The desert Jinn were a nuisance. The big one I had just shooed was sulkily lumbering away over the horizon into the sun. Now a tiny inquisitive one scurried up the rocks to watch me tune my zehtar. Like a dog begging at the table, it waited attentively eager to gulp any discarded scraps of tone. Soon I felt two others sneak up to join it. Their polite stealth made no difference. Visible or not, their nosey presence distracted me from my daily practice. Then another Jinn appeared over my shoulder, and before long a host of these pesky creatures were mobbing me. I picked up and moved to a quieter boulder. “Scat! Go away!” I yelled. But they kept following me. What irritating pests, I thought. Fable taught that Jinn were formidable beings. If annoyance was all there was to being “Jinn struck,” I was disappointed.
Suddenly the Jinns’ attention snapped collectively to one side, dragging mine with it. Slowly a faraway voice emerged from the silence. A woman was singing. I could tell she was throwing pebbles as she sang. The sound of pebbles ricocheting off boulders seamlessly adorned her song like a tambourine rhythm. A percussion of bouncing pebbles? Impossible, I thought. How could she time her throws so precisely? Then I saw through her craft. It was the song that accompanied the random ricochets, not the other way around. She was showing off her improvisation skills. If this virtuoso is one of my rivals in the audition--I gulped at the thought--then I have wasted my trip.
Clambering up a boulder, I stood on tiptoes and craned to see who the singer was. She was much closer than I had expected. The sense of distance was in her voice. What skill! She could flick me out of the competition like one of her pebbles. Her robe, the color of dust, looked simple. But it was Jinn cloth. Like a dance partner, it held her tightly while the two moved in an ordered abandon. She was obviously a Jinn who had made herself visible to me; the world of humans can not sustain such perfection.
“Salaam,” I called.
“Salaam,” came the echo of my own voice.
“You mock me, Jinn?” I said.
“You were looking away from me. I thought perhaps you are talking to yourself?” she said in her own voice this time.
“I avert my eyes as a courtesy. I am a stranger to you, and you are not veiled,” I said.
“I do not come from a tradition where looking away is good manners,” she chided.
I looked up at her. “I am not of your tradition,” I said, “but I trust my own eyes so don’t tell me otherwise. You have been veiled since early childhood.”
A raised eyebrow posed her question.
“Your eyes have taken on most of the expressive functions of your face. It is a sign of early veiling,” I retorted.
The corners of her eyes wrinkled in a smile. “You will not find directions in your wit,” she said.
“All right, I am lost,” I admitted. “But what will I find in you? A guide or a heckler?”
“You have already found your guides,” she said presenting the wraiths that had been pestering me. My ragtag audience shuffled self consciously in being talked about. At least they could understand speech, I thought.
“These Jinn as guides? They are mute,” I protested.
”Jinn often talk by listening,” she said. Then she picked up a pebble and flipped it upward like a coin. When my gaze returned from following the trajectory, she was no longer there. The crowd’s attention turned to me once again, this time with a sense of entitlement.
“Very well,” I said begrudgingly. “But you better make yourselves useful afterwards.” I brought the zehtar to my chest and plucked the Behesht string, kneading with my fingertip a wail of bliss into its golden length. But the new knot on the string had not settled and still acted like a stranger among the older repairs. Even so Jahannam, just below, quivered in dark jealousy, flailing its frayed parts in a demonic dance. My audience of Jinn huddled around me in anticipation. I was tuning the strings to the most crowd-pleasing mode, “Heaven and Hell.” Crowds do not settle for subtlety, even the Jinn.
I began with a student level piece which I used almost as a drill, the Koranic surah “The Shaking.”
When the earth is shaken with her shaking
And she brings forth her burdens,
And man says: What has befallen her?
On that day she will tell her news,
As if thy Lord had revealed to her.
On that day men will come forth in sundry bodies that they may be shown their work.
So he who does a smallest particle of good will see it,
And he who does a smallest particle of evil will see it.
The more the Jinn listened, the more substantial and human-like their bodies seemed to become. Those closest to me were now quite solid and appeared engrossed in my playing. To please them, I allowed their emotions to guide my improvisations. Their simple face and body language was easy to read, and at first there was good synergy between us. But, as I feared, mob judgment soon took the zehtar to extremes of tension and dissonance. After a run of agonizing tragedies, and menacing forebodings, my inspirations sat in front of me, faces drained of blood, pupils tremulous with fright. Sensibly, I abandoned the guidance of the crowd and took back custody of my art. To restore everyone to a healthy mental condition, I capped the performance with the reassuring surah “The Brightness of the Day.”
