A Jinn Bildungsroman
By Ibraheem Abbas & Yasser Bahjatt
2013’s HWJN offers a glimpse of contemporary Arabic fantasy in the form of a romance featuring Hawjan son of Meehal al-Fayhee, a love-smitten Jinn obsessed with a Human woman of good character. For various right and good reasons such things are frowned on but this particular example is complicated by certain facts about Hawjan’s family of which the young Jinn is not fully apprised.
In the first ninety years of his life, Hawjan did not dislike Humans as so many Jinn do but he had little active interest in them; Jinn, or at the least the devout Nafar, and Humans can barely interact in the physical realm and Humans are such mayflies compared to the Jinn that they are dead almost before the Jinn can focus on them. Better to ignore the mayflies and focus on eduction and avoiding Hawjan’s mother’s endless pressure to marry a nice Jinn woman. Any nice Jinn woman; luckily, his mother has a long list.
Hawjan’s life changes when the home he, his mother and grandfather live in is haunted by Humans, by Dr. Abdulraheem Saeed, Mrs. Raja Maghrabi, their son Hattan and their daughter Sawsan. Hawjan becomes obsessed with Sawsan, spying on her incessantly (although staying within the bounds of propriety); eventually he convinces himself that he is in love with Sawsan.
Jinn who eschew black magic cannot be seen by most Humans and they cannot affect most physical objects; to Humans such Jinn are very nearly ghosts. When Sawsan and her friends play with Ouija board, he sees an opportunity to talk to the woman with whom he is obsessed. The two become friends; they soon discover that other modern devices can take the place of the Ouija board.
Now, it happens that Hawjan is the product of a marriage almost as forbidden as one between Human and Jinn. While his mother’s family are Nafar, converts to Islam, his father’s family are bound to Lucifer and while Hawjan’s saintly maternal grandfather Elyaseen accepted the marriage (once Hawjan’s father converted and repented of his sinful ways), his father’s family were not so accepting and in fact they killed Hawjan’s father trying to force him to come back to the service of Lucifer.
You might think “Oh, as someone who themselves was a participant in a convention-shattering romance, no doubt Hawjan’s mother will be very sympathetic to her love-smitten son.” You would be very wrong on that point and it’s not because this is a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” There are reasons why Jinn-Human romances are ill-fated, not the least of which is that an unlucky Human with whom a foolish Jinn has fallen in love could become a playing piece in the machinations of the Jinn.
Hawjan’s grandfather Hayaf is as evil as Hawjan’s grandfather Elyaseen is saintly and a king besides and while Hawjan knows all that, he does not seem to have realized that he himself is in Hayef’s succession. Hawjan’s cousin Xanam, desperate to keep himself and if possible his sister Jumara alive despite Hayaf’s tendency to casually murder those closest to him, hatches a cunning scheme, a that scheme requires Hawjan’s cooperation, willing or otherwise.
In short order, Hawjan discovers that Sawsan is dying of a brain tumor, a development that is followed in short order by the revelation that Sawsan’s desperate father has fallen for the machinations of a fraudulent magician. To save Sawsan, Hawjan agrees to marry Jumara.
Hawjan isn’t the sort of Jinn who would let himself place all his hopes in Xanam, who for all the filial piety he might be showing at the moment would do anything to stay alive and who has spent his whole life serving Lucifer. There is another gambit open to Hawjan but it requires a step far more terrible than accepting the aid of a devil; enlisting the aid of Eyad, who just as smitten with Sawsan as is Hawjan and wealthy, and good-looking, and charming and worst of all, a human who can relate to Sawsan in ways the besotted Hawjan never could.
I picked up HWJN when it and Somewhere were offered for free on Sindbad Sci Fi and I picked it over Somewhere because I liked the look of the cover. Authors take note: I am just that shallow.
This was translated by co-author Yasser Bahjatt. This would be one of those cases where the text should have been run by someone a little more familiar with English idiom because I would be willing to bet that in Arabic this passage:
There is, in my opinion, a strong relationship between feminism and childhood. A female, no matter how mature she becomes, does not move far from that child inside her — the one who cannot control her tears. If she ever rebels against her inner child, she loses part of her feminism! In that sense Jumara was a perfect female.… she was not in need of my mind or logic.
used whatever the Arabic is for “femininity”, not “feminism.”
This seems like as good a place to say “this may not be the most feminist novel that I have read this year.” That said, most of the airier comments about women come from naïve Hawjan, who is brave and devout but perhaps not the sharpest pencil in the box. Sawsan is a scholarly young woman, her mother is an administrator and the novel makes a point of underlining how Hawjan’s obsession with Sawsan hurts Jumara, who after all is his wife. Hawjan does become a bit less clueless thanks to the events in the book.
Along the same lines, Hawjan’s views about his Fayhee relatives evolves quite a bit over the course of the book. Most of the Jinn who serve Lucifer are punch-clock villains who do what they do because the alternative is a painful death. Although what they are really doing is deferring a painful death in the near future at the cost of an eventual eternity of damnation, which makes me wonder whether they should consider a different depreciation scheme.
Although Hawjan is the sort of dutiful, devout Jinn who spends a lot of time railing against ignorance and base superstition and who turns a conman over to the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice reportedly failed to return the love. Perhaps this is because the book makes it clear that in Saudi Arabia prosperity and virtue are at best orthogonal and perhaps even directly opposed. While the wealthy Eyad is of even better character than Hawjan despite the temptations of his father’s wealth1, in general the pattern in this novel is that the good are poor and the rich are bad. People, Jinn or Human, should seek to do that which is right but they shouldn’t expect any reward in this life beyond having done that which is right. I can see how the rich and powerful and their moral guardians might not care for that moral.
I didn’t know what to expect when I opened this. The answer is “a romantic coming-of-age fantasy”2 and one I enjoyed.
- I suspect that Eyad’s good nature is just part of the authors’ game of turning the screws on Hawjan by making his human rival as flawless as possible. In the end, Hawjan doesn’t even get to hate Eyad.
- Or possibly SF, given the infodump that explains that Jinn magic is just science the humans don’t understand quite yet.