Majnoon

by Nafisa A. Iqbal

Nafisa A. Iqbal is a disabled Bangladeshi writer, activist, and MFA candidate at Columbia University’s Writing Program. They were shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Award 2020 among over 5,000 applicants. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Tint Journal, and Commonwealth Writers’ adda magazine.

This is the story of my exorcism.

The alley is drenched in darkness, a bucket of thick black paint upended on everything except the car’s headlights. Power cut.  The hum of generators come on and the sweet, hot smell of gasoline is in the air. Cousin Ayeesha, in the passenger seat, pants like a dog against the car window breathing in the smell I know she loves.

The narrow alleyways are built for rickshaws and pedestrians so the car has trouble winding through its tight curves. Maa is perched in the middle of the backseat between Khala and me. She pushes her body forward between the front seats, guiding the driver towards the address she’s written down on a slip of paper, her meticulous handwriting all sharp angles that could draw blood.

“This is it,” says Maa and we pour out of the car. Khala has her manicured hand on the small of my back, leading me into the stairwell like a lamb to the slaughter.


We have existed long before her, and We will exist long after. Our true celestial names will not fit on your soft pink tongues and warm mouths—a human voice cannot even hold the sound of a thunderclap—so you may continue to call Us what you call Us. Jinn. We live in her body.

Her mother suspects Our presence, Our possession of her daughter’s body, the first time the girl is called into the principal’s office. Some kids in her class have bullied the teacher to tears. The rats point her out as the ringleader.

It was her hopelessness that primed her to act against her faith, to visit a witch doctor, a practitioner of dark magic.

For years, We lay dormant inside her, allowing her to be a quiet, golden child. We let her bury her nose in books. We kneaded her from the inside out till she was a perfectly obedient daughter. Docile as a baby deer, her voice soft as a whisper. The teacher’s pet. After all, We pitied the mother. For 13 years, they had called her barren, her womb inhospitable. She had seen nearly every doctor and Islamic healer in their small town and yet nothing would stick in her body, slipping out from between her legs in bloodbaths. It was her hopelessness that primed her to act against her faith, to visit a witch doctor, a practitioner of dark magic.

He promised her a child, and We made sure he would keep his promise. In the dead of night, the witch doctor, the sorcerer, came to us rowing his boat into the black river waters where We frolic. Even the light of the full moon could not penetrate this darkness, so shaded were these waters by the dense mangrove. It is here that We play, turning into flat round stones and skipping over the water’s surface. Standing atop his moored boat, the witch doctor opened his sack full of bread and fed the loaves to the river. We turned into fish and swallowed the bread whole. He had baked into them letters addressed to Us, requesting Us to bring forth a child from the mother’s desert womb.


The sound of our footsteps bounce along the stairwell. We use the flashlights on our phone to light the way. The low rumble of voices tumble down the stairs as we climb up. I am 14 and drag my feet. At the door, we are greeted by many pairs of old and worn women’s sandals in a crowded radius. We shed our shoes as well and line them up against each other. Maa knocks on the door and it is Ali Bhai who opens it, the faith healer whose reputation precedes him. Ali Bhai is dark-skinned and probably bald, given how snugly the Islamic skullcap fits on his head.  He wears a white panjabi over his lungi.

As-salamu-alaykum, Apa,” he greets Maa, over the clamour of voices.

Wa-alaykum-as-salam,” she replies, before introducing each of us as we say salam.

Ali Bhai’s home has no generator so it is lit only by stubs of candles placed on the floor. The bodies of the women are crammed together, and we struggle to close the door behind us. The air inside is hot and still, and the flames barely flicker unless someone walks by. In the glow of the candlelight, the women are like apparitions in their long head veils or flowing burqas. The room smells like sweat and cotton and rosewater. Already I am struggling to breathe, the heat of the crowd like gauze stuffed up my nose.


13, We decided among Us. 13 years of the mother’s joy to negate the 13 years of her barrenness. Then, as if We were a werewolf, and the girl’s 13th year the full moon, We became all claw and teeth and growl. We lifted her feet over the school walls to cut class, and put cigarettes between her fingers. We rubbed her neck like a trainer as she boxed the boys’ ears at school or threw things against her bedroom wall. When she picked up the blade to cut angry red lines into her arms, We were the ones who felt the pain. When We returned her body and her will to her, she remembered nothing. She awoke as if from a fitful night’s sleep, tired and dazed.

Rest assured, We did nothing against her will. We would never. This is Our inviolable rule. We have been in too many bodies that have been forcibly manipulated. We have been in bodies displaced, disfigured, brutalized. We have been in bodies that were broken into pieces and then castigated for breaking. For 13 years we shielded her, cast charm after protective charm, but even We could not change her fate. The fate of being born a girl. We only gave shape to her inevitability. We were the kindling, but she brought the fire.


