The Invasion of "Jinn" Spirits/ Antropolog wobec współczesności

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The Invasion of "Jinn" Spirits/ Antropolog wobec współczesności
Modernity and the Bedouin


Zadrożyńska, Anna


Antropolog wobec współczesności pod red. Anny Malewskiej-Szałygin i Magdaleny Radkowskei-Walkowicz s.121-125
tom w darze Profesor Annie Zadrożyńskiej


jakubowska, Longina


Instytut Etnologii i Antropologii Kulturowej UW




Licencja PIA







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Longina Jakubowska
University College Utrecht

The Invasion of Jinn Spirits:
Modernity and the Bedouin

It was clear to her brothers that Mariam was possessed by a jinni (sing. jinni, pl. jinn).
H e r behavior was erratic; one day she was listlessly sitting cross-legged w i t h o u t u t tering a word, and the next getting into agressive fits throwing harangues at anyone
w h o passed by in language that was either unintelligible or abusive. She fought w i t h
her husband, refused to have sex w i t h him, and was nasty toward her co-wife. Even
worse, she was suspected to have spread malignant gossip about her cousin that led
to the annulment of a marriage proposal. Fortunately this happened during the
summer school vacation - Mariam worked as a special education teacher in town and her odd state was noticed only by her immediate family and neighbors w h o kept
it as much a secret as one can in a community where most people k n o w one another. The story of Mariam's misfortune was t o l d to me one warm spring day in hushed
voices laced w i t h dread. As the night fell, other stories followed, stories of magic,
bewitchment, mystery and fear. Hers was a jinnii of a non-descript nature. The jinn
w h o claimed the body of her neighbor d o w n the street had a name, a gender, and
a place of origin; the beautiful European jinniya w h o fell in love w i t h h i m was called
Spirit possession was an unexpected turn in my anthropological inquiry A t no
previous point in time during the twenty five years of my involvement w i t h a Bedouin community in the Negev desert in Israel had I noted a significant presence of
jinn in people's lives. For the next three weeks I was busily collecting stories of their
interference. The local M u s l i m cleric and a jinn expert instructed me about their
nature, their properties, and the remedies against them and allowed me to witness
the means and ways of their exorcism. I remained skeptical throughout my inquiries
because the victims were usually educated professionals in the nascent middle class
w i t h the ambition to develop a modern and progressive community.
The rich anthropological literature interprets the belief in jinn variously as an ar¬
rangement of cultural memory political strategy mental illness, 'folk' logic, or i n d i vidual subjectivity (see Boddy 1989; Bowen 1993; Crapanzano 1980; Siegel 2003;

Longina Jakubowska

Gregg 2005; Khan 2006). In this article, I explore the recent encounters of a bedouin
community w i t h jinn to show how the stories about their sudden appearance are
laced w i t h fear of the perceived disorder in communal and individual relationships.
As jinn are believed to thrive on conflict, chaos and uncontrolled emotions, their
emergence might be taken is an indicator of the state of the community at the m o ment. Modernization of the bedouin society brought a shift in norms and ambiguity
about rules and as such the town became a ripe environment for the jinn to prey on.
I suggest that the sudden invasion of the jinn can be attributed to the partial absorp¬
tion of the various discourses of modernity by the community at large as well as by
individuals w i t h i n it. M o d e r n i t y came in uneven bundles of components and al¬
though the bedouin culture uses many of these components creatively, some are
still misaligned w i t h the social structure to which they are applied. Furthermore, as
argued by Appadurai (1996), the repertoire of ideas, images, concepts, and narra¬
tives that move across groups and cultures in the global terrain do so in an unpre¬
dictable fashion. They are mediated by indigenous concepts and practices - in this
case the local concepts of health and well being - in the process of which the lines
between the rational and the imaginary are blurred.
The Bedouin of the Negev, a desert region in the northern Sinai, a pastoral
nomadic society dependent on herding sheep, goats, camels and organized along
the principles of a segmentary lineage system, became transformed into wage earn¬
ing urban dwellers in the course of the last half a century. The process of their
sedentarization was gradual and had already started in the times of the O t t o m a n
Empire but it dramatically accelerated in the period following the establishment of
the state of Israel in 1948. A t first, tent encampments gave way to corrugated iron
and wooden plank shantytowns and later to urban conglomerations of ugly cement
buildings. A l t h o u g h currently the majority of bedouin live in towns, shantytowns
d i d not completely disappear from the desert landscape. Conscious of the benefits
urban centers provide (electricity, schools and health clinics), many others settled
in vicinity encircling towns w i t h a ring of slums. The towns are located in desolate
corners of the desert far from Israeli population hubs to which they are connected
only by a single road. To those w h o do not expect them, they appear rather suddenly like a mirage amidst plastic bags - the scourge of the M i d d l e East - blown hither
and thither by the w i n d . As they are built in approximately the same period of time


