Entry 05: Jinn Crazy: Stories of Magic and Madness in London

I  

I might have been seven, the first time I encountered counter-sorcery. The scene is an East End primary school with Catholic inclinations, although it was not the staff who flagged me for being under a spell. They did notice and willingly report to my father however, that I was a wild boy with an overactive imagination. Before the cultural evolution of the 2010s, one was just left to deal with ADHD by themselves. You did not need help, you needed a firm hand – or a cure. My parents were partial to both. 

The symptoms were obvious. I struggled to focus in school, I was quick to anger, and apparently I spoke to myself ad-nauseum. As such, speculations spread that perhaps there was something in me. 

My mother rolled up a delicate scroll of Arabic scripture and hid it inside a brass bead with black string. The bead was narrow and cylindrical, and it contained the divine power of the Imam – or Witch-Doctor – I’m not sure which, who had whispered charms onto it. She strung it around my stomach, and with this rare gift of protection tucked beneath my red polo shirt, she sent me on to school. 

I ran to school with my secret. I did not tell my teacher, or plan on showing it to anyone, until a friend of mine named Mohammad walked in through the eras old wooden door frame and into our eras old classroom. He was from Kenya. Strung around his bicep was a familiar black string and golden bead. And I knew exactly what it was. 

‘That is a tabis!’ 

Mohammad’s parents, like mine, knew the secrets of our medicine, but unlike mine, allowed their son to bear the amulet proudly. 

As such, speculations spread that perhaps there was something in me. 

We shared the exciting news that we were both being protected from evil. Then, as we ran out to play, the string around my torso snapped. The bead dislodged itself and fell to the ground. I didn’t notice anything, and my mother never bothered providing a new one. 

It is this last particular detail that I often turn over in my mind. With no further input, I slowly grew out of the habit of speaking to myself. My behaviour improved. My imagination tempered. Was the mere morning I had that charm strapped around my stomach enough to banish the Jinn? Perhaps he decided to leave on his own accord. Or maybe I extracted it myself with every word forged in ink, excised it with the cosmic strokes of my brush.  Or perhaps he remains, is the one who impregnates my mind with stories. 

II

Since antiquity, the ‘Evil-Eye’ or ‘Nazar’ has been represented by a glass bead of various shades of blue and white. Designed to look like a blue eye, the ubiquitous charm can be found throughout Asia, although nowhere as much as Turkey or Persia. The explanation behind the choice of hue is speculative, but some suggest it lies in the fear stoked by the first appearance of blue eyes caused by a recessive gene that had come to the fore in Central Asia. The eyes, in all their sky blue terror, or their lapiz rich mineral beauty, became synonymous with sorcery and power. 

My grandmother has blue eyes, although sometimes they were green, and other times they were grey. Her powers must have exceeded the common blue eyed witch tenfold. She was, according to the many third party sources – other ancients who still lingered amongst the young of the tribe – a breathtaking beauty in her youth. She lived a difficult life, and one of the prejudices thrown at her like mud, was the claim that she was possessed; at least to a limited degree. 

My grandmother, already susceptible to the Evil Eye due to the envy of others, and to the perversions of evil spirits then, did the unthinkable. She went out at night, in a red salwar kameez of all things. People had tried to warn her that red dresses made one vulnerable to possession. Most say that was when the monster that lived inside of her stalked her home. 

Supposedly, the monster lived with her even into old age, and then was turning its eye on the younger women: my sisters, my nieces. She lived with us when I was eighteen. Her symptoms were grave. She spoke in a man’s voice. Her eyes changed colour. She chanted in Arabic, but not the words of the Quran. Where had she learned Arabic? Not in the villages of Bangladesh surely, where Islamic education was weak. 

Most say that was when the monster that lived inside of her stalked her home. 

It is said that our ancestors were Yemeni travellers, or maybe even persecuted settlers from Iran. Maybe It had been lost in Bangladesh since then. Whatever the case, it had followed her to Britain, to London, where there were already enough ghosts.

At night, she would walk up and down the corridor, whispering. If she could, she would get into your room and watch you while you slept. The hysteria in our family was uncontrollable, and I’m ashamed to say it was starting to leave a mark on me. One of those nights, I could hear her go up and down the corridor, whispering a single world in repetition. 

‘La.’ 

It was Arabic for no. 

‘La. La. La.’

She was approaching my room now, and the terror I felt in that moment is hard to describe. 

‘La.’

Knowing what she would try to do, I grasped two heavy dumbbells and wedged them against the door. Her hand wrapped around the handle on the other side, and her whispering came to a stop. She squeezed and pushed, but the door did not budge. I left her to deal with whatever pain, whatever was afflicting her by herself. I wish I hadn’t done that.  

