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Living with Djinns: Understanding and Dealing with the Invisible

Mar 29, 2018
Mike Pittman
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 10 min.

The djinn is an invisible spirit with a will of its own that may hide in the bathroom, lurk in dark alleys or under staircases to seep through the pores of its victims and possess them. Djinns have long been an explanation for illness and misfortune and an excuse for unconventional behaviour.

Barbara Drieskens has conducted extensive research among lower-middle class families in Cairo today to see how modern Egyptians make a place for these ancient beings in their busy lives. She recounts the impact of djinns on both men and women, as these spirits are not restricted (or do not restrict themselves) to the domestic world of women.

Given that djinns can be anywhere – within the body of the possessed or anywhere outside them – Drieskens pays particular attention to concepts of person and space. She also explores the importance of storytelling in Egyptian society and recounts first-hand experiences of djinns and possession in this unique ethnographic study.

Barbara Drieskens wins us over straightaway with her title, Cairo, and djinns. In no city is the human element so overpowering. Now we meet with its invisible population as well. Speculating on what goes on in the heads of people in a minor chaos such as Naples or Istanbul is a full enough program for one vacation. But they are daylight places with breezes blowing through them. You can learn the rules at the price of a bruise or two. Cairo is different.

A Cairene’s conduct would seem to fit into certain norms. But press him on their nature and he talks as if he’s following some totally different system. Then watch carefully and he will be seen to operate according to a third. And while Cairenes never stop shuffling the deck in their heads, they all the time hold sure-footed to their alleys and rooftops, never letting go of solid reality. Novelists like Al Aswany or the late Naguib Mahfouz only pull the corner of the curtain aside. The Cairene’s peculiarity is that he’s thrives on the equivocal and ignores the outsider’s need to reduce mysteries to one-liners that can be check-marked true or false.

And so we open Drieskens’s book with the same eagerness we would set out on an evening walk through Gamaliyya that stone and people labyrinth north of the Al-Hussein Mosque. Impossible, though, to hide our dismay when we learn that the author is an anthropologist. Footnotes round off the bottom of most pages. Her bibliography numbers some three hundred titles. There’s an impressive seven-page glossary of Arabic spiritual terms. Can djinns bear, we wonder, so heavy a critical apparatus? They may not be quite so immaterial as angels, which the Qur’an says are made of light, but they have issued, according to the same source, from smokeless fire, which is almost as ephemeral.

Sobered, we read on all the same. Even academic djinns must have their charm. Drieskens introduces herself and there are hints that all is not lost. Isn’t that attitude protruding from under her chercheur’s lab coat? She pretty well confesses right off to have committed the ethnographer’s cardinal sin and got too close to the subjects she’s studying. So there’s hope, and we perk up as she outlines her project.

Which is to get the gen on djinns. Their place, even if slight, in the Qur’an makes them more than mere superstition. As to their nature and lives, however, the religious texts leave much room for interpretation. Djinns are said to evade the moral realm, existing somewhere in between good and evil. That makes them erratic and not to be trusted. Turned away from the order of Allah, they are anchored to nothing. Though not basically evil like the Christian devil, their amorality easily leads them astray and without a strong restraining hand they run riot. More than the charm we anticipated, djinns then would seem to have the irrepressible temperament of a picaresque antihero. Exempt from the dull exercise of morality, djinns fascinate by their giddy powers of invention.

No wonder the Qur’anic Word spends so little time on them and many orthodox Muslims prefer to ignore djinns altogether. Dreiskens will have to look elsewhere for her facts, tracking them down in daily life. But her acquaintance with Cairo taught her that knowledge could not be had by approaching people with a clipboard in hand. She was a foreigner, shaky in Cairo Arabic, and Cairenes were not going to pour forth personal confidences to her that risked offending theologians.

Her perimeters were straightforward. She would confine fieldwork to the Imbaba quarter of Cairo whose inhabitants she calls, for want of a better term, “lower-middle class.” They exclude the rich or very poor. Those with jobs might have two, and are poorly paid in both the civil service and in the new private sector. Education ranges upward from illiteracy to university diplomas.

