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In This Omani Village, Locals Say Supernatural Creatures Are Behind Strange Events

Aug 13, 2019
Originally published on August 13, 2019 5:40 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Strange things happen in the Omani village of Bahla. Fires are said to erupt spontaneously in the winter desert. Walls crumble and refuse to be rebuilt. This, locals say, is the work of the jinn, supernatural creatures known in Middle Eastern legend. The town is famous for them. NPR's Ruth Sherlock recently visited.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The oasis village of Bahla is steeped in custom. Outside a mosque, beneath palm trees laden with dates, men in white traditional robes take part in an auction for this year's crop of the fruit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: They ask an elderly bystander for stories of the jinn.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "No, no, no. This is none of my business," he says, and turns away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: This teenager wears a ring with a black stone to protect him from the spirits.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says if he talks about them more, they'll haunt him at night.

LAMA AL-ARIAN, BYLINE: (Foreign language spoken).

SAID AL-ADAWI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: We walk into a small pottery factory, where owner Said al-Adawi sits at the potter's wheel. We ask about the myth that jinns like to live in these terracotta jars.

AL-ADAWI: (Foreign language spoken).

AL-ARIAN: So his father said that a jinn used to be here that he saw. It was a female jinn.

SHERLOCK: Adawi says she was peaceful. He thinks jinns rarely affect humans, though he's not afraid to use their myth for a little fun.

AL-ADAWI: (Foreign language spoken).

AL-ARIAN: "The local kids would come and break things. So one day I decided to dress up like I were a rice bag, and I scared the kids."

SHERLOCK: The kids never came near the factory again.

People here talk about jinn in the way that people in the West sometimes talk about ghosts or spirits. Historians say the legend of jinn in Bahla may be rooted in the 12th century, when it was a military and religious center and its rulers wanted to discourage locals from going outside the fortress walls into the desert. Rumors spread of evil spirits who kidnap residents.

SHERLOCK: (Foreign language spoken).

HAREB AL SHUKHAILI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Hareb al Shukhaili invites us into his home. Frankincense fills the air in the living room, which has sky blue walls. He takes us into a back room, where the shelves are filled with herbs and potions.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM BEATING)

SHERLOCK: Then he beats a drum that he says invokes the jinn. Shukhaili, it turns out, is a moallem, or an exorcist. He's careful talking about it in public because anything considered black magic is banned by religious leaders in Oman.

AL SHUKHAILI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He points out, though, that jinn are mentioned in the Quran, and he says he uses the Quran to help the possessed. People come to him if they're sick or suffering a trauma. He tells my colleague Lama al-Arian that she has been cursed by the evil eye of a jealous friend, and he offers to help.

AL-ARIAN: He said that this is going to change my life, so let's see.

SHERLOCK: He lays her on the ground with her bare feet in a tray of yellow water and covers her in a gold and purple veil. Then we have to stop recording.

Closing the microphone.

He prays over Lama and sprays water on her body.

AL SHUKHAILI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Shukhaili says Lama's curse is easy to fix. He says for jinn possessions, it can take a group to exorcise the spirit. And then he plays us a recording of a recent ritual ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHERLOCK: It happened outside at night around a fire. The group moved in a circle and let the jinn be carried away by the music.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Bahla, Oman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.