An Ex-Spy Dims the Glow of a Village Miracle
...They reported on the boy because in Dagestan, state-supported media are actively promoting belief in folk Islamic traditions. The policy props up Sufi Islam, the traditional, mystical form of the religion in this region.
It is intended to counter the fundamentalist Islamic teachings that Russian officials believe inspire the underground movement.
Thus, local television stations and newspapers are awash in reports about Sufi mysticism, graves of saints in old cemeteries, miracle-working springs and the writing on little Ali.
According to the local reports, the Arabic script appears on Ali’s skin as a rust-colored rash. He cries as the words emerge. They remain for about three days. The first message wove across his chin soon after birth, according to the grandmother. It said, “I am a slave of God.”
Pilgrims soon came to this driveway, some bearing gifts. One of Russia’s billionaires, a Muslim from the south, is building the family a new house, already going up next door. Government officials gave the family a new Lada car.
The messages on Ali’s skin sometimes refer to the war, where his father is fighting on the government side. After insurgents assassinated an aide to a Sufi imam, or Islamic preacher, in neighboring Red Dawn village, the phrase “from grief comes deliverance” appeared, according to the imam of Red October Village.
Still, Akhmedpasha Amirilayev, a member of the district council, who first invited journalists to see the boy a year ago, touching off the excitement, said in an interview that the authorities and the family decided to limit access after Ms. Chapman’s show was broadcast. In it, a professional illusionist in Moscow experiments with carrots, minced beats and spices to create a similar, sepia ink for writing on skin, ultimately settling on red wine and henna as the likely ingredients.
The show also discussed rare skin disorders. It cited an Arabist who noted that the messages on Ali’s skin sometimes appear with spelling errors, something the grandmother took particular offense at.
It ended on a positive tone, however, suggesting that Ali’s writing, whatever the origin, had brought hope to an area badly in need of it.
Still, local residents were unhappy. “That Chapman, she said, ‘I will reveal the truth,’ but what did she reveal? Nothing,” the imam of Red October Village, Khizri Magomedov, said in an interview. “She didn’t reveal anything.”
Green Islamic flags still flap in the wind from the gate to the Yakubov front yard — a sign to pilgrims, perhaps. At the moment of a recent visit by a reporter, Ms. Yakubova, the grandmother, said, the word “imam” was written on Ali’s forehead. But he would not be shown.
After Ms. Chapman’s report, she said, “we do not trust journalists.”