Djinn: fact or fable?

Anna Zacharias asks residents of Jazirat Al Hamra, the location for the horror film Djinn, about the fantastic creatures that are said to be able to possess humans

The abandoned village of Al Jazirat Al Hamra in Ras Al-Khaimah has established a reputation as a djinn hotspot. Even more djinn seekers are expected following this week’s release of the UAE’s first feature-length horror film Djinn, which is set in the old seaside town. Sarah Dea / The National

No, no, no, says Matar Humaid. There are no djinn in Jazirat Al Hamra. Nope, none at all.

Humaid, an elderly fishermen, doesn’t want to talk about the spiritual creatures that are supposed to inhabit a world that can’t be seen by humans.

He’d rather talk about pearls. Or fishing. Or anything else. Like many residents of Jazirat Al Hamra, he is tired of the djinn hunters.

“Don’t let them fool you,” says Humaid. “There’s no djinn. Everyone’s talking about it. But they’re just talking.”

The seaside village established reputation as a djinn hotspot after its abandonment in 1968. More djinn seekers are expected in the coming weeks following this week's release of the UAE's first feature-length horror film Djinn, which is set in the old town.

“That’s all advertising,” says Humaid. “There’s been lots of movies here. I lived my whole life here and I never saw anything. People before, they relied on God and the pearl.”

Humaid was born in the pearling village and still goes to its only cafe every day for his afternoon tea. He lives in a collection of houses up the road, at the new Jazirat Al Hamra built in the 1980s.

The old village has long attracted nocturnal thrill seekers to its 300 or so mud brick, concrete and coral stone buildings, some of which are up to 100 years old and exemplify changing styles of pre-oil architecture. Djinn tourism is a popular UAE pastime, and Al Hamra is the region’s top destination.

Residents insist Al Hamra is djinn free. They want the old village to be known for its dhow-building heritage or for its pearling fleets that roamed Gulf waters until the trade faded away in the 1950s.

Djinn stories are denied to visitors, but witness accounts appear in every day conversation.

Humaid has never even seen a djinn here. Except for that one time. He saw three black djinn by the palm trees – in the Karan area, not here. Humaid was 10 years old. “I thought they were black birds,” he said. “I saw small ones but that’s all there was. You think djinn are only for Al Hamra?”

Other than that? Nothing unusual.

You won’t see them because you can’t, explains a regular patron of Al Hamra Cafe. “Of course, you will not see them,” said Sultan Abdullah, an Emirati fisherman in his early 70s. “It’s written that they will see you when you don’t see them.”

Abdullah and his friends come to the cafe in the new village each night at sunset, a time when djinn are most active.

“They’re afraid now of cars, of people” said his friend Saif Rashed, who is about 75.

If you want to see the djinn of Jazirat Al Hamra, you’re wasting your time on land, he advises. Djinn are found above and below its waves.

“I was born at sea. I got grey hair at sea. I’ll tell you [some stories],” said Mr Rashed. “When I would go down to catch the oyster, the pearls, the djinn would be clapping. They used to slap us, too, and we’d faint under the sea.”

“We never saw them,” he said. “Just heard them. They used to come in the shape of a fish, a hammour. If you touch them or they came near you, you got electrified.”

Any retired pearler can tell you about underwater djinn.

Sailors read prayers over unconscious divers they pulled from the depths. They would question the djinn on why he possessed the diver: Had the diver stepped on him by mistake? Sometimes the djinn answered in a gentle, sweet voice, like a woman.

Then there are nautical spirits, like Abu Salasal (The Father of Chains) and Bu Khataf, the ghost ship. “Look,” said another cafe patron, Haider Al Qaidi, 60. “He’s a tall man. He never harmed, he just frightens people. He throws you to the sea, but he loves just to frighten.”

His friend Mohammed Saeed, 58, recalled when a one-metre tall djinn held his chest until he fell unconscious. He was seven years old.

Throughout the discussion, another man at the table told anyone who would listen that nobody from the village has ever seen a djinn. End of story.

The dual narrative about Al Hamra’s haunting is common. Residents of Al Hamra have a complicated relationship with their djinn. It is quite normal for one man to share stories while another dismisses them outright.