…Thy lord has not forsaken thee, nor is he displeased.
And surely the latter state is better for thee than the former.
And soon will thy Lord give thee so that thou wilt be well pleased.
Did he not find thee an orphan and give shelter?
And find thee groping, so he showed the way?
And find thee in want, so he enriched thee?
The performance had gone unexpectedly well. The hell string had broken on schedule at just the right pitch. As part of the act, I had repaired it dexterously on the beat, maintaining an ominous tapping on the gourd. All the while the harmonious Behesht string screamed, “joy is forever,” in an unbroken melody. The Jinn, obviously impressed with my virtuosity, had several times started avalanches of applause. Near the end of the performance, the Jahannam string, which by then I had restored, reengaged Behesht in an apocalypse of a finale, clearing serenely to the “Brightness of the Day” surah.
The crowd, which had grown substantially in number during the performance, jumped up in riotous applause and rushed to congratulate me. Many were eager to discuss my musical instrument. They were amazed at its ability to convey the essence of Koranic verses with only a gourd and two strings. I explained to them how extra dimensions of sound exist in the words of the Koran that can be used as passages to various organs of comprehension.
Other Jinn who were less interested in the physics of the instrument argued with me and among themselves the fine points of the commentary I had interleaved with the verses.
“Surely it had to be inspired by the surah ‘The Calamity,’” said one.
“No, the refrain reminded me of the ‘The Disbelievers,’” another replied.
“While you were in the surah Al Nas,” someone asked, “why did your melody cast only the Jinn as the whisperers? Surely humans were involved too.”
My once mute audience was now quite vocal in appreciation, making it difficult to keep up with the demand for my attention. I had to remind myself not to let their common tastes spoil me. During the audition the judges would insist on the sublime. None of my rivals in the competition would risk yet another predictable battle between Good and Evil. No Koranic recitation subject to finite interpretation would survive even the first round. I could never get away with “Did he not find thee an orphan and give shelter?” The sound would float and falter, like a piece of paper thrown into the wind. I would have to wrap “orphan” around “oblivion” before I could throw it very far. And even then, bending the “orphan” passage to read “Did he not find thee nonexistent and give thee shelter with creation” had been overdone. To win, I had to be subtler.
But today my critics were pleased by little thoughts. Some of them pressed their way through the crowd to have me put my dusty handprint on their shoulders while I said their names.
“I am Hussein,” said an old Jinn.
“Peace, Hussein,” I replied, pressing my hand into the earth and placing it on his shoulder.
I gathered this tradition was now considered old fashioned, as I saw a mother prodding her lanky juvenile son to perform the ritual, and he seemed embarrassed to obey. Finally he walked over in a self-conscious amble and looking down on his toes said, “I am Taqi.”
“Peace Taqi,” I said performing the ritual for him.
As the Jinn mobbed around me, I heard a girl’s voice saying, “I am Halsa.”
“Peace Halsa,” I started to say, but looking around and below I could not find the owner of the voice. “I am Halsa. I am Halsa,” insisted the voice. A girl in a bright outfit was jumping up and down, quite out of the reach of my arm. She was too little to make any forward progress against the press of the crowd, so instead I made my way to her. When I reached her, she swept her hair out of the way to present her shoulder and declared out of breath “I am Halsa.” Her robe was made of several shades of green and yellow cloth arranged in forest-floor patterns stitched together with skillful needlework. She was wearing only one sandal; the other one was sticking out of her pocket. It must have fallen off on her way to me and she could not put it back on in the crowd.
“Peace Halsa,” I said putting a dusty palm on her shoulder. She tried to look at it, and went cross-eyed.
“Where is your mother, child?”
Halsa shrugged, still occupied with the palm print.
I looked about and saw that the tall juvenile was still within earshot. I called him back and lifting Halsa out of the crowd handed her over to him. “Take her out, Taqi, and find her mother,” I said. As she rode away on Taqi’s back, Halsa was still inspecting her shoulder. It occurred to me that quite a few in this crowd would know the way to the city of the Jinn, so I asked the next Jinn that came to receive my hand print.
He waved his heavily bejeweled hand in a full circle and said cheerfully, “All around you.”
