The Jinniyya’s Daughter

Suneela Mubayi

Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from "HOMO FINIS", Film, 2022.

Translation: Ziad Dallal

In his book on pre-Islamic poetry and the origins of Arabic prosody,  Palestinian poet Hussein Barghouthi, that comet that, just like my mother, burned out too soon, writes: “This is not a research project where [as the poet Abu Nuwas says], ‘I know some things (about the jinn) while being ignorant of others.’ Rather, what you are reading are ‘observations, fantasies, and experiments rooted in actual history.’”[1] Here, however, they are rooted in my mother’s history, the woman who birthed me and then faded away. And yet, she remained a ṭayf, an apparition roaming in varying forms throughout my life. An apparition throws the human into a whirlpool of paranoid delusion, or imagination, or the realm of the jinn. This evokes for me the link between the figure of the jinn and my mother’s madness (junūn). 

When I was invited to write on the theme of ghosts for The Derivative, I immediately thought of my mother. Initially, the association surprised me, but I recalled the words of al-Jahiz: “Whenever something is more unusual, it appears queerer in the imagination, and whenever it appears queerer in the imagination, it is more curious, then more wondrous and then more marvelous.”[2] Having dug deep into Arabic culture’s preoccupation with jinn– those supernatural beings who are distinguished for being present and absent at once– my mind began to dream up a link between my mother, who was also distinguished for her presence-absence. 

My mother had been suffering from schizophrenia for more than ten years before I was born. Within two months of my birth, she would relapse, be admitted into a psychiatric hospital, slowly detach from reality, and drift towards clinical death. Twenty-four years later, she would die from a cancer for which she refused to get treatment. I spent twenty-four years with her in that condition of presence and absence. Not much has changed since her departure. I have pondered how to describe this presence-absence, for both appear to be two sides of the same coin, as if the jinn and the mad (majānīn) shared this particularity. As if the mad are jinn imprisoned in bodies. 

This is what occured to me when I was standing above her corpse before it entered the crematorium. Her face was frozen and cold to the touch. I became unnerved and could not continue uttering my farewell. Only after a decade had passed did I rest assured, for I grasped that the fire had delivered her from her corporeal prison. Perhaps this also explained my feeling of estrangement from my own body, for the element of fire that constitutes jinn yearns to be delivered from the element of clay from which humans are created. In the epistles of the  esoteric Brethren of Purity we read , “[we] jinn are light flaming spirits, while humans are heavy earthy bodies […] we see them, but they do not see us, we move  through them, but they do not feel us, we surround them, but they do not touch us.”[3]

When my mother departed, I could not mourn properly. I could not write about her because her mode of presence had always been her very absence from me. The dearth of details about my mother and the endless emptiness that I felt towards her made the words to express her loss as difficult to grasp as the jinn; they are in my presence and see me, but I do not see them move around me. I find it difficult to grasp my thoughts when I sit down to write, as if the jinn flee right at the moment when I need them. 

When writing about my mother, I can only write in a “mother tongue,” which cannot be an ornamented classical Arabic language (beautiful as it is, it is no one’s mother tongue), nor can it be a purely colloquial Arabic because I did not learn Arabic from the maternal women in my life. In the original Arabic version, my text swings between standard and colloquial Arabic, just as I swing to and fro the masculine and the feminine, and just as jinns swing by as living beings without having a concrete body. 

Jinn, then, are creatures that live parallel to us and share the same space. I resort to Arabic’s system of linguistic derivation that has always opened doors for me that had been previously shut, or that I did not even know existed. Let’s look closely at the major derivation of the root j-n-n or what the linguist Ibn Faris calls miqyās al-mādda, or the semantic connections between the derivatives of the same root.[4]  

In this context it is difficult to speak about jinn without mentioning their opposite, al-ins, which according to Ibn Faris’  lexicon means the appearance of something. Thus, al-ins are contrary to the jinn, and they are called as such because they are apparent. In Arabic, a human is called insān, since to form a relationship of ins with someone or something, is to relate to it without fear or terror, and to take comfort in it. We are confronted with the binary of the apparent and the hidden, which also suggests that it is impossible to take comfort in the jinn. I did not have the opportunity to take comfort in my mother, for she had no tangible presence in my life except for three or four visitations, the first of which was when I was eight years old, as well as a few phone calls.  

