By MARTIN ROSENSTOCK.
“THE JINN ARE like we are, sir! They have families, they have children. There are Christian jinn and Muslim jinn and Jewish jinn.”
“Where are they?”
“Everywhere, sir! In the desert, in old houses. They really like old houses, after the people have moved out.”
“Aha. In Kuwait, what’s their favorite place?”
“Failaka, sir. Full of jinn!”
I HAVE HAD this conversation or variations thereof many times, largely through my own doing. I have become intrigued with the jinn. Western metaphysics has nothing quite like them. Some, to be sure, are demons; they possess the innocent and wreak all kinds of havoc. Others, however, only engage in good-natured mischief. They hide household items or pull the cover from you while you are sleeping. Others even are benevolent, showing the way to a watering hole in the desert, or, of course, granting wishes if you release them from a lamp. They inhabit an invisible world parallel to our own. Their name derives from the Arabic word ‘janna’: to hide, to conceal. They are the hidden ones. They can see us, but we cannot see them – except, perhaps, sometimes out of the corners of our eyes, or if they want us to.
The Gulf (on this side emphatically the Arabian Gulf) is a space where the other world lies close to our own. This is not apparent to the casual visitor who drives through the canyon of skyscrapers that is Sheikh Zayed Boulevard in Dubai, or walks around downtown Kuwait City where one tinted glass façade mirrors another. One is hard pressed to find anything that stood here fifty years ago. Yet this land is ancient. Its current inhabitants trace their ancestry back hundreds of years, and people have lived in or passed through what is now the country of Kuwait for millennia. Faith is strong here, and there is still some life in myth and folklore.
For instance, when I ask my older students about himarat al-gayla, a being with the body of a woman and the head of a donkey that stalks the children who are out in the blazing noon sunshine, I usually get a wry laugh: “Better say you’ll take away their iPad. That’s scarier.” But they themselves still remember himarat al-gayla, just as they remember tantal, the heavy-treaded giant who comes for the children who are not home by dusk. And my students admit that when they see a black dog with white spots above its eyes a sense of unease creeps up their backs: such an animal might well be possessed by a jinn.
The jinn are of a different order from himarat al-gayla or tantal. Scripture confirms their existence. The Quran dates the jinns’ creation to before the time of Adam. God made them from smokeless fire. When He then ordered them to bow before His latest creation, a human being made of clay, some refused. This cost the rebel jinn their place in the divine sphere. They became creatures of evil, with Iblis – Satan – as their leader.
THE BOAT TO Failaka (pronounced Failecha in Kuwaiti Arabic) is a high-powered catamaran that leaves from a marina where the have-yachts dock their million-dollar toys. Failaka is one of nine islands belonging to Kuwait and by far the one with the richest history. Archeologists have been digging on Failaka since the 1950s and they have found artifacts dating back 4000 years. Various Mesopotamian empires included the island in their territory. Failaka’s name is believed to derive from the ancient Greek fylakio for ‘outpost’; Alexander the Great’s hoplites also reached this place.
I am the only Westerner on the boat this morning. An elderly Indian couple, she with a bindi on her forehead, is sitting one row over from me, and I spot a group of Filipinas, presumably on their day off from house or hospital work. The other passengers are all Kuwaitis, many of them teenagers or in their early twenties. There is a sense of excitement in the air – the young ladies are giggling, their male counterparts talking animatedly – but maybe this excitement masks apprehension. Not because of the jinn; perhaps more worldly matters are on their minds. In 1990, the occupying Iraqi forces deported the inhabitants of Failaka to the mainland and began using their homes for target practice. The following year, the U.S. and her allies bombed the Iraqis out of their positions. Unsurprisingly, most Failakawans chose to remain on the mainland after the occupation had ended. I wonder if I am watching the children of the deported returning to the place their parents once called home.
