Tradition and Superstition: The Jinn in the Family Closet

Almost everyone has one in their family: a closet. And a jinn encounter.

If you haven’t had one for yourself, there’s always the uncle or sister-in-law or cousin several webs of bloodline and introduction removed who has had the pleasure—or misfortune.

A young woman’s leg is broken for the crime of sitting down on her own couch, and onto the extended leg of a jinn already lounging there. (Eye for an eye, in the most terrifying way.)

A woman’s dying husband insists that she is cheating on him because he sees someone hovering around her, always clinging to her—and no one else can see anyone, but several months later and a well-timed exorcism reveal the spirit that was hanging about her for years.

A childhood friend’s mother witnessed a white-clad being seated up in the ceiling as a family member fought a deadly illness—and, to this day, also remembers the expectant, grotesque expression of whatever it was perching there, watching, waiting…

From an early age, I was distinctly aware of the discrepancy between the jinn I saw represented in Western media—the giddy, grinning, larger than life beings that somehow spooled downward into vaguely Middle Eastern lamps, that were associated with sanitized and frankly insulting downsized Disney plotlines and memorabilia—and the ones I heard of, surrounded by my friends in candlelit childhood bedrooms, ready to break counsel and rush off to find our mothers as soon as the flame suspiciously flickered in an improbable breeze.

Within my large family and its assorted cousins, we had a particular tradition and understanding of our own, played out in the cooling dark of Bangladeshi evenings: a game that has always and only been referred to as Ghost Ghost. I am not entirely sure which of the older cousins invented it and who devoted their time to engineering its relatively simple rules: everyone sits together in a dark room, and you try to grab whoever is attempting to frighten you by playing ghost.

The game itself is not the draw so much as what often happens when you do play it. A younger cousin hops up from a side of the room where no one else has been for the past few minutes, crying out that someone grabbed him by the ankle. Someone else’s braid is yanked on by unseen fingers. No one takes responsibility. Everyone scrambles to be the first to turn on the lights. There was never an open admittance of who we thought to be the culprit, but that word—that knowledge—always hovered on the fringes of the fluttering curtains, the hesitant laughter and the teary eyes of the one who still needed to be soothed into playing another round.

The Arabian Nights—the original, if slightly watered down for the sake of being kid-friendly treasury that was one of my prized possessions around ten or twelve years old—almost reflected what I understood the jinn to be from these stories and our insistent play: wonderful, terrible, strong, created just as we were, but on a different plane and different existence than we could ever imagine.

And those gaps in consciousness, the places in between sacred text where the imagery was left to your hands to stretch and twist and draw into your own understanding, frightened us.

Part of my bloodline stems from one of the most superstitious locales within the expanses of Muslim culture and presence, if surveys are to be believed. Growing up with friends from Indonesia and Malaysia, notable for their intense dwelling on the world of the unseen and intense stories involving its crossing over into ours, gave me enough fertile ground to plant the seeds of curiosity and fascination. The jinn and its dominance in our folklore—and, at the same time, its effective appropriation by interloping Orientalist threads and the erasure of the authentic—have surfaced in almost every idea I’ve contemplated recently.

There is so much that hasn’t been touched upon yet, and it feels particularly unfair due to our preoccupation and downright obsession with them—or, maybe I should be honest and admit that a lot of my preoccupation and downright obsession is with how their narratives intersect into ours, whether it is the marvel of supposed jinn-human romances, or jinn meddling into human romances, or the sense of being haunted and watched without any means of defense or offense from another dimension right in your own home.

In particular, this sense of there being a tradition, if not another world where it still occurs, of our sharing these intersections and being resigned to being part of each other’s affairs, is what I always long to chart out properly in a future idea, or two.

Everyone has a reason to fear them.

The jinn, of course—not the closet.