Rana, my partner-in-tongues, calls attention to the linguistic connection between madness (junūn) and motherhood, which passes through the word fetus (janīn), the baby formed in its mother’s uterus, and which does not become human as long as it is inside the uterus. The fetus is connected etymologically with the madness of the mother who decides to transform her body into a vessel for a human protoplasm that has no specific form yet and no determined future.[5] Looking closely at the derivation of the root j-n-n, we find that “the jīm and the nun refer to shrouding and hiding.” Semantically, verbs coming from the root j-n-n carry meanings of hiding, covering, and shrouding: the junūn of the night is the darkness and its severity. Madness also derives from j-n-n, which is described as the covering of the mind until its corruption, and the majnūn is the mad person whose soundness of mind is shrouded. Relatedly, the junūn of plants refers to their extensions and their weavings, and the majnūn is the towering palm tree. Janna is a garden of trees and thick palms, and from it we derive the word for paradise in the afterlife. 

Rana moreover asserts that janīn (the fetus) signifies futurity. That may be true, but the derivation of janīn from that which is hidden within the womb leads to yet another derivation. Janin is also that which has been coffined up and buried, and janan signifies the grave and the coffin. So the janīn are the buried and entombed, those whose future has ended and passed; that is why we say, al-ḥiqd al-janīn, or suppressed resentment.  I was a fetus (janīn) in a mother’s womb who had been officially diagnosed as mad, and she became mad on my behalf (junnat ʿannī) after I was no longer enwombed. On her passing  she was to become the janīn. Because she was cremated and not buried, she did not become a jinn of the coffin but of the sea. We scattered her ashes over the waters of the Arabian Gulf from the shores of Bombay where she and my father lived in the early 1970s. I imagine her a jinniya, an apparition free from her visible and tired corporeal cage, a cage that never fit her. I imagine her in her oceanic paradise [jananiha al-baḥrī] instead of the soil of the earth. In this earth, other jinn grow, for the janīn is also the budding of a plant from a seedling embedded in the belly of the earth. If the earth blooms, it is said that it has become mad or frenzied [junnat, tajannanat], for it goes crazy without care. From this we derive paradise in Arabic, janna, denoting the earth that is covered by leaves of trees and plants, a paradise that is hidden from us until judgment day. We begin our lives as jinn, and we end our lives in hopes of a janna we are not sure exists. Is it not better to seek to become jinn after the death of our bodies, for the element of fire is more eternal and everlasting, requiring only air. I cannot ascertain from my sources, which include the Quran, whether the jinn are as mortal as human beings. As far as I am concerned, my mother lives on in her own janna, even if her human mold has died. I do not mean to say for certain that she is in paradise, but that I constantly feel her accompanying me, her janīn, her fetus, who comes from the place riddled with jinn, al-majanna

The schizophrenia that my mother suffered drives one mad by sidelining them into a reality of hallucinations and phantasms, which keep them corporeally present but absents or exiles them mentally. If we consider the root of schizophrenia in Arabic [infiṣām], we discern a single origin and meaning for f-ṣ-m, which is the invisible fissure or fracture of something. What a coincidence to arrive again at the invisibility of madness, an invisible fissure that cannot be located and is difficult to splint and restore. Madness, which is not externally apparent, ensnares  the human [al-insī] whose nature is to be apparent, which makes sociable relationships of caring for and showing affection to schizophrenics difficult to sustain. 

If the fetus, janīn, is linked to a mother’s madness [junūn], then I was a hidden fetus inside her body, only for her madness to be shielded from me. Madness, as a disorder and disruption of the mind is also one of the states  of love. This meaning goes beyond Arabic and reaches Farsi in which the word dīwāneh signifies both the demented and the lover at once. No wonder, for the janān is the hidden and concealed heart within the body. My father remained madly in love with my mother despite her madness. My father is the majnūn, the mad lover in every sense of the word. And how? My father, the man coming from Delhi[6] to pursue a PhD in physics, glimpsed a white American woman of Jewish origins called Joan (notice again the phonetic similarity between her name and the jinn)[7]; he caught a glimpse of her singing in a chorus, only for her voice to enchant his heart [janānihi] and make him crazed until he lost his mind. According to al-Jahiz, the ghūl is the name for anything jinn-related that waylays  travelers, and is usually disguised in various forms and outfits.[8] My mother came in the path of my immigrant father, but she entranced him, rather than entrapping him. True, she was a human of flesh and blood, but she had supernatural qualities, like the ability to absorb and soak up languages and cultures, often bewildering whoever she speaks to, especially with her knowledge of film and music.[9]

The janan are locations of sanctuary for what is hidden. People believe that psychotics and those with neuroses were possessed with jinn, so they would beat them to “expel” the demons from their bodies. My father tried to protect her in various ways by providing  her with sanctuaries from the harm and contempt society has for anyone who dares unsettle it. He shielded her madness and brought her back to America from India, for his love for her was jinn-like , in the sense that it persisted and lasted to this day! 