After forty-five minutes on grey and choppy waters, I see the coastline and some low-slung buildings strung out along it. The harbor of Failaka appears to have silted up, for we anchor off the coast and a smaller boat comes alongside to ferry us to a make-shift pier of plastic pontoons. The air here is crisp with a touch of salt. We file ashore bowlegged, the pontoons swaying under our steps, and are greeted by pop music blaring from speakers mounted on a red, double-decker bus. This bus might at one point have cruised the streets of London, but has now been repurposed as a café. The song lyrics that boom over the beach of this island territory of a deeply Islamic country would be better suited to Ibiza, but no one seems bothered. Some people grab a coffee and then we board a small electric train, similar to the ones that service amusement parks in Florida and California, which takes us three minutes up the road to a ‘heritage village’.
Mostly this consists of a museum housed in a small palace Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salim, eleventh Emir of Kuwait (1950-1965), had erected as a retreat on the island. The palace is unadorned to the point of being self-effacing: only one story high, with beige walls and a flat roof, in the style of a traditional Kuwaiti building. The flagpoles fly the current Kuwaiti flag and the old pre-independence one, the country’s name in white letters on a red background. Brass cannon point decoratively toward the waterfront. The walls of the palace seem oddly scrubbed, without blemish. The place has the feel of a movie set. Inside, life-sized figures of men sitting in diwaniya and women overseeing cooking fires populate the rooms. The exhibits are what one might expect: flint-lock rifles, tea sets, old photographs, wooden models of the dhows that once sailed from the Gulf to India, carrying the pearls that would adorn the jewelry of the Maharajas. What is taught here is what is taught at all such sites around the world: identity, a sense of belonging, nationhood. This is how your ancestors lived. As I move through the corridors and along the walkways under the awnings of the interior courtyard, I wonder what the busily chatting Kuwaitis are thinking as they look at this simulacrum of the pre-oil era. Any average Kuwaiti villa today has more living space than this Emiri palace.
But I have not come here for history. I am here for the jinn.
BEHIND THE MUSEUM lie some guest rooms that provide overnight accommodation, past those an empty road and a small enclosure in which a few goats and deer and guineafowl while away their days in comfortable boredom. And then you are in Az-Zawr, the island’s former main settlement. Before the invasion, Az-Zawr housed c. 1,500 inhabitants; today it is empty, an assemblage of ruins, a jinn-town, one might say.
I follow a stray cat that looks like a Rorschach test on legs down what was once a street of comfortable terraced houses. Every once in a while, the cat looks back as if to ascertain that I am in fact still behind it, before finally disappearing with an air of exasperation into some bushes. The facades of the houses are peppered with bullet and shrapnel holes. Sometimes the roofs have caved in. I walk up to an entrance and peer inside. A broken ventilator and some garbage bags fill the hallway. I step over the bags and walk down the hallway to a small interior courtyard. A tamarisk tree has begun growing within the detritus, sending its spindly branches up toward the sun. I place my steps gingerly amongst plastic toys, rotting for eternity, and the remnants of shattered furniture. Thoughts of booby traps that the mine sweepers might have missed almost thirty years ago keep taking shape in my mind, with all the nagging persistence that only irrational thoughts are capable of. And then, of course, I am also wondering about the jinn. I can see why they must love this place. The jinn exist in an odd relationship to us humans. They prefer spaces away from us, but they do seem compelled to reach out and affect our lives occasionally. Here they are at the edge of the human world, a liminal sphere where material civilization is crumbling and decaying. They are close, but not too close for comfort, their own comfort. The humans are transient, while their ruined world appears static. The jinn have options here.
In the next house, I ascend the staircase to the second floor. Everything seems to have been stripped from this building, even the sockets have been torn from the walls and the toilet from the plumbing. Perhaps the Iraqi soldiers knew that they would be returning to a land of deprivation and took everything movable with the least bit of value. In one room, finally, a gutted mattress lies on the floor, next door a single table, too low for an adult, sits slightly off center, as if someone had considered taking this last piece of furniture, but then decided that no, it wasn’t worth the effort. As in many abandoned places, there is a residual spectral presence: people once lived here, children did their homework, adults talked politics or business, quarreled and made love.