I n t h e 1940s, some 75,000 Bedouin inhabited the N e g e v ( M a r x 1967). F o l l o w i n g the establish-

ment of Israel, most of t h e m became refugees i n t h e n e i g h b o r i n g Arab countries. T h e Israeli army
m o v e d most of the remaining 11,000 b e d o u i n t o a reservation the size of a f r a c t i o n of t h e i r former ter¬
ritory. T h e reservation was r u l e d b y a m i l i t a r y a d m i n i s t r a t i o n , w h i c h s t r i c t l y c o n t r o l l e d the move¬
ments of b e d o u i n b y a system of permits. E x p r o p r i a t i o n of land b y t h e State, t e r r i t o r i a l displacement,
and r e s t r i c t i o n on m o v e m e n t eradicated the nomadic and semi-nomadic economy as a result of w h i c h
most m e n u n d e r t o o k wage labor i n the e x p a n d i n g Israeli economy:


The Invasion of Jinn Spirits: Modernity and the Bedouin

(in the 1980s and 90s), there is little that distinguishes one from another. Houses
tend to be large enough to accommodate an extended family but their size is de¬
ceptive and does not necessarily indicate prosperity The size of families also tends
to be large so it is not uncommon to have a couple of dozen people living under the
same roof. W i t h the population of approximately 50,000 - about one-third of the
entire bedouin population in the Negev - Rahat is the largest of all the settlements.
It is a social mosaic of people of different origins and k i n groups, and predictably
a fertile site for communal unrest and conflict. A l o n g a practically complete eradi¬
cation of pastoral nomadism, the settled bedouin experienced a degree of social
disruption; urbanity and concomitant new economic configuration had repercus¬
sions for social structure. First, the emergent economic differentiation altered the
traditional system of stratification based upon kinship. Some fared better than others
and while a few descent groups, individual families, even individuals became pros¬
perous and rose in social status, most became trapped in the cycle of poverty, lack
of education and structural underemployment. A m o n g other factors, this new eco¬
nomic differentiation and stratification is responsible for the emergence of new poli¬
tical ideologies. The urban Bedouin, particularly those w h o made it into the middle
classes, are in search of a new definition of their identity. This search took them from
initial malaise, to a brief experimentation w i t h Palestinian nationalism and most recently to Islamic fundamentalism. Where social change undermined local customs,
the resulting vacuum opened the way for a more fundamentalist approach as a counterforce to modernization, westernization, emergent liberalism, but also cultural disintegration. N o t only is the Bedouin absorption of modernity fragmentary but so
too is the assimilation of Islamic ideology N o r is it a simple issue. The Bedouin do
not have an elaborate spiritual tradition. For a long time they were known among
their sedentary agricultural neighbors for their rather rudimental knowledge of
Islam and teased for lack of piety Being a M u s l i m increasingly implies a battlefield
for contesting and opposing discourses on authenticity tradition, and modernity In
the process of contestation surrounding 'authenticity' and 'tradition', certain Isla¬
mic symbols are actively chosen (or imposed) as crucial markers of cultural similar¬
ity w i t h the Islamic world and cultural difference w i t h others. Debates that emerged
around the issue of modernization and the meaning of modernity occur in a highly
charged political context of conflicting Palestinian and Israeli nationalisms. Many
reject westernization and the homogenizing processes inherent in globalization yet
they are not positioned outside the structures they so vehemently criticize: they
hold government jobs, study at universities, or benefit from state assistance. M o d e r n ity is thought possible on the one hand through skills and scientific knowledge, and
devout religious practice on the other, b o t h of which imply a break w i t h past tradi¬
tions. Islam also represents a way of overcoming what the Bedouin label as backward


In 2009 Rahat became t h e second largest A r a b t o w n i n Israel.


Longina Jakubowska

and traditional features of their society while the Islamization of daily life entails the
de-beduinization of culture. Bedouin practices, which do not fall squarely in the generic Islamic tradition or contradict it, are discouraged, and the local cultural tradition has gradually been brought into accord w i t h scriptural teaching and Islamisized.
This process is visible in the performance of ritual, daily dress (the substitution of the
colorfully embroidered thob dress for a plain jilbab), disapproval of the vener-ation of
holy men and pilgrimages to the shrines of saints, the denunciation of the use of talismans, etc. N o t only Bedouin material culture but also previous efforts to imitate
Israeli architecture have been obscured by a more 'Arabic' style borrowed from the
Gulf countries - ornamental Quranic inscriptions, pictures of Hassan al-Banna ,
decorative sculptures of coffee jugs placed over entrances, and spiraling towerlets.
These new artifacts are evident manifestations of the influence of the media broadcasted from the Arab states, pilgrimages to Mecca, and visits to Gaza, the West
Bank or Jordan. The new middle class is educated, bilingual, technologically sophisticated and integrated into the Israeli labor market. A l t h o u g h education is not its
only formative factor, it has guaranteed a leap in economic and social advancement.
This is w h y the retreat into what is called a "traditional" belief system as an explan¬
ation for social ailments is puzzling.

