Updated: Dec 16, 2019
The Bisha (Bisha’a) is a unique ritual practiced by the Bedouin tribes of the Sinai and Negev for the purpose of lie detection when one is accused of a serious crime but there is no proof.
The ritual consists of the accused being asked to lick a red-hot metal spoon three times. His tongue is then inspected by the official who presides over the ceremony – the Bishari (or Mubasha) – and by the designated witnesses of the ritual. If the person undergoing the ritual is found to have a scarred or burnt tongue, he is found guilty.
There is no way appealing the result and all have to accept the outcome and pay the fines as agreed beforehand. Sounds medieval, the ritual is still practiced today.
The Bisha was described in a 1931 British publication, based on the the story of Austin Kennett, an Administrative Officer for the Egyptian Government in Sinai:
“The trial by ordeal is employed to settle disputes in the absence of evidence, usually only the more serious charges being disposed of in this way.
Just as the Sinai Arabs are loath to employ the oath in their disputes, unless it has been found impossible to come to a decision by any other means, so do they reserve the “Bisha” (as they call the trial by ordeal) for the more important cases only, being anxious that the solemnity of the ordeal shall not be lost by frequent appeal in trivial cases.
The procedure is as follows: When a suspect is accused of murder, theft, or any other serious charge, after heated affirmation of the truth of the charge on the part of the accuser and equally violent denials and repudiation on behalf of the accused, it may be mutually agreed that the case shall be taken to the Bisha for decision.
The accuser and accused must first agree upon a neutral third party, whose duty it is to watch fair play between the two…
The three then go to the Sheikh of the Bisha, either in his own house or at some prearranged place in the desert, the whole proceedings being open to anybody to watch, and there being no secrecy or staging of any kind…
In the particular instance in which the writer was an eye- witness, one Arab from Southern Palestine had accused another Arab from Khan Yunis of murdering his son.
The boy had been found dead in the desert, and the body had been examined by the Government doctor, who had found no signs of violence whatsoever…
The accused protested his innocence and challenged the other to support his charge by evidence. In spite of the entire absence of evidence, the father persisted in his accusation, and threatened that reprisals would be taken.
The accused – apparently unwillingly – eventually consented to undergo the trial by ordeal, and the other agreed that if the Bisha decided in favor of the accused he would drop his claim.
Arrangements were duly made, the Sheikh of the Bisha came from his house in Central Sinai up to El Arish to meet the litigants half-way, and paid an official call on the writer, whom he invited to be present at any time or place convenient.
The meeting was fixed for late afternoon, in the shade of a tree near the Government offices. A charcoal fire was burning, and a group of fifteen or twenty onlookers squatted in a semi-circle round the fire, in company with the accuser and the accused, their mutual assessor, and the two chosen by the Sheikh himself.
In the center of the group, two or three paces in front of the rest of the assembly, sat the Sheikh, stoking up his charcoal fire, on which the “spoon” was laid, with the sticks of charcoal built up round it.
Some of the men were smoking cigarettes, others puffed contentedly at their enormous pipes, and the shadows from the big tree over the yellow sand completed the peaceful scene.
It was difficult to believe that in a few moments one of those present would be tried for his life, his fate hanging on the ugly iron spoon in the charcoal fire.
The buzz of conversation suddenly stopped, as one of those present made a last effort to reconcile the litigants, and appealed to the accuser to accept some form of compromise.
His effort was unsuccessful, the accused himself, a swarthy Arab with finely chiselled features and a short black beard, declaring that he would not shirk the ordeal at this stage of the proceedings.
He seemed quite unconcerned, took out a cigarette and lit it from a burning stick at the edge of the fire.
After a few minutes the Sheikh of the Bisha intimated that the spoon was hot enough, and directed the accused to come and kneel just behind his left shoulder.
“In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate”, crooned the Sheikh, as he quietly said a prayer, in which all present reverently joined.
A small pot of water was then passed to the accused, who rinsed his mouth and spat noisily, after which the three assessors carefully examined his mouth, lips, and tongue.
Taking the handle of the spoon in his right hand, the Sheikh withdrew the spoon from the fire, flicked the ashes off its upturned bottom with his other hand, and presented it glowing red to the accused at his left elbow.
For one brief moment the accused paled, his dusky skin showing ash-gray; and then, pulling himself together and tightly grasping his sword with both hands, he put out his tongue and licked the hot spoon.
As his tongue returned to his mouth, the black mark of the ashes was clearly seen. “Again” called the crowd ; and this time rather frightened and unwilling he forced himself to comply.
A third time he leaned forward – this time recklessly – and licked the spoon, while the onlookers strained forward eagerly to watch the ordeal.
The Sheikh passed the pot of water to the accused, who had by now released his nervous grasp on his sword; and after again rinsing out his mouth, the accused returned the water to the Sheikh, and squatted on the ground.
The Sheikh poured some water into the spoon, and the noisy boiling and the steam, together with the complete disappearance of the water, satisfied any doubts as to its temperature.
Three times the Sheikh poured water into the belly of the spoon – twice it boiled away immediately, and once it remained.
Then he poured more water into the cup-like depression at the base of the handle, and again the water boiled away.
When the spoon had been completely cooled, the Sheikh called together his two witnesses and the assessor nominated by both litigants, and the four then ordered the accused to put out his tongue.
With supreme self confidence he obeyed, and clearly visible to all was his tongue looking perfectly healthy and natural.
“Clean” declared the Sheikh; “Clean” echoed the witnesses, and a group of onlookers (including the writer) went up to examine his tongue and mouth more closely.
On closer inspection the faintest possible trace of a black ashy smudge was just visible in the center of his tongue, which was otherwise perfectly healthy and normal every way.”