When I looked up, I was astonished to see that I was already in a bustling bazaar surrounded by shops, tents, passages, and arches. Outside, mosques and minarets adorned the expansive square that fronted the bazaar. Houses with clay domes bloomed in all directions where the empty horizon used to be. And the landscape was no longer flat. A range of tall mountains circled the city, sending a heavy stream of snowmelt tumbling by the square. The summer breeze crossing the stream was saturated with sounds and smells. All around, perfumes and the redolence of roasted edibles mixed with the clang of anvil and the clop of hoof on cobblestone. Giant silver trays, bearing upside down chandeliers of tea glasses, trafficked scalding hospitality to customers. Rug dealers unrolled forests in front of shoppers, while cloth merchants busily packed and unpacked colors for picky buyers.
I was so engrossed in the activity all around me that I did not notice that my admirers had suddenly fallen quiet. An anonymous pull on my sleeve got my attention. The crowd was parting reverentially for the woman who had sung with pebbles. But she no longer carried herself with the informality of the desert. Instead she had acquired a distant urban mannerism. Except for her eyes and forehead, her face was covered with a textile that looked like an onionskin sheet of frosted glass. Weights of pearl dangled from her veil, keeping it in place.
“My name is Safieh,” she said, her breath adding a layer of frost to the veil. When she finished saying her name, the frost slowly faded to nothingness around her mouth.
“Peace, Safieh,” I said. Not knowing what was expected of me, I picked up a palm of dirt for the handprint ceremony. But the crowd suddenly became apprehensive. And her eyes said, “stop!” I let the dirt pour out of my hand, then dusted it off against my thighs, making an obvious show of it in front of the crowd. They seemed relieved. Safieh removed a small pearl from her veil and dropped it into my zehtar gourd through the sound hole. A tip for the musician.
“Welcome to the Audition,” she declared. Her breath faded again on the veil of frost. Only this time she faded with it.
After Safieh left us, my audience began to disband like children who had exhausted themselves at play. It was getting to be evening, and a few Jinn had gathered around the large reflecting pool in the center of the square to perform their ablutions for the sunset prayer. The call to prayer wafted soft and loud with the wind. I knew I still had to catch up on my afternoon prayer, so I set the zehtar down by the side of the pool and joined the ritual. Afterwards, tired and hungry I headed for the teahouse and inn that sat by a brook. I had only a few copper coins in my purse, perhaps enough for a meal or two. Safieh’s pearl was rattling in my zehtar, and as hard as it was to part with a memento from her, I thought I should try trading it for a few nights’ room and board until I got my bearings in the land of the Jinn and found out where the audition was being held.
I took off my shoes and sat down wearily on one of the carpeted platforms that spanned the brook. The server arrived quickly with tea. Not knowing what my pearl would be worth, I ordered bread with grapes. The storyteller on the teahouse stage was reciting a captivating epic about an army of Jinn that had once fought alongside King Solomon. The hero was a Jinn who I had not read about in any of the scriptures. As I was listening, a familiar looking Jinn plunked down next to me.
This time she had both her shoes on.
“Halsa, take off your dusty sandals when you sit on a clean rug,” I said.
She removed her sandals and put one in each pocket.
“Haven’t you found your mother yet?” I said, dusting Halsa’s shoeprints off the carpet.
Before she could answer, the server brought me another tea.
“I would like kabobs with saffron rice,” Halsa told him.
The server hesitated, then turned to me, surprised that a child would order her own food, and such a big meal too. He must have seen that I was just as surprised.
“He’s my older brother,” Halsa explained.
“It is all right. Bring her the food,” I hurried to say before Halsa’s plot became too complicated. The server nodded and left.
“With barbecued tomatoes,” Halsa called after him. Then she turned to me and said, “Thank you.”
“It is not worthy of you,” I replied with the obligatory response, certain that if my pearl were refused I would be bankrupt. “But after the meal we really are going to have to find your house. It is getting too late for you to be out.”
“As though you can find any place.” She laughed. “Safieh said you almost couldn’t find the city.”
“You know Safieh?” I asked, surprised.
“Yes, she is a very good musician herself. She liked your playing very much.”
“I know how good she is. You can’t imagine how glad I am that she is too important to be one of the competitors against me. You know, she tipped me with a little pearl from her veil. How do you know her?”
“Everyone knows Safieh,” said Halsa. “She is the senior judge for the second round of the auditions and the only judge for the final one.”
I spat my tea back in the glass. “She’s a judge?”
”Yes, and she talked to me in person,” Halsa said proudly. “She told me to bring you to the palace where she is holding the second round.”
“What second round? How did I miss the first round?” I cried in alarm.
The server was heading in our direction, so I suspended my panic while he set the grapes in front of me and told me the bread boy had gone to fetch more hot bread from the baker’s.