In what follows, I provide a short account of jinn from the perspective of Islamic
tradition and its local Bedouin interpretation. The jinn have a rank and status in the
Islamic universe. The most important textual verification of jinn is found in the
Quran in Sura 72, titled Al-Jinn, as well as in prophetic tradition (hadith). The jinn
are believed to be creatures made by G o d out of smokeless fire at the beginning of
time much in the same way humans were made of clay and angels of light. Like
humans, they form communities in the confines of which they conduct their lives:
they eat, sleep, marry produce children w h o then go to schools, follow careers, and
die. In contrast to humans, jinn are capable of form changing, fast movement, great
acts of strength, and long lives. Some are said to be as old as 1000 years. They k n o w
no limitations to time or space and can easily move between historical epochs and
places. Like humans, they possess free will and are capable of making moral choices;
they are drawn to b o t h good and evil and are endowed w i t h emotions and rational
faculties. As w i t h the human world, the w o r d of Islam was sent to jinn through the
Prophet Muhammad; in other words, jinn preexist Islam. Logically then, they follow
different religions; some accepted Islam while others remained faithful to Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity or any other of the multitude of religious be4

' Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) was an E g y p t i a n social and p o l i t i c a l reformer and t h e founder of
M u s l i m B r o t h e r h o o d , one of t h e largest and most influential 2 0 t h c e n t u r y M u s l i m revivalist organizations.

T h e jinn d o n o t exhaust the w o r l d of spirits in Islamic belief. There are also 'afrit, maridin, and the

most f r i g h t e n i n g of all, the ghul.


The Invasion of Jinn Spirits: Modernity and the Bedouin

liefs. They also have names, gender and distinct personalities. Muslims believe that
the jinn and humans share the earthly world but lead largely separate lives. W h i l e the
jinn are invisible to the human eye (their name derives from the w o r d ijtinan, which
means "to be concealed from sight"), they can observe the existence of humans. O n
occasion, however, the t w o cross paths whereby the jinn enter the spaces inhabited
by humans and often assume surreal forms, commonly appearing as a black dog in
the least frightening version and as a two-legged donkey w i t h horns in its extreme
version. One should never throw a stone at a black dog lest it might be a jinni in disguise w h o would inevitably seek revenge. In other local traditions, the jinn inhabit
dark and deserted places, caves, and graveyards (Padwick 1924; Gregg 2005; Boddy
1989). The Bedouin believe that the creatures have a liking for all things d i r t y and
smelly but water in particular; stale stinky water serves as a conduit between the
world of humans and that of the jinn. They cherish darkness, which makes dusk and
night dangerous times for humans. One has to be mindful about pouring out a bucket of water, or for that matter sweeping the yard at night, lest by mistake it splashes
at a jinn lurking in the vicinity. The greatest danger from such disturbance of the jinn
is that they may in revenge possess the disturber. To avoid misfortune, one is
advised to utter the phrase 'bismillah ' ( i n the name of G o d ) while engaging in any
activity that involves d i r t y water, particularly when in contact w i t h a human body,
such as taking a bath (hamam), entering a latrine or a toilet. In Bedouin oral trad¬
ition, jinn are never benevolent, always devious and humans are in perpetual danger
as jinn can take possession of their body at a w h i m . Jinn do not inspire but seduce to
destruction; they 'possess' to destroy and not to make things possible.



Jinn possession can cause a person to have seizures and to speak in incom¬
prehensible tongues. The possessed are unable to think or speak of their own will.
Numbness of limbs, a rash on the arms and legs, pulsating veins, stomach or back
pain, persistent headache, and nausea can all be signs of possession but so can
nightmares, lethargy, or aggressiveness. Jinn are also blamed for women's infertility
or reproductive difficulties. N o t all types of disease and illness are attributed to jinn
possession. In fact, the Bedouin are not necessarily given to magical thinking and
prefer scientific explanations w i t h regard to any abnormal condition. Generally they
seek modern treatment by consulting a medical doctor and follow the course of
treatment prescribed by h i m . However, if the symptoms do not ease as expected


T h e most infamous is a jinniya (female jinn), k n o w n i n N o r t h A f r i c a as Aisha Qandisha w h o t y p -

ically appears t o men as an irresistible and ravishing w o m a n . Failing t o notice her camel's (or goat's)
feet, t h e y fall under her charm and soon discover themselves t o be i m p o t e n t w i t h any o t h e r w o m a n ,
i n c l u d i n g t h e i r wife, w i t h o u t Aysha's consent (Crapanzano 1980).