I saw the original Exorcist last year, at night, in the cheerless gray bleed of December—definitely atmospheric in all the wrong ways. I went to bed and tugged several blankets over my head and tried to blink away the afterimages still flickering against my eyelids, the uncomfortable digging into the very weakest sediment in my marrow: the sense that your body is fallible, your mind ready to be shoved aside, that all that you are and claim yourself to be can be snatched out of your grasp and perverted and tainted and, God, made to crab-crawl down a flight of stairs that looked uncomfortably like my own. I am a simple creature when it comes to fear, but nothing makes me reach down and try to grasp the assumedly flimsy, flighty corners of my soul like possession.

Too many jinn stories, too many cautionary tales about leaving yourself open for the taking. Too many stories about possessions, actual possessions where people writhe and have the spirit beaten out of them through the soles of their own feet, where you speak in tongues and your family cannot recognize the sound of your voice and where a jinn’s idea of love and courtship is settling in as close to your beating heart as possible so that you can feel it tingling up and down your veins.

Everyone has a story, you see.

And hardly any of them end well.

It is crucial to note that jinn do not come of one variety: that includes those with wings and those without, those who prefer to creep over walls in the unsavory shapes of spiders … those who are decidedly wicked, prideful, use their dominion over an unseen parallel dimension and the limitations of the human being to wage war on us for the sin of our being created, and those who choose to bow their head to the same higher power Muslims worship, who retaliate only when mistreated and who may even demonstrate acts of benevolence.

A friend recently told me that, in her understanding of Islam—and particularly in Tanzania—there are jinn who look after you and who take it upon themselves to defend a particular family’s house. We learn, from an early age, about the great prophet-king Sulaiman, who had the beings of smokeless fire as honored courtiers about him, who did his bidding and undertook great feats: moving the gilded throne of the Queen of Sheba hundreds of miles away from her palace into Sulaiman’s, for instance, or making a floor that appeared to be water out of mere glass.

And of course, returning to the Arabian Nights that cultivated my mind early on, there is the (authentic, Chinese Muslim) Aladdin and the jinn that pledges its loyalty to him once he possesses the famous lamp, building him a palace, aiding him in wooing his eventual wife and ultimately deferring to him even when the story’s villain takes temporary possession of all that he has earned.

It is interesting to see how many jinn stories there are across the Islamic world, and how they change shape and take on new motivations as you move your finger across the map—and, how sometimes, even the kindest of these creatures may be given the means to indulge in evil against their helpless human counterparts.

(An instructor in the local masjid warned the children of the Sunday school classes not to walk across the lines in the carpet meant to aid the forming of rows for worshippers; even if they saw no one present who was in prayer, she had heard in her native Guyana about jinns who, brought to ire by the disrespect to their connection to their Creator, had stricken casual passerby with tragic diseases of both the body and mind. For some, even the good jinn cannot be trusted—for the mere sake of their fiery nature and state of being.)

Everyone has a way to avoid them.

Don’t look at it.

Don’t ask to meet it.

Recently, buoyed by the confidence of the afternoon sun and its reassuring hand on my shoulder as I sat at my desk, I brought up the subject of jinn in an online discussion—and was quickly, carefully warned in a private message by a young blogger to be careful about saying the word jinn at all in any situation. “When you speak about the jinn, they come to hear what is said,” she insisted.

It was a new one for me, but that didn’t keep me from looking furtively about my room, realizing as I did that the light that so encouraged me to speak about the world of the ghayb—the (mostly) unseen, the (fairly) unknown—had receded, and with it, my courage to poke at shadows and not worry about them billowing outward and upward in size to respond to the slight.

Everyone has one, after all.

A closet, and a jinn encounter.

And if there’s anything to be learned after the telling, it is that—outside of the marvelous conjurations of the Arabian Nights—you do not want the next cautionary tale to star you.

Top image: selection from Errol Le Cain’s illustrations for Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp (1981)

Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. Besides pursuing a BA in English literature from Hofstra University, she is an online diversity advocate, blogger, and publishing intern. Karuna is fond of tea, Korean dramas, writing about tough girls forging their own paths toward their destinies, and baking new delectable treats for friends and family to relish. Her first novel, The Gauntlet, is available now from Salaam Reads.

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