DUBAI // On mornings such as this, Diana Nemeh Afif has a tradition of teasing her friends by sending out a text message of warning: "Watch out, it is Friday the 13th!"
And while the western superstition that a Friday that falls on the 13th day of the month is unlucky, Arabs, and most Muslims, have their own set of superstitions.
Seeing an owl or a hunchback upon leaving the house, mentioning certain words or standing near mangroves alone at night carry stronger, more "ominous" meanings.
Mrs Afif, a 32-year-old American Jordanian, pays particular attention to what happens after she or her husband take off their shoes.
"I have to flip shoes back to their upright position if I see them on the floor with the bottom part up," said Mrs Afif. "Leaving shoes on their wrong side is supposed to bring bad luck."
For local superstitions, it is more often the fear of jinn, or supernatural creatures, than the fear of bad luck that lies at the heart of old habits.
"The tradition of spraying salt on the foundation of a house before it is built and burning incense come from beliefs that this would keep jinn away," said Dr Hasan al Naboodah, an Emirati historian with an interest in tracing the origins of superstition and traditions.
“There is something about salt and superstitions,” he said. “It is not just in our culture, but in others as well.”
The evil eye is referred to in the Quran and requires the regular addition of “Mashallah” to conversations. Some believers carry a turquoise rock, al Fairouz, as protection against the eye. Dr al Naboodah, having witnessed incidents where someone’s passing comments of “envy” led to destruction of the item admired, believes in the power of the evil eye.
“There is always some truth behind our habits and beliefs,” he said.
Today is considered a sacred day for Muslims, with special Friday prayers and sermons. The number 13, and numbers in general, do not carry any specific meaning, but odd numbers are favoured in Islam. The Quran was revealed on Laylat al Qadr – the Night of Power – commonly believed to be one of the odd-numbered nights in the last third of Ramadan. Some also believe number seven to be lucky, as it was mentioned in the Quran, and it is often sought out in mobile numbers and licence plates.
“I wanted my licence plate to have all sevens, but someone beat me to it,” said Khalid Ahmed, a 23-year-old Emirati. “That person is lucky!”
For 70-year-old Abu Abdullah al Ameri, of the al Ameri tribe of Abu Dhabi, it is not a certain number, items or habits, but words. For example, he avoids the word “death”.
“If I hear it being discussed near me, I just leave the place,” he said. “It is not good to discuss it. If someone’s time is up, then we pray upon their soul and we don’t need to discuss it any further.”
One theory links Friday the 13th back to the Bible and Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus and was the 13th guest to the Last Supper. The other popular theory dates to ancient Rome, where witches reportedly gathered in groups of 12 and the 13th guest would be the devil.
Dr al Naboodah owns a rare collection of books, some several hundred years old, that explain some superstitions. For example, hearing crows at night or a sudden sound inside a well is believed to lead to misfortune.
In one of the books, Kitab al Hayawan, or the book of animals, the Muslim thinker and writer Abu Uthman al Jahiz (775-868) explained how Arabs would name their children with “difficult, animal-like” names.
“This custom of naming males with strong names, like Laith [lion] or Saqr [falcon] to repel enemies encountered on the road, lasted to this day,” Dr al Naboodah said.
There are also actions designed to bring good luck, such as the custom of slaughtering a goat near a new car or house for “baraka”, or blessing, and to keep bad luck away.
Hyam al Muraikhi, a 26-year-old Emirati, is a believer. “I don’t have a car myself, but when I get one, I will slaughter a goat and then distribute the food as charity for blessing,” she said.
One of her favourites is the habit of single girls pinching a new bride so that they “get lucky” and find a husband soon.
“I just focus on good luck, and avoid even thinking about bad luck.”