N o t unlike i n C h r i s t i a n t r a d i t i o n (see C h r i s t i a n 1996), children i n particular are e n d o w e d w i t h

a g i f t of being able t o see the jinn; if one turns around and sees an unusual f o r m and t h e n one turns
around again seeing it gone, it probably was a jinn.

Precautions are w o v e n i n t o d a i l y customs and etiquettes.


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but recur or magnify and an abnormal state of body and mind continues, there is
then reason to suspect interference of the spirits. Importantly, although the jinn
seem to act in a whimsical and arbitrary fashion, not all people are equally susceptible
to possession. The human body serves only as a receptacle for the spirits and indi¬
viduals have a degree of control/agency over the access they grant. True, a person
might be at the wrong place at the wrong time and unwillingly provides an opport¬
unity for the jinni to enter his body; nonetheless it is his inner state that makes him
a potential v i c t i m . Bodies are vulnerable when they are in a state of discord and
disharmony. Thus, in a fashion, an unbalanced person facilitates the descent of the
spirits and consequently makes h i m - through actions or emotions - an agent of his
own possession. So what was it that caused Mariam's possession?

T h e case of Mariam, the merry working woman
According to community standards, Mariam married rather late. A t the age of 26,
she willingly became the second wife of her maternal cousin A h m a d . Like a number of educated girls - she is a graduate of a Teachers College - she married a man
whose education came to an end after only four years at school. She married happily
and at the ceremony I attended radiated satisfaction and delight. The couple set¬
tled in a downstairs apartment of Ahmad's house while his first wife occupied the
upper floor w i t h the children she had borne h i m . Ahmad's wives kept separate
households but cooperated when necessary and in the eyes of the community
formed a peaceful union. A t the end of her first year of marriage, Mariam gave b i r t h
to Mahmud about the same time that Muhammad was b o r n to the first wife. The
passing years cast some doubt at this apparent marital bliss as the first wife became
thinner and left the house less often. Three births later Mariam was still cheerful
and happily kept me informed about the ins and outs of life in a polygamous family.
If someone was to be possessed by a jinni I would have expected it to be the first
wife since they are often known to suffer upon their husband's second marriage and
therefore I was surprised to hear of Mariam's malady.

The jinni might have gone undetected had she not gone on the pilgrimage to
Mecca. Indeed, she had delayed the hajj for a long time - allegedly under the influ¬
ence of the jinni - giving such excuses as having to take care of her small children,
lack of money or some other problem. Unfortunately the pilgrimage only worsened
her state. The jinni is said to have left her at the entrance to Kaaba, the most holy
site in Islam, as he had to since jinn cannot bear sacred spaces. Inevitably, he caught
up w i t h her later but the experience of the pilgrimage left him unsettled, confused,
and aggravated. Consequently, Mariam's behavior deteriorated. She began using
'ugly' words that sow unrest - words that were accusatory of others conducting
unseemly deeds, repeatedly expressed desire to die, was often listless as if w i t h o u t

For the rising rates of polygamous marriages, see Jakubowska (2005).


The Invasion of Jinn Spirits: Modernity and the Bedouin

a will of her own and when she came to herself, behaved w i t h o u t the composure
required of women, and finally, spoke in a bizarre tongue that could not be under¬
stood. As her fitful state continued and w o r d of Mariam's o d d behavior began to
spread, her husband sought family counsel. The family advised h i m to call upon the
help of sheikh Aodeh, the exorcist.
Mariam, as I knew her, was always a person w h o explored the furthermost limits
of social behavior. She had a lively but loud personality and was often outspoken
about people and relations in the community. She also had a wide network of female
relatives as well as friends w h o m she had met at school and at the college. H e r job
made her commute to the other end of town and Mariam usually took her time
coming home by making visiting rounds and drinking endless cups of tea on the
way She d i d not need to hurry back home as her children were cared for by her cowife and her husband, who was employed in construction, returned home late. Mariam
did not keep an ideal house. People thought that her children were not properly
looked after and many wondered on what she was spending the money she earned.
Her wide social circle provided information on the latest social events in the com¬
munity. She always knew about the most recent developments in marriage proposals,
amounts of bride-price paid in marriage, the latest fashion, deaths and illnesses.
This information is indeed valuable but needs to be cherished, treated w i t h discret¬
ion, and used wisely. Mariam had difficulties w i t h this; she was a gossip. She talked
too much in a society where reputation is sometimes the only possession and breach
of trust can have dire consequences.
The experience of jinn possession made Mariam a changed person. It also changed
the relations in her polygamous family She became mindful of her children, started
to spend more time at home and developed a better working relationship w i t h her
co-wife w h o cheered up considerably But she remained fearful. Even after the treatment was successfully completed she was afraid of being alone at home and took to
reading the Quran frequently W i t h her newly found conscientiousness she instant¬
ly recognized the symptoms of possession in her sister-in-law.