I leave the housing estate and walk inland across an empty stretch of dust and dry grass toward a more substantial looking building. From my little research, I know that this was the local branch of the National Bank of Kuwait (not to be confused with the Central Bank of Kuwait, i.e. the government institution). Someone has incongruously sprayed a swastika next to the entrance. The façade is pockmarked with bullet holes to a grotesque degree; in large areas the plastering has been blasted off. The work of destruction must have occurred with an absurd, near-comical rage. Again I have to think of a movie set, but this time of one for the showdown of a Hollywood action blockbuster, Stallone or Schwarzenegger with a submachine gun in each arm, emptying entire belts of ammunition, spitting out a one-liner every time a bad guy spins around on his heels. The interior, where once customers lined up to conduct their business with the clerks and cashiers, lies empty beneath a dome-like ceiling. My steps crunch on fragments of mortar and cement. Here, the place has a strangely sacral vibe.
I make my way back toward the coast, passing an abandoned but unscathed mosque, and then I enter what appears to have been the center of Az-Zawr. Small one-room buildings face a square. In some rooms, collapsing empty shelves line the walls, another room might have housed a barbershop, judging from shards of blind mirror glass on the floor, and in another the smashed furniture seems to indicate a café. There is a door at the far side of the room, and for a moment I find myself wondering if I saw something, a hip-high oddly proportioned shadow that coalesced at the doorway to take a peek and then dissolved. But when I step inside and walk up to the door to glance into the backroom it is like all the other ones. A rusted-through water boiler sits in the corner like some industrial gargoyle. The jinn are avoiding me, I feel, but perhaps that was to be expected – the jinn, my students have informed me, are suspicious of strangers.
AS I APPROACH the road again, a whitish Toyota pick-up zooms around a long bend and stops beside me. The passenger window has been lowered, and the driver eyes me quizzically from below his baseball cap with the tiger logo of the Bangladeshi national cricket team.
“Taking walk, sir?”
“Yes, I suppose.”
“You want see Iraqi tanks?”
He leans over and opens the door. I get inside and dig a one-dinar bill from my pocket. He accelerates down the road as if on the run from the law. After roughly two miles of grimly, silently grounding the accelerator, he pulls up to a fenced-off rectangle on the plane of the island’s interior. Behind the chain-link fence stand two rows of decaying war machines. I nod my thanks and can barely close the door before he has peeled away in a cloud of dust. Inside the fenced-off area, I encounter some of the passengers from the ferry, who appear to have just arrived with a mini-bus. We stroll past the tanks and anti-aircraft guns. Everything feels reluctantly and oddly curated, prepared for viewing, but also removed from immediate sight, accessible but not advertised, and certainly not meriting a roof; and so the remnants of the war that briefly eclipsed the country of Kuwait are now slowly degrading into piles of rust.
People take pictures, nod at each other, even smile sheepishly, but no one says much. Unlike the world re-created in the museum, this is not history. There is still pain attached to this past, or at least affect.
IN A SMALL café-cum-restaurant, I acquire a late lunch, and as I sit outside under a tarpaulin spooning my chicken biryani, I cannot help but think that Az-Zawr is the half-disavowed sibling of the concrete and glass city on the mainland. But Az-Zawr’s days are numbered. More concrete and glass are on the way. By 2035, a new city, Madinat Al-Hareer, the City of Silk, is supposed to rise on the north side of Kuwait Bay, where today camels pluck at dry shrubs and sand drifts gauze-like across the road. At the center of the City of Silk, a tower one thousand and one meters high, surrounded by a host of lesser spires, will pierce the Arabian sky. The Burj Mubarak al-Kabir is set to outglitz anything Dubai or Abu Dhabi have to offer, at least currently. A branch of the New Silk Road, coming all the way from China, will end here on the shore of the Gulf.
Failaka and the other northern islands, thus the plan, will be fully developed and will have become part of the global tourist economy. Failaka will be covered in luxury resorts, amusement parks, shopping malls, and golf courses. The tourists of 2035 will stand where I am sitting now, snapping selfies, if that is still a thing then, in front of mega-fountains swaying in synch with Louis Armstrong (or – who knows? – dancing to Lady Gaga), while triumphantly holding up shopping bags emblazoned with the labels of the designer brands du jour.
Where will the jinn go, I wonder?
Martin Rosenstock lives and works in Kuwait. He has written fiction pieces for Literally Stories and The Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. Occasionally, he tweets @m_rosenstock.