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Culture : Whatever the Purpose of Worry Beads, It's Not Worth Worrying About : In the Middle East, few people are without a strand to work between their fingers. No one really knows how they became so widespread.


AMMAN, Jordan — You could argue that men in the Middle East wear Western-style jackets so they can stash their beads in a nice loose pocket. A shirt pocket is a bit small, and a pants pocket is too tight, and you might have keys and coins in there as well. Traditional Arab gowns have slash pockets--not bad.

The point is not to worry about it. Worry beads won't help you there.

An informal survey of peddlers and users on the purpose of the addictive beads produced only one consistent reaction. The respondents all reached in their pockets to pull out a strand while pondering the question.

Like the Texan who wears nothing but his Stetson to bed, Arab and eastern Mediterranean men, and many women, are seldom without their worry beads. Greeks do it. Syrians do it. Bahrainis do it offshore. Even Iraqis do it. None of them are certain why, but they say it's not worry.

Mohammed, a cabdriver in Jordan's old Roman city of Jerash, said Muslims use the beads at prayer while repeating "religious words." But at other times, he added, "like you in the West might have a cigarette, we take the beads."

He was making an important distinction. What the Arabs call masbaha can be both prayer beads, similar to Christian rosaries, and worry beads--although in the latter use, the purpose is not to allay worry, they say.

Whatever. Most men can't get enough of them. The wealthy collect expensive sets made of ivory, amber and precious gems or metals. Iranian President Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani works a strand of light-green stones. The poor treasure what they can afford, often the fat, tan beads of olive wood. Women favor a smaller bead. Francoise Chipeaux, Le Monde's senior Middle East correspondent, carries a strand of filigreed silver, lentil-sized beads .

It's a matter of feel. "You want to feel the weight, hear a solid click when the beads touch," said Faisal al Afghani, whose family runs a shop in the old city of Amman. Amber is the classic choice, a smooth and weighty, smoky orange bead which, when rubbed, gives off a scent. The same substance, a fossil resin, is popular in Bedouin jewelry.

Hugh Harcourt, an Oregonian expatriate who taught in the Middle East for several decades, first at the American University of Beirut and later at the Palestinian Birzeit University on the West Bank, has a useful American slant on the worry beads. (He has three sets himself: small ones for travel, large ones for lazing about his village home in Cyprus, and a prized black-painted strand from Cairo.)

"They solve the John Kennedy problem--what to do with your hands," he explained. "You remember. He'd move them around a bit and finally thrust them into the pockets of his jacket."

Well, beads ease that problem, for one hand or both. Using the right hand, you lay the beads over the index finger and push them ahead with the thumb, one or two at a time, with the hand at your hip or thigh when standing or in your lap while seated. Then there's the popular two-handed, behind-the-back stance, working the beads one way and then the other.

The basic manipulations are done almost unconsciously, the beads clicking along while the man holds a conversation or simply sits watching a sunset. These are not worrisome moments. It's a pastime, a relaxing habit, a cigarette without tar or nicotine. "So far the surgeon general has not pronounced them carcinogenic," Harcourt noted happily.

There are a few variations in manipulation. For instance, a government official in Baghdad was able to chat with reporters while absent-mindedly performing no-lookie cat's cradles with his masbaha. In the Persian Gulf sheikdoms, where flash counts higher than tradition, young men in long white dishdashas flick unusually long strands--99 beads instead of the normal 33--like yo-yos. A couple of whirls around the index finger, then straight out, over, and out again.

"The Gulfies like those long ones," admitted Afghani, the merchant. "Now, here in Jordan only the women usually buy the 99-bead strands. You know why? Because at prayers they forget to count."

You get a lot of explanations for the number of beads on a strand--all religious. Most often cited is that 99 represents the number of ways to revere Allah, according the Koran. Others say that the name of God appears 99 times in the Islamic holy book.

But 99 is the key number--or its divisions at 33 or 66. In prayer, according to Afghani, Muslims repeat a litany using the beads as a counter. "We used to use our fingers, but this is easier," he said. Working round the 33-bead strand, the faithful repeat the ancient phrases: Praise be to God; How magnificent is God; God is the greatest-- Allahu Akbar . Three phrases for each bead; 99 in all.

In principle, it's not unlike a Roman Catholic reciting the rosary, or a Tibetan Buddhist repeating the mantra over a set of colored beads. Some authorities believe the prayer beads of the Middle East and Mediterranean came out of the Hindu culture, where they are still in use today. Encyclopedia Americana points out that Brahmins finger their beads with their hand in a bag, a variation that has yet to reach this part of the world.

The Arabs are not private about their beads, and they're inquisitive about others. "They always want to use the other fellow's," said Harcourt. "They'll take them right out of his hand."

In Greece, where the beads are called komboloi , they are already identified with the older generation. Whether young Arabs will continue the tradition is unknown. But if addictions are hereditary, the bead merchants and their customers will have their hands full.

Not to worry.

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