After the old village renovation in late 2011, former residents behind the restoration confirmed that ghost stories were just that, stories.

As one of them claimed that any strange sounds were probably just wild foxes, an elder across the majlis held a parallel conversation about ghost ships and his neighbour’s talking goat.

“He carried the goat in his arms,” said Saleh bin Jumeah. “The goat turned to him and said, ‘ba, ba, ba, please leave me here’.” The owner, astonished, put the goat down. It lived a long life.

Gulf filmmakers love horror and for this, they love Al Hamra. Djinn may be the first feature-length horror movie, but it comes from a long line of Emirati films set in Al Hamra about magic and the supernatural.

Maher Al Khaja stayed for a week in 2010 to document its djinn for The Curse of the Devil, his second horror movie.

“It was really surprising for me to find this place in the UAE,” said the Dubai director. “It’s like Resident Evil. When you walk there, you feel like you are the only survivor.”

He wrote a fictional storyline after concluding, reluctantly, there was nothing there.

“Back then, we saw a shadow and thought ‘it’s a djinn’ and we believed it was djinn. But then when I was thinking about it and it wasn’t a djinn, it was an Indian guy standing in the shadow.”

“I don’t understand why people till now they believe this,” he said. “We go to school, we are educated people. You can’t see djinn. You can’t because I tried everything to see them.”

That year, Latifa Al Karrani and Shamsa Abdullah released a 33-minute documentary, Jin Hunters, about their paranormal tour of the UAE.

The UAE’s nascent film industry has helped inspire occult tourism in the UAE.

Spooked sites include the haunted mansion in Al Dhait and the Dhaya graveyard in Ras Al Khaimah, Khor Fakkan and Dubai’s Mirfa area. It’s well known that Hajjar mountains are loved by djinn who feed on goat bones. Many a goat, and their chilling cries, has been mistaken for djinn in the Ras Al Khaimah mountains.

Thanks to social media, thrill-seeking city slickers have become weekend regulars at these sites.

Al Hamra residents are still reluctant to talk casually about djinn, but the supernatural still features in daily life.

At a 2012 tribal party in the old village of Al Hamra, a young man warned his visiting friend of their company. "Don't turn around," he told the visitor. "But those men behind you are possessed by djinn."

Two ordinary looking men stood behind them. One man was said to be possessed only when he was very angry or tired. On commutes from work in Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah, the djinn would take over. “His voice changes,” the friend said, as if that settled it.

Old Al Hamra is not exactly abandoned. Its houses are rented as labour accommodation and still owned by the original families that left for modern housing.

There is one house in which labourers and cab drivers refuse to stay because they believe it is haunted.

Another is home to an Emirati who never left the village. He is said to be married to a djinn. Everyone knows his house. Its yard is filled with a dusty collection of minaret loudspeakers.

The movie Djinn follows the classic horror format of a haunted house built over an ancient burial ground. In the film, it’s a haunted high-rise built over the old village of Jazirat Al Hamra.

In real life, the derelict village still stands even as modernity encroaches: the Al Hamra Village residential development, an 18-hole golf course, and the 346-room Waldorf Astoria to the south, a port to the north and a beach filled in and fenced off for a land reclamation project that never took off.

Ice Land, a polar-themed water park, looms over the horizon with concrete igloos and penguins.

Development, says one retired pearler, is no barrier to djinn.

“There are lots of djinn in Jazirat,” says Ali, a slight Emirati in his 60s with a thin black moustache. “There are djinn everywhere, everywhere but we see them on top of the sea, naked with slit eyes and scars. They are so frightening, your hair stands on end.”

As a child, he was once chased by the djinn all the way home from school. Another day, some 40 years ago, a djinn challenged his friend to a brawl. “He was so devout that he accepted.” The faithful, says Ali, have nothing to fear.

And that’s the trouble with new developments around Al Hamra, he explained. They’re not for the pious. When asked his thoughts on Ice Land, he does not skip a beat.

“It’s expensive,” he says. “And inside, they say it’s full of djinn. Djinn and belly dancers.”

The djinn are not gone. They’ve just moved on.