07/22/2006, 00.00
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Illegal "magic" trade thriving in Middle East

The authorities of the United Arab Emirates claim this is the case; they often confiscate objects linked to magic or animist cults, held to illegal because they date back to pre-Islamic periods. Historians warn: this prejudice kills research into ancient cults still widespread in Arabia.

Abu Dhabi (AsiaNews) – Ancient writings on stone tablets, animal skins and claws, talisman dating back to pre-Islamic times: the trade in "magic" is a thriving business across the Middle East, says the Abu Dhabi Customs Department of the United Arab Emirates.

Statistics acquired by the Gulf News daily reveal that between April and May this year, there were 27 confiscations of material described as "magic items" at various border points of the Arab Emirates.

The authorities say most items are seized from people who own them for "personal use", but many say there is a flourishing trade in the region.

Abdullah Ebrahim, a Customs official, said such material was confiscated because it was held to be illegal. "Many of these things date back to pre-Islamic times and so they go against Islamic principles."

Ebrahim said the "magical" objects originated from surrounding countries, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain, but many objects came from Africa and East Asia too.

Peter Hellyer, a historian who has worked in the Emirates for over 30 years, said the "particularly sensitive nature" of the objects meant very little systematic research had been conducted about them, as they are viewed solely as material linked to witchcraft. But he said there was a strong belief – practiced clandestinely – in ancient, animist practices among some people in the Gulf states. "There is a tradition of belief in magic in much of southern Arabia but very little research has been undertaken into it," he said.

According to Ebrahim, Abu Dhabi destroyed confiscated items without the carrier being charged for trying to bring them into the country. He said customs inspectors were trained to recognize any object that may have particular cultural significance or historical value, to deliver it to some museum or other.

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