It’s fair to say Salman Rushdie’s relationship with Islam has been a thorny one, to say the least. On the one hand the author of The Satanic Verses became one of the most popular ‘wanted men’ in the world, due to the fatwa or death sentence issued by the late Ayatollah Khumeini over what he and other religious fundamentalists perceived as ‘blasphemous’ attacks against their faith –Rushdie has stopped living in hiding, even though technically the fatwa still remains; yet on the other hand the rich tapestry of Muslim culture has remained one of his main sources of inspiration, as can be attested by his soon-to-be-published novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which seems to be intended to become his own version of the famous One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights.
Arabian Nights is a compendium of South Asian stories and folk tales, yet despite the name the tales themselves trace their root back to ancient India, Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia, some of them being hundreds of years older than others. There are many versions of the book, but all of them contain the introductory story of king Shahryār, the murderous Persian monarch who had promised to wed a new bride each day, and execute her the same night –his first wife had cheated him with a black slave, you see. The royal serial-killing came to an end thanks to the enchantments of Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter, who managed to save her head by putting good use to it, telling her husband a story so wonderful each night the king pardoned her life just to hear how it ended –who says “to be continued” never paid off?
Even if you never read the book when you were a kid, you no doubt know the stories of Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, and –last but not least– the tale of Aladdin’s Wonderful Life; indeed, who could ever forget Robin Williams’ masterful performance as the loquacious Genie, forced to grant 3 wishes to any man who would rub the lamp in which he was entrapped?
But genies of course, are not the product of Walt Disney’s imagination. They are the westernized version of the Persian djinn, supernatural beings made of ‘smoke-less fire’ endowed with incredible powers who sometimes held a deep and dangerous grudge against mortal men. The djinn of jinn were still maintained in the Muslim mythology despite the arrival of monotheism, and were said to live in ‘alternate universe’ from our everyday reality –the very word literally means “hidden from sight”– and unlike angels they share mankind’s gift of free will; some djinn are benevolent, some neutral or indifferent to human affairs, and some are very VERY malignant.
Which brings us back to Rushdie and his new book. The British writer shared a portion of the novel to The New Yorker as a short story titled The Duniazát, which I urge you to read and try not to spoil it for you on this post. The story centers around the 12th century Spanish philosopher Ibn Rushd, who lived in city of Córdoba –let’s remember that for 8 centuries a great portion of the Spanish territory was under the control of the Arabs, until they were finally expelled in the 15th century by the Catholic kings Ferdinand and Isabella. Ibn Rushd was a great polymath and intellectual, and he also holds a special significance for Salman Rushdie: Not only did his father seek to change the family’s surname in honor of Rushd, but Rushd –also known as Averröes- was one of the early founders of the philosophical movement we now have come to know as Secularism (even though he himself remained a faithful Muslim through the remainder of his life). It’s not hard to see how a man who suffered religious persecution in the flesh, would get to appreciate the freedom which modern Secularism brings…
At the beginning of The Duniazát, Ibn Rushd has fallen out of favor of the Caliph, and expelled out of the court. He retires himself to the small town of Lucena, where he tries to make a meager living through his knowledge in Medicine. It is then when he meets a strange young woman who seems to appear out of nowhere at his door step, waiting patiently until he lets her in –BEK anyone?
The young woman tells the old man she is an orphan and that her name is Dunia, which in Greek means “the world”. What she doesn’t tell her, is that she is a member of the djinn kind, disguised as a human out of curiosity with men and their affairs. She eventually becomes Ibn Rushd’s companion and lover, which would immediately alert any Fortean fan to the resemblance with the old stories concerning carnal exchanges between men and the fey folk, selkies, ondines, and now with our modern accounts of abductions and ET intercourse ,which are said to result in the offspring of human-alien hybrids. Likewise, Dunia manages to conceive a prolific amount of children with the disgraced philosopher, who seems to be making the most out of his time off court…
“Why have you named yourself after the world” he asked her, and she replied, looking him in the eye as she spoke, “Because a world will flow from me and those who flow from me will spread across the world.”
Ibn Rushd remains with Dunia for two years, eight months and twenty-eight days (1001 nights) in which Dunia would demand to be sexually attended, but the spent thinker would rather try to appease her fiery lover (*rim shot*) with a story –turning him into a reverse Scherezade in order to avoid “the little death”— until one day his exile is ended and is once again summoned to the Caliph’s court. He doesn’t take Dunia with him, leaving her instead in their small house in Lucena; eventually she returns to the djinn world:
“Nobody noticed or cared that one day she turned sideways and slipped through a slit in the world and returned to Peristan, the other reality, the world of dreams whence the jinn periodically emerge to trouble and bless mankind. to the villagers of Lucena, she seemed to have dissolved, perhaps into fireless smoke.
After Dunia left our world, the voyagers from the world of the jinn to ours became fewer in number, and then they stopped coming completely, and the slits in the world became overgrown with the unimaginative weeds of convention and the thornbushes of the dully material, until the finally closed up, and our ancestors were left to do the best they could without the benefits or curses of magic.”
A beautiful story, but what prompted Rushdie, a self-proclaimed ‘secular Muslim’ who openly rejects any notions of religious dogma, to pair a rationalist thinker with a supernatural entity? In an interview published on The New Yorker, Rushdie explained that his intentions behind this ‘fictionalized story’ was to portray the battle “between the world of imagination (dreams, fantasy) and that of reason and science, and that the two should fall in love seemed, well, beautiful.”
“I was also thinking of Goya’s marvelous etching “The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters,” to which he attached the caption “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
So, Magical Realism used as a metaphor to illustrate ideas, and nothing more. But what if Rushdie were to know that many people still believe in the existence of the djinn? and not in some God-forsaken village in the middle of the desert, but that according to researchers like Rosemary Ellen Guiley, these beings made out of ‘smokeless fire’ (plasma energy?) could be behind many ‘paranormal manifestations’ including UFO close encounters. Would he be surprised to learn that the ‘giant urns’ in which the djinni kin were said to fly through the air are one of the common shapes reported by witnesses?
Fantasy coupled by reason may be the mother of arts and technological progress, the things people like Rushdie and his ‘new atheist’ friends are so proud of. But it’s also true that the line dividing Myth from Fact is not as clear cut as most intellectuals would like it to be. We Forteans move in liminal realms, territories in which dreams become more real than waking life; and just as Dunia returned to her world through a ‘slit’ in the fabric of reality, UFOs and all the things which persist to go bump in the night may very well come from “the space between the spaces.”