Ask anyone in Khiva about the evil eye and they will generally lower their voices and look over their shoulder before giving you an answer. Seventy years of Soviet scorn for such superstitions has not eradicated the belief in the evil eye, even amongst Russified Khivans.
The concept is not a new one nor is it unique to Khiva or even to Central Asia. It is believed that an evil power exists that finds ways of harming others through the deliberate or unintentional gaze of certain people. Complements or envy are the main way in which the evil eye can be put on someone and in Khiva it is thought that usually old people, particularly women that have ‘hard eyes’ and are able to inflict the evil eye curse.
Sometimes the curse is unwittingly passed on by compliments
and praise, whilst other times it is done in spite due to envy of wealth
Babies are considered to be most at risk from the evil
eye and for the first forty days after birth are kept in seclusion and
away from visitors as they are still too weak to withstand the eye. The
beshik, or cradle is designed to totally cover the baby and to add protection,
a knife, bread and an onion are placed under the mattress. These are just
some of the ways protecting against the evil eye. The knife is used for
its sharpness, the bread is placed there because bread is holy and the
onion is considered ‘achik’ or hot, which the evil eye does not, apparently,
care for. Usually a triangular cloth charm is hung on the top of the beshik,
stuffed with cotton and with verses from the Koran.
These triangular pouches are also hung up in cars with the words ‘may your road be white’ written on them, to offer protection from bad driving. To protect houses from the evil eye, dried chili peppers are hung beside the front door and some times even a bottle filled with hot spices is hung over the lintel as the ‘achik’ or spiciness is considered to keep the evil eye at bay. The ‘isfand’ herb is also hung up outside houses as this is thought to contain special properties to ward off evil. Inside the house it is common for a string of cloves to be hung near the front door.
To protect people, charms and amulets are worn. Sometimes
these are pieces of paper with koranic verses written on them and stuffed
into pouches or even sewn into clothing. More often they are camel wool
or munjik beads. Camel wool is thought to protect against the evil eye
and a wisp is either pinned onto a piece of clothing, or twisted around
a button. The munjik beads are small black and white eye shaped beads
which are either worn as bracelets, earrings, attached to clothing with
a safety pin or worn around the neck with a cowry shell. These amulets
are mainly worn by women and children. Often charms are hidden from public
view and seen as a secret weapon against the eye.
Crafts people will often create deliberate mistakes in
their crafts because only God is perfect and if made too beautiful, the
evil eye might strike. Similarly in architecture, rough wooden sticks
protrude from Tosh Hauli palace in order to deceive the wondering glance
of the evil eye and avoid it seeing the opulent splendour inside the palace
walls. Building construction is a vulnerable time for the eye to strike,
and often a chicken is slaughtered before building commences to appease
any spirits and chili peppers are hung up to keep the eye away.
One of the most potent forms of evil eye protection is
the isfand herb, which is burnt and wafted around a house to keep evil
at bay. However, for particularly vulnerable people, such as pregnant
women and babies, charms and isfand are not enough. They are kept either
in confinement or inside the house as much as possible to avoid the potential
stare of someone with ‘hard eyes’.