Some years ago, a Pakistani newspaper ran a series of stories on the jinn of Karachi. One account narrated by an old fisherman made a connection between the jinn and a celebrated Islamic folk legend.
According to the old fisherman, his young son was unable to find a job and became a boat-hand. On a fishing trawler going to the sea, he made friends with a man who took an interest in his life, helped him in his daily chores, and narrated strange stories of the sights he had seen. One day, as the boat was in the Arabian Sea, they started discussing varieties of halwa and his friend told the fisherman’s son of the many recipes of halwa he knew. He sang such praises of Madras halwa that the young man wished he could have some that very instant. His friend said that he could fulfil his wish and asked him to follow him to a deserted corner where he asked that he step on to his feet and close his eyes, and not open them until instructed, no matter what happened. The young man did as he was told, and the moment he closed his eyes, he felt like he had been whisked away and was flying in the air. After some time he was asked to open his eyes and he found himself in Madras, near a shop which sold halwa. He wished to ask his mysterious companion how he had arrived there but he was asked to remain silent. The two of them had halwa there and then the man transported the young man back to the trawler in similar fashion.
When he insisted on being told the secret, his friend made him take an oath not to reveal the secret to anyone or he would forfeit his life. The young man took the oath, whereupon his mysterious friend told him that he was in reality a jinn, and one day while he was swimming in the sea as a fish, some fishermen tried to spear him. Ordinarily, the spear would have had no effect on him, but as the fisherman had thrown the spear after reciting the name of Allah, it pierced him and he was caught, and lay in the boat writhing in agony. The fisherman’s son was on the boat that day, and seeing the fish in pain, took pity. He removed the spear, and released him back into the sea. From that day the jinn vowed to befriend the young man and met him in human guise on the trawler. The fisherman’s son was terrified upon hearing that his friend was a jinn, but when the fishing trawler returned to Karachi with its catch, and the jinn reminded him of his promise, the young man reassured him that it would remain a secret between the two of them. However, the fisherman’s son was struck silent by anxiety and fear, and everybody in the family noticed his state. He finally confessed to his father, the old fisherman, of what had passed with him, and the father forbade his son to return to the fishing trawler.
That night as they lay sleeping, a mysterious power took the house in its hold and it shook and quivered as if some creature or force was trying to gain entrance. The family kept the young man locked inside the house for a few days, but one night he stepped out to use the latrine outdoors and did not return to his bed. When the family searched for him, they found him lying dead in the latrine, his neck broken.
That was where the tragic story of the fisherman’s son ended. But the strange method of transportation used by the jinn has been recorded in the well-known Dastan-e Amir Hamza. It occurs when, on the way to an adventure, Amir Hamza’s lieutenant, Amar Ayyar, is stranded on an obelisk in the middle of the sea. There, the mythical wanderer Khizr, who helps people who are lost or in distress, appeared to him. He asked Amar Ayyar to climb on to his feet, close his eyes, and then flew him to safety. The mode of transportation employed suggests a connection between the jinn and Khizr, and, possibly, an insight into Khizr’s mysterious nature—in Islamic legend, he is counted neither among the mortal nor the immortal ones.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He can be reached at www.mafarooqi.com and on Twitter at @microMAF.
This monthly column explores the curious world of the myths and folk tales of South Asia.