(published in Verity La)
Miss, WALLAH, it’s true. They are everywhere. Every time you hear a noise in your house, or your TV stops working, or your computer beeps…’ Hana paused dramatically. ‘It’s a jinn.’
She searched my face for a sufficiently spooked reaction, and while I did my best to play along, I was more impressed by Hana’s descriptive abilities than frightened of these things called jinns. After our English speaking class one afternoon in May, Hana and Munerah stopped by my office to discuss the upcoming quiz. Our conversation quickly shifted to other topics, like Munerah’s brother’s upcoming wedding, Hana’s sisters in Sudan, our favourite movies and then, finally, to jinns.
‘Miss,’ Munerah spoke up, ‘they are beautiful, I hear. A seer tell me one was in love with me. This one only had one eye.’
They began speaking rapidly in Arabic, presumably about Munerah’s encounter with the seer and her love-struck jinn. I watched Hana stroke the arm of her petite friend sympathetically and tried to remind myself that these girls were two of my brightest students at Abu Dhabi University. Why, then, were they talking about spirits with one eye?
‘But don’t be scared, Miss.’ Munerah turned to me. ‘They have no reason to hurt you.’
‘Those girls are just trying to scare you,’ Aysha said. ‘They don’t know a thing about jinns.’ She flicked her wrist as if shooing away a nasty fly as we entered the elevator. ‘One eye! No one can actually see jinns anyway. That seer was a fake.’ I was amused by her indignation, but I knew Hana and Munerah were sincere, no matter how ridiculous they sounded. If anything, I felt they were trying to protect me.
‘It’s all written in the Koran. Jinns live in their own world, but the evil ones find ways to get into ours. They’re made of smokeless fire so we can’t see them.’ I stood at her office door as she rummaged for her keys. ‘I know this sounds crazy to you, but it’s just like your spirits in the west, except jinns are not demons or ghosts or fallen angels. They are just . . . different, like us because they are independent, alive and have free will, but they are more ignorant, harsh and vengeful than humans.’
‘So why would they try to harm people?’ I said. ‘Why should someone be scared of them?’
‘Because they can possess you. Just like some humans are good and others are mischievous or plain evil, so are jinns. The evil or capricious ones can possess a person on a whim, because of desire, or if they are angry. If you pour hot water on them by accident or urinate on one, they can take it as intentional and seek revenge.’
From Aysha’s expression – brow furrowed, lips pursed – I saw that she was serious, and stifled a laugh at the possibility of urinating on an invisible spirit.
‘So they live in our houses?’
‘They’re not supposed to. If the come into this world they should dwell in open fields and abandoned houses, or places of impurity, like toilets or garbage dumps or graveyards. If they come into a house and are harmed, they need to be reminded that they have no right to be in a human’s home.’
‘How do you remind them?’
‘You just say it. In Arabic. But the real problem is when a human calls upon the jinn to possess someone through black magic. Then it won’t go away so easily.’
‘So that’s why my students said the jinns wouldn’t harm me.’
‘Exactly. Who would put a curse on you?’
‘Of course I believe in that kind of thing,’ my boyfriend Andres said. I was telling him about jinns on our drive back from Dubai. I had assumed we both understood them to be a folk superstition. I was wrong. ‘Just because I’m a businessman doesn’t mean I can’t believe in the supernatural, or whatever you want to call it.’
‘But we know them as genies – you know, Aladdin’s lamp, three wishes?’ I reminded him. ‘The west changed the idea, of course, but still, it’s only a myth.’
We stopped at a red light and Andres turned to me. ‘Didn’t I ever tell you about what happened to me in Lille?’
‘No,’ I replied, not swayed by the seriousness of his tone. ‘You’ve never told me any of your ghost stories.’ He didn’t laugh.
‘Seriously, here’s why I believe in spirits.’
Andres’s story took up most of the hour-long drive from Dubai. Three years ago, he had moved into a one-bedroom apartment near his office in Lille. ‘I heard babies crying at night,’ he said. ‘I asked my neighbours if they had kids, and everyone said no. I would press my ear against the bedroom wall, and it sounded as if the cries were coming from inside.’
He described the morning he’d woken up paralysed, sensing an invisible force pinning his wrists and ankles to the bed. He tried to wrestle with it, but couldn’t budge for what seemed like a long time.
‘Oh c’mon,’ I said. ‘Wasn’t that just a dream?’ Where was my rational boyfriend?