III

I was writing my second novel when I had begun reading excerpts from the Atharvaveda, or the ‘Veda of Magical Formulas’. As a second generation expatriate, I, like many others, was undergoing the same bloated process of self-identification. I was writing Fantasy, and needed a hard magic system which, through strict rules and logic, could be presented to the reader as a science in the world view of the characters.

This was no easy task. I should just take a leaf out of my barber’s book of wisdom. A musician in his spare time, he once boldly and without prompt declared ‘words are spells, bro. I truly believe that if you learn how to speak, you’re learning how to bewitch people. Language is a type of magic. Think about it, we’re making random noises but now both of us seem to understand each other and the world.’

He wasn’t wrong. The same came across in a thousands of years old text out of India. I thought as a descendent of an ancient culture, maybe I too had a right over the words our Hindu cousins called magic. 

My brother in law in the meanwhile had discovered I was looking into Hindu Sorcery and let me into a terrifyingly delicious piece of information. 

Years ago, when he was a volunteer for Islamic Relief, the office had received a strange gift. The gift was a hunk of brass and other cheap materials – a diamond of gaudy craftsmanship with a blue rock embezzled in the centre. Had the minerals used in its making been even a little real, it might have looked like a Moghul treasure. 

words are spells, bro. I truly believe that if you learn how to speak, you’re learning how to bewitch people.

My Brother in law and his friends fiddled with the curious trinket, till at one point, the middle piece with the blue stone popped open. A delicate scroll tumbled out – just like the ones witches and Imams write charms onto. 

They froze. Was this a kind blessing… Or was it an evil curse? Why had they sent this scroll to a charity house run by muslims? 

‘What was written inside?’ I asked

‘I don’t know.’ He replied. ‘It wasn’t Arabic. It was like… Ancient Bengali.’

‘Huh.’ My mind started like an old car battery – in stutters. ‘Ancient Bengali? That makes no sense. Are you sure it wasn’t Sanskrit?’

‘It wasn’t Sanskrit.’

‘How can you be so sure?’

‘Because I recognised the letters.’ He bellowed out in laughter. 

‘Really? All of it?’

He shrugged uneasily. ‘Most of it. It’s for sure Bengali.’ 

‘If you say so. You should find out what it is. I suspect it’s a curse from the Atharvaveda. You’d be surprised how evil some of the words can be.’

‘Come over later this week, we can find out together.’

was this a kind blessing… or was it an evil curse?

That weekend, I found myself in his flat late at night. The men were huddled around a computer with a notepad, piecing together letters and words from sites and bad translation apps.  

‘What have you discovered?’ I asked. 

There was a pause. ‘It’s definitely not Bengali.’

‘Sanskrit?’ I asked. 

‘Sanskrit.’ He confirmed. ‘I just recognised so much of it.’

‘Ancestral language.’ I explained. ‘What does it say?’

‘It’s a curse. It includes ‘snake’, ‘heart’, ‘envenomed’ and ‘curse’ and ‘death.’ But no words of protection.’

Notes. 

Jinns. Jinns, Jinns, Jinns. You would think they were everywhere. There seems to be millions in London. They are the core root of all of our problems, at least, in the diasporic communities where the old-world rituals of Black Magic and the highly profitable counter profession of Exorcism is still practised. It allows bad parents to explain to their relatives why and how they lost control over their family unit, why your husband has failed so frequently in establishing a successful business, and it reaffirms in the wavering, the reality of God.

Once again, at the behest of my work, I find myself wrangling with an incendiary topic. The question remains as to how much of myself and my community I am willing to… expose. How much of this information is personal, as much as a collective identity and a collective secret can be personal. 

Regardless of what many in my community believe, I would argue Islam does not touch on the notion of possession or even evil-eye. In fact, I think enough great scholars have pointed to the opposite. I am no Mufti, so I won’t try to convince anybody. 

The question does still remain as to where the Jinn-Craze comes from. The answer I think is that it was simply a cultural brushstroke on an imported canvas. Unwilling to mute out the echoes of our pasts, we allowed for historical seepage. Paganistic tendencies and polytheistic myths tinged our understanding of a relatively young religion fresh out of the Arabian Peninsula. As the religion crossed borders, the wisdom of crowds replaced the strict jurisprudence of Islam – and that’s why there were so many damn jinns in my childhood.

2 Comments

  • Tawfiq Khan

    so are you an apostate then?

    • charlieholland

      It’s from an anonymous source. We’re not sure if the author is still of faith but interesting to think about…

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