Under the Sun

Zombi Apothecary Owner Genevieve El-Masri Doesn't Dabble in the Dark Side

Genevieve El-Masri blames pop culture for the myths about the spiritual.
Genevieve El-Masri blames pop culture for the myths about the spiritual. Robrt L. Pela
“I get a lot of people who come in and say, ‘Hey, I want to put a hex on my ex-boyfriend,’” Genevieve El-Masri said last Tuesday afternoon. She sat on a red leatherette settee in the back room of Zombi Apothecary and Conjure Co., the ceremonial high magic supply store she runs on East Northern Avenue. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, we don’t do that here.’”

When you run a shop that deals in divination and ethnic hoodoo, El-Masri admitted, people often make assumptions.

“They say they want to come in, but they’re scared because they don’t really dabble in the dark side," she explained. "They think we’re somehow doing negative magic in here because they don’t understand the connotations, the ideas, and words. It’s why I picked the name Zombi. We’re taking back ‘zombie’ as the name of the python god of continuation.”

She explained that Santería, or the worship of saints, is an Afro-American religion originating from West Africans in Cuba. Voodoo is a word meaning “spirit,” El-Masri said, and Zombi sells supplies for several different spiritual beliefs, as well as tarot card readings, incense, essential oils and powders, and other necessities for occult, voodoo, and ceremonial high magic.

“It was very important that this shop not just peddle metaphysical ideas to make a dollar,” she said, and lit a cigarette. “I wanted a space where we could have an open dialogue about spiritual things and talk about the voodoo community and dispel some of that crap out there.”

The crap out there, she felt, came from popular culture: movies and bad communication about what voodoo really is. “And then there are New Age shops that put a veneer over spirituality to sell it. I wanted a level of transparency here so people could have more understanding of voodoo. Once people understand these traditions, they approach them differently.”

Other locals weren’t helping to enlighten people, El-Masri confided. “You go into some of these metaphysical shops, and you see the little Hindu section and the Native American section, and it’s all very segregated, and it’s all very racist. The Native section will have sage and a dreamcatcher and a peace pipe, with a complete disregard for everything else that’s part of that culture and conjuring.”

After she opened Zombi, El-Masri noticed that these other metaphysical shops began adding hoodoo or Santería sections. “They got these resin statues of Oshun, a goddess of love from Amazon.com,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “And Oshun is half-dressed, looking like a Vegas showgirl with a parrot on her arm and a mirror in her hand. In reality, Oshun is severe. She’s an ancient matriarchal spirit, a powder witch, a crone. But they’ve got her reimagined through the lens of metaphysical Disney.”

El-Masri laughed, maybe because she knows Oshun. “She’s who I was initiated to when I became a priestess in Santería 18 years ago,” she offered, then paused and smoothed her long, dark hair.

“I make a political statement just being here because I’m a trans woman of color practicing a religion that is highly marginalized. Just standing up here is already like a big middle finger to a lot of different things.”

El-Masri grew up, she said, in Miami. “I’m French-Cuban. I was always exposed to this, had a large love of this—” She wiggled crimson fingernails at the beads and goddess statues and animal horns that surrounded her. “Even as a child, I saw how these traditions were demonized by contemporary religions, how we were treated as a group. Once you start learning the history of it, you realize it’s nothing new.”

She was unhappy, she said, about the myth that practitioners of voodoo are often cannibals. “There’s some denial there. Christians go to church on Sunday and eat the body of Christ. The idea of obsession with a bloodied man who died on a cross, of drinking his blood and swallowing his body. That seems weirder to me than what we do.”

There are similar misunderstandings about animal sacrifice, an element of Santería and voodoo. It’s depicted in movies in a theatrical way, El-Masri said, and that doesn’t help.

“We’re not holding a knife on some poor goat while everyone is making strange sounds and doing weird drumming,” she said. “It’s actually like we’re having a family gathering for an anniversary or a birthday, and you go to the farm and pick your animal and you pray and say, ‘Thank you for your life, we’re grateful for whatever,' and then it’s killed. There’s a ritual prayer, and then it’s skinned and cleaned and cooked and eaten, the same way that any hunter would do.”

El-Masri said she knows she lives in a world that celebrates hunting. “Going out and pointing a gun at an animal and killing it, boom, it’s done, that’s okay. But when it comes to thanking the animal first, telling it, ‘Now we’re going to share you with others,' and making it a celebratory meal, it becomes spookier. For some reason, when it comes to the idea of religion and sacrifice, we lose sight of our food source.”

Less spooky is El-Masri’s interest in ethical sourcing. She sells animal bones and horns at Zombi, but only those found in their natural settings or that died natural deaths. She sells only used books because new books contribute to the loss of trees. Even candles require some serious thought.

“Candles, yes,” she sighs. “We think about regular wax versus soy wax, and if the candles have labels on them, are they silk-screened or paper-printed, and what’s the impact on the environment?”

El-Masri stopped and looked around her. “Voodoo is not just a beautiful part of French culture and African tribes and Catholic Spaniards,” she said, then touched her hair again. “When you’re trying to teach people that this isn’t black magic, there’s a lot to think about.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela