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Afghanistan: Casting Out Evil Spirits Can Be A Full-Time Job

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, and beyond international charities, there are few organizations to help those in need. But it is a society that tries to provide for the poorest, even to the point of inventing jobs for them. One such job is held by thousands of small boys, who walk Kabul's streets offering to smoke out evil spirits.

Kabul, 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- To the uninitiated, it can be a little difficult to guess just what the little boys are doing.

Dressed in rags and their hands black with coal dust, they walk all day through Kabul's markets and commercial streets, swinging a small can of charcoal embers from a long wire handle.

Every now and then, they approach a vendor's cart stacked high with vegetables, pieces of raw meat, or clothing. After a brief negotiation with the vendor, they drop a handful of seeds into their can of embers to create a billowing cloud of smoke. They then wave the homemade incense censer above the cart, collect a small amount of money for their services, and move on.

Around Kabul, there are thousands of these boys, ranging in age from eight to 15. They are the poorest of the poor among the city's able-bodied men, and are so destitute they regard the capital's shoeshine boys as men of means because they own their own brushes. But no one disputes their right to work, and many call on their services several times a day.

The boys' function is chasing away bad luck, which it seems bedevils much of life in Afghanistan. To be more precise, the smoke they waft over the vendors' carts or carry by invitation into shops helps ward off the evil eye of jealous competitors. If one is to believe the superstition, it may even disarm powerful curses laid on businessmen by rivals or perhaps by overcharged customers.

The boys themselves are often too young to explain just what the smoke does, particularly to foreign adults who look much too old not to know for themselves. So they offer the sketchiest of descriptions.

Fais Ahmad is 13 and standing in a dusty park around a cinema. He is idly swinging his can as he eyes a group of older boys having fun around a mechanical football table. He describes his work as simply reciting the alphabet -- something he is unlikely ever to get a chance to learn.

"I go from Saraki Panj to Shari Nou [district] every day. I go into the shops, and I burn the seeds in about 50 to 60 shops a day. Some of the shopkeepers give us money, and some do not."

Fais says that if the shopkeepers know the effectiveness of the smoke, they offer money. If they don't know, he says, they don't let him in.

Nearby are his 11-year-old cousin and another boy of 15. They, too, have cans and filthy hands and faces. The oldest of the three, who gives his name only as Zahir, offers his views.

"A smaller brother of mine and I go to quite a large number of shops every day. We are the only ones to help earn a living for the family. I don't want to do this. I want to learn a skill in a workshop."

The boys say they do the job to support their parents, brothers, and sisters. Ahmad's father is too old to work. Zahir's father, a war refugee, is a cart-pusher. Many other boys are said to have lost their fathers in Afghanistan's wars. In a society where women traditionally have very few job opportunities outside the home, the fatherless boys become their families' sole breadwinners.

The boys' working day starts at a spice vendor's stall in the nearest marketplace. There, for about 3,000 Afghanis -- the equivalent of 10 U.S. cents, or the price of a loaf of bread -- they buy half a kilogram of the seeds of a plant known in English as wild rye. The seeds burn with a strong wood-like fragrance that is pleasant in small doses.

The men who sell the seeds -- in shops full of other, more valuable, grains and herbs -- say they believe in the smoke's cleansing powers. One is Man Pritt Singh, who belongs to Kabul's small Sikh community and imports spices from Pakistan and India, in addition to offering Afghan-grown products. He says he alone sells two to three kilograms of seeds to the street boys each day.

"Wild rye is cleansing, and people burn it for all kinds of purposes. The smoke prevents harmful charms and spells. And if a shop's business isn't going well, the smoke will help."

That argument is not necessarily believed by all the men who let the boys cast smoke over their wares or briefly fumigate their shops. But it takes a hard man to turn away a boy in rags who has nothing else to offer.

Khan Sherin-Abdullah is part owner of a shop selling thermos jugs and other household products along a main shopping street. He says he gets visits from boys some five times a day and, although he is not superstitious, he and his partners let them do their job.

"No, we don't believe in the evil eye. We just cooperate with this in order to give the boys a livelihood. Maybe the boys believe in all this, but we don't. We'd rather they had the chance to go to school and study. That would be better."

Still, not all shop owners are so rationally minded. The owner of another nearby store that repairs cassette players, Abdul Hadi Wafa, says he doesn't like to take chances when it comes to bad luck. So he lets the boys do a thorough job.

"The main purpose of those boys is to earn a livelihood, but the smoke is useful for spiritually cleansing shops. And it counteracts evil charms or harmful amulets that people prepare in attempts to undermine us. They smoke to clean the shop."

Be that as it may, one thing is beyond dispute. On a good day, a boy like 13-year-old Fais Ahmad can make 30,000 to 60,000 Afghanis, or $1 to $2. And that is enough to keep a body and soul together for another day.