Witchcraft rules for women in Islamic Morocco
Lalla Aicha's portly body rests languidly on a mattress as she listens to a young woman murmuring her most delicate secrets.
As she begins to counsel her client, the voice of one of the most popular witches in Fes pierces the air. Coming from an elderly woman, it is at an unexpected high octave.
"That's not her talking," whispers Wafa, a restaurant owner who sought Lalla Aicha's prophecies for two years. "She is possessed by a spirit of a young girl and only in such a state can she see the future."
Islam, Morocco's dominant religion, denounces sorcery as a pagan satanic rite.
However, pre-Islamic practices of black and white magic, witchcraft, beliefs in various omens and superstitions are widespread in the North African country. Many people believe that jinns, or spirits, rule their lives.
Lalla Aicha represents a strong and well-wishing spirit fashioned after a local heroine who battled Spanish colonizers, according to Khadija Amiti, sociology professor at the university of Kenitra, near the capital Rabat.
"The phenomenon of clairvoyance has not diminished, it has only evolved in its methods," she said.
Witchdoctors can be found in most towns and villages. Each has a traditional medicine shop, selling everything from hair-thickening agents to body balms that promise to make a person more popular.
"The Islamic leaders preach against it in mosques," Amiti said, but in practice they turn a blind eye.
"There is a contradiction between religion and the practice of sorcery. But the Islamists ... are interested in fighting other things like drinking wine or not wearing a veil. Their issues are political, not social," she added.
According to Amiti, sorcery is "a cultural phenomenon" in the kingdom of 30 million people and part of everyday life.
"For illnesses people believe more and more in medicine, but for psycho-pathological problems, mostly marital issues, they consult clairvoyants." she said.
Wafa, a charismatic woman in her 50s, belongs to one of the oldest families in Fes. When in her early 20s, she -- as tradition had it -- married her aunt's husband after she died. They had two children and lived in prosperity until 10 years ago, when he divorced her.
Determined to win him back, Wafa spent 100,000 dirhams ($11,200) and two years haunting sorcerers and soothsayers. "Not just in Fes, all over Morocco. I was just like a drug addict. I went to see them several times a day, even at night," she said.
Their therapies varied. In one visit to a fqih, a literate soothsayer with knowledge of the Koran, he told her to cook her husband's shirt.
"He scribbled something on a piece of paper and then I cooked it with my husband's shirt. The more it boiled and bubbled together, the more my husband was supposed to want me," said Wafa.
"On another occasion, I was told to wave a broomstick in my house every day while repeating verses in Arabic and thinking intensely of my husband. I was totally crazy."
According to popular belief, Wafa said, a woman who wants to ensure her husband's fidelity must collect some of his sperm on their wedding night, keep it secure until the day she suspects him of adultery and then give it to a witchdoctor.
Wafa did not think she needed this advice because she had married a man twice her age. Her efforts failed and her husband married another woman.
NOT MARRIAGE COUNSELORS, CLAIRVOYANTS
Fatiha, a public notary, said that family and its preservation are at the heart of Moroccan life.
According to Islamic law practiced in Morocco until very recently, only the man could divorce his wife.
Although the family code has been changed to allow women to divorce their husbands, there is still a stigma for women whose husbands have left them. Women are expected to do everything in their power to return the man to his original family.
"Women here don't go to psychologists or marriage counselors, they go to see clairvoyants. If your husband leaves you and you don't look for help to get him back, people think badly of you as a wife and a mother," Fatiha said.
For a person whose business depends on paranormal powers, Lalla Aicha keeps surprisingly regular working hours. Her office in a tall building in the modern part of Fes opens daily from 9:00-12:30 p.m.. She is closed on Fridays and for a few weeks during the year when the young girl's spirit fails to visit her.