The Middle East abounds in tales of spirits and their antics. Today, Al Jazeera brings some of these tales to life.
Ghosts, spirits and wandering souls are just part of life in Sudan, especially the east, by the Red Sea, where the people and their jinn coexist happily.
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There’s an ancient port city, Suakin, that sits on the Red Sea, graceful and mysterious.
Its name “in Arabic means ‘dwellers’ or ‘stillness’, suggesting haunting by jinn [spirits or demons]”. Another story says the name derives from “sawajin”, a fanciful plural of the word sijn, or prison, based on the story that this was where the Old Testament’s King Solomon banished demons. Another story says Suakin comes from “sawwa jinn” or “together with the jinn” or “the jinn did it”.
At a recent family gathering, the conversation went from spirituality to mystical beings, or shall we say, tales of friendly spirits.
A late aunt’s house in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan was apparently well known for the friendly, impish residents who nobody could see.
She didn’t mind them, the aunties at the gathering said, was never frightened of them either.
She did grumble often about their tendency to “borrow” things and take their sweet time returning them. Other times, they would rearrange the furniture but generally, nobody seemed to mind.
Then, one day, the aunt passed on to meet her maker.
After that, the house went quiet, no more “guests”, no more missing items, no more rearranged furniture.
When her daughter was sorting out the house, she found a set of very slim, pointy keys on a table.
They were nothing like any of the vast array of keys that Sudanese heads of household keep on big keychains to make sure that all rooms, cabinets, doors and gates can be secured.
No, these were “unworldly” the aunt’s daughter swore. No one knew what these keys were for, and they didn’t fit any locks.
The visitors had gone and left their keys on the table – the owner had passed on and her spiritual guests were not going to overstay their welcome.
We all have these stories in Sudan. Take my grandmother’s house in Khartoum.
During the city’s frequent power outages, we would troop outside in the evenings to sit in the garden for a little breeze. Nobody would think it was strange when the garden gate would open, then close, and nobody was there. Not an eyelid was batted.
We were all used to it.
We would hear prayers being read during prayer times, we saw doors open and shut on their own – sometimes they were loud, sometimes like a whisper.
And we have all been woken up at one time or another when it was time for the fajr (dawn) prayer and weren’t sure what woke us up. My grandmother and two cousins had it the worst, the spirit would tug and tug on their big toe until they woke up to pray.
My grandmother was fine with that particular wake-up call but my cousins, who were university students at the time, relished their sleep and weren’t happy campers at all. But, when summoned in this way, you get up and pray.
During my sister’s wedding a few years ago, my mother was sitting on her bed arranging the jewellery needed for the traditional Sudanese jirtig ceremony.
This is the matriarch’s job, taking out all the pouches that hold the family gold, the boxes that hold the bigger pieces, and making sure that everything is arranged with military precision so the bride can change from outfit to outfit smoothly.
It’s not for the faint of heart, so imagine when my mother saw that the bag that held all the rings was gone.
We, six women, searched high and low, turned over the mattress, shook the sheets, emptied out all drawers including the ones in her wardrobe even though she was nowhere near them, emptied them out again and again. Nothing. The bag with the rings was gone.
A cousin, who let’s say is very spiritual, was seated at the dining table enjoying her coffee as we spun around each other in a frenzy. Calmly, she turned to us and said: “They’ve borrowed the rings, they’ll bring them back, don’t worry.”
We all immediately understood what she meant, and who “they” were, and just stopped searching.
A few days after the wedding, I opened one of the drawers that had been searched and emptied more times than I can remember, and there it was: the woven pouch of rings, borrowed and returned like my cousin said they would be.
Nobody minds. I always had things go missing when I was in Khartoum. When that happened, I’d talk to “them” like our spiritual cousin suggested.
She herself would have whole running conversations with them, but mine were short, trivial things: “Can you give me back my lipstick, please?”
And, a day or two later said lipstick would be on top of the side cabinet where I could see it.
Sometimes, working late at night, I would see a white galabia (Sudanese man’s robe) walk across the room, and sometimes, I would feel a presence in the room, but it was oddly comforting, oddly protective.
They cause no harm. They just are happy to have found a place to live.