UAE's long-lost djinn find a new voice

A group of students has collected Emirati fairy tales that were on the brink of disappearing and will publish a book of folklore.

Students at Zayed University are breathing new life into traditional Emirati folklore stories.
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A possessed sail that sinks ships. A djinn who seduces men and kills them with her bladed legs. A ravenous donkey that gobbles up little children who wander the streets when they should be at home with their parents.

Djinn of the emirates are notoriously vicious.

When the students of Zayed University are asked to name the most common characteristic of local djinn, they don't hesitate.

"Dangerous," says Athira Al Yammahy, a storyteller at Zayed University. "They kill."

The country's most famous djinn sear themselves in children's memories through sheer terror. Today, just a handful of the original djinn are recalled in popular folklore, but they are the cruellest and bloodiest of them all.

Ms Al Yammahy is one of the women who want to change this.

She is a member of the university's Kharareef (Storyteller) Club that has revived the country's forgotten djinn with a book of Emirati fairy tales, Story Mile, to be published this year by Zayed University.

The book's stars are djinn on the brink of extinction. One of them, Salama, is the spirit of a seaside mountain who protects sunken treasure. Other resurrected djinn include Sabr, the ugly, hunchbacked labourer of the souq whose patience brings him luck and success; Fatouh, the long-nosed protector of the mangroves; and Shang, the friendly giant isolated by his size.

"When kids are asked about their favourite characters they don't really remember any of these characters, they remember Disney princesses," says Noora Abdulrahman, 21, a Zayed University student who helped illustrate the book with her identical twin, Nauf. "So we want them to think a little bit more about what the Emirates have.

"There is one that defends the souq. His name is Abu Ras," she says. The name means Father of the Head.

"Abu Ras is actually a very friendly one. He guards the souq from thieves and thugs. He's so ugly to the point that he's shy ... seriously, he needs to be remembered a little bit more. Nobody really remembers him."

The search for sympathetic characters led the club to Abdulaziz Al Musallam, the country's foremost story teller, who mentored the students. He has collected fairy tales from the mountains, desert and coast since 1986.

"The parents would tell the children stories to protect them and keep them safe, so all the stories that the students would remember were really terrifying characters that would kill them, that would eat them," says Brioné LaThrop, an English professor and former music video writer who heads the Kharareef Club.

"It all ends in death. When I talked to Abdulaziz I said, 'you know, we want to kind of make the characters kinder and friendly' and he said there were lots of really benevolent characters."

Many of the gentle characters were forgotten by all but one or two people when Mr Al Musallam recorded them. Fatouh - a tall, naked man, with long hands, long legs, long fingernails and cat's eyes - was described to Mr Al Musallam by an old man in Kalba named Othman. Abu Ras was remembered by a Sharjah man interviewed in the mid-1980s.

Most students knew only of the famous temptress djinn, Umm Al Duwais, and a handful of others when the project began in November. Even their grandparents had forgotten the stories connected to the names.

To revive the spirits of the past, students placed them in the present. In one story, a man is entranced by a perfumed colleague who seduces him with text messages. In another, a man strays from his bride when he moves to Ireland for university.

The fairy tales are a way to address frustrations or taboos that cannot be easily voiced in public, such as infanticide, sibling jealousies and adultery, say the students.

"I hear many stories about Emirati guys that get engaged to someone here and then when they go outside [the country] they come back with someone new," says Fatima Nasser, who wrote a story about Umm Al Duwais. "If I talk to someone about this, maybe they will not understand why I'm saying that. But if I'm telling a story they will be interested and will feel what I want to say."

Famous djinn in the book are reinvented. In Ms Nasser's story, Umm Al Duwais reunites the errant husband with his wife.

"Most people think she is doing bad things but in my story I chose to make her a hero, to protect true love," she says.

Like humans, the book's characters can be both noble and flawed.

"It's easier to write villainous characters than kind-hearted ones," says Nauf Abdulrahman. "They have more of a story."

No creatures are cruel without reason. Nagat Al Eid, the Eid camel, only eats gluttonous children who have overindulged at Eid Al Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan. Umm Al Duwais is usually only dangerous to unfaithful men.

Even the most hated djinn, Baba Daria, has a past. Baba Daria, a thin djinn without lips and arms cut at the wrist, who murders sailors without reason, was once a slave.

"Maybe he hates people who work in the sea because he thinks that they bought him and they made him like that," Mr Al Musallam says.

Nagat Al Eid and Umm Duwais are two djinn who are still well remembered thanks to parents who continue to warn their children against greed, jealousy and lust.

Maritime djinn such as Baba Daria remain because the seafaring profession continues, but more benevolent djinn were lost to modernity when they became irrelevant. Many belonged to places or professions that no longer exist.

"Before, people used these djinn to protect the environment and to protect their life. Now they depend on the municipality," Mr Al Musallam says. "They depend on other authorities to protect them, but before it was the responsibility of everyone. That's why we are trying to retell these tales: to keep people aware of these things and to protect their environment."

The modernisation of stories is not the first time that djinn have moved habitats to survive. One story goes that the possessed sail, Khataf Rafai, relocated to Sharjah town with the last pearl divers in the 1940s. Unable to cause mischief at sea, he began to block roads. In this way, his story survived.

Students are working with children to retell stories and reclaim ownership of these old characters. A selection of the fairy tales appeared illuminated in lightboxes on the Corniche this year, and the Kharareef Club invited about 90 grade 3 pupils during the Abu Dhabi Book Fair in April to invent stories built on old characters.

In one variation, the children created a story where Sheikh Zayed, the founding President, saved Shang the giant from angry villagers.

"I remember my mother telling a story 10 times and every time she told it, it was another story but meant the same thing," Mr Al Musallam says. "She tried to send a message each time she told this story. This is what our parents do.

"Before, I thought that the new generation would not respect this. My children always say, 'Baba, you always talk about the past and we are living in the future'. I say, 'no, we have to keep one hand there and one hand here'.

"What the students did, it's not recycling. It's representing this heritage in different ways in a new generation."

The book is the work of 46 writers and 12 illustrators from the Zayed University campuses. The programme was in partnership with Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.

"I told them, 'don't make our djinn, don't make this literature flat. Go deep down'," Mr Al Musallam says. "The Emiratis created them, then they believed in them. Then the djinn took these characteristics."