T h e case of Sabiha and her mood swings
Perhaps for Muhammad, Mariam's brother, the jinn are more real than for others be¬
cause they have brought misery into his house and his family, the family he had de¬
sired more than anything else and had fought long and hard for. It was not easy to
marry Sabiha, the girl of his dreams. They were b o r n to related lineages and grew up
in houses w i t h i n sight of one another. Usually such a close relationship is an asset
when considerating marriage because kinship and physical proximity are believed
to promote solidarity, but not in this case. His brothers advised against the mar¬
riage. They had n o t h i n g against the girl but were generally not fond of women in
that family One must take a look at the behavior of the mother to k n o w how the
daughter will turn out, they said. H e fought w i t h his brothers about marrying

Longina Jakubowska

Sabiha and fended off doubts on the part of her family that was equally skeptical
about the wisdom of his marriage proposal. Muhammad was at that time a meager
construction worker and they had hoped for a better marriage prospect for their
daughter w h o was a university student. Sabiha was flattered b y the dedication w i t h
which Muhammad pursued her but rather non-committal as is proper for a well-rais¬
ed girl. Finally, he won and married the girl he loved but this was not t o be a match
made in heaven. Soon afterwards he became alarmed b y the noticeable difference
in her behavior; from a nice girl w h o gladly helped out in the parental household
she was changed into an unpleasant woman w h o neglected her duties. She was rigid
in bed if she shared it w i t h h i m at all, and was suspected of mistreating their young
daughter. There was also the puzzling difference between the way she spoke w i t h
him on the phone w i t h sweetness and concern and the way she acted while at home
where n o t h i n g pleased her. W h e n at home she looked for an excuse t o fight and was
inconsistent w i t h her demands, for example, she insisted on them taking a vacation
together, but once they had done so, she refused t o leave the hotel even for a meal.
Sabiha cannot explain her own behavior either but something makes her act this
way the minute she gets close t o home. For a while i t was thought that her mood
swings resulted from the pressure of combining her studies at the university w i t h
domestic life but the summer vacation brought no relief. Even then she used any ex¬
cuse to be away from home, leaving the child under the care of her mother-in-law.
W h e n she d i d stay at home she wore a rather sour face.
Muhammad was desperate. H e considered himself to be a caring husband and
a devoted father. There was little he could d o but divorce Sabiha or beat her as her
brothers advised him t o do. H e could also send her back t o her father, which he
would rather have avoided since he deeply respected his father-in-law but he would
have t o unless the sheikh could chase the jinni away. This would not be the first case
of jinn possession in his wife's family T h e b o d y of Sabiha's sister was also invaded by
a jinni whose presence manifested itself by a persistent rash on her hands that would
not go away after medical treatment. Muhammad recalls how her body instantly
reacted t o the very presence of the sheikh. First she began t o shake and then went
rigid but his intervention helped. Encouraged by this experience, Muhammad
fetched the sheikh. Sabiha was asleep at the time and d i d not wake up throughout
his administrations, wondering later where the bruises on her body had come from.
Her state of mind improved and she felt happier after the treatment; unfortunately
for her and Muhammad the effects only lasted about a week-and-a-half, after which
she lapsed into her former state.
Is this simply a case of unrequited love? The case of a smart girl w i t h ambitions
who married a good hearted but not well educated man w i t h w h o m she could not
find fulfillment? T h e discourse of love as the driving force behind marriage came t o
the Bedouin society as part and parcel of modernization. Marriage used to be regulated b y family politics. A successful match determined access t o pastures, formed

