The In-Betweeners

When working with the concept of liminality within Middle Eastern religion, it is difficult to stop at one specific type. The type of liminality that I am discussing currently in the upcoming integrative essay is the intermediary that a cultural figure plays between social order and disorder. This brief moment of letting go of certain social expectations, brought on by firm belief in the cultural figures whose rituals require some deviation from the normative, holds the possibility for long term social and cultural change. But we will save that for the actual paper.

The idea of liminality, however, is not solely confined to finding that place or moment of chaos during which social change was most likely. When I first read the prompt, I was very confused and turned to Wikipedia to attempt to understand how liminality could possibly play a role with cultural figures. I read and reread the prompt before I understood the concept as, “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.” (Wikipedia, Liminality) To me, this made perfect sense. Of course the Hamadsha and the Zaar ceremonies produced new people with new social identities and the thing that we were supposed to focus on in our paper was the trance. (This was all before I finally turned to Bilu on page 145 and read his definition.) Sidi Ali and Sidi Ahmed for the Hamadsha, the shuwwafat, and the initiates in the Zaar were the cultural figures that held the intermediary positions between Allah and man. This meant that as an intermediary, they ensured the safe passage between what one was and what they became during the trance. During the trance, it is assumed that the spirit possessor has full control of the participant in these ceremonies and it is only once the individual is able to pinpoint what the spirit needs that he or she are able to develop their working relationship. I assumed that this moment of liminality for all of the participants of the ceremonies (and the shuwwafa when they are vocalizing the needs of Aisha Qandisha) is where they must be protected while they undergo their journey.

The idea of this liminality that focused on being in-between who you were and who you will become fell through once I realized that we hadn’t talked enough about the status of one’s soul during the trance, but it also made me think about how we have seen cultural figures stand as intermediaries before. Saints, in particular, are the most universal and accessible figures to whom everyone prays and they are so powerful as cultural figures because people talk about miracles that require power that they gained from their close relationship with the spirit world. Zaar and Hamadsha participants, too, have to tap into the spirit world and become stronger because of their special connection with the spirit world that others don’t have. We have talked about this personal power being a placebo effect for those who need to believe they are powerful until they actually become powerful. While it is necessary for these people to believe in a power outside of themselves to create their new identity, the belief in this power is also a sort of belief in oneself. The need for these intermediaries who have connections to both these human and spirit worlds are powerful and abundant because people need some sort of sense that they can improve themselves. This duality of power coming from oneself and from the spirit world is flexible so that, like the Hamadsha, the personalization of the shuwwafa healing, and every other versions of healing we have experienced in this course, people are able to build themselves as a person using however much personal and spirit help they require.

Liminality in Hillula

Though we have discussed liminality in class before, I didn’t fully grasp the concept until I read Weingrod’s The Saint of Beersheba. While I knew it was a transitional phase in a religious context, I didn’t quite understand what happened to the person after the ceremony or performance was over. Weingrod’s explanation of Van Gennep’s definition of ritual events as a three-step process–separation, liminality, and reaggregation–helped me understand that after the ritual, the individual is “reintegrated within their social systems, albeit in a different or redefined status” (Weingrod, 51). Weingrod goes on to explain that liminality is even more present and powerful during public celebrations, such as the hillula. I am curious as to why this may be.

A large variety of people participated in Rabbi Chouri’s hillula. Israeli families and friends gathered and were joined by Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants. Men, women, and children all participated. Because these people all shared “experiences, beliefs, and traditions” and had similar cultural practices, they felt that they were in a “large and lively group” (Weingrod, 83). This sense of belonging and feeling of shared rituals increased the potency of the experience. The “quality and character of the participants’ social relationships” was a significant part of the hillula (Weingrod, 58). The transformation of such relationships within this ingroup was a factor in increasing liminality.

Additionally, Rabbi Chouri’s hillula is described as being relaxed in terms of religious laws, which allows those participating to have more freedom of expression. This is conveyed especially through the role of women during the pilgrimage. Although “Judaism is a male-centered religious system,” the women hold power and are allowed to behave less modestly (Weingrod, 80). The interactions between men and women during the hillula are also different from the general religious traditions of Judaism, as there is typically a sexual segregation between men and women (Weingrod, 61). I wonder if experiencing such changes in gender roles and a shift in power are some reasons that liminality is increased in the hillula. If so, do women experience more liminality than men do in public celebrations?

The concept of liminality is not a simple one, as many experiences in religious rituals include transformations and being in a different state of mind. In the hillula, liminality is extremely present as it is a public celebration. Many boundaries in religion are broken, and it allows different social groups to come together to celebrate peacefully and form new relationships. I want to learn more about how liminality affects the hillula, and why the increased amount of liminality is significant.


In class last Thursday, we focused a lot of our time on the death of Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana. When I initially read the legend of Rabbi Wazana’s death, I was struck by Yoram Bilu’s use of the word “threshold” to describe the Rabbi’s entrance into the room of the possessed Muslim girl. “When he crossed the threshold to the sickroom, the demon inhabiting her (referring to the young Muslim girl) body addressed [Wazana] through her mouth: ‘Wazana, we are not the same kind that you lived with. Know that if you enter, it is at your own risk. Beware,’”(Bilu, 110). While Bilu notes that his informants repeatedly used “expressions denoting entry and exit,” I began to wonder if Bilu had chosen the word or if informants had used it in their retellings of the story (110). Victor Turner’s rites de passage hinge on the term “liminal” which means threshold. The rites de passage refer to rituals in which a person undergoes a change of status, including circumcision, marriage, and funerals.

