x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Even a sceptic can enjoy a good scary story about a jinn

The region abounds with stories about jinn; because everyone is interested in what can't be defined.

There’s a story about a man who boarded a bus somewhere in Saudi Arabia. It was packed with men and women who said they were on their way to a wedding.

As the bus left the road to drive along desert plains, the women began chanting and singing a haunting melody. As the sun started to set, the man noticed a transformation. The other passengers’ feet suddenly all became hooves, like those of goats ...

This tale was told to me at a wedding once in Jeddah, and then another time at a women’s majlis here in the UAE. It has made the rounds in many countries.

Almost everyone who grew up in the Middle East has a jinn-related story to tell, one they’ve been told or, they say, one that happened to them personally.

The long-awaited Djinn, the UAE’s first horror film, finally makes its world premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival tomorrow night. This reminds us of the odd fascination we have with horror, and of our fear of the unknown and unexplained.

The reaction is partly physiological but is also mental: people are curious by nature about things they can’t properly define. It is the same for love, for how does one really define love?

There is a whole chapter in the Quran called Al jinn, and verses throughout the holy book refer to them. We read about them in school and talked – and continue to talk – about them at home and at social gatherings. As children, I recall, we were not allowed to go alone to abandoned places, and were told not to walk near water at night.

Some people just don’t believe in jinn, nor in ghosts or spirits or the devil. But that doesn’t stop a lot of those people from watching horror films and reading stories.

One of my first stories I wrote after arriving in the UAE involved a haunted palace in Ras Al Khaimah; Emirati friends directed me to the palace but insisted that I enter alone. They were “too scared” to go inside. (The palace later figured in my young-adult book, Maskoon, or Haunted.)

I am still asked why I wasn’t scared, and if I saw “them” inside. I was advised by a Muslim scholar to avoid writing about jinn, as I could risk bringing a curse upon myself. “You could end up being haunted by them,” he warned.

As I was typing out that story, things kept on disappearing, notably the keys to my house and car. I began to think that perhaps this was not just a failure of memory. I attached a big pink ribbon to each of my keys.

I have been a witness to two exorcisms, one in Saudi and one in Lebanon, where two young women were reportedly possessed by jinn. I can tell you that the “haunted” palace was not anywhere near as frightening as what happened during those exorcism sessions.

One, I am sure, was linked to psychological issues, as I had previously worked in a psychiatric ward. But those in attendance wouldn’t hear of that explanation, and shunned me for even raising it.

We like to listen to jinn stories, which helps explain why some very famous jinn, like the genie in the tale of Aladdin’s lamp, have been revived through the ages, in books and then in films. There have been several recent books about jinn, by western writers, and regularly there are books on this issue by Arab writers. Alf Layla Wa Layla, known in English as One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of tales supposedly told by the enchanting Shahrazad, never goes out of vogue.

There are good jinn and bad jinn. Some take the form of humans, and others take the form of strange creatures. Whatever you may believe, stories about them continue to interest the public.

One story friends from my all-girls school in Saudi still talk about today is the “last washroom stall”, the one that no one ever dared to use.

It was said to be occupied by a female jinn, who was “waiting” for someone or something. The stall next to that one was never used, either – just in case.

rghazal@thenational.ae

@Arabianmau