I was afraid to stir up his derision, he who swears by dialectic materialism and is not beholden to any religious creed. But he surprised me by encouraging me when I suggested the idea of linking her madness with the jinn, saying that there is truth to what I am saying. He pointed out her appreciation of Tagore’s poetry, which went far beyond any knowledge by one of his Bengali friends. He mentioned how she moved gracefully through Bombay’s markets, communicating and interacting  with marvelous agility as if she had grown up there. He says that there was something supernatural within her. Speaking of fluid movements, the mad beast is one that moves swiftly  and darts all over the place, possibly because  its movement resembles that of jinns

We find out that the jānn is a type of quick slithering and rattling serpent. Usually, the serpent carries negative connotations, just like the jinn. We imagine it to be a harmful animal, effecting what is contrary to its name in Arabic: killing rather than bringing to life [tuḥyī]. Both the jinn and the serpent are associated with the metaphysical. According to al-Jahiz, killing a serpent is so dangerous that an Arab is  compelled to save a serpent if he finds it stuck at the bottom of a well, “as if he seeks deliverance by coming closer to the jinn.”[10] I do not know how my mother moved when she was better, for when I met her it appeared as if her body was not hers and that she was exiled from it. The serpent, because of its flexible body, can reach places that no one expects it to reach. So could  my mother. Once, while traveling with my father in Vienna, she appeared in a piano bar singing a number from the 1920s’ Threepenny Opera in German, accompanied by the pianist as if she performed there every night! She shed the shields of modesty [mijann al-ḥayā’], and the mijann are shields that parry armaments in battle. My mother faced the cruelty of this world towards those with mental illnesses like the jinn who know how to brave confrontation without shields or protection, and who roam wherever they like. 

When she was able to work, my mother was a painter. I did not get to know most of her paintings, but the two I was able to see depict couples with ambiguous features. The heads and the bodies hint at being human but lack the proper contours, and we can neither classify them as human nor animal. Their features and expressions reveal neither happiness nor sadness. We do not have words in our human emotional lexicon to describe their appearance. I wonder what we know of the emotions of jinn, is their emotional topography similar to ours? Do they rejoice and grieve like us for the same reasons? The sources do not tell us much about the emotional world of jinns, except for their cruel intentions. From my perspective, these two paintings try to explore exactly that. 

Two untitled oil portraits by Joan Feldman Mubayi, 1979.
Retrieved from the personal archive of the author’s father.

Then I look at an early picture of her and my father, both in their mid-twenties, and in her eyes I find a mystique similar to that of the jinn. I cannot distinguish whether she is happy or if she is feigning a smile. I remember what my lover once said that she cannot discern anything from my eyes, that my eyes are big and beautiful, but that they do not reveal anything contrary to the eyes of most of the people she knows, as if I myself might be a jinn

Until recently, I would think, what a waste my mother’s life was. She seemed miserable while in the delirium of her deathbed, muttering to my father the words of a song from one of her favorite Bollywood films. We know that language distinguishes the human from all other creatures, but here, my mother seized some dignity and ability from her madness to remember a language she had not heard for decades with jinn-like facility. As her body withered away, she was able, if only for a moment, to subdue her madness through language, as if her ability to access foreign tongues signaled her kinship with the jinn. I realize now that my mother demonstrated to us that there is no such thing as a pure human or a pure jinn, and that this binary is breachable. A mother tongue can (sometimes) be the tongue of a jinn. Even though we are made of clay and not fire, we all (sometimes) become jinn by virtue of how we relate to our (various) language(s).[11]

