Title: The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories
Publisher: Rebellion Publishing
Published: 9 March 2017
Imagine a world filled with fierce, fiery beings, hiding in our shadows, in our dreams, under our skins. Eavesdropping and exploring; savaging our bodies, saving our souls. They are monsters, saviours, victims, childhood friends. Some have called them genies: these are the Djinn.
And they are everywhere. On street corners, behind the wheel of a taxi, in the chorus, between the pages of books. Every language has a word for them. Every culture knows their traditions. Every religion, every history has them hiding in their dark places.
It’s rare to come across a short story collection that hits all your buttons in terms of content, quality and diversity, but The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories from Rebellion Publishing is a rare and magical thing indeed! Collected and edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, these stories include the visions of authors from around the world – Bangladesh, US, UK, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria and elsewhere – all concerned with the spirit of fire, the djinn.
“When Allah created man out of clay, Allah also created the djinn out of fire.”–Mahvesh Murad, from the Introduction.
What Murad and Shurin have pulled together is far from the cliché of middle-eastern folk tales and re-tellings from authors of that region, with a couple of ‘re-imaginings’ from Western writers for the English-speaking market. What is presented here is a range of new ideas and stories. We have classic wish fulfilment, poetic imaginings, science fiction, erotica, djinns in the west and contemporary middle-eastern tales. There are, of course, a few headline acts here: Neil Gaiman, James Smythe, Nnedi Okarofor – but these aren’t the stand-out stories included to bring attention to some lesser known names.
As with all short story collections there is something for most readers, and while some stories work better than others for me, there’s not a dud amongst them. They all bring something to the table; a unique perspective, a cracking tale, and wry sense of humour and a shocking realisation. Djinn aren’t just evil, and they have lives, stories, emotions, hang-ups and needs. Just like us. Only with fire behind their eyes.
Interestingly, the book of short stories kicks off with a poem, albeit the titular entry. Hermes, the author (translated by Robin Moger) begins “A djinn I am.” The editors have even presented the poem in the original Arabic. And so begins a wonderful exploration of the human imagination, fuelled by history. What follows is 20 stories from 20 talented perspectives. The first is The Congregation from Kamila Shamsie and immediately feels fairly traditional, featuring Qasim heading to a mosque. This is one of the many stories here that address the idea of human behaviour and possession. Are those who act differently possessed by a djinn? Sophia Al-Maria also looks at this with a more modern take (The Righteous Guide of Arabsat), as Khalid isn’t sure if his new wife is possessed, while the TV Sheikh plays ‘agony aunt’ to Khalid’s mother.
There are some western tales which appear to be influenced by eastern traditional writing, such as Claire North’s Hurrem and the Djinn (which is all Imperial Gentlemen, sorcerers and a question of a woman’s power), but one of my favourites is Kirsty Logan’s The Spite House, which sees a half-djinn failing to grant wishes and eventually having to hide from her tormentor. More of a western examination of the concept, it has such readability and verve to it. But also the idea told with wit – djinn are complex characters just like people, and they have their burdens. Talking of humour…A mention must also go to Gaiman’s Somewhere in America which has a wholly satisfying conclusion. Another favourite is a politically horrific Reap by Sami Shah. Shah takes the horror and anonymity of drone warfare and marries it up with the power of the djinn. Brilliant story.
What is very refreshing about this book is that there are some proper science fiction stories. Djinn in the future. Jamal Mahjoub’s dystopic Duende sees a future where the Rashidun Caliphate had filled the power vacuum left when the west collapsed. Dhaka investigates a rare murder and there is talk of a messiah and a spirit or jinn. Nice. Meanwhile, Saad Z Hossian’s future in Bring Your Own Spoon is one of the haves and have-nots. Huna, and a djinn called Imbi feed the poor – Huna cooks while Imbi collects scraps of food to cook. The authorities aren’t impressed. Hossian’s story exemplifies that these stories often have messages of suppression, be it class, gender or race. EJ Swift presents a classic space adventure which, like most good science fiction, looks at humanity and culture.
Not all the stories are so obvious in their characterisation of the fire spirits; the lyrical A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds by Amal El-Mohtar being the best example, as you begin a sparrow, and journey through birds such as crows and swallows until we rise as a phoenix. Also see: How We Remember You by Kuzhali Manickavel. Other authors not already mentioned include Catherine King, J.Y. Yang, K.J. Parker, Maria Dahvana Headley, Monica Byrne, and Usman Malik.
Murad and Shurin suggest, in the introduction, that the purpose of this collection is to “showcase global storytelling” and to “showcase the djinn themselves”. Goals achieved. Level up! There are authors here I will explore. It goes without saying, almost, that tales of djinn invoke a sense of the magical and wondrous. This book has a range of terrific stories in a variety of styles, all of them effective. Language is rich and is on full display here! This book does its job with aplomb. Fall in love with djinn! Read this book.
Reviewer: Ian J Simpson