Aunt Tahmineh somehow knew she would remain barren until she had found a name for her future child. So for the first fifteen years of her marriage, she and her husband fought over what they would call their unconceived offspring. She liked authentic Iranian names, while her husband, a religious man, insisted on a character from the Koran. Finally they came to an agreement. If the child were a girl, they would name her Farangis, an ancient Iranian heroine. If it were a boy, they would name him Esma’il, a Koranic name which also appears in the Bible as Ishmael, the son of Abraham. Esma’il means “God listens.” Presumably, “God listens to us and has answered our prayer for a child.”
Yet when Esma’il was finally born, it turned out that God hadn’t listened very well. The infant came out of the womb so blue and sickly that the family doctor gave him no chance of surviving the night. But Aunt Tahmineh had also called a midwife to the birthing, and this midwife had another thought.
“This isn’t your child, dear,” she told the exhausted Tahmineh. “It belongs to a mother Jinn. The jealous Jinn has swapped your beautiful and healthy baby with her own sickly child. You must return this infant to the Jinn and get your own baby back.”
So the midwife wrapped the newborn in warm clothing and took him out to the far side of the property where she placed it on floor of the outhouse and closed the door. This would let the Jinn know that the human mother had not been fooled by the swap.
The old doctor knew that the outcome of this ritual would not be a healthy baby. Infants with this condition lived only minutes. Yet he humored the midwife’s far-fetched wisdom. The separation would disrupt the parental bonding and perhaps shorten the mother’s grief.
Throughout the night everyone stayed awake to keep the vigil. At sunrise the midwife went to fetch the infant, while Tahmineh’s sisters consoled her and prepared her for the news. Like petals falling on a garden stone, their words of comfort did nothing to break the impermeable resignation on Aunt Tahmineh’s face. Hearing the midwife’s returning footsteps, everyone braced for grief and wailing. They were quite unprepared for what they saw. The midwife stopped at the doorjamb, looking as though something had struck her. Her puzzled stare was directed at the doctor. It took him a moment to overcome his disbelief, then he leapt up, snatched the bundle from the midwife, and began frantically to unravel it. No one could have known how tenaciously the infant would cling to life to survive the night in the outhouse.
The parents were assured that the Jinn had swapped the baby back. He just needed to be nursed back to health after the trauma of the kidnapping. They accepted him, of course, but didn’t give him the name Esma’il, “God listens.” Instead they named him Nader.
Now Nader is a very nice Arabic name. Things that are nader are difficult to find, like diamonds or geniuses. Events that are nader are great victories, big inventions, the appearance of a messiah. But there is nothing that says the words “nader” and “preciousness” must go together. Nader standing by itself just means rare and unusual. Applied to my cousin, it could just as easily mean “oddball.” Did his parents really mean to name their child “oddball”? Maybe, but there are other interpretations. For instance, Nader was also the name of a powerful Iranian conqueror who invaded India and looted its treasures. One such treasure was the “Kooh-I-Noor” diamond, the mountain of light. I saw it once in a museum. The diamond reminded me of a precious object, stolen. As in a healthy baby named Ishmael, kidnapped by a Jinn.
A few of the relatives grumbled that it was bad luck to slight the answer to a prayer. They felt Aunt Tahmineh and her husband were breaking a covenant with God by not giving the boy the promised name “God listens.” God had listened. At Tahmineh’s age conception was a wonder. Giving birth to a live child, however sickly, was a miracle. What did she expect?
Of course, the relatives were being unfair to Nader’s parents. Aunt Tahmineh and her husband tried their best to love the child they had prayed for. But it was as though God was deliberately making it difficult. I remember one day Nader’s father was wiping his thick glasses with his handkerchief. Any time he cried, he used to take off his glasses and keep wiping them, as though the tears were coming from his spectacles. He was wiping and wiping because Nader had come down with typhoid fever. The child was so hot you could blister your hands touching him. Aunt Tahmineh’s servant woman used to tell stories about how Nader’s bed sheets had scorch marks on them the next day, and it wasn’t because she had been forgetful while ironing the linen. No human has ever survived such a high temperature. That night Nader’s father was standing outside the door, red-eyed, and wiping his glasses. He was angrily explaining to my mother, “How many times? How many times must I say goodbye to my son? The first year he can’t breathe, the next year it’s his heart, then he falls on his head, after that it’s the rabies shots, not to mention the blood poisoning. Then it’s this illness, then it’s that accident. How many times, I ask you? When Father Abraham went to sacrifice his son, and God said it was all right, his son didn’t have to die, suppose the next day God kicks Abraham awake and says, ‘Guess what, I’m God and I’ve changed my mind. Your son must die.’ So Father Abraham takes the child to the rock, ties him up again, ready to make the sacrifice, when God says ‘It’s OK, he can live.’ And the next day the same, and the next day the same, over and over again. I don’t want to be blasphemous, but even Father Abraham would go crazy one day and make the sacrifice anyway just because he couldn’t take it anymore. Enough is enough.”
