Trees and sunsets – a charming and picturesque combination, one might think. For me, however, sunset heralds the advent of the night, when the djinn lurk in the shadows of ancient trees, branches extended outwards to form claws beckoning their next unsuspecting victim.
This is the premise around which my grandmother weaved a bedtime story one hot, sweltering night when there had been no electricity for two days straight.
Delirious and light-headed from dehydration and heat exhaustion, my mind took me on a vivid hallucinatory trip where I imagined djinns with skin black and oily as the night, sunken eyes burning red as hot coals, and teeth sharp as daggers. It did not help that the house maids sat around us nodding sagaciously and agreeing with every ominous word my grandmother uttered.
She conjured up visions of a young, beautiful virgin who caught the eye of a djinn as she rested under the cool shade of a banyan tree at sunset, only to wake up completely insane – the djinn had decided that since he couldn’t have the lovely earth-maiden, no one would. And so he deprived her of all her senses, knowing that her beauty would wither away in tandem with any vestiges of residual sanity.
My grandmother lamented the loss of her cousin as an adolescent child in post-partition Pakistan, whom she could still picture in her head, chained to a majestic oak tree whose shadow he refused to leave. The boy used to play under the tree with no incident, till one evening when he refused to come home. He’d been marked by a djinn, my grandmother said, and he eventually wasted away by the age of fifteen. His family knew he wasn’t meant for this world and by the end, almost felt relieved at his passing.
My grandmother used to go into a zealous stupor as she shared these foreboding stories, almost relishing her role in deterring me from staying out past sunset. Little did she know that in her enthusiasm, she imbued with me with a permanent fear of trees at twilight.
To this day, I will avoid walking under trees after sunset, sometimes eliciting bemused looks from friends who watch me skirt around the very shadows of trees. While common sense usually reigns supreme in my mind, as the sun sets, a whisper of a question flits through and fills me with caution: what if the stories are true?
Djinn are supernatural beings born from fire and are physical in nature, meaning they can interact with humans if they choose to. Like human beings, djinn have free will and can be benevolent, neutral or malicious.
Cover image by John Tenniel, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons