The Themes

Malaak is woven from a number of historical and mythological themes that readers may not be familiar with. Here I share aspects of my research of those themes that I retained for the story.

The Cedars [In progress]
The Hippocamp [In progress]
The Jinn

[To avoid spoilers, some info is withheld from this article for the moment!]

The word Jinn, which simply means "hidden", was originally a reference as general as the word "spirit". Gradually, different cultures evolved slightly different mythologies around the notion of these hidden spirits, with more or less elaboration. The Qur'an is considered the "orthodox" source as far as Islam is concerned, but there are also theological and esoteric writings that discuss Jinn in great detail, and folk traditions develop in their own ways that are closer to the life on the ground. Just as Angels in today's folklore are a far cry from the Angels of ancient scriptures, Jinn are described in various ways that have equal claims to "authenticity".

The starting point for the Jinn in Malaak was local belief, or rather traces of it. The concern with Jinn in Lebanon is largely obsolete, unlike the concern with the (more Mediterranean) evil eye, which it is impossible not to notice even in secular settings. What one does find are numerous traces, in language and habits, of that past belief, or at least of the fact it was so strong in Arabic cultures that some of it spilled over along with their cultural influence. I started with the crumbs of local folklore, and researched orthodox Jinn lore to add depth (although often enough the research came to confirm notions I thought I had created...) I disregarded completely the Western "rewriting" of these entities, such as can be found in the gaming world, because it has very little to do with tradition. The result draws loosely upon both folklore and learned writings,, but stays away from openly religious notions: the Jinn in my story are not meant to be the Jinn from Islam. Whether they are "true to reality" or not is a moot point, as there are multiple Jinn traditions that agree on some points and diverge on others. You could say my Jinn are selectively true to tradition. At any rate, nothing about them is wildly alien to it.

With that in mind, here's some orthodox and folkloric Jinn lore to put them in context. Note that these are not my personal beliefs and it is pointless to engage me in theological debate. I am just collecting and sharing notes.

The word Jinn جِنّ originates in the Semitic root JNN, meaning "hidden, concealed". In the ancient Middle East, this referred to any spirit lesser than a deity, whether friendly or hostile.

With the monotheistic genesis traditions, appeared a belief that God created three orders of intelligent beings: Angels, Jinns and Humans. Angels were made of pure Light, Jinns of "smokeless fire" (fire and air), and Humans of "mud" (earth and water). Jinn and Humans are similar in that they have free will, while Angels always serve the Divine. Jinns despise Humans for being made of lowly mud and resent them taking precedence in God's eyes. The first created Jinn, Iblis, rebelled when ordered by God to bow to the freshly-created Adam ("I am better than him. Thou createdst me of fire while him Thou didst create of mud." Qur'an 7:11-12). So Iblis was cast out of Paradise, later to be assimilated into the cocktail of entities that is today's Devil (more on this under Shaitan below).

The elemental association: Fire and Air for Jinn, Earth and Water for Humans, is central to my plot. To preserve it, I left out traditions that associate Jinn with water and would contradict it. The Sufi mystic Ibn al Arabi's in-depth discussion of this concept provided the cornerstone of "my" Jinn tradition, as can be summarized by these excerpts from his Futuhat al-Makkiyya:

"The jinn did not know that the power of water from which Adam was created was stronger than fire for it extinguishes it and earth is firmer than fire by cold and dryness. Adam has strength and constancy by the dominance of the two elements from which Allah derived him. "

"The angels said, 'O Lord! have You created anything stronger than fire?' He replied, 'Yes, water.'" ... The angels asked, "O Lord, have You created anything stronger than air?" He replied, "Yes, the children of Adam." God made the human organism stronger than air. Water is stronger than fire, and it is the main element in man as fire is the main element in the jinn. The reason for that is that the human organism accords deliberateness in matters, perseverance, meditation and reflection due to the predominance of the elements of earth and water in the human temperament. Thus the human being has ample intellect because earth holds him back and restrains him while water makes him supple and easy. The jinn are not like that. The jinn's intellect does not possess that which will enable him to hold to something as the human being does. ... The jinn strays from the path of guidance due to the frivolous nature of his intellect and his lack of firmness in his thought."

"Because of the air which is in the jinn, they can assume whatever form they wish. Because of the fire which is in them, they are insubstantial and very subtle, and they seek dominance, pride and might since fire has the highest position of the elements and it has great power to change things as nature demands."

Note also: "God has made them invisible to us so we do not see them except when God wishes to lift the veil for certain individuals who then see them." Funnily enough I only found this one much later, but it fits with my notion that some people, such as Malaak by her nature, have the ability to see something about the Jinn that is hidden to others, and thereby recognize them. It is also the case with Adrian, whose eyes are literally opened by the shock of his wound.