Sweat is dripping from every pore in my body and I guzzle the bottle of water I brought with me. We wait for the ceremony to start. Ali Bhai sees our discomfort in the heat and leads the four of us into the kitchen where there is an open window and a charger light. It is here that he brings out the tabiz from his shirt pocket, a silver capsule with verses from the Qur’an encased within. It is the amulet my mother has asked him to make, to protect me against the jinn who has made my body a home.

Ali Bhai’s mouth moves in silent prayer as he ties the black string of the tabiz around my neck. He instructs me to keep it on at all times while I plan to stuff the stupid thing deep into the seat pocket of the car on the way to school. In the next room, the imams clear their throats ready for the dhikr. Ali Bhai leaves to settle the crowd of women on the large sheets they’ve laid down on the floor. The ceremony is starting.

The one small window doesn’t allow for much circulation, and there are rivulets of sweat running down my back. Cousin Ayeesha is fanning herself with a pamphlet she found in her handbag, while Maa and Khala swipe their wet foreheads with long thumbs. The charger light is blinding and looks white-hot. My stomach begins to churn in figure eights and infinities. I place a hand on Maa’s shoulder to keep me steady. The last thing I remember before I lose consciousness is the cool metal of the tabiz on my burning skin.

 


The boy entered her life with his quick charm and winsome smile, his rolled-up sleeves and the hint of manhood in his musk; the allure of an older boy’s interest.

The nastiest traps, never forget, are the ones that feel like shelter, like sanctuary.

Imagine it this way: she was a butterfly, hovering on gossamer wings. He built a trap that looked a lot like love and enticed her in with sweet nectar. The nastiest traps, never forget, are the ones that feel like shelter, like sanctuary. Drugged with the nectar, she was easy to collect, to pin down on a velvet cloth and analyze. To prod and poke. To defile. She was his first specimen. He would go on to collect many more.

“I created man from sounding clay, from mud molded into shape,” says Allah in the 15th chapter of the Holy Qur’an, “And the jinn did I create from smokeless fire.” Like clay, she had been too soft, too pliable. She would rather be an overfired kiln, incinerating what remained of the clay within her; sculptures in the shape of so much grief and pain and indignation. She would rather turn her insides to ash. We could help her do that.


I find myself on the floor with my head on Cousin Ayeesha’s lap. She is fanning me with the pamphlet. A spritz of something liquid makes me look up. My eyes refocus and I see a crowd has formed around me. Ali Bhai is splashing me with rosewater from one of the plastic bottles that street urchins sell in front of cemeteries to sprinkle on the graves of loved ones. Maa is on her knees beside me offering water. Khala has her palms pressed together in prayer.

“I felt it move inside her, Hai Allah,” gasps Cousin Ayeesha. “There was something moving inside her body like this.” She moves her fingers back and forth in waves. A kind of roiling.

“It’s the tabiz!” shrieks Khala. “The jinn inside her is unhappy.” The women around me burst into whispers, discussing among themselves.

“Oh, Allah, save her!” I hear. “Astaghfirullah!” I hear. “Forgive her, Allah!” I hear.

“Alright, sisters,” says Ali Bhai, “let’s bring her to the imams.”


We put a pen in her hands to bleed out the darkness swirling in her veins, that melancholy that billows like ink in water. A bloodletting on paper. The poetry of a teenage girl is a sacred text. We fluttered through the pages of pink diaries and leather-bound journals hungry for those tender morsels of  unfiltered emotion.

We have made many a great poet. We came to the high priestess Enheduanna 42 centuries ago, and made her the first poet of your realm.  It was with Our help that Enheduanna made a weapon of her clay tablet to raise Inanna, exalted goddess of sex and war, to the title of Queen of Heaven. It was We who whispered in her ear. We have been known to root for the underdogs.

We took possession of poets and writers and allowed them to experience a version of the divine visions gifted to prophets and saints, and thereby, We created a heretical parallel between the poet who manifests his verses with Our voice in his ear, and the prophet who receives divine revelation through angelic intervention. In the town of Al-Ghamim we met the Umayayd love poet Kuthayyir ‘Azzah. We came to him in the guise of a shining man made of brass. We accosted him, compelled him to recite. Thereafter, his verses came to him in the sound of Our voice.

“When did you start reciting poetry?” the poet would be asked later.

“I did not start reciting poetry,” he would reply, “before it was recited to me.”

We have made many a great poet. We will do the same for the girl.