Andres shook his head. ‘No, I was awake. I felt the whole thing.’ He sighed. ‘Finally, I was able to push the thing off me and I could move again. But that was just the beginning.’ Andres became sick, but no doctor in Lille was able to make a diagnosis. ‘First my legs ached, then my stomach, then my chest. It was as if this thing was systematically attacking each part of my body. Then I was swollen all over.’ After six months, he asked a friend in China who knew a spiritual healer if she could help him. Andres promptly received six tightly folded pieces of paper with Chinese script on them. He burned four of them immediately. ‘For each one I burned, a spirit was sent to eternal damnation. I kept the other two as safeguards, so they know I still have power.’
‘So that’s what those little triangle things are on the night table?’ His Chinese spirit curses had been on the bedside table since he moved in, but I’d never bothered to ask about them. Andres had only told me not to throw them away.
‘Yeah, they’re protecting us,’ he said with a grin.
‘Well, then what?’
‘The spirits disappeared.’
‘So you think the curses worked?’
He shrugged. ‘They must have . . . except now there’s a problem. I felt it again.’
‘What did you feel?’
‘A couple of nights before I left for Abu Dhabi, I felt something holding me down again at night, pressing on my arms and legs. Ever since, my calves have felt swollen and my head aches.’
I grabbed his hand on the gearstick. ‘Why didn’t you tell me this sooner? Why did we go to Dubai if you’re sick?’
‘I thought I could handle it,’ he said. ‘I’m an athlete, so I’m good at blocking out pain. I want to be strong for you.’
‘What do you think it is?’
‘That’s a good question.’ He laughed. ‘If I don’t feel better by tomorrow, I’ll see if the Abu Dhabi doctors can figure it out.’ But I sensed that he had already relegated this pain to the supernatural, to the revenge of spirits from China, France and New York following him to Abu Dhabi. We turned into my street in silence and entered my apartment noiselessly, as if we feared disturbing some ill-tempered jinns hovering in the walls or slinking along the tiled floor.
Andres slept until noon the next day. When he awoke, it was to complain of a searing pain in his neck and an awful headache. ‘You know me. I never get headaches.’
‘Let’s go to the hospital. We have to figure this out.’ I needed it to be something rational, not spirits attacking him in my own apartment. Not jinns.
‘It sounds like a classic case of jinns,’ Aysha informed me. ‘What he described, that’s just what people who’ve been possessed by jinns report.’
The doctor had found nothing wrong with him; all his blood tests were normal.
‘Believe me, people close to me have had this happen to them. The only way to deal with it is to see a sheikh.’
‘A sheikh? Isn’t that someone connected to the ruling family?’
‘Yes.’ Aysha looked at me as though I was hopelessly naïve, an expression I seemed to elicit often. ‘But it’s also the name for a holy man, someone who can advise people and, if necessary, get rid of jinns. I’ll ask my sheikh if he would treat a non-Muslim, but that shouldn’t be a problem since Andres believes in God. The only issue would be the language . . .’ She walked ahead of me, talking to herself. ‘But still,’ she continued, ‘I could translate the sheikh’s instructions and Andres wouldn’t necessarily need to understand the words that would be recited over him.’ She waited for me to catch up. ‘The Koran has power on its own.’
‘But why would a jinn try to hurt him?’ I sounded like a petulant child.
‘As I told you before, there are many causes. For one reason or another, Andres is vulnerable to them. Or maybe some enemy he doesn’t even know about put a curse on him.’
She saw me wavering and reached out her hand to me. ‘Seeing a sheikh couldn’t hurt him, anyway. Reading the Koran never has.’
‘I’ll ask him about it.’
‘Sure, I’ll try it,’ Andres said casually, as if I was offering him a new flavour of potato chip. ‘If Aysha knows the guy, and is there to translate, then it could be helpful.’
‘This is a serious thing, from what I understand. I think you have to believe in it for this “exorcism” to have any impact.’ I had never used the word exorcism before, but there was no other way to describe Aysha’s proposal. ‘Is this something you believe in?’
‘I already told you I believe in this kind of stuff,’ he said, somewhat exasperated. ‘I think there are special people in every culture who can bridge the gap between the spirit world and our own. This jinn thing is just a different regional form.’ He yawned.
‘Right,’ I said, surprised by his blasé attitude. ‘How are you feeling?’ Andres had been lying in bed all day. His face was puffy, stomach bloated, legs swollen, eyes dull. He was deteriorating in front of my eyes while we were talking about Islamic spirits.
‘I’m a little better,’ he said, and smiled weakly.