I mentioned jinn was a broad term, and tradition does differentiate between several types of "hidden beings". I list a few here – not all will make it into the story:

Marid مارد : the most powerful type of Jinn, that dwells in the open waters of the seas.
Ifrit عفريت : Evil and second only to the Marid in power, and a word that is commonly heard in daily speech to refer to an untrustworthy man or to an impish child). In the comic it is spelled Afrit to reflect Lebanese pronunciation.
Ghul غول : A desert-dwelling, shapeshifting demon that prey on travelers, young children, and the dead which it digs up from the grave.
Shaitan شيطان pl. Shayateen: From the very root that gave us Satan, the word originally means "opponent, adversary". In this context it designates Iblis and those of his people who refused God's order to bow to Adam, resulting in their expulsion from Paradise. These are reputed to be evil and dangerous to humans, but the scriptures suggest they are "testers" of mankind and jinn alike, allowed by God to roam the earth and attempt to steer people away from His path. Hellfire is Iblis' reward, which doesn't sound all that nasty when you remember Iblis is made of fire (note also that the Qur'an doesnt' paint Iblis as the enemy of God but that of man). Iblis is also said to be the one that deceived Eve, and Jinn in general are closely associated with snakes, into which they may transform. In Malaak, it is revealed that the warring Jinn are "shyateen", but also that they are "lesser", as opposed to the powerful Aafrit she encounters in vol. 2.

Other facts pointed out by religious or folkloric sources and used in the story:

  • Temptation and deceit are the Jinns' ways of corrupting humans, through their "whisper", or waswis. The contemporary word for "whisper" is washwish, while waswis, in which we recognize a much older form (the S sound of ancient Semitic languages is replaced by SH in modern Arabic) is only used for the Jinns' mind-influencing and possibly maddening murmurs to their chosen victim. Refer to the "human fighters" in the comic, who have been talked into bearing arms without understanding who and what they're really serving (it's not meant to be a commentary on something close to home, but if the shoes fits...)

  • The Jinn feed by "sniffing" physical food. In other words, they absorb a subtle form of the sustenance contained in the food. It's a short step to concluding they actually absorb the energy of things, or even better, living things, when they get a chance.

  • Jinn fear and hate salt. In North Africa salt is used as a talisman against them and is even mixed into the walls of houses to keep them out. It just so happens that salt also serves my basic concept perfectly, being an intimate association of water and earth. In moderate amount salt doesn't kill the Jinn but hurts them as badly as a sharp blade – a good enough means for a human with no superpowers to defend himself. Adrian's sword would inflict on a Jinn the same damage a metal sword would inflict on a human: enough of it, or a well-placed blow, can terminate the Jinn. Otherwise it hurts it like hell.

  • Jinn are shapeshifters, and it is only when they change their form that they are visible to humans. It is also only then that they can be killed. In Malaak, the Jinn who take on a physical body are indistinguishable from other humans. The shyateen can't shapeshift; only the more powerful Aafarit can, and when they do, any human can see them and recognize them – not that there's much chance of them being allowed to live to tell.

Finally, here's a smattering of Jinn-related beliefs, surviving or obsolete, from Lebanon itself:

  • The language is pervaded with related words, although speakers don't necessarily realize it. The widely used word for "crazy", majnoon, literally means "jinn-ed, possessed by jinn". Jann, verbatim "to go jinn" means "to go nuts", and "bijannen", "it makes one jann", is used to say "superb, mind-blowing". While translating the comic I found out that the "jack" mentioned by the driver needing to change his tire is called, in Arabic, a aafrit. Aafrit is also used to describe a wily man to beware, or affectionately for a boy that's a "little devil".

  • When hammams (Turkish baths) were an omnipresent part of the culture, it was believed that Jinn dwelled inside the dark, humid places. No bath tubs were used because they would occupy still water (also a reason why water utensils were kept covered.) To protect oneself from them, one must always enter with the right foot, while uttering protective words. It was also essential not to enter a hammam after midnight.

  • Blue is a protective color against Jinn and one can still find doors painted blue with white hand prints (barring them entry).

  • Up to the 19th century, when children awoke with red fingertips, they were told a Jinn hennaed them during the night.

A note in closing: Despite the many Suras that mention them, believing in the Jinns is in some places considered to go "against Islam" and so the mere mention of them is taboo in many Islamic countries (including Malaysia, in a recent case). I verified this when, before going live on air, I was asked to avoid uttering the word "jinn" at all costs because the show would air regionally and the station could potentially be banned from some places as a result. "Some places" usually means Saudi Arabia, though not necessarily it alone. However, as always folklore tenaciously holds on to beliefs older than the organised religions that try to uproot them, so Jinn lore lives on, although Malaak may obviously be banned from some of these countries (for this and a number of other reasons.)

The Griffons [In progress]