population.
People are convinced that supernatural forces have the ability to control human beings, particularly newlyweds or young men or women who about to get married.
Rather than seeking medical help for symptoms resembling epilepsy, they popularly turn to the practice of al-Ruqyah al-Shar’iyyah, performed by Islamic scholars.
Al-Ruqyah al-Shar’iyyah is the recitation of Koranic verses or prayers by a prominent shaykh. There is a consensus among most Islamic doctrines, both the Sufi style which was dominant in Idlib before the revolution as well as that of the Salafi trend which currently dominates the governorate, that this can be hugely beneficial.
However, the armed Islamist opposition courts which currently dominate Idlib governorate are less forgiving of those they deem to be sorcerers, casting spells and carrying out exorcisms.
They are seen as unbelievers and apostates who face execution.
Amal continued to suffer from repeated episodes every week or so. Sometimes she has more than one seizure a week.
She turned to Islamic scholar Shaykh Safwan (not his real name) to perform al-Ruqyah al-Shar’iyyah on her.
Shaykh Safwan said, “A sorcerer must have deployed a genie in Amal’s body to break up her engagement. I spoke to the genie. Whenever I kick him out of her body he comes back.”
Shaykh Safwan makes a distinction between sorcery and al-Ruqyah al-Shar’iyyah.
“Sorcerers are black magicians, charlatans and brothers of devils,” he said. “They speak gibberish that has nothing to do with the holy book or the Sunnah. I am not a sorcerer and I have nothing to do with genies. All I do is perform al-Ruqyah on the ill person. I recite Koranic verses known to everybody. That way I force the genie out of the body of the ill person because the genie fears God’s words.”
Amal’s mother described how the scholar spoke to the genie.
“The shaykh had a sip of water which he had previously treated by reciting prayers and Qur’anic verses over it, and spat it out on her left hand. That drove the genie out. My daughter stretched out a little and seemed normal. However, a few days later the genie returned to her body.”
A long Ruqyah recitation followed this ritual.
“The session lasted more than an hour,” Amals’ mother said. “The shaykh hit my daughter’s body and head with a water hose. As he was doing so, he reassured us that the beating was not directed at the girl but at the genie. However, the beating left marks on the girl.”
Amal’s mother continued, “At the end of the session, the genie came out of the girl’s mouth. Its exit came with a roaring sound and bleeding from the girl’s mouth. However, the genie was back a few days later.”
During all these sessions, neither the scholar nor those in attendance were able to see the genie.
“We do not see the genie but we speak with him, we hear him and he hears us,” Shaykh Safwan said.
Amal’s mother swore she heard the genie speak at one of these sessions.
“He spoke on behalf of my daughter, but in a strange language. He described the sorcerer who sent him. He said this was a tall tanned man, a married man with four children. He said the sorcerer commanded him to do this upon a request from a woman with green eyes. He also said that this woman envied us and was related to us.”
Amal’s mother said that the shaykh did not ask for money in return for the therapy. But people usually pay a small sum of money for each session, between 500 and 1,000 Syrian liras (one or two US dollars).
Shaykh Safwan does not discount the existence of epilepsy but said that there were two forms; material which could be treated by doctors and spiritual which responded to al-Ruqyah al-Shar’iyyah.
“In 20 years I have successfully treated hundreds of spiritual epilepsy cases,” he said.
A former patient of his, 50-year-old Um Ali said, “The shaykh held my head and recited. He did that several times and in the end I recovered. I was not bewitched. He did not say that I was bewitched.”
However Ahmad (not his real name), a neurologist, said that such purported methods of healing were completely bogus.
“Epilepsy is an organic disease resulting from a disorder in brain power,” he said. “It is treated by prescription medication. Sometimes it can be treated quickly, other times it takes longer. In the latter case sufferers must keep taking their medication, possibly throughout their lifetime. Sometimes, this disease can treated by neurosurgery.”
As for reports that the genie itself could be heard crying out during treatment, the doctor said, “This is the ill person speaking, not the genie. This is the subconscious mind which continues to function even when the person is asleep or unconscious.”
Those who claim the recitations cured them must have been suffering from other conditions, Ahmad said, adding, “Possibly those treated successfully by the shaykh were sufferers of neurological disorders where al-Ruqyah al-Dinniyah can possibly work.”
Hanaa, 30, has been suffering from epilepsy for nearly ten years.
During the first few months of her illness, Hanaa sought help from various shaykhs but to no avail. She then saw a specialist in the city of Homs and was prescribed medicine.
“I am still taking my medication,” Hanaa said. “I rarely get a seizure and if I do get one it is rather mild. I feel that I have recovered. I married three years ago and I now have one child.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there are 50 million epilepsy sufferers worldwide. About three-quarters of those living in living in low and middle income countries do not get the treatment they need.
There are only four neurologists in Idlib governorate. Diagnosis is carried out using EEG and MRI imaging; Bab al-Hawa hospital on the Turkish border has an EEG machine, while MRIs can be carried out at the Radiation Centre in the city of Idlib.
Amal’s fiancé has stuck by her, but has hinted to the family that there is a limit to how long he can wait until she is cured so they can marry.
He wants her family to take her for medical tests, but Amals’ mother said that they had indeed taken her to a clinic in Hama where scans failed to find any anomalies.
Holding back her tears, her mother said, “Believe me, this is sorcery”.