JINN, the new-ish supernatural show and first Netflix original program from the Arab world, is short, sweet, and just the thing I didn’t know I needed in my life right now. It is a fun show about teens who, having seen how ineffectual adults are at fixing both personal and big world problems, think they know better and can quick-fix their way through life, as teens in films and shows are wont to do. But they have the help of Jinns.
Jinns are super powerful creatures inhabiting a separate plane of existence and have held a prominent place in folklore. They have also been pointed to as the cause for a variety of mental health problems including schizophrenia and hallucinations among some. In JINN, they exist somewhere in between; they are delightful metaphors for raging teenage hormones and desires.
The show starts out with a bunch of horny Jordanian teenagers on a school-trip. They are skulking around in the mysterious Petra, a hauntingly beautiful ancient site replete with a skull-shaped cavern/portal to the world of Jinns, happy only when they can find a private spot to drink and take their relationships to the “next level.” All the kids have the usual 99 teen problems and then some, but two of them, Mira and Yassin, who perhaps not coincidentally share the same birthday, have discovered that they also are “summoners:” they can hear the whispers of Jinns and can answer their call. Mira is a soon to-be world class sound engineer and popular DJ. Her call is love and she summons a perfect helper boyfriend Jinn. Her childhood friend, Yassin, is a bullied loner. His call is anger and he summons a spit-fire and fury girlfriend Jinn. Hassan, Mira’s cousin, is the cool-nerd eager to believe in Jinns. Though not a summoner, he is armed with his research on Nabateans and Jinn folklore and their relationship with humans. He summons one up the old fashioned way, through chants and spells and he calls up his alter-ego Jinn, a knowledgeable Bedouin guide.
With Yassin’s initial summoning, all the fury Jinns are about to break loose from the skull cavern to bring their own venJINNful brand of justice to the world of humans.
So, if you’ve ever been mean to a teenager, you’d better watch out!
The show made a point of showcasing ancient Nabateans, folklore, and hakawati, oral story-tellers. And I got all giddy.* I cannot resist the temptation to nerd out, like Hassan, and recycle here one of my favorite medieval origin stories of the Jinn and humanity especially since it encapsulates a popular aspect of early medieval Islamic political philosophy: God bringing low kings gone bad.
According to one of the most important transmitters of Iranian and Biblical tales, Wahb ibn Munabbih, and cited by the tenth century historian and vizier to the Samanids, Amirak Bal’ami, Jinn were created by God, along with the fairies (pari), and were given the earth to roam freely. And God made Iblis (Satan) the leader of the Jinn. One day, Iblis gets it into his head how special he is: Only he can fly back and forth between heaven and earth, whereas the Jinn are earth-bound and under his command. He starts thinking and asks the worst question any being can ask, “Is there anyone such as I?” Forgetting, of course, that he is because of God. Knowing what is in Iblis’ heart, God creates Adam and gives him and his children the world and curses Iblis.
Iblis, then, in this tale, is the archetypal bad king; the one who thinks that for all the good he has done for the world, he should be obeyed and/or worshiped as God (see my post on Dragons and the Apocalypse for the damages caused by one such king in Iranian lore). As Bal’ami and fellow historians brilliantly present it, human history is one long successive chain of bad kings with inflated egos broken up periodically by prophets and just kings. For God, like the Jinn in JINN, won’t let bad behavior by humans or former angels stand forever.
*When I visited Damascus in the summer 2002, I had the good fortune to watch an oral storytelling performance by one of the last master practitioners in a historic cafe in the Old City.