I remember that when my sister was in 6th grade her class made this beautiful piece of art. It was a funny shaped hand that was cut out of wrinkled tinfoil and then backed on a piece of solid black construction paper. In the center of the “hand” it said “Chai” (life) in Hebrew letters. Looking back it was nothing special, but as a six year old I felt as though it had a special meaning that only the “big kids” could understand.
For a long time I forgot about the above mentioned piece of art. At some point I learned that this “funny looking hand” was actually called a “hamsa.” The word hamsa is an Arabic word meaning five. The hamsa is commonly used as decoration, however, I learned than many people believe that the hamsa actually wards off the evil eye – and acts as a form of protection. Personally, I felt that the hamsa was just like any other superstition and I never believed that it had much protective power, none the less. I took my sister’s 6th grade artwork with me to college to hang on my wall. There was no way I could have predicted the meaning that eleven year old, elementary school picture would have in my college experience.
I was living in the dorms in a University in Boston. My roommate, Sarah, was from the same town I had grown up in, but we didn’t know each other from back home. Move in day was pretty nerve-wracking. On top of all the emotions involved in starting college and moving away from my family I was terrified regarding the outcome of my roommate situation. I had heard many horror stories regarding roommates, and the last thing I wanted was to be another “story” of a failed roommate. On the contrary, I was hoping we would turn out to be friends forever.
Luckily, unpacking went pretty smoothly. Sarah and I didn’t have much to say to each other but at least we weren’t arguing either. Then, I got to decorate my walls. I pulled out about thirty pictures of my family and friends, and hung them all neatly on the wall next to my bed. Sarah, who had finished unpacking and hadn’t brought anything to decorate the walls sat there watching me. I could tell that she regretted not bringing her own pictures to hang. Then, I pulled out my sister’s artwork – the hamsa. Suddenly, Sarah’s eyes lit up with excitement. As I went to hang it on the wall next to my bed, Sarah shyly asked if it would be ok if we hung it in the middle of the room instead.
Something in her eyes told me that this hamsa had special meaning to her, so I offered her to hang it on her wall. Sarah accepted graciously, and she carefully hung it right above her pillow. And then, she started crying. I’ll admit that the whole situation was a bit awkward, as we had only met about five hours earlier, but I could tell that the right thing for me to do would be to sit and talk to her. I gently went over to Sarah’s bed and sat down. Then she began to tell me a story that I will never forget.
Sarah explained that she had been born 3 months premature. The doctors had warned her parents that she would probably not survive and that if she did survive she would have many developmental and physical disabilities. Sarah’s parents were distraught and they felt as though the doctors had given them an evil eye. After consulting with spiritual advisors Sarah’s parents decided to hand a hamsa on her crib, just above her head. As Sarah began to thrive both physically and developmentally, they attributed her growth to the power of the hamsa. Since then she has slept with the hamsa over her pillow every night. Sarah told me that she was very torn about bringing her hamsa to the dorms with her. On one hand, she was afraid to sleep without it over her head, however, she was also worried that it might offend her roommate to have it hanging in the room. In the end, she decided to leave it at home. As she told the story I was full of emotion. Needless to say, our bonding began very early, and Sarah still sleeps with that very same hamsa over her pillow today.