Egypt’s trial by fire
Cairo - In a small Egyptian village, two brothers wait to have their tongues burned. Having been accused of stealing 15,000 Egyptian pounds — about $1,700 — from their eldest brother and have volunteered to participate in an ordeal by fire to prove their innocence.
A trial by fire, or basha’a al-nar — malice of fire — is an ancient Bedouin rite that has all but died out in the rest of the Arab world. The small village of Sarabiyum in Egypt’s north-eastern governorate of Ismailia is one of the few places where it is still practiced openly.
Trial by fire has been taking place in Sarabiyum for at least 120 years, officiated by the scions of the same family. The procedure is carried out by Sheikh Mohamed Suleiman al-Ayyad, 44, a local Bedouin tribal chieftain who has overseen similar trials for more than 12 years after inheriting the position from his father.
Barking dogs surround the small building where the trial by fire is held. “Trial by fire here” graffiti is written in red outside the shack. The building appears much bigger on the inside and can easily accommodate about 60 people.
Before the start of the session, Ayyad asks the two brothers if they would like to confess. Both refuse, adamant that they are not guilty and determined to prove their innocence.
Everyone is sitting on the floor. Ayyad asks all three brothers to sign a document affirming that they accept the results of the trial by fire and that the plaintiff cannot be held responsible for whatever harm might come to his brothers if they are found guilty.
Ayyad carefully places a long iron bar on the ground. He sets fire to a small round metal bowl, about 25 centimetres in length, and places it on the bar. When the bowl is red hot, he calls the two brothers forward and reads the charges against them. He eyes them sternly and warns of the pain they will feel if they lie. The bowl sizzles audibly in the centre of the room.
According to Mohamed Hamed, an Egyptian professor of psychology, the science behind trial by fire is based on the idea that someone who is guilty and expecting to be burned is more likely to be dry-mouthed.
Ayyad asks the brothers to wash their mouths out with water three times and to display their tongues to prove they are unmarred before the ordeal begins.
Ayyad picks up the metal bowl with pliers, slaps his hand on the bowl quickly to prove that fire does not burn the innocent and asks the first brother to stick out his tongue. Muttering unintelligibly under his breath, he places the burning bowl briefly on the first defendant’s tongue before removing it; he repeats this three times and then orders him to close his mouth.
“I was muttering a special charm that was taught to me by my father. This is the secret of the trial by fire. My father revealed this to me on his deathbed so the secret remains in the family,” Ayyad said.
“Some people think that they can take drugs before appearing before the court to numb them but the fire will always reveal the truth,” he added.
He repeats the procedure with the second brother. Despite the heat coming off the bowl, neither brother was burned. Ayyad calls for a short break and re-examines the brothers’ tongues to confirm that neither were burned. When he finds that neither were burned, he proclaims in a loud voice: “They are both innocent.”
Mohamed Said, a teacher in Sarabiyum and a local historian, said this small Ismailia village is the only place in Egypt where basha’a al-nar is practiced in this way.
“This practice can be traced back to the Arabian peninsula. The Ayaddi method was originally confined to the Ayaddi tribe in the Sinai, although its centre is now in Sarabiyum, here in Ismailia,” he said.
Similar trial-by-fire practices in Saudi Arabia and Jordan have died out, he added.
Trial by fire is a controversial issue in Egypt, officially banned and prohibited by the country’s religious authorities. Although basha’a al-nar is undoubtedly practiced in other Egyptian rural communities, it is always in secret. Sarabiyum is the only place where the practice continues openly, even under the gaze of the media.
“People come from all over to take part in trial by fire here, rich and poor alike,” Ayyad said.