‘Why don’t you burn those two triangles?’ I said, picking them up and twirling them in front of him. ‘It worked the last time, didn’t it?’
He looked at me, aghast. ‘Do you know how powerful those are?’ He replaced them on the bedside table and settled back into bed, his arms around me. Just being near him had a draining effect, and I found myself falling asleep for several hours.
Over the next week, our rhythms were off. We ate midnight dinners at a cafeteria near the hospital where Andres saw more doctors and took more blood tests, to no avail. We checked email at three am and talked in bed until five. Since students were taking exams and I wasn’t needed much at the university, we slept throughout the day.
In and out of blurry dreams where I hovered above the city or pounded on a glass door separating me from my classroom, I began to see that I was an outsider in Abu Dhabi and wondered if I would ever feel accepted. Students continually whispered in a flurry of Arabic as soon as I finished speaking; in the afternoons, women in black cloaks trailed alongside me, private and concealed. When my students wanted to complain about their husbands or discuss their overprotective families, they went to Aysha. And why would they come to me instead? What did I really know of their culture and religion, or the way it felt to be a local woman in this developing city? As I lay next to Andres’s feverish, swollen body, I understood that a visit to Aysha’s sheikh would be my chance to glimpse a part of this culture that seemed unnatural and absurd to me yet was considered commonplace by those I felt distant from. I placed the back of my hand on Andres’s burning forehead, and vowed to tell Aysha we were ready to see that sheikh.
‘A sheikh my friend knows will come over tonight,’ Aysha told me over the phone, after informing me that her own sheikh lived in Sharjah, two hours away. We apparently didn’t have time to travel. ‘I’ll do the initial translating, but I don’t want to be there when he recites the Koran. I can’t have the jinns come into me when they come out of Andres.’
‘Of course.’ I was beginning to get the hang of this supernatural talk. I bustled around my living room, tidying up. I hadn’t expected a personal visit from a sheikh, but rather a trip to his office. This arrangement seemed awkwardly intimate. Andres’s stuff was everywhere. What would this sheikh think of us living together? Would he cure Andres or yell at us for our sins?
Aysha arrived and immediately handed me a sheyla along with a loose abaya and I quickly covered myself. Sitting on my couch, she watched her phone anxiously until it began to ring. ‘He’s here,’ she said without answering.
I stepped into the hallway to greet the sheikh. He wore a faded kandora, and a white skullcap instead of a cloth headdress. Even with his drawn face and long, traditional beard, I could see that he was much younger than I had expected. While I knew he must have seen me, the sheikh treated me like I was invisible, not even acknowledging me. He went straight into the living room, making a beeline for Aysha.
They spoke in Arabic, gesturing toward Andres intermittently. From their use of the words ‘la Arabi’ and ‘mushkil’, I was able to deduce that Andres’s lack of Arabic was considered a problem. As the sheikh looked around the living room, gazing intently at Andres’s clothes filling the cabinets below the TV, I wondered with a mix of worry and relief if he might call the whole thing off.
The sheikh sighed, took a seat facing Andres and me on the couch, and said something to Aysha. She pulled up a chair next to the sheikh and said, ‘He’d like to know your symptoms, Andres.’
The sheikh looked back and forth from Aysha to Andres as they communicated Andres’s pains – everything from the invisible force holding him down at night, to his swollen body and aching legs.
‘Don’t worry,’ Aysha said to me when Andres had finished. ‘What he has is classic. This sheikh can help him.’ I guessed her sympathy for Andres’s condition and belief in this sheikh won out over her fear of catching Andres’s jinn. She was staying for the exorcism.
The sheikh brought his chair right between Andres and me, so that his knees were almost touching ours, and began reciting from the Koran, so loudly that I worried the neighbours would knock on my door to complain about the noise. His recitation began as a song, then his speech became breathy; he sped up and slowed down; his voice high and then deep; he shouted then whispered, practically blowing the words out of his mouth and onto Andres’s lap. He repeated, ‘Bismillah al rahman al raheem,’ a common blessing which meant, ‘In the Name of God, Most Merciful, Most Gracious.’ I tried to pick up on a pattern, identify more words I might know, and figure out the purpose behind his erratic rhythm changes, but came up with nothing. I watched his beady hazel eyes and pointy teeth and wondered how anyone could gain spiritual relief from this fierce, tense man.
