Halloween Edition: 7 Spooky Tales from the Middle East & North Africa
By: Norah Soufraji/ Arab America Contributing Writer
It’s spooky season and although Halloween has yet to gain widespread popularity in the Arab world, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of eerie tales from the region to make you want to leave the light on before bed.
Jinn, also sometimes written as djinn, can best be described as spirits or demons. They are an understood part of Islamic theology and also have origins in pre-Islamic Arabia. Jinn are created from fire and are often invisible unless they choose to reveal themselves. They can take any form they choose, whether that be as animals or more humanoid forms. There are different varieties and hierarchies of jinn. Some are good, some are evil, and some are ambivalent. Behaviors of jinn can range from them being pious Muslims with families of their own to being decrepit graveyard dwellers looking for an unsuspecting human to possess. You can never be too careful.
Jinn are a widely accepted part of Arab folklore and Islam. Western audiences may be most familiar with the “genie” in Aladdin and various other “genies” in the tales of the Arabian Nights. A main concern when encountering jinn is to avoid being possessed or controlled. In Arabic, the word for sleep paralysis is Ja-thoom ( جاثوم), which literally translates as “What sits heavily on something”. Throughout the ages in Arabic folklore, it was believed that sleep paralysis was caused by a jinn sitting on top of a person and attempting to choke and possess them.
Many such stories and cautionary tales are told about the mysterious jinn who prefer the nighttime and ancient abandoned places. In Oman, you can find Majlis al Jinn or “the Jinn’s meeting place”, the second largest cave in the world which happens to also be the most haunted cave in the world. If you are brave enough you too can descend into the caves depths and drop in on the jinn’s supernatural gathering.
Ghouls are about as synonymous with late night creepy crawlers as vampires and werewolves. But did you know that they have their origin in the Middle East? The Arabic word Al-Ghul derives from the word “ghala” meaning “to seize” which points to the gluttonous nature of the ghouls who scour graveyards for their next meal. Ghouls are likely the inspiration for such creatures as zombies and the boogeyman.
Although typically depicted as being monstrous in form, some ghouls will take the form of animals like hyenas. Interestingly, occasionally these nocturnal prowlers will disguise themselves as attractive women in order to lure travelers. However, once they catch you, you are dinner or a late night snack. If you can keep your wits about you, you can always spot a ghoul if you catch a glimpse of their feet which will always appear as the hooves of a donkey no matter what beautiful guise they may use to trick you.
Originating from Yemen and pre-Islamic folklore, the nasnas are frightening monopod humanoids which are described as having half of a human body while the other half is missing. Sometimes, the missing human limbs on one side are replaced with tails and limbs of animals or wings of bats. Nasnas are sometimes described as being lower level jinns who do not speak but are capable of making screeching inhuman sounds which echo across deserted landscapes.
If you are traveling the roads of Morocco at night, beware the vengeful and cunning Aicha Kandicha. Aicha Kandicha is a female mythological figure whose story varies depending on the area of Morocco you find yourself in. In stories she is usually described as being incredibly beautiful and lingering near water in order to lure men to their untimely deaths. Some scholars say that that Aicha is based on ancient pre-Islamic fertility goddesses of the Middle East such as Qetesh or Astarte.
Locals typically describe her origins to be from a real historical figure from more recent times. During the Portuguese occupation there was said to be a countess from El Jadida who wanted revenge after her husband was killed. She helped the Moroccan fighters by seducing the Portuguese soldiers who would later be caught by surprise and killed. Aicha became a symbol of anti-colonialism and vengeance. However, over the years her reputation grew to be more like a beautiful but deadly jinn with hooves for feet, who seduces, kills, or drives insane local men. She may even take on the guise of the wives of young men, make pregnant women miscarry, or cause those she possesses to bark or make animal sounds.
The Jinn House of Jeddah
Just a stone’s throw from the seaside of North Corniche in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia there is a house that even taxi drivers won’t go near. Many describe the once grand, abandoned house as having an unsettling aura meant to attract young people to their demise. According to Arab News, 16 people went into the house over the years and were never seen again.
Throughout the house, black soot coats the walls. It appears that a fire had occurred, though investigators do not know whether the house was abandoned before or after the fire took place. If one ventures deep into the house and down the basement, they will find it is entirely submerged in water. The seaside house would have been magnificent in its day but little is known about the previous owners or why the house was abandoned and the owners disappeared without a trace. Some locals describe figures peering through the windows, seeming to suggest that the true owners never left.
Those that visited the house and made it out to tell a tale, describe the whispering sounds of voices as the seabreeze drifts through the derelict rooms. The house is said to be home to jinn who have made themselves quite comfortable in their seaside abode.
In Arab mythology and folklore, the serpent is often associated with evil. In one tale from the Thousand and One Nights a giant serpent is described as living under the Earth’s surface. Although this giant serpent longs to slither its way to the surface and consume all of the planet, it fears the wrath of God and has resigned to lie in wait until the day of judgement when it may emerge again. The serpent is described as living deep in the seventh hell and has an immunity to flames and the power to consume all the six hells above as well as the vast expanses of the human world.
Falak has often been compared to the Norse mythological creature Jörmungandr which will also rise again from the depths at the end of the world.
In Pre-Islamic Arabia, tales were told about the qareen, which literally translates as “constant companion”. Qareen are spirits or jinn in a parallel dimension which are the doubles of certain humans in our world. It is said that qareen will latch onto a baby at birth and will attempt to influence and control that person throughout their life. They also grow jealous if the person they latched onto forms attachments with others. The qareen are mentioned several times in the Qur’an. According to some sources, since qareen are typically thought of as a type of jinn, they are capable of goodness and redemption.
Because the qareen are seen as doubles of ourselves, they share many similarities with the doppelgänger. Although there are many compelling and frightening stories throughout folklore, the psychological terror of speaking to a loved one who is no longer who you thought they were, is somehow more chilling than other creatures lurking in shadows.
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