Warding Off the Salty Eye
As children in Lancashire, my older sister and I would hatch plots to kill Saddam Hussein by preparing the Persian stew khoresh sib o gheysi with human excrement instead of lamb. We’d play-act elaborate scenes of his subsequent death, and fall about in riotous laughter. We had been toddlers when our parents watched the footage on ITN of Saddam’s chemical weapons attack on Halabja in March 1988, which killed thousands of Kurdish people, and poisoned the water, soil and gene pool. Anger was part of our heritage.
When Donald Trump was hospitalised with Covid-19 earlier this month, my social media feeds erupted with hand-wringing posts from people who repudiate the president’s politics but hoped he’d make a full recovery. The well-wishing struck me as a gratuitously generous gesture, which might charitably be categorised as supererogatory, but is perhaps better understood as a sign of liberal privilege, such benevolence a luxury you can afford if you have a merely academic relationship to Trump’s cruelty.
Others were more frank about Trump’s illness, and stated publicly that they hoped it would kill him. ‘Tweets that wish or hope for death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease against *anyone*,’ Twitter warned, ‘are not allowed and will need to be removed.’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cut back: ‘So ... you mean to tell us you could’ve done this the whole time?’ Rashida Tlaib added: ‘Seriously though, this is messed up. The death threats towards us should have been taking more seriously’ by Twitter. Amnesty International has described the platform as a ‘toxic place for women’.
A colourful amulet hung in the hallway of my childhood home: a kite-shaped frame woven with bright stripes of wool threaded with dried chickpeas. At its centre was a blue eye, the cheshm nazar, an apotropaic charm designed to ward off the ‘evil eye’ – or, in Farsi, the ‘salty eye’ – of those who wished us harm. At school, where looking at someone the wrong way could unleash a torrent of verbal abuse, a derivative phrase was in common use: ‘Stop giving me the evils!’
Wishing Trump dead is not making a death threat. Wishes cannot influence the course of a disease. Nor is it an act of hate in the way that the threats against Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib have been. Trump is not only a powerful white man; he is the powerful white man: hate is a toothless notion. Death wishes are more like the evil eye, and Twitter’s injunction was an oddly superstitious move, equivalent to prohibiting the public casting of spells. It has echoes of the Treason Act of 1351, one of the oldest English laws still in force, which ambiguously defined treason as occurring ‘When a Man doth compass or imagine the Death of our Lord the King’ (the statute has since been amended to require an ‘overt act’).
In forbidding the compassing or imagining of the president’s death, Twitter banned the expression of the empirically sound and politically significant statement that the world would be better off without Trump. Dying of Covid-19 is by all accounts so awful, agonising and lonely that, as the saying goes, one wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But, more important, I wouldn’t wish Trump on anyone: his swaggering mismanagement of the pandemic has led to the avoidable deaths of up to 210,000 people (and counting).
Ten years after our coprophagic plotting, my parents took my sisters and me to London to march against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was an important lesson in political nuance: Saddam was not our only nemesis. Yet when his statue fell two months later, we gathered around the television in silence, feeling something like relief. Years later, alone in my university bedroom, I found a video online of his hanging and watched with rising nausea. Anger is corrosive, too. But that is not a mark against it so much as further evidence of the burden of having to hold it. As Audre Lorde wrote in 1981, ‘my anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.’