When Bilu notes that the informants focused a lot of their retellings on expressions of entrance and exit, he ties it to Wazana’s general trending characteristics of “transgressing boundaries and invading unauthorized territory” (111). I think Bilu makes an excellent point here, but I felt that there’s another element: the healing ritual itself. In most instances, I do not think that a healing ritual would technically classify as a rites de passage. This specific healing ritual, however, deals with death – the moment in which the soul leaves the body and the person leaves this earthly-world for the spiritual realm (heaven, hell, and in some cases purgatory). The demons warn Wazana that the girl must die, she cannot be saved. Wazana does not listen and feels compelled to help the young girl. In this story, it’s especially telling that at first, it’s unclear who will be the person completing the rite de passage (the young Muslim girl or Rabbi Wazana) as the demons make it quite clear that they’re not really concerned with whom, but someone must pay back the debt owed to them with his/her life.

Wazana does not die immediately after he completes the ritual and heals the young girl, however his death is imminent. Bilu’s reconstruction of the legend makes it clear, yet again, that one main reason for Wazana’s death was the crossing of the boundary between the earthly-realm and the spiritual-realm (the human world and the demon world). This theme, which begins at the very beginning of Wazana’s story with the death of his father, finally comes full circle. Throughout his life story, Wazana crosses many boundaries including cultural and religious boundaries between Muslims and Jews and his marriage to a female jinni to whom he has jinn children (crossing the boundary between human and demon domains) however there is one staunch boundary he cannot cross: life and death.

While he is recalled by many as comparable to “the divine presence” (shekhina) and is renounced for his power and courage, his power is limited (78). He cannot bring the dead (or those doomed to death) back to life. In a way, he is trapped by this boundary. He cannot bring his deceased parents back to life, nor can he save the young Muslim girl. He cannot receive everything he yearns for, despite his accumulation of great power.  In light of this limitation, Wazana reminds me of Tuhami. While the two couldn’t have had different socio-political statuses in their respective societies, they both crossed many boundaries (including gender and human/spirit worlds) however, they were both in a way trapped by boundaries. Clearly, Wazana had more control than Tuhami had throughout the course of his dealings with boundaries between the human world and the spirit world. Wazana was able to control demons and use them to do his bidding. However, in the end, the demons were ultimately in control, and orchestrated the Rabbi’s death. It’s interesting to me that these stories of two men, who couldn’t have been less alike in most ways, provided the same warning of the power of spirits and demons.

Liminality in Tuhami

In class on Monday, Professor Staub asked the question: “Is Tuhami an outcaste?” My immediate reaction was to respond with “of course.” Even after our class discussion, which touched upon instances in Tuhami’s narrative when he did seem to “fit in,” I thought about his special status. On one hand, Tuhami is undeniably an outsider. He lives alone, in a hovel near the factory in which he works.  On the other hand, Crapanzano tells the reader that Tuhami was famed by women for his story telling and his advice. He provides numerous stories in which Tuhami claims to have been surrounded by females, indulging them in his fantastical stories; however Tuhami was always rejected by the males in his society, (32-33).  What I found most striking about the males’ rejection of Tuhami was their tendency to refer to him as an “old woman” or “hag,” (33). I think that this blurring of gender lines, especially in a society in which such a deep chasm between “feminine” and “masculine” exist, provides specific insight to the nature of Tuhami.

Somehow Tuhami has found himself in-between the “feminine world” and the “masculine world.” He’s clearly not a part of either social sphere; however it is telling that he appears to be “stuck” in the feminine world. The theme of “blurred gender lines” seems to continue appearing throughout Tuhami’s stories. One which I found particularly intriguing exists in Crapanzano’s recreation of Tuhami’s circumcision. At first, I found it extremely odd that Crapanzano would include such a detailed account of an event that Tuhami didn’t even remember. After his account, Crapanzano argues that the circumcision ritual is “purposefully disjunctive” and therefore is not a “rites de passage” – a ritual defined by scholar Arnold Van Gennep as marking a special moment in a person’s life which signifies the change of the person’s status (including rituals of marriage and symbolic adulthood). Here Crapanzano explains that a circumcised boy only enters the world a manhood momentarily, before re-entering the woman’s world (51-52). According to Crapanzano, a Muslim boy is not quite considered to be man until his father dies. This is an interesting qualifying factor for manhood and presumably it is why Crapanzano includes the account of the circumcision. Tuhami is stuck between the worlds of “women” and “men.” He never quite left the world of women and so cannot enter the world of men.

I believe Tuhami is fully aware of his “liminal” status,( a term coined by scholar Victor Turner basically meaning an “in-between” nature). It is probably why he often frames men in his accounts as the “enemy,” and as women as his “protectors,” (69). He feels safe and accepted in the world of women but recognizes that he is unwanted by the world of men. Here, his location stuck between the worlds of women and men seems to be reflected by (or maybe is a reflection of?) what Crapanzano refers to as his difficult location between the male saint and the female jinniyya. Crapanzano further explains that “despite his intense ‘involvement’ with both figures, he receives neither support nor release from them,” (75). Just as Tuhami feels himself bound to the supplication and demands of the saints and jinniyya (caught between the two different worlds), he feels himself not able to meet the expectations of his society. It is interesting that while human men are often the “enemy,” it is the help of male saints he seeks and while he finds “protection” from human women, he is tormented by the female jinniyya. Even more striking is the duplicity of his liminal status – Tuhami is stuck between the “human world” and the “spirit world,” and stuck between “feminine” and “masculine” in both.

So far, I’ve found the book to be extremely interesting – though I’m glad I’ve read about the theories of Victor Turner and Arnold Van Gennep, since it has made my understanding of Tuhami’s “liminal” status much easier.