The Invasion of Jinn Spirits: Modernity and the Bedouin

political alliances, and extended or cemented relations w i t h i n lineage and outside of
it. Romantic love, although celebrated in poetry and songs, had little to do w i t h it.
As the society individualized and greater pressure was put on fission than on fusion,
the notion of romantic love as a prerequisite for marriage gained strength along w i t h
the notion of marital compatibility. To the distress of b o t h Muhammad and Sabiha,
b o t h discourses are only partially and unequally absorbed.
The cases of Mariam and Sabiha should not make the impression that only women,
or in particular obstinate young women w h o attempt to shed social conventions,
are in danger of jinn possession. Women indeed constitute the majority of victims
for a good reason; they occupy a vulnerable position in a patrilineal society and in
turn make men vulnerable. T h r o u g h marriage, they provide links between k i n
groups that are essential to the formation of networks of mutual assistance. This is
the source of their personal empowerment, but also structural weakness. Patriarchal
ideology demands from a woman unequivocal dedication to the family of her hus¬
band while emotive attachments oftentimes pull her towards her family of origin.
The social bonds they forge are fragile and broken women are caught in the web of
conflicting interests and divided loyalties while their intermediary position makes
them distrusted by either side. Women's structural liminality is exacerbated among
the middle class w i t h its newly acquired model of the individuated nuclear family
and the desire for privacy. Unfortunately, this model is awkwardly positioned in a
system that makes women ultimately dependent on their male relatives, foremost
their fathers and brothers, in the case of divorce, abandonment, or widowhood. Fur¬
thermore, as noted in anthropological literature ( L e w a n d o - H u n d t 1984), Bedouin
women are prone to express distress and unhappiness through illness, as illness is
a socially legitimate reason to seek and receive attention from others, most notably
male family members.
It is also clear that the development of women's education and employment is
shifting expectations w i t h regard to gender roles and the propriety of women's
behavior. In her study of magic practices in Morocco, Kapchan (1996 : 236) states
i n d i s c u s s i n g magical practices, w o m e n are e x p l o r i n g t h e f u r t h e r m o s t l i m i t s of social
behavior, v i c a r i o u s l y e n t e r i n g i n t o p o s s i b i l i t i e s o f f e r e d b y acts of transgression. T a l k
of m a g i c stretches t h e l i m i t s of m o r a l license b y e x e r c i s i n g m a x i m a l l i b e r t y i n v e r b a l

I suggest that spirit possession among the urban Bedouin performs the same
function. It allows women to act according to a different code while dispensing
responsibility for d o i n g so. This is, however, not to say that women are the only vic¬
tims as the family saga of spirit possession continues.


Longina Jakubowska

T h e case of Najwa's misbehaving husband
Najwa married well, a handsome lawyer from a prestigious but traditional Bedouin
family. They led a somewhat itinerant life. Yusef worked in a law firm in the city of
Beer Sheva and Najwa taught elementary school in Rahat. Life in the city d i d not
suit either of them and she felt uncomfortable staying w i t h her in-laws, a polyga¬
mous " o l d fashioned" family so eventually they compromised by renting a house in
Najwa's old neighborhood. It took a while before Najwa became pregnant w i t h
their first child and then a difficult pregnancy was followed by the premature b i r t h
of a baby girl w h o spent the first months of her life in an incubator. A l t h o u g h
Najwa's next pregnancy was welcomed, it was followed by a sudden change of be¬
havior in her husband. Yusef avoided her presence, hardly ever spoke to her, refused
to share a bed w i t h her, and worst of all began drinking alcohol. Najwa was very
concerned. She knew from similar cases that her domestic situation was likely to
deteriorate and might end in divorce and that the life of a divorced woman was
grim. She approached her brothers w h o appealed to Yusef's conscience, sense of
responsibility and Islamic morality Yusef stubbornly refused to listen to anyone and
made no attempt at changing his behavior. A t her wits end, Najwa sought the counsel
of sheikh Aodeh. As expected, the sheikh detected the presence of a jinni, or rather
a female jinniya w h o had fallen in love w i t h Yusef and had possessed his body It was
not easy to expel her for she liked Yusef and refused to leave h i m . The sheikh
argued that Yusef was a married man and that his wife was concerned. "She should
not be", answered the jinniya, there is enough r o o m for four women in Yusef, allud¬
ing to the Bedouin practice of polygamy It was only when the jinniya started using
vulgar and sexually suggestive words, some of them in English, 'fuck you' for instan¬
ce, that sheikh Aodeh lost his patience. First, he clutched Yusef's throat and made
the jinniya speak in Arabic. She stopped resisting and left Yusef's body peacefully
after which Yusef returned to his former good-natured self.
Anxiety about impending fatherhood, especially after the distressing experience
of the b i r t h of the previous child is interwoven here w i t h sexual temptations and
Islamic justifications for male promiscuity. The reference to foreign women is not
arbitrary because the town has a growing number of legally sanctioned marriages
and even a greater number of clandestine relations w i t h non-Arab women. The rapid
influx of Russian Jews in the wave of immigration to Israel that took place in the
1990s found its way also into Rahat. Some Russian women - one can speculate that
those w h o found themselves on the margins of the Israeli society - entered into
polygynous marriages but by no means are they the only foreigners w h o marry
Bedouin. O t h e r European women, including N G O employees and volunteers for
example, as well as wives brought from the countries where young men had studied
or worked have become part of the community. These women are assigned a greater
sexual drive and freedom which are believed to threaten the established sexual
mores in the community. Their presence also introduces an element of potential

