Under a spell: magic and sorcery in modern France

Under a spell: magic and sorcery in modern France
What’s the cost? — Marabouts – West African spiritualists selling magic and spiritual protection – have been offering their services to the country’s most vulnerable. However, as many have already discovered, it can come at a serious cost.

It’s a grey Saturday afternoon, and several men are lingering outside the exit of the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station in Northern Paris. They are handing out flyers which advertise the services of West African spiritualists, otherwise known as Marabouts. They are, essentially, selling magic.

The flyers promise to cure a range of issues; from exams, driving tests and business problems, to love, impotency, and protection from evil spirits. Each card is affixed with a professional-sounding title: Master, Grand Medium, Doctor.

Among the distributors is Professor Jean, a Senegalese man in his late fifties. He has kind eyes and a smile cradled by a short greying beard. Unlike the others, he does his own marketing. Pressing his card into my hand, he asks me softly: “What is the problem?”

I explain that I feel life is going in the wrong direction, and that I have had a run of bad luck. He listens patiently and proposes an initial consultation for €300. “For you, this is a special price,” he insists. It doesn’t take long for me to negotiate the price down to €40 – the standard rate for a first session according to the Institut National des Arts Divinatoires (INAD), an unofficial watchdog over the magic sector in France.

There are at least 80 marabouts in Paris and the surrounding suburbs. In comparison, there are 477 active Catholic priests in the Parisian Diocese. One online archive contains 1,894 unique Marabout flyers collected from across France between 1985-2018, demonstrating that these magicians are not constrained to the French capital. They make up part of the country’s wider magic sector which INAD value at more than €3.2 billion annually.

Marabouts have a bad reputation. While French citizens are constitutionally free to practice religion, Marabouts are frequently charged with abuse of weakness, illegal practice of medicine, fraud and non-declared economic activity. While the authorities do not collect statistics on Marabout crime specifically, a spokesperson confirmed in a telephone interview that there are “a number of officers” currently working on Marabout cases.

The term ‘Marabout’ comes from West Africa. “There are two types [of Marabout],” explains Dr Seydi Diamil Niane, a professor of Islamology at the University of Strasbourg. “There are religious chiefs who educate, but there are also those who use practices pulled from traditional African belief systems predating Islam.”

In Senegal, Marabouts are important religious figures, particularly for the Mourides – a Sufi brotherhood. There, the role of the Marabout is one of community organisation and spiritual guidance based on the Quran. But in France, it seems that Marabouts are by and large sorcerers for hire.

Oumar Mbacké grew up in Senegal, where he was considered a Marabout. Now, he lives in France and disavows the title. “Here the marabout is like a juju man,” he said, referencing West African witchcraft. “If you say Marabout, it means charlatan I am not a charlatan.”

I meet him at the Islamic centre of Taverny, where he occasionally leads Mouride worship groups. He explains that the supernatural services offered by the Marabouts of Paris are “forbidden everywhere.” 

“We try to keep away from those [activities] and to do our prayers, helping people that need help,” he says. “When we gather here, it is a place to help each other.” He adds that people fall victim to fraudulent Marabouts “out of desperation.”

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Back at Barbès, I walk with Professor Jean and through Chateau Rouge, past Halal grocers and second-hand mobile phone shops. Attempts at conversation are shut down. “We don’t talk in the street,” he says. “We need to stay discrete.” Approaching his high-rise tower block, after about 20 minutes, he advises that we distance ourselves by a couple of metres.

We step into the elevator and ascend to the sixth floor in silence. He opens an envelope containing a tax form, marked by a URSSAF letterhead. As the doors open, he crumples it into a tight ball, cramming it in his pocket. We then enter his apartment. “Don’t speak to anyone,” he says, leading me past his wife and teenage daughters towards the waiting room.

The wall is covered in framed pictures of Arabic symbols and photos of African men in white robes. On the wall, a flat-screen TV plays an American crime series at low volume. A ceramic pot next to the TV contained tens of burnt-out incense sticks; their scent still hanging, ghost-like, in the air.

After five minutes or so, Professor Jean returns to the room and beckons me over. He has taken off his long black raincoat, and a red velvet hat is now perched on his head. We walk through to another room, past the kitchen where his wife is cleaning some dishes.

We enter his daughter’s bedroom which doubles as a consultation room. He sits down at the other side of a small table, next to a bunk bed with unmade sheets and fluffy pillows. There is a red candle, a piece of parchment with a Quranic verse scrawled onto it, prayer beads, a talismanic necklace and a Quran. 

“Take a seat,” he says, removing his hat and placing it upside down on the table. He looks at me expectantly. “The 40 euros?” I hand over the money, which he checks, one note at a time. He then stashes it away and puts the hat back on.

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It is widely believed that Marabouts came to France during World War One. Historian Marc Michel wrote that among the hundreds of Senegalese working behind the front lines, some practiced ‘la magie noire.’ Increased immigration to France from West Africa in the ’70s saw Marabouts arrive in greater number. During the 20th Century, disparaging nicknames such as ‘Marabout Cognac’ and ‘Marabout Cadillac’ emerged, casting the figures as scammers getting rich off the ignorance of their clients.

Today, dealing with fraudulent Marabouts is difficult for the police. “Their victims feel shame and fear, there are often threats made against them,” says Jeff Roland, a former Gendarme who has worked on similar cases. “[But] in order to intervene, the police need someone to speak out. Any crime must be proven and for something to be proven, there must be a victim ready to speak.”