Halsa began stuffing her mouth with my grapes. “You didn’t miss the first round,” she mumbled. “That’s how you found the city.”
“That was an audition?” I gasped. “Why didn’t any one tell me? I was just playing to the stupid crowd.”
“Well,” she said, smacking and swallowing, “Only this many played to the stupid crowd well enough to find the city.” She held up her thumb and index finger. “The rest are still lost in the desert.”
“I can’t believe I was among them. Thank Allah. How many contestants were there to begin with?”
She counted on her sticky fingers, and then on her toes. Then she started using grapes to hold her count. Then she gave up.
“A million million,” she said with certainty.
“That many! And only two million have made it through the first round?”
She looked hurt by my teasing. “No. Only two-- one, two.”
“I don’t believe I have only one other competitor going into the second round.”
”Tough crowd, the Jinn.” she said, going back nimbly to the grapes.
The server arrived with Halsa’s order. As he was laying out her food, the aroma of saffron and kabob wafted into my nostrils, making me wish I had ordered the same meal.
“Here,” Halsa said, maternally serving half of her food onto my plate. “I don’t know why you order the cheap meals.”
I wanted to ask Halsa how old she was, but remembered that Jinn count an uneventful year as a mere second, but an exciting minute could be counted as a decade. The number they give for their age is a private appraisal of events and transformations in their lives rather than a standard measure of solar cycles. But if Safieh had charged Halsa to look after me, she must have felt the child was ready.
While the after dinner tea was being served, I dropped my pearl anxiously in the server’s silver tray as payment, still unsure if he would accept this currency. The server scrutinized the pearl while I held my breath. Then he muttered something in an odd Jinn dialect, and marched away with the item. Sensing there would be a problem with the pearl, I fumbled anxiously in my coin purse hoping against the odds that I had enough coins to cover the very expensive meal Halsa had ordered.
“What did the server mumble, Halsa? Was he using profanity?”
Halsa was holding a large piece of lump sugar between her molars trying to crack it. She just shrugged.
“We may be in trouble,” I said. “You don’t happen to have any coins on you?”
Halsa, crunching lump sugar, searched her pockets and pulled out some lint.
“You should go outside now,” I told her nervously, ”I will come out later.”
“But they will be upset if we don’t try their famous baklava. Safieh says their rosewater syrup is the best in all of Jinndom.”
“Safieh has very expensive taste,” I grumbled irritably. “Now run along.”
Before Halsa could get up to obey, the server returned, this time accompanied by another Jinn who strutted with an intimidating air of proprietorship. The innkeeper watched authoritatively as his employee handed me back my pearl. I emptied my coin purse onto my palm to show them all I could pay. But the innkeeper waved my money away and said, “Please do me the honor of retiring here at my humble inn for the night. We have prepared a room for you and your little sister. It is the best room we have, but I hope you forgive its unworthiness.”
“Your hospitality is more than we deserve,” I stammered, timidly attempting to hand back the pearl. “Please accept this as...” But Halsa snapped her eyes wide open at me in a ‘No!’ gesture. It was as though she had jabbed me in the ribs. Obviously I was about to commit a serious faux pas. “Thank you,” I said meekly as I put the pearl back in my pouch.
The innkeeper bowed, adding that he would send word to the bathhouse that important guests would be arriving early tomorrow morning. “We will have bath supplies and clean clothes ready for you,” he said.
After they had left us to our tea I praised Allah for the reprieve He had granted me.
“Halsa, why wouldn’t they let me pay for our meals?” I asked.
Halsa looked around to make sure she would not be too loud. “Your pearl is not a tip,” she reproached. “It is a gift. So for the sake of the Prophet, peace be upon him, don’t give it away!”
“But then how do we pay for all these services?”
“As long as you have the pearl, no merchant will be so dumb as take coins from you.”
“But is that fair? I do not wish to impoverish a shopkeeper just because a powerful Jinn likes my music.”
Halsa shook her head dismissively. “When they take care of Safieh’s guests they always receive rewards that no one can buy. Sometimes an old friend comes back to visit. Sometimes they find a nice Jinn to marry. The bread boy here used to be deaf, now he can hear. That’s why no one will take your coins. And shopkeepers will be insulted if you do not take the best they have to offer, because they will wonder why you are holding back Safieh’s kindness from them.”
“Ah, I wondered why you ordered such an expensive meal.”
“Really, their baklava is good,” she said, as she poured some of her tea from the glass into the saucer for cooling.
“Yes, let’s order all their sweets,” I said,
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