The Invasion of Jinn Spirits: Modernity and the Bedouin

competition w i t h indigenous women, to which the jinniya inhabiting Yusef's body

Exorcising jinn
Sheikh Aodeh is not afraid of jinn. His power comes from personal charisma and the
knowledge of the Quran, which he knows by heart and of which jinn are aware. H e
is interested in whether the jinn are killed as the result of his administrations. H e fol¬
lowed special training in exorcism and has recently opened a practice in a nearby
mosque, a practice that is solely dedicated to exorcism. His is not the only practice
in the area but it is a very successful one. Sheikh A o d e h receives as many patients as
he can accommodate in his schedule - 4 or 5 a day Those he cannot treat immedi¬
ately are either put on a waiting list or referred to other sheikhs. Sheikhs vary in
their reputation and specialization and command different degrees of authority
over the spirits. M i n o r cases of affliction can be treated by sheikhs w i t h less expe¬
rience while more serious ones demand the attention of a powerful healer. Sheikh
Aodeh enjoys great respect among humans and jinn alike and some patients choose
to wait their turn. In fact, the practice is run like a modern psychotherapy clinic.
Appointments are made ahead of time, patients arrive in a small waiting hall to be
admitted to the treatment room at the scheduled time, and after completing the
therapy exit through a different door, all of which assures confidentiality and privacy
The sheikh is proud of the modern way in which he manages the clinic. His clientele
consists of members of the emergent middle class and his patients are teachers, ac¬
countants, and businessmen. H e understands their concern for discretion as jinn
possession is an indication of mental dysfunction and thus should be hidden from
the public eye. If disclosed, it might affect their personal reputation and honor.
Once the domain of kin groups, honor in the middle class has been transformed
into a personal rather then collective property. The privatization of reputation,
along that of material possessions and space, compels to secrecy and withdrawal
behind high fences and closed gates.
O n the occasion of exorcising Mariam's jinni, Sheikh A o d e h started the exami¬
nation by placing his right hand on the patient's head and reciting the Quran. This
procedure can assert the jinni's kind, strength and resolve. As mentioned before, jinn
are endowed w i t h different personalities and are differently embedded in a patient's
body Each requires different treatment. The sheikh usually puts headphones on the
victim's ears and plays Quranic recitations for anywhere between 15 to 60 minutes
after which the afflictions usually go away If this fails, he increases the volume and
the duration of treatment (up to 3 hours at full volume). This weakens the jinni w h o
starts to shake, opens and closes his eyes, and eventually begins to talk for jinn are
compelled to speak as the result of having listened to the Quran. The sheikh asks
him w h o he is, what his name is, and who sent him. However, it is thought useless
to engage in a long conversation w i t h the jinni and the sheikh makes haste. It helps

Longina Jakubowska

to convert the jinni to Islam because it is then easier to expel him/her from the victim's body If the jinni still refuses to leave, a more drastic approach is necessary The
sheikh strikesthe legs, arms and hands of the v i c t i m w i t h his own hand, a plastic
tube, a sandal - the latter hurts the dignity of the jinni and he usually gets resentful
of such treatment. In the most difficult cases he might apply electric shocks. Sheikh
Aodeh emphasized that the v i c t i m is not conscious of what is happening and does
not experience pain. The jinn are known to be physically strong and sometimes it
takes a couple of people to pin the victim's body to the ground.
In Mariam's case the sheikh d i d not go beyond Quranic recitations. Sensing the
strength of the jinni that possessed her, he referred her to a more powerful healer in
the West Bank. The jinni caught w i n d of it and - since jinn k n o w the skills of their
adversaries well - became afraid. H e started speaking as soon as the four of us
(Mariam, her husband Ahmad, her brother Muhammad and me) started driving her
to the appointment. Mariam's body went limp and while words came out of her mouth
she was not conscious of what she said. The jinni moaned in an o d d voice that was
thickened w i t h fear, dreading the encounter w i t h an exorcist and his own inevitable
disappearance in t w o hours, which is the time it took to get from Rahat to our desti¬
nation. H e knew every person in the car, private details of interpersonal relations
(such as the nickname Muhammad uses to address his sister), and the road we took.
Questioned about his identity, he admitted to be a 200 year-old Jew by the name of
Tzvi. As jinn are known to lie, Muhammad asked questions. W h o owned the land we
were passing through at the moment? A f t e r a minute of concentration, during
which Tzvi tried to remember, he answered that it belonged to A b u Zbal (a ficti¬
tious name, such as Jones). Muhammad retorted, ' i t belongs to the Jewish state
now'. 'The state is (here a disparaging adjective)', he answered, which brought
doubts about his identity, as no Jew would say such a t h i n g about Israel. As Tzvi, if
that was really his name, was getting increasingly worried about his imminent de¬
mise he became more aggravated but nonetheless stayed sharp in the ability to ob¬
serve his surroundings. H e detected Muhammad's efforts to record the conversation
on a mobile phone, a phone that was hidden from his sight, which made h i m curse
and threaten to suffocate Mariam. The atmosphere in the car was tense and we all
yearned for the journey to end.
Indeed, not all practices are like that of Sheikh Aodeh. U p o n arrival in front of
a rather ordinary house in a crowded Palestinian village we were immediately led to
the sheikh. We not only had an appointment but we also came from far away and
because of it were given special consideration. The yard was teeming w i t h people patients and their relatives and guardians - who, chatting and commiserating, sat in
groups prepared for a long wait. Tzvi went quiet and we almost carried Mariam into
the house. Ushered into a plain room, we placed her on the only chair that stood in
the middle. Just like Aodeh, the sheikh began the session by engaging in a conver¬
sation w i t h the jinni, the details of which I no longer recall being confused by what

