The air is still cool at 9:30 a.m. as Yagoub Ali Hamid steps out of his pale yellow house into the sandy courtyard that leads to his office. His blue and gray plaid tunic skims the ground as his black sandals gently sink in with each step. The sound of a generator firing up across the street breaks the peace and quiet of a Sunday morning.
Inside his dusty office, Hamid lays a prayer rug out on the floor, reaches for a bamboo stylus and a bottle of black ink and sits down. He dips the bamboo into the ink and begins to write on a loh, a rectangular piece of wood cut with a handle on one end and two sharp points on the other.
"Exalted is the Majesty of our Lord."
He continues writing out the Jinn chapter of the Koran, the section of the Muslim holy book that deals with invisible creatures known as jinn that in Western culture spawned the legend of the genie in a bottle. He sings verses aloud as he works his way down the wood.
But this is not only a religious exercise. Hamid is a faki, a uniquely African mixture of Islamic scholar and witch doctor. People seek his help on everything: curing a cough, for example, or predicting the future. Government employees are among his regulars, he says, especially when they're hoping for a promotion.
"There are among us some that are righteous and some the contrary."
The words mark the beginning of a 40-day treatment Hamid designed to help one of his patients who suffers from seizures. "They try to get treatment in Egypt, Sudan and Cameroon, and it doesn't work," Hamid says. "They come to me, and it works."
He puts down the loh and picks up a book, "Fire to Get Rid of the Devil," waving it in the air. He boasts of his success rate: "If you bring me a crazy person, I swear I will cure him. I've done it many times."
At 9:45 a.m., three cousins pass through a lace curtain that separates Hamid's office from the courtyard and sit down on a couch. Hamid, switching from Arabic to the tribal language of Zaghawa, asks them why they have come. Someone stole $200 from them, they say, and they want Hamid to help them get it back.
"We trust him because he believes in the Koran and will ask God," says Mahamat Khatir, 22, sitting between his two cousins. "The faki will get the money back."
As the young men tell their story, Hamid rummages through books and papers stacked on the floor and on a small table. A picture of the Great Mosque in Mecca hangs on the wall above him. About five minutes later, he finds what he is looking for -- prayer beads.
Hamid asks each guest his name -- Segei Dermai, Mahamat Khatir and Bakhit Haran. Then, based on a formula that assigns a number to each letter, he adds up the total value that their names represent. He slides the beads across the string, counting as he goes, "One, two, three . . ." Hamid asks for the names of their mothers and repeats the process.
"You can find out many things if you know someone's mother's name," he says, grinning widely.
Finally, the men offer the name of the person they suspect of stealing their money. Using the numbers associated with all of these names, Hamid says he can determine whether the accused is indeed the culprit. He pulls out another book, "Your Unknown Future," and flips to a page full of diagrams and numbers.
"It's all right here," he says, pointing to the formula that he says will help him determine the meaning of all the numbers and corresponding names.
The cousins drop $2 on the floor next to Hamid and stand up to leave. Hamid tells them to return the following day with a family elder. He is worried that if he arms the young men with the thief's identity, they will take revenge.
"I'm worried that the boys would kill him," Hamid says. The clock on the wall chimes a melody, 10 a.m.
Alone again, Hamid picks up another loh and begins to write, this time etching symbols interspersed with Arabic letters. He keeps their meaning to himself. "It's a secret," he says.
An hour and a half later, he has finished four of the lohs, front and back. He fetches some water from the courtyard and returns to his office. After a morning spent writing, he picks up one of the lohs and gently washes it clean, carefully directing the inky water into a blue bucket atop his prayer rug. The water, now a light gray, is the next step in his treatment for his patient.
"I will give him the water to bathe with," he says.
At noon, his work for the day is finished. Hamid covers the bucket of water and walks out of the office to rest before midday prayers.