I write about genies. A good Irish-American former Catholic girl like me writes romances about an iconic Middle Eastern elemental. How did that happen? Let’s just break that down. It’s really not such a stretch. If you’re interested in history and myth–and I am–then any fantastical figures are fair game. My background gave me fairies, banshee, and demons. Jinn fit right into that population.
I think part of what makes all elementals so durable is that they’re hard-wired into our consciousness. They’re..well…elemental. They all sprang up before religion; way back when nature and imagination were the only way to describe what was happening in the world around us. Genies were described in a pre-Islamic world when fairies and banshee were flying in a pre-Christian world. Yet, they were so intrinsic to how humans explained good and evil influences that each was incorporated into the major religious texts: Jinn have a chapter in the Koran and demons show up repeatedly in the Bible.
I first came across genies by reading The Arabian Nights. With research, I would learn that the jinn and how they live and appear and what they’re believed to be capable of are not all that different from Western world elementals. Demons as described in Western literature are really not all that different from how genies are described. In a translation of The Arabian Nights by Husain Haddawy, genies are interchangeable with demons. (Part of why genies get a bad rap is that they’re often described as demons. Literally, they have been demonized.)
Check out this passage from The Ninth Night. Shahrazad has started the story of a fisherman who has bad luck and catches no fish. One day, he captures a brass jar in his net. Here’s what happens next:
After a while, there began to emerge from the jar a great column of smoke, which rose and spread over the face of the earth, increasing so much that it covered the sea and rising so high that it reached the clouds and hid the daylight. For a long time, the smoke kept rising from the jar; then it gathered and took shape, and suddenly it shook and there stood a demon, with his feet on the ground and his head in the clouds. He had a head like a tomb, fangs like pincers, a mouth like a cave, teeth like stones, nostrils like trumpets, ears like shields, a throat like an alley, and eyes like lanterns.”
Wow! What a sight, eh? You can also see why Westerners put the genie in a bottle and make him emerge in a cloud of smoke. In fact, genies are created “from the smokeless flame”. So, maybe it’s more of a mist. It all depends on the translation. Which would also be why this particular guy is so darn ugly. The jinn supposedly don’t look much different from humans. But there’s the power of the imagination again, creating tales and figures from the unknown. From what I learned about banshee, they have a similar travel ability. They are frightful spirits who portend a death. They wail and screech. If you see one, you will die soon. Therein lies the link among all these elementals. We can’t see them. The jinn means “the hidden.” Yet, we have all sorts of descriptions about what they look like. Because that’s what humans do. They try to explain the unseen. And that’s what writers do. They create stories to construct a world around the things that are part of our consciousness but which have no evidence for their existence. And that’s how I came to write novels about genies.
You don’t have to believe in them as being real. But it sure is fun to imagine a world with them in it.