Drieskens began her enquiry in 1998. It was not merely an academic undertaking. The researcher, who is Belgian, tells us she married Ahmed, an Egyptian, in 1996. Now Ahmed’s family is one of the twenty-three which she will scrutinize right up until 2002 when she sat down to write her book. During the long course of her fieldwork – we aren’t told exactly when – the couple divorced.

Though this is a serious enquiry and no soap opera, the author’s entanglement with the subjects whose views she seeks produces an account that has elements of that popular dramatic form. Her search for material leads her early on to become an Imbaba resident with genuine family connections. Although this might challenge the scientific validity of her enquiry, it certainly makes for more interesting reading. She justifies entering personally into her research, noting that it cost her some pain. Small talk about djinns wasn’t going to flow unless she reached terms of gossipy familiarity with her interlocutors. When startled and thus vulnerable to djinns, Drieskens is soon spitting on her chest like her subjects. They taught her that a quick spit there shoos djinns away.

In pursuit of information, Drieskens latched on to Hibba, a young mother with a domineering turn of mind. Hibba thought the research project was ludicrous and announced that she could give tips only on cooking and the local dialect. After a bout of jealousy on Hibba’s part when Drieskens dared to ask about djinns elsewhere, the friendship prospered. Hibba’s father put a seal or padlock on it by formally making Drieskens part of the family. He did this by asking Ahmed, the male who as husband controlled Drieskens, to re-assign her to him.

The arrangement was a mixed blessing as far as the enquiry went. As little sister to Hibba, Drieskens had to mind babies and work in the scullery. She told herself that learning to cook was a sacrifice she could make for her research. As a member of the household she had to defend its honor, which implied taking its side, right or wrong, in countless disputes with other families or even dissident parts of Hibba’s. So the academic seeker after truth found herself in a position where being an accomplished hypocrite was essential.

The positive side of having a regular station in the family snake pit was access to knowledge about how things worked down there. For instance, Ahmed, her husband, had nothing of the brutal male chauvinist. He was merely trapped like everyone else in that writhing pit where every reptile had its eyed on another’s tail. Face-saving was the main concern of the Egyptian husband. If Drieskens wasn’t in the apartment when he came home, Ahmed would lose his manhood in the eyes of his peers. She could chase all the djinns she liked as long as he appeared to be top dog with a loud bark at home. Other wives advised that she have him telephone her with imperative orders when she was away in order to build up his reputation in the community.

Part of Drieskens new knowledge touched the science of mothers-in-law. A Cairo wife is judged by how cleverly she handles her husband’s mother. By comparison handling a husband is child’s play When open warfare is impossible, it’s considered proper to mock the older woman in the way of enemy nations temporarily at peace. Drieskens, though mimicking local ways like a good student, had trouble with this one. She was inclined to listen with pleasure to her mother-in-law’s endless stories, regularly rehashed and fitted out with new contradictions. The older woman passed on defense strategies against the evil eye and taught the fine points of reading coffee grounds.

Confidence grew with friendship. Mother-in-law soon confessed to having been bewitched as a young divorcee. Her former husband’s family cast a spell preventing her from landing another man. The matter was at length ironed out in the usual way by a visit to a spell-cleanser, a kind of pre-modern therapist, but with a quicker mind. Once mother and daughter-in-law consulted a fortuneteller together. The older woman was curious about the future of her youngest son. She brought his photo along as a launch pad for prediction. But the seer said the boy’s dirty underwear would have been much more powerful in calling up a vision.

Such words of wisdom bemused the undercover academic. Drieskens turns out to be more a connoisseur of anecdote than a fierce defender of any anthropological thesis. This perfectly suits her slippery subject. Djinns won’t hold still long enough to be labeled and put under glass. “Conceptions of djinns exist only insofar as they are actualized in behavior, practices and stories.” Drieskens was all ears:

1. Sarnia’s son told how a djinn forced his friend to put make up all over his face.

2. Muhammad said he was possessed by a djinn from the Roman period. He thought it looked exactly like Kirk Douglas in Sparticus.

