The ghost of Emirati present

The mythical djinn, who is an integral part of Emirati folklore, is immortalised this week with the premiere of a new horror film based on her legend, directed by the man behind The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, writes Anna Zacharias.

Patrick Morgan for The National
Powered by automated translation

The feet of a donkey. The eyes of a cat. Bladed hands. Hair black as night. Sweet perfume.

She is Umm Al Duwais, at once horrific and beautiful, repugnant and irresistible, and by all accounts deadly.

She will be coming soon to a theatre near you.

It’s fitting that the country’s most infamous and feared djinn was the inspiration for the country’s first feature-length horror film. Djinn, directed by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, premieres tonight at Emirates Palace and does not show the nice side of Umm Al Duwais.

In the Image Nation Abu Dhabi film, Umm Al Duwais is represented by the beautiful and charming Sara who threatens the relationship and lives of an Emirati couple returning to live in Ras Al Khaimah from the US.

It will be the first time that an international audience is introduced to a djinn, whose stories are whispered as warnings of the world’s evil.

Mystery surrounds her. Old stories say that she kills men, women and children. The increasingly popular versions of Umm Al Duwais depict her as a villainous temptress who seduces men before she kills them with her sickle-bladed hands.

A new generation of young filmmakers, artists and writers – most of them female – have called her motives into question. If Umm Al Duwais slashes the heads off lecherous men, is she really so bad? Is it possible that she’s acting in women’s best interests? If a man strays, why is the woman to blame – even if she is a djinn?

Maybe, just maybe, she has good reason to be angry.

Majida Al Safadi and Sarah Adel are two filmmakers who retold her story for a course at the American University of Sharjah.

“We thought, what if Umm Al Duwais was misunderstood?” says Al Safadi, 23, a Syrian multimedia graduate raised in the UAE. “What if she was just being herself, like kind of a misunderstood monster? She’s portrayed in a very mean way. We thought: ‘Oh no, it can’t be that bad’.”

Their animated short film shows Umm Al Duwais polishing her scythe hand, covering her donkey hooves with her abaya and introducing herself to the neighbours with some home-made khameer bread.

It’s only when Umm Al Duwais is subjected to the neighbour’s terrible singing (“God bless your beautiful eyes,” he crones) and then is insulted for her hairy donkey’s legs that she takes matters into her own bladed hands and slices off the head of the flirtatious husband.

“I couldn’t help it,” Umm Duwais tells his wife, Khadija. “He was being an ass.”

The wife looks at her husband’s severed head in horror, before we see a flashback of Khadija, miserable, cruising with him as he blasts the rap tune This is Why I’m Hot from his four-wheel drive to attract a voluptuous woman.

“Yeah, I know,” says the wife. “All men are the same. Coffee?”

Umm Al Duwais isn’t the first woman in folklore to be misunderstood. As a female djinn, she has overcome two prejudices.

Her re-evaluation fits two fairy tale trends, says mythographer Marina Warner.

“That’s one trend to reclaim negative stereotypes of women and see the good in them,” says Warner, a British writer-professor who taught at NYU Abu Dhabi last year. “Another strong trend is the idea of the demon being capable of both good and evil that is taking hold.”

“The ambivalent and contrariness of the djinn is a position they traditionally held, but increasingly djinn have been considered to be evil and dangerous, closer to the western idea of the devil.

“Others also have been reclaiming this idea that the djinn is an ambivalent, ambiguous creature, not always a creator of strife. The Arabian Nights is full of djinn who do good. The djinn are wonderful characters, because you can’t predict what they’re going to do.”

Storytellers across the world are increasingly focused on the strength of female characteristics once seen as flaws.

“Especially some of the characteristics this djinnia has: lust or passion or seduction; female desire,” says Warner. “Such figures have often been presented as negative, but there’s an element of strength there that attracts women and sometimes they want to reverse it, of course.”

Many address fears that women have today: cheating at the workplace, fiancés abroad, husbands with secret mobile phones and secret lives.

These days, Umm Al Duwais is armed with modern seduction techniques. In Reem Khalid’s modern adaptation Loving the Wrong Person, she seduces a married man in Al Shamkha by SMS.