Andres’s face was a stoic mask. I couldn’t tell if he was enthralled, bored, angry with me for suggesting such nonsense, or moved by the beauty of the Koran and thinking of converting. I realised how little I still knew him. I crossed my legs, but then the sheikh glared at me reproachfully – the first and only time he looked me in the eye – and motioned for me to uncross my legs. Andres glared at me. How was I supposed to know? Why was I sitting on the couch, anyway, like a participant? I wanted to be in a chair beside Aysha; I wasn’t the one who claimed to be possessed.
Then there was a loud thwap. The sheikh was smacking Andres, hard, three times on his calves, thighs, forearms and shoulders. Slapping out the jinns? Andres flinched briefly, but then resumed his impassive stare. Abruptly, the sheikh stopped. He had been reciting for almost an hour. He sat back in his chair and asked Andres how he had felt during the recitation. Andres described, without hesitation and with striking precision, his physical state: he had a sudden headache, then it went away; his legs twitched, abdomen fluttered; there was a pain in his left side; a pressing, like a weight, on his shoulder. Aysha and the sheikh exchanged approving glances, and nodded encouragingly. Andres then spoke passionately about spasms and aches in the back of his neck and the soles of his feet.
I couldn’t decide if he was making this stuff up or if he had really felt all of that. And as I asked myself that question, I realised that either way I felt betrayed by him. While Andres appeared fully attuned to this world of religious sheikhs and descriptions of inexplicable ills, his exorcism was only confirming, loudly and clearly, my own outsider status. After a week of worrying over his health, going over all the possible causes of his pain, I suddenly felt detached from him, as if we were no longer in this together.
Then it was my turn to declare every sensation. I had felt nothing during the sheikh’s recitation, but knew no one present would accept that answer, not even Andres. ‘I felt some anxiety,’ I said. ‘In my stomach.’ Were they buying this? ‘And, uh, that’s about it.’ I wanted to add that I felt sort of angry when he was smacking my boyfriend, but worried that would be construed as resisting the release of the jinn.
The sheikh and Aysha conferred in Arabic.
‘What you have is typical, Andres,’ Aysha said. ‘Now, jinns usually possess someone because of a spell. Do you know anyone who would want to put a spell on you?’
I waited for some revelation, but Andres only shook his head. ‘Then it is the devil,’ Aysha said. ‘The worst kind of jinn.’ I watched for Andres’s reaction to this new development, but he remained stony-faced. ‘He enters when you are intimate with Jillian, when you drink alcohol, and when you are in places of sin, like the discotheque and beaches with nearly naked women. You need to end this behaviour. You have to make the devil sad; don’t let him make you sad. He will try to make you think that this wasn’t helpful, but don’t let him!’
I couldn’t believe one of my closest friends in Abu Dhabi had just told my boyfriend he was possessed by the devil.
‘Jillian,’ Aysha said, ‘the sheikh needs a jug.’
‘Yes, a jug for water.’
What next? I went into the kitchen, my abaya dragging on the unswept floor, and produced the only thing I had: a medium-sized pot. As I thrust the pot into the sheikh’s hand, Andres scowled at me as if I had just presented the Queen of England with a pile of dog shit. Aysha and the sheikh were not impressed either. The pot was clean, but the sheikh indicated that Andres should clean it again and fill it with water. When Andres returned, bearing the pot brimming with bottled water, the sheikh held it under his chin and began reciting again. The end of his beard circled in the water. For about half an hour, he nearly spit his words into the pot. Then Aysha produced a glass from my kitchen. The sheikh dipped it into the pot, and told Andres to drink.
‘Is it sweet, normal or bitter?’ ‘Bitter,’ Andres said confidently. I knew I was next. It tasted like regular water to me, but I too said that it was a little bitter. Andres sent me a piercing gaze, the word copycat on his tongue.
‘Jillian, we need towels,’ Aysha said, translating the sheikh’s instructions.
I brought out two large, brightly coloured beach towels from my closet for Andres and me to wrap around ourselves. The sheikh stood so close to Andres that their noses were practically touching. He blew on Andres’s face, big whooshes of spit-filled breath. Then the sheikh dipped his hand into the pot and whacked Andres with a big splash of water. I watched my boyfriend flinch, and I had to fight back a rush of laughter. Andres is being pelted with water, by a religious sheikh! It was all too ridiculous. When asked the effect, Andres said, ‘I felt as though I was being doused by a hose; as though it was a sprinkle of needles.’ I looked at him searchingly. How was he coming up with this stuff?
‘What is your name?’ Aysha translated.
‘Are you human or jinn?’
A considered, dramatic pause followed.
