The eye that wounds

In my culture, the evil eye represents all misfortune that may befall us. The eye is solely to blame for what goes wrong: any crisis is a result of its curse.

Art by Alexandra Dent.

And carefully they dabbed a dark blue dye

Upon his cheeks, to thwart the evil eye.

(Nezami Ganjavi, 1198)

I am threading beads onto a strand of blue twine. The beads are blue too, one little vial in turquoise, the other navy. I alternate between colours — turquoise, navy — and after exactly twenty-six of them hang before me, I add an evil eye bead and tie a knot. I repeat the process several times — I am restless without really knowing why, and I find that this settles me. The rings are quite pretty. I give them to those I love. 

When I tell my grandmother about my evil eye rings, she does not understand. Chashme baddoor, she replies: may the evil eye be far, and certainly farther than your fingertips. I realise that I have mislabelled my handiwork. Mamani points out that the charm on my ring — lapis encircling white, lighter blue, and then black — is instead a nazar, protecting us from the chashm zakhm: the evil eye that wounds.

In my culture, the evil eye represents all misfortune that may befall us. The eye is solely to blame for what goes wrong: any crisis is a result of its curse. In some form of demonic reappraisal, we redefine our stressors as acts of the devil, and thereby externalise our afflictions. Our suffering, then, becomes less real; it is the mystical evil eye that wounds us. Spirituality is at the heart of Persian identity, and by attributing pain to the chashm zakhm, we cope. 

The week before my twelfth birthday, I arrived at the children’s hospital and stayed for quite some time. I remember this because I did not get to visit Canberra for my Year Six Camp, and I did not get to try the slide at Questacon. I remember this because there is no signed shirt hanging in my wardrobe. I remember this because I lay pale and still in a wire-framed bed as my body wore away. One morning, mamani visited, and while we walked the art-lined corridors, she noted that the evil eye had wounded me — may it be far, my boy, chashme baddoor

As I write, I think of Layli and Majnun, and how perfectly the poem fits me. Ganjavi muses:

The evil eye has marred your charm, some curse

Has battered you and made your sickness worse,

Soaking your flesh with blood like this, and tearing

With prickly spines and thorns the clothes you’re wearing.

This encapsulates the way that my family views harm. The evil eye is what batters us — it is as simple as that. 

Walk through my front door. You will find a nazar, the cold blue eye perched above the threshold. Walk down the corridors, and spot the eyes. There is a little trinket box with a sapphire nazar set into the lid. A vase of tulips sits at my mother’s desk, and someone has painted an eye onto the glass in quick brushstrokes. I keep my rings in a chipped espresso cup that waits on the kitchen bench. 

Not only do we construct the evil eye, but we relentlessly protect ourselves from it. I think of Emily Dickinson’s “impregnable fortress”, and how she defends the architecture of her soul — the “Corridors” of her “lonesome Place” are concealed, bolted away from pain. My home is so adorned with blue eyes that evil cannot possibly enter. The little amulets are a form of apotropaic magic that deflects harm; just as the Egyptian scarab keeps evil spirits at bay, and just as a porcelain maneki-neko shelters a Japanese family from misfortune, the nazar allows us to retain our integrity.

In a way, though, the evil eye leads to silence. When suffering does arise, we do not speak of it; because we are protected, the presumption is that we are alright. 

I know that my family left Iran in war and bloodshed, but I do not know how this felt. I do not know what they lost, and I do not know how it hurt. I know that our past was traumatic, but in what ways? I wonder why high school history has taught me more about my cultural heritage than my family has, and I lament our secrecy. 

When we shield ourselves from harm through those little blue charms, and when we do not even define the harm itself, our wounds do not heal. No matter how pragmatic and resilient we may become, we need to acknowledge how pain can affect us — we need to speak about it. In migrant families that have been battered by hardship, the silence is too loud. It is not just the evil eye that wounds us: it is a complex system of structural oppression, systemic racism, and an enormous weight of personal loss that tears at our souls.

I thread my beads onto a strand of blue twine, and I think of the evil eye. I hope that we can learn to speak of pain. I hope that we can take off our armour and grow.