Khalid was inspired by online, real-life stories.

“Real stories about wives who have bad husbands like this,” says Khalid, 19. “In the stories that I read, the husbands were worse than this. They like to have girlfriends. A lot of girlfriends, not only one.”

Khalid was one of the Zayed University students who wrote about her for the Zayed University’s Kharareef (Storyteller) Club. Umm Al Duwais is their most popular character, often portrayed as a custodian of love.

The need for a romantic vigilante is as relevant today as ever, says Khalid.

“It’s a really big problem. When I think about marriage, I say I can’t marry because my husband will have a girlfriend. Not one. Many, many, many,” she says. “In the past, they used Umm Al Duwais to [discourage] men from talking with unknown women and from having a relationship, but now we need Umm Al Duwais because men have a lot of problems and these problems affect their families and their wives.”

Other students wrote original tales about how she came to be so cruel. Most were empathetic tales of heartbreak and betrayal.

The UAE abounds with tales of famous djinn, but Umm Al Duwais was one of the few who survived the transition to modernity. Her contemporaries – such as Fatouh, the guardian of the mangroves – were tied to locations or trades. They became obsolete and forgotten. Troubles in romance, however, know no bounds and the popularity of Umm Al Duwais has flourished. Love is as complicated as ever.

For many students, Umm Al Duwais was the only djinn that they knew before they met the master storyteller Abdulaziz Al ­Mussallam.

Elders are unsure how she came to the UAE. She could be related to ancient Hellenistic mythical figures, and there are several similar pre-Islamic female characters from the Middle East who frighten children into good behaviour.

The understanding of Umm Al Duwais as a strong woman fits with the lively, rounded female characters of Islamic folklore.

“One of the things about Islamic folklore, especially The Arabian Nights, is that it’s far more positive about female desire than western fairy tales, where Sleeping Beauty just lies and doesn’t look for her prince,” says Warner.

Traditionally, Umm Al Duwais was not only feared by men.

The women who meet every morning at The National Theatre in Abu Dhabi to share conversation and weave dried palm fronds into baskets all know Umm Al Duwais, though none have met her face to face.

They claim that she eats animals, sheep, foxes and humans; even children. She deceives women, too, disguised as a friend who knocks at the door, bidding them to leave the house.

“They say this story is for babies who don’t want to sleep,” says Mouza Saeed, 65, who was born in Liwa and has lived in Abu Dhabi since about 1962. “She is designed like a woman but, from inside, she’s the same as a lion; she eats anything.”

They speak of her as one might an old neighbour; each has their own tale.

“This is a story,” says Saeed. “God knows if it’s true.”

Saeed’s friend, Afra Saqr, tells of a man who long ago crossed her path travelling by caravan to Liwa. One night, the hooves of his tethered camels turned to scythes, the djinn’s hallmark.

“It was maybe Umm Al Duwais who was there,” says Saqr, matter-of-factly, weaving her palms.

Sightings are rare these days because she prefers rural areas, they say.

“In Abu Dhabi, in the desert, she was everywhere,” says Saeed. “Some people from the desert, they believe that Umm Al Duwais is there. Of course she lives. She lives in the desert. But she is alone.”

One of the most gruesome Umm Al Duwais tales is told by the former inhabitants of Jazirat Al Hamra, where the film is set. 
The men who gather outside Al Hamra Cafe each sunset for their never-ending domino games were all born and raised in the now-abandoned pearling village. They know all its djinn.

“She is called Mudas, or Umm Al Das or Umm Dawais,” says Haider Al Qaidi, 60, an Emirati. “This woman, in the night she would take the men a long distance outside the area and use them. They would go for her beauty and the great scent that came from her.”

“Her thighs are made of blades she uses to cut men,” he says. “No one knows if it’s true or not.”

As Al Qaidi lays out his cautionary tale, another discussion takes place across the dominoes table. A middle-aged man makes advances at a woman, persisting even when he’s told that she’s married. “So what if she’s married?” he shrugs. “As long as she doesn’t have children, she’s open.”

The need for Umm Al Duwais, it seems, is as strong as ever.

Follow us @LifeNationalUAE

Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.