Whew. I knew I was next, but still protested. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to control my laughter this time. ‘Why me?’
‘Because you and Andres are connected. You probably have whatever he has too.’
I had feared as much. I scooted over to take Andres’s position on the couch, while he stood to watch. I closed my eyes and tried to relax, but was unable to stop myself from flinching as water was flung at my face. When asked, I told them I felt resistant to it, and that I didn’t want it to happen.
‘It’s time to focus on treatment,’ Aysha translated. ‘Andres has to make a decision. You two either have to get married or break up. If you continue this way, Andres will continue getting sick.’
I looked at Andres, the man I had fallen for almost instantly, who had moved across the world to be with me. Yes, I was confused by his responses tonight and unhappy with the prospect of another year apart, but still, I could easily say he was the best man I knew. How dare these people say that the devil had entered him? How dare they declare him the worst kind of sinner? How many other real sinners were out there, not affected by the king of all jinns? What about them?
The sheikh provided a list of instructions, which Andres carefully wrote down. He was to take a teaspoonful of pure honey five times a day, listen to the Koran and avoid places of sin. I was told to take a laxative. After all, I had complained of stomach anxiety.
Andres thanked the sheikh profusely, handing him two hundred dirhams, almost sixty dollars.
Aysha too rose to go, saying she felt refreshed. ‘Now remember to keep the bathroom door closed at all times,’ she said. ‘That’s where the jinns live. Always say bismillah, in the name of God, before entering.’
‘Sure,’ I said, and wished her a good night. I’d had enough.
When we were alone, I waited for Andres to explode with laughter and mock the ridiculousness of our encounter, and his own exaggerated responses. But I knew, from the way he had thanked the sheikh and the extra money he gave him, that he had taken this exorcism seriously and his responses were true, if not heightened for dramatic effect.
‘Will you do what the sheikh said? Will you listen to the Koran and eat honey?’
‘I felt that man was holy, but I don’t think I’ll follow his instructions.’
‘But you wrote it all down.’
‘Yes, but I didn’t promise to do it.’
‘But you said he was holy.’
‘That sheikh was a pleasure to be near. I felt at peace just listening to him recite the Koran.’
‘Are you better?’
‘I’ve been slowly getting better this week. I think I just needed some rest.’
‘So why did you go through with it?’
‘Because you seemed so curious.’ He smiled at me like he was indulging a child in a fantasy game. ‘This was our last night together in Abu Dhabi. Do you think it would have been my choice to spend it this way?’
I glared at him. ‘You could have said something if you didn’t want to! You seemed to enjoy it . . . ’ Suddenly I was feeling guilty.
‘Baby, I did. It’s okay. By the way, was that what you expected?’
I shook my head. ‘No, not at all.’
That night, Andres informed me that we couldn’t make love, and asked me to close the bathroom door.
‘But what good will it do?’ I asked him. ‘I’m not going to keep the bathroom door closed from now on, and we’re not going to stop sleeping together.’
‘Just for tonight,’ he said drowsily.
Still, in bed we held each other tightly. I watched his dreaming eyes flutter and wondered if even he understood his contradictory reactions that evening. He believed in the exorcism but didn’t believe in it; he would follow some of the instructions some of the time but tomorrow drop the whole thing. Had he always been so baffling? I felt like I was being held by a stranger.
When I brought up the exorcism the next afternoon, Andres shrugged as though it had happened a long time ago and there was nothing more to discuss. I noticed the pot that contained the water the sheikh had blessed. I was meant to keep filling it with water so that it could mix with the blessed water. In this way, I could create an endless supply of holy water. I dumped it down the sink, half expecting wisps of smoke to rise from the drain.
I kept the jinn story secret from most of my friends. I worried they might think I was poking fun at Islam, denigrating the sheikh and positioning myself as superior. Yet when I did feel comfortable enough to tell the story, I heard various reactions. A friend who was familiar with the voodoo culture of Haiti was unfazed. My German friend nearly spit out her beer when I described the water pelting. My colleague Craig said his mother was a spiritual teacher and that he had heard of jinns before; she had told him that the desert spirits were the worst kind, sharp and nasty. He didn’t think Andres had had one, though, because he too believed that they only possessed when someone cast a spell.
‘Words have the power to harm and heal,’ he said to me, ‘when there’s enough energy and faith behind them.’
This was something I was beginning to understand. Yet this Arabian culture would persist in making me aware of my position on the wrong side of a glass door; when I was allowed to slip through, that world only appeared unfathomable and out of reach.