The Invasion of Jinn Spirits: Modernity and the Bedouin

followed. H e r body began shaking, fell of the chair in convulsions, and the men had
to pin it to the floor. Once she was immobilized, the sheikh pressed two sticks on
Mariam's throat - one in front and one in the back, long enough for the jinni to aban¬
don her body but short of strangling her. A f t e r the pressure on her throat was re¬
leased she v o m i t e d profusely and was t o l d to rest, forget about her experience if she
could, remain silent about it if she couldn't and read the Quran as often as possible.
W h e n the session ended Mariam looked tired but in control of her b o d y and mind.
We discretely left a monetary donation and received further instructions. If the
treatment d i d not accomplish the desired effect, the v i c t i m must read the Quran for
40 days and apply olive o i l to the ailing parts of the body, all of which should make
the jinni shrink. Alternatively, the v i c t i m must wash her hands, sometimes even her
entire body in water mixed w i t h olive oil over which Quranic phrases had been
read, or drink the miraculous water from the well of Zamzam. If the jinni still refuses
to leave, the treatment must be repeated from the beginning.

I am not sure whether the jinni that possessed Mariam is gone forever or whether
she can be harmed again. She believes that he might be around, invisible but present.
The sheikh who diagnosed the spirit's presence in her body was able to determine
that he came from beneath the floor of her bathroom and advised her to destroy it
completely and throw the rubbish away. This she d i d .
If there is a debate among Islamic clerics regarding the humanitarianism of the
methods of treatment applied, it is not noticed in the town. Both victims of posses¬
sion and the witnesses to it insist that the treatment is painless. Methods recom¬
mended by Islamic scholars (Aziz 2001) to exorcise spirits are more gentle: recalling
G o d and the frequent recitation of the Quran (dhikr), blowing into the victim's
mouth, cursing the jinn and commanding h i m to leave.

T h e trouble with jinn
W h y all the trouble w i t h jinn? The actions of jinn spirits are invoked to explain a va¬
riety of unusual feelings and behaviors, unexplained ailments, emotional conflicts or
disturbed interpersonal relationships. A n y discourse of disharmony is accompanied by
the appearance of stories of jinn possession. W i t h a great deal of sociological
insight, the Bedouin ascribe the rise of jinn to the problematic relations developing
in their community. Perhaps this is the consequence of thoughtless mimicry of the
West, unselective modernity, and disjunctures between the environment, economy,
culture, and politics in the context of Arab-Jewish relationships. There are anecdotal
cases of what I term political jinni, or jinnjehudi, the Jewish jinn who are known for
their viciousness and unrelenting hostility towards host bodies. Jinnjehudi are also
difficult to exorcise since they refuse to convert to Islam, some say because they find

T h e w e l l of Z a m z a m is located i n t h e al-Haram mosque in M e c c a . A c c o r d i n g t o Islamic belief, it

contains a miraculously generated and miracle-making water.


Longina Jakubowska

it a too difficult and cumbersome religion to practice. The character ascribed to
them reflects the perception held by the Bedouin about the larger framework in
which they exist, the framework that disembedded them, to use Giddens' term
(1990), from an autonomous political self-regulatory system, economic resources,
and cultural selfhood. Yet they are not passive recipients of i m p o r t e d ideas and discourses. Like other local communities (Tsing 2000), the Bedouin also draw from the
plurality of cultural centers. Interacting w i t h various metropolis (Arab, Israeli, Euro¬
pean), they adopt certain forms and cultural perspectives into personal repertoires
internalizing the values allegedly contained in them and indigenizing them one way
or another.

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The Invasion of Jinn Spirits: Modernity and the Bedouin

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jakubowska, Longina, “The Invasion of "Jinn" Spirits/ Antropolog wobec współczesności,” Cyfrowa Etnografia, Dostęp 4 grudnia 2022,

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