Actually, I couldn’t be remembering this episode, because I hadn’t been born yet. Nader is six years older than I am and he had typhoid fever when he was five. This is a story my mother must have told me when I was so young it feels like my own memory. Anyway the point is, it wasn’t that his parents didn’t love Nader, it’s just that they had gone crazy and had already sacrificed their son. By the way, the metaphor is accurate, because in Muslim tradition it is Ishmael not Isaac that God demands in the sacrifice story. Isaac hadn’t been born yet. Everybody wants to apply the magic of Abraham’s covenant to their own mythological ancestor, because more than anything, to be fruitful and multiply means that our offspring are going to survive. The covenant is like a charm around our children’s necks. Anytime we fear that God is going to foreclose on a young life, we pull out the contract and show God where it says that brave ancestor Abraham has already settled that account.
Of course the covenant wasn’t the only thing that kept us alive as children. I quite remember that almost all my training up to the age when I went to school was about how to stay alive. “Don’t go near the howz, you’ll fall in and drown.” “Don’t play with matches, you’ll burn yourself.” “Don’t stick that fork in the outlet, don’t climb to the roof, don’t drink the bug spray, don’t this, don’t that, or you’ll surely die.” This went on until the only dangers my mother still needed to warn me about were wells and wild desert dogs.
“Don’t go out alone at night in the desert, because packs of wild strays will tear you apart.” “Stay far away from the desert wells. Jinn live down there. They will grab you.”
They weren’t wells really. They were quanats. Deep under the desert was a vast system of ancient irrigation tunnels that started in the mountains and crept to the lowlands. The quanats were the access holes to this single labyrinth. My mother was always writing angry letters to the mayor’s office trying to get the city to cover the wells. “This place is no longer a desert,” she would write. “ Families live here. Cover the wells.”
Every once in a while a child would disappear without a trace. Some people suspected the hungry wild strays. But others were certain that the children had been taken to city of the Jinn at the bottom of the quanats.
Cousin Nader’s favorite place to play was near the wells. Whenever Aunt Tahmineh caught him at it she would yell, “Nader, you seed of a Jinn, get away from there. They’ll grab you.” This is my own memory, because I remember being confused by her calling him “seed of a Jinn.” I thought the mother Jinn had swapped him back that first night in the outhouse. Even Nader’s mom was confused; because when she was really angry with him she used to yell, “Oh, I wish I had let the Jinn keep this child.” Which implied that he had been swapped back.
Nader didn’t help make things any clearer. For one thing he looked nothing like either of his parents. Once when he and I were standing in front of my mother’s mirror, out of plain meanness I told him that I thought he looked like someone else’s kid.
“That’s because you’re an imbecile!” he said, checking himself in the mirror. “See how my eyebrows slowly thin until they touch right here on the bridge of my nose? Look at how squarish my ears look, just like my mom’s, and how they sit a little low on my head.” When he put it that way, he did look a little like his mom. And as he went on pointing out the similarities, he looked more and more like her, until if you put a skirt on him, you could mistake him for his mom.
But when Nader thought nobody was watching, he looked like himself and no one else. This shape shifting was very suspicious to me. Because I knew that only the Jinn could look like anybody they wanted to. They could appear as someone you knew, and when you invited them in, they would inflict horrors upon you. That is why, traditionally, when Muslims enter a room into which they have been invited, they politely mutter the phrase “Besmellah.” That way people know it’s really their friend because “Besmellah” is the one phrase Jinn cannot utter without disintegrating. Unless the Jinn is a Muslim Jinn, in which case why would it try to deceive anyone by shape shifting?
Yes, Jinn can be Muslim. It says so right there in the Holy Koran. “...And we turned towards you a party of the Jinn, who listened to the Koran, so that when they were in its presence, they said, ‘be silent [and listen].’ Then they returned to their people, warning them. They said, ‘Oh, our people. We have heard a book revealed… guiding to the truth and to a right path.’” And from that and a few other references, we know that even the Prophet Mohammed believed in the Jinn, as much as some Jinn apparently believed in the Prophet and his message.
The Koran doesn’t explain what sort of a creature a Jinn really is, except to say that while humans were created from clay and dust, the Jinn was made from fire. Even there, if you read between the lines you can’t be sure whether the Jinn was made of fire or whether it was made in the presence of fire. It is possible that the Jinn too is made of clay, the only difference between us and the Jinn being that at the moment of creation, the Jinn endure a hellish fever, like a clay object being hardened in a kiln. And as Science tells us, if you take the “clay” substance of the human body, the element carbon, and subject it to tremendous heat and pressure, you get a precious gem: the diamond. Very rare, very “Nader!”
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