I retrace my way back  from the jinn to the janīn [fetus]. When my mom became pregnant with me, she and my father decided to keep me because her condition  had improved. But she relapsed soon after my birth. She started hallucinating (and the hallucinations of schizophrenia are damaging and lack any Jahizian wittiness) that her milk was poisoned. She refused to breastfeed me because she wanted to protect me, but her deteriorated mind did not allow her to protect the human protoplasm she had allowed to grow in her womb. In Arabic, both “protect” [ḥimāya] and “birth” [wilāda] are irregular or “sick” [ʿilla] verbs for having a long vowel act as a consonant. Whereas ḥimāya ends with a long-vowel acting as a consonant, wilāda begins with one. Words like mother [umm], on the other hand, have doubled roots, characterized by having the same second and third letter in their root, as we also find in the words jinn and jidd [forefather]. These words are considered the oldest utterances in the Arabic language.[12] The word umm signifies the formative component of things, meaning that the root of “motherhood” in Arabic is ingrained morphologically and grammatically in the language. To mother (yaʾumm) is to go towards something or someone with intent. An imam, for example, is one who leads a prayer congregation. At the same time, “to mother”  a camel [amma ẓahra al-baʿīr] is to wound its back as you steer it.  I carry the mad wounds of motherhood within me. I was born a male to her, but with time I transitioned with all intention from the son of a mad woman to the daughter of a jinniyya. The Arabs say heaven is found under the feet of mothers, but because her madness is connected to her jinn-ness, I will say that my mother lives in the janna, or paradise of jinn

Photograph from the personal archive of the author’s father, mid-1960s. Photo courtesy of author.

Dedicated to my mother, whom I prefer to remember her as a jinniya rather than as a majnūna [madwoman], and to my majnūn father, who has never ceased to sing for his Layla. 

[1] Hussein Barghouthi, al-Sādin wa-l-Nāqa: Qiṣaṣ ʿan al-zaman al-wathanī, p. 23. The pre-Islamic Arabs believed in the relationship between the jinn and the poets whereby each major poet had a jinn who composed and dictated the poetry to be recited by the poet. According al-Qurashi’s Jamharat Ashʿār al-ʿArab, these jinn would inhabit a fantastical place called The Valley of ‘Abqar, from which the Arabic word for Genius (ʿabqarī) is derived. The Andalusian Ibn Shuhayd divided the jinn into two camps, the good and the evil, in his work, Risālat al-Tawābiʿ wal-Zawābiʿ (“The Epistle of Minions and the Devil”). 

[2]  al-Jāhiz, al-Bayān wa-l-Tabyīn, p. 89-90, translated by Peter Webb, Creating Arab Origins: Muslim Constructions of al-Jāhiliyya and Arab History. PhD Thesis. SOAS, University of London, p. 347. 

[3]  Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ wa khullān al-wafā, vol. II, epistle 8, p. 168. 

[4]  ʿAbd al-Salām Harūn, Introduction to Muʿjam maqāyīs al-lugha by Ibn Faris, p. 29, which works by trying to make an analogical template [maqāyīs] of Arabic roots. The connections I make here between my mother’s madness and jinn were evoked for me by looking at the semantic variations in the root j-n-n in the lexica of classical Arabic. I resorted to the major dictionaries like Lisān al-ʿArab, Qamūs al-Muḥīt, and Maqāyīs al-Lugha, in addition to the Doha Historical Dictionary of Arabic. Out of pure coincidence, Ibn Faris provides the following example, “the name jinn is derived from the word al-ijtinān, to take cover.” 

[5]  Rana Issa, Ummiyyāt, al-Jumhuriya, December 2021. 

[6]  “Delhi […]was a city of djinns. Though it had been burned by invaders time and time again, millennium after millennium, still the city was rebuilt; each time it rose like a phoenix from the fire […] The djinns loved Delhi so much they could never bear to see it empty or deserted. To this day every house, every street corner was haunted by them. You could not see them, said [Sufi elder] Sadr-ud-Din, but if you concentrated you would be able to feel them: to hear their whisperings, or even, if you were lucky, to sense their warm breath on your face.” William Dalrymple, City of Djinns: A Year In Delhi, p. 35. 

[7]  We see a phonetic similarity with Ibn Jinnī, the great linguist and author of the book al-Khaṣā’iṣ. His family name is not derived from jinn, but from the Greek word genus

[8]  Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, ed. Muhammad Basil ‘Uyūn al-Sūd, volume six, p. 398. 

[9]  To be fair, I have to clarify that my mother’s interest in Indian culture was not driven by her relationship with my father. This interest began before they met and was a serious appreciation, unlike the trend of Indian spirituality that spread in the West throughout the 1960s. 

[10]  Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, volume six, p. 341. 

[11]  A special thanks to Haytham al-Wardani for illuminating this point. 

[12]  In his semantic treatise Sirr al-layāl fī-l-qalb wa-l-ibdāl Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq suggests that this doubling is the origin of morphology and derivation in Arabic.