3. Nariman said her djinn was a young female called Aisha. Easy-going and generous, Aisha gave her earrings but got angry if talked about.

4. Ahmed said his friend had a Coptic priest marry him to a female djinn. But no one knew how it worked out since revealing such events would enrage the new wife.

5. A pharmacist said he’d heard djinns speaking since he was a child. Their language sounded a bit like Greek or Latin, or something between German and Italian.

6. Sherif said a mother sent a djinn to keep him away from her daughter. The djinn jumped about a lot, wore a bathing suit and white bathing cap, and had two big teeth.

7. Mahasin said that when her sister gave birth to twins a cat got into the house. Her sister chased the cat with a broom. But it was in fact a djinn and in revenge killed one twin.

8. Ilham said her marriage went bad because a djinn forced her to speak disrespectfully of her husband in her sleep. Her husband would often argue with the djinn while Ilham slept.

9. Um Sherif said her father knew a djinn who could answer any question and could travel to Aswan and back in one second. She also said that her father insisted on shaking the hand of a djinn that had done much good. But when he thrust his hand into the dark his palm was terribly burnt.

10. Amira said her cousin married a female djinn that told him always to knock before entering a room. One day he forgot to knock and discovered his wife transformed into something hideous with vertical eyes. When his baby son cried, the djinn sent a hairy black breast on its own to feed him.

11. Sakaya said two djinns possessed her, a young female and her little brother. She had inherited them from her mother. They would often beat her, but she refused to have them exorcised: “No, these djinns have been with me for so long, we are used to each other. Even though they made me divorce twice and forced me to bring up my children alone, they still provide me with company and protection in spite of all the suffering.”

Struck with wonder at this marvelous human invention of djinns, we have to agree with the author:

For Cairenes they are an explanation for illness and misfortune, an excuse for unconventional behavior, a fearful presence in an empty room, a joke, a threat, a passionate lover and much more. Cairenes also use stories about djinns to position themselves in relation to others. Discussion about djinns are often a lively scene of playful negotiation of reputation, authority, knowledge, morality and influence, and none of these different aspects can be considered independent of others.

Drieskens ends her loose-jointed and intriguing book with the presentation of a story of her own. First she remembers she’s doing anthropology and explains the obvious like a regular professor: “Understanding stories is a complex matter.” And so on. Then she tells us the delicious Story of Abu Suud. Her mother-in-law agreed to accompany her to a zar, a ceremony that reconciled the possessed to the djinn that had entered them. Mama’s daughter, Asa, and sister-in-law, Noha, came along.

It was a genuine excursion with bags for food, toilet paper and Mama’s medicine. To begin they sat in a tent eating boiled bean sprouts while Mama talked until their foursome and anyone passing by felt at home. Then they went next door to the mosque and visited the big tomb of Abu Suud and the little one of his wife in the corner. The zar took place in a house nearby. It was the group version, not the more expensive sort tailored for a particular sufferer.

There were a dozen or so women present who had paid the entry of two Egyptian pounds. Five musicians and a singer made a great noise. If they provoked a woman to dance, it would cost her five pounds. If she had a convulsion and the invasive djinn spoke from her mouth, she’d pay ten pounds. Noha started to weep. The musicians tried several rhythms on her but gave up when she wouldn’t venture beyond tears. Later she asked for an aspirin and denied that a djinn had bothered her.

It had been her qarin, or double, who was upset by all the drumming. Asa said that she hadn’t felt well herself. But it was because of the incense and somebody’s evil eye. Embarrassed, Drieskens refused an offer to have all her questions answered for a hundred pounds or to videotape the lot for five hundred. On the way home everybody felt that it had been a wonderful day. Mama made the taxi driver stop at the market where she bargained for fruit and vegetables. He’d give them an argument over the fare later.

It would be wrong to say that there’s material for a fine memoir in Living With Djinns. The fine memoir is already there. The reader only has to cut away the scholarly overgrowth.

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