When I think back to this night, I am not the girl on the floor lying there unconscious. Instead, I am among the veiled women, feeling the heat of our bodies packed tightly together. A clamour draws our attention to the kitchen where women are hovering over the body of a senseless girl.  Word spreads quickly that she is possessed by jinn and the healer has just put a tabiz around her neck. We all gather around to witness the spirit brought to its knees. We are the spectators and the girl is the spectacle that reaffirms our faith.


We are still smarting from the insult of the ancient Sumerians who believed that We were to blame for every disease of the mind and body. ‘Gidim,’ they called Us. Sickness Demons.


And speaking of words, did you not name Us ‘jinn’ for the same root word from which you derived ‘majnoon,’ meaning ‘mad,’ meaning ‘deranged?’ In your fickle minds, you have conflated illness and possession. We are still smarting from the insult of the ancient Sumerians who believed that We were to blame for every disease of the mind and body. ‘Gidim,’ they called Us. Sickness Demons.

Among yourselves—among the men you call ‘imams’ with their long beards and thobes and taqiyahs—you have decided that it is your women and girls that We most love to possess. You believe they are weak of will and easy for Us to bend and break. These are the symptoms you have decided on: infertility, mania, depression, eating too much or too little, and of course, hysteria—always that female malady. You demonize your girls and attempt to exorcise them of their rightful rage and real distress, their unruliness and their fire.  The unwanted, uncensored behavior of your women you blame upon Us. We allow it. We let your girls thrash and convulse and rage and fight against the iron fist of man that tyrannizes them. You are afraid of womankind’s rage, of their power, so We will take the blame.


The heat has caused me to faint before, but. still, sometimes I wonder if there was something in the tabiz, something sprinkled into Ali Bhai’s rough hands, some kind of knock-out powder. It feels like one more terrible thing  done to my body. It feels too much like another violation, this demonology they write of me, this spectacle they make of me.

The fainting spell leaves my senses feeling hazy, as if I’m on the other side of a grimy window pane. The next thing I know, I am in a dark room sitting in the middle of a circle of imams who are chanting to Allah. The candlelight throws their shadows against the wall, tall as towers. The chorus of their chants fills the room.

Next to me is an elderly woman, practically a crone. She too has been brought in for an exorcism. Her long, thin frame rocks back and forth beside me. Her grey hair is like a silver halo around her head, all flyaways that escape her bun from the motion of the rocking. Ali Bhai enters the room and joins the imams in dhikr. He blows prayers into the rosewater and begins to sprinkle it on the two of us, his voice roaring over the chants.

“Go, jinn! Leave their bodies! In the name of Allah, I command you to go!”

The old woman freezes, wincing as the drops hit her.

“I will not go. I will not go!” she screams, but her voice is not hers alone. It is a multitude of beings shrieking madly, some high-pitched, others deep and guttural. I am frozen in place, my heart thumping against the walls of my chest, threatening to break them open.


Make no mistake, We are finicky about the vessels we choose. We seek a certain kind of temperament. In your limited understanding, you call it ‘passion.’ But We know better. It is a flame, encased in your frail rib cage, fueled by the ecstasy of grief, the clarity of rage, the euphoria of love. That flame, held under the human soul, makes it bubble and froth and dance. Like moths, We are drawn to that fire. Few possess it, but We sniff them out like bloodhounds. We create them in the barren wombs of women crying out for motherhood. The witch doctors are Our middlemen. They offer to Us the desperate prayers of childless women. The women know not, but their souls make the deal for them. Just give us a child, they say, even if the child is part fire.

You think you can exorcise Us, remove us like a malignant growth, and cauterize the wound. No, We have soaked deep into her bones. We are her, and she is Us. Mark Our words: We will make a poet of her still. Perhaps even a prophet.


A few months after the exorcism, Maa takes me to a clinic that smells like chlorine. In the waiting room, the white tube lights wink at me. The psychiatrist calls us in. My mother narrates my symptoms, pulls my arm forward and shows him the scars. He scribbles on his notepad a prescription for antidepressants, twice a day, edging close to the maximum daily dosage. For weeks, I can’t eat or sleep. I am dizzy, sweating, in a perpetual state of panic and hypervigilance. I am only 14, and already demonized, pathologized. They label me possessed, depressed, hysteric, borderline, majnoon. I reject their epithets. Words are powerful, and these descend upon me like a puff of air to a flame. They want to extinguish the fire that burns deep inside me. I can feel it now, blazing in my veins, compelling me to move my pen. I am writing my own narrative.

 


Nafisa A. Iqbal is a disabled Bangladeshi writer, activist, and MFA candidate at Columbia University’s Writing Program. They were shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Award 2020 among over 5,000 applicants. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Tint Journal, and Commonwealth Writers’ adda magazine.

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