Roland adds that Marabouts work in a similar way to cult leaders. “In 100 per cent of cases, it is people who are psychologically weak. The victims can be intellectual, but chronically depressed,” he says, adding that they come “from all social classes.”

Among the many victims of Marabout fraud is Ahmed, a professor at a prestigious Parisian business school, who asked to use a false name for fear that his colleagues may find out. Ahmed turned to a Marabout during a messy divorce: he couldn’t understand why his wife left him and needed guidance. “For me, family is everything,” he explains. 

In August, he found one of the flyers underneath his car’s windscreen wiper. “I was truly desperate,” he said. “I thought that maybe there is something, some divine force that can make it work.” He called the number on the card, falling prey to a scam which involved two Marabouts, and which would ultimately cost him €41,000 between August 2018 and March 2019.

Included in the cost were alleged cow sacrifices in Guinea; a black magic potion known as ‘psycho’ and ceremony fees. He also had to hand over a TV and a brand-new iPhone directly to the Marabouts to prove his sincerity to the spirits. Ahmed had never before dabbled in magic before, but now was vulnerable and isolated.

Early in the scam, Ahmed was handed an egg. The first Marabout instructed Ahmed to sleep with it and bring it with him to the next consultation. At the meeting, the marabout cracked the egg in front of Ahmed’s eyes. It was black and rotten inside – supposed proof that much work needed to be done. Every time Ahmed tried to back out, he was persuaded that this would leave the spirits angry. At this stage, he was told, a couple more thousand was nothing in comparison to the investment he had already made. The Marabout threatened to humiliate Ahmed by telling his family about their sessions.

A second marabout promised Ahmed that he would use magic to retrieve his money from the first. At one point, Ahmed says, the Marabout presented his forearm. Rubbing it, he released luminescent blue light and vapour from his skin. “I genuinely have no idea how he did it,” Ahmed remembers.

Ahmed eventually went to the police and was able to have the first Marabout placed in detention for 24 hours. He is yet to be tried in court, according to Ahmed, who adds that the police are currently investigating the second Marabout.

“These people are all connected. It is a network. It is a mafia,” says Ahmed. “They exploited my weakness. I feel like an idiot. I am so angry at myself.” Ahmed is in debt and struggling to pay his rent. “I am up to my neck in shit.”

Ahmed’s claim of Marabout collusion is plausible. In September 2018, police investigators from a small community in Les Pyrénées-Atlantiques arrested two Marabouts who defrauded close to €250,000 from 37 victims. Among the items seized by the police were 10,000 flyers, amulets, a bundle of €50 euro notes, and workbooks with photos and the names of victims.

“They are sometimes organised in networks, especially online,” explains Roland. “At the beginning, many Marabouts are living in irregular situations. You need organisation to survive.”

Mbacké, who is now a popular figure at the Islamic Centre of Taverny, said that the Marabouts of Barbès-Rochechouart have no credibility, but that we should not judge them. “They live rough,” he says. “How is that person going to solve your problems? He can’t even solve his own ones first. They came here for a better life. If they didn’t have problems, they would have stayed.”

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Back in Professor Jean’s high-rise apartment, my own ceremony begins. “Before we start, I must consult the spirits,” he says. “You stay silent.” He shuts his eyes, picks up the prayer beads and moves them calmly in his hands, murmuring incantations in French and Arabic (as well as some unintelligible sounds). He then spits onto the parchment laid on the table and pushes the saliva around with his index finger.

His eyes flash open after a couple of minutes.“The problem is that your spirit is blocked,” he explains. “We will need to do lots of work to unblock it. There is a family conspiracy against you. I am sensing a woman in your life for about three years now. She has brought bad things to you. She has cursed you. Pass me your hands.”

He takes my upturned palms and squeezes them, eyes shut and speaking in tongues. “This is going to take a lot of work,” he says.

“Do you have a driving license with you? What are your parents’ names? Do you have any pictures of them?” No pictures. Fake names. He says he prefers to work with images and tells me to bring them next time.

“How much money is in your bank account? How much do you earn every month?” he asks at least six times during our encounter. The answer disappoints him.

He presses on. “Even with social security? Do you not have a job? Does your family send you money?” More disappointment.  

Professor Jean explains that he will prepare a special potion that will turn my life around in 48 hours. “No one can know about this. No one can touch it,” he says. “You must take it and spray it around all corners of your house. There is bad energy there. Normally it would cost €1600. But I can see you are a nice person. For you, €500. We should do this as soon as possible. When can you have the money?”

Wednesday should be fine, I say, but €500 is a little expensive. “My family has been doing this for 600 years,” Jean assures – he knows what he is doing. He proposes that when the day comes, he should visit my apartment to administer the liquid himself. When he learns that I live with other people he abandons the idea.

Before I leave Professor Jean’s apartment, he checks that I have properly noted the details on my phone’s calendar app. He struggles with the touch screen. The next meeting, which I never attend, is set for 13:00 at Marx Dormoy metro station, next to the newspaper kiosk. Once this is confirmed, Professor Jean insists on walking me there.

On the journey, he explains that he has lived in France for 30 years. He prefers it here to Senegal, where he said he and 20 other people had to survive off the equivalent of about €100 per month. He also enjoys the metro system – “I don’t have to walk everywhere,” he said.  

His phone pings repeatedly during the walk. “I am very busy today,” he replies as we approach the station. Before parting ways, we shake hands and, in a hushed voice, he says: “Wednesday, 13 o’ clock. Don’t forget the €500. Some people come, but they forget to bring the money.”

Follow Sam Bradpiece on Twitter.

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