Those of our readers, with the good sense to follow Al-Arabiya News, will not have missed their story from the United Arab Emirates, in which a court granted divorce to a man whose wife was possessed by a djinn (a genie).* His wife refused to have sex with him, and he discussed it patiently. She eventually referred him to her family, who said that Muslim clerics had long since failed to exorcise the spirit, which their daughter had failed to mention during courtship. The judge ruled that, effectively, she had wed him under false pretences. My own relations with djinn were less vexing.
One day my Pakistani driver told me, rather blithely, that his brother possessed a djinn—not that he was possessed by one, but rather that he possessed it himself. He had fasted and prayed for forty days or so, and now kept it under semi-permanent contract. It could work all kinds of magic, Mr. Umar promised. Swell, I said: get your brother to command his djinn to turn our ramshackle jeep into gold and we will split the loot three ways. Impossible, he replied: If he commanded it to do anything selfish, then the djinn would hand in his notice, as all respectable djinn do. Well, then we can cut out the brother and split it two ways, I suggested, but that was also a no-go. I asked to meet his brother, but that was impossible because he worked as a waiter in Dubai. This was also puzzling. If his djinn has magic powers, I asked, why is your brother serving soup to guys wearing chequered tea-towels and fan-belts on their heads? The answer was unconvincing.
Hours later, I decided to tell my American colleague and went to our rooms. My driver was there, trying to look as attentive as any multi-lingual, well-travelled driver can look; while my Virginia-educated, utterly sophisticated co-worker was bent over in half, pouring water up her nose and down her blouse. “She is showing me,” Mr. Umar explained respectfully, “the Western, scientific way of curing hiccoughs, by drinking backwards from a cup.” I postponed my lecture on superstitious local people.
Soon thereafter, someone wrote in to a Pakistani national newspaper, asking what we know of djinn. It tapped some vast suppressed fascination and letters poured in by the dozen. Djinn were created by God, one said, at the same time as angels, and similarly they can be good or bad. They are made of something like plasma and can change shape at will, claimed another, but you can always tell because their feet point backwards. King Solomon could speak their language and commanded them, so if you are pestered by one, order it to depart in Solomon’s name and it will leave you alone. On it went.
Several times the editors tried to end the discussion, but they were always overwhelmed by more pent-up demand and scholarship, usually from retired brigadiers. Finally a letter appeared from someone purporting to be a djinn, claiming to have lived in Lahore for several centuries. What we djinns wish, he explained, is that humans would mind their own business, and concentrate on living and worshipping peacefully. Finally, the editors declared the matter closed.
I was about to write a column on a topic near and dear to so many American conservatives—on the irredeemable backwardness of all Muslims—when I came across Icelanders’ widespread belief in elves. I mean modern Icelanders, virtually none of whom are Muslims.
Iceland’s elves, called Huldufolk or Hidden Folk, distain little red caps and pointy shoes. Because they are usually invisible to us there is divergent opinions, but some locals say that elves are human-sized. Recently, the BBC reported that a new road was opposed because it would have disturbed the elves and damaged their environment, or so claimed human neighbours, who elsewhere added that the dwarves would be annoyed too. As well they might.
The proposed road would have passed by what a local human “seer” contends is a prominent elvish church. Their churches are interconnected “by light energy to other churches,” she told Atlantic magazine, presumably meaning elvish ones and not Lutheran. So if one elven church gets abandoned, the psychic mains-electricity goes off all down the line. Needless to say, government cancelled the road.
Ever the cynic, I smelled a rat, a green one. The chief lobbyists, the Hraunavir or Friends of the Lava, do not mention elves in their organisation’s name, and they do not appear to have elven members. However, they seem ill-disposed toward any development at all—maybe the elves are just an excuse to protect the real-estate value of human holiday homes with an uninterrupted coastal view of the whale-slaughtering.
How do we know that these human, bog-standard greenies have any elvish support whatsoever? Or that the elves are not all in church, praying for fracking as well as even more roads? How do we even know that the elves exist? Well, we do not. But more than half of all Icelanders profess to believe in them; and with a literacy rate of ninety-nine per cent, they are far better educated than, say, Fox News broadcasters.
Britain’s Jacqueline Simpson, a folklore scholar, says that Icelandic poems from 1000 AD focus on Norse gods and only mention elves in passing, but they earned centre-stage by the Sixteenth Century. In olden days, they mostly kidnapped children. Today they are hard to spot, except that they dress in antique human costumes; so, when next in Reykjavik, watch for leather jerkins and do not waste time staring at the guy in the Justin Timberlake t-shirt.
An Icelandic scholar of elves told the Atlantic that, in the elven economy, “like humans, the hidden people have livestock, cut hay, row boats, flense whales and pick berries” (flense any whales near California, guys, and it’s curtains for you). He adds that “Like humans, they too have priests and sheriffs and go to church on Sundays” (so I may be wrong about them not being Lutherans).
According to yet another expert on elves (they must be as numerous CIA censors at The New York Times) “Icelanders typically come into contact with the smaller ones: one ‘around one foot tall’ and ‘the other…is perhaps similar to a seven-year-old child.’” But the tallest ones reach nine feet: any taller and they would have to join the giants’ trade union, or sign up with the NBA.
Dr. Simpson warns “treat them with respect, do not upset their dwelling places, or try to steal their cattle, and they’ll be… quite neutral, quite harmless.” Otherwise, they can break your legs or even kill you, which suggests that, apart from the cattle, they are not much different than short people from New Jersey.
Kidnapping children is now passé, and since the 1970s, apparently Iceland’s elves have restricted themselves to destroying the surfaces of roads (like New Jersey’s crooked contractors), and wrecking earth-moving equipment—so in that latter respect they may resemble Imaginative Conservatives, except that they have not said much about Distributism.
My point, I suppose, is that no matter how educated and advanced people become, everywhere there still remain a small, backward element wedded to the most ridiculous and useless cults and superstitions. I would elaborate on this but I am late for my language lessons, and that always irritates the lady teaching me to speak Klingon.
* See the story here.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.