The Beguiling Ghoul
Naseeb was eight years old when his father was executed for treason, a charge leveled against him by one of Bayt Tahweel’s most prominent councilmen, Amir al-Sayf. He was angry that Naseeb’s father refused to provide him with a larger share of the family’s crops even though he was able to produce much greater quantities because of his planting techniques. So, Al-Sayf went to the council of patriarchs that governed the tiny Palestinian village and claimed that Naseeb’s father had colluded with evil jinn to produce more food to make greater profits, which would be used to raise an army to depose Bayt Tahweel’s council.
Ever since then Naseeb was determined to make the council suffer a fate as bad or worse than what they claimed his father was plotting. The surrounding areas were mostly kingdoms, and Naseeb believed that Bayt Tahweel should be ruled by a single man rather than a quarreling pack of petty patriarchs who created or enforced rules on the fly for their subjects to follow.
He knew even as a child that his ambition would be ridiculed because he was a treasonous peasant’s son, but all the tales his mother and grandmother told him about the underclass taking down the evil overlords kept the desire alive in his mind and heart. In his early teens he began traveling to nearby towns and villages to sell or trade crops, and one day a farmer told him that in the nearby kingdom Ighra’ the queen loved the oranges Naseeb brought from Bayt Tahweel so much that the king wanted Naseeb’s entire supply brought to him.
Naseeb felt fear rumble in his stomach, fear that the king would pay him only a pittance or not at all, the same way that Al-Sayf handled his father. Naseeb considered running away and never returning to Ighra’, but the farmer assured him that his king was fair.
Naseeb was still suspicious but rode his donkey alongside the farmer’s to reach the king’s castle, which was bright white and gold and glowed in the sun. A guard escorted them to the front entrance and immediately the castle transformed into a small house with two decrepit floors, the same as any peasant’s home. Naseeb gaped. “Where have you taken me?”
A man appeared from a corner and squeezed Naseeb’s shoulder with his bony fingers. Naseeb believed the farmer had disappeared, but the man in front of him explained, “I am Jameel. I first came to you disguised as a farmer, and I learned of your desire to take down the Bayt Tahweeli council and create a throne for yourself.”
Naseeb’s face grew warm at hearing his private desires being spoken from another’s mouth. “I never knew a jinni could read human minds,” Naseeb said.
“It was not your mind I read but your manners and your eyes. From the first day I saw you I was sure that you were not the type to accept a cruel fate without getting revenge on your enemies.”
“It’s not retribution but justice!”
The jinni chuckled. “If you want to see it that way, it’s fine. Anyway, I would like to make you king of Bayt Tahweel.”
“And what will that cost me?” Naseeb was sure that it would be more than he could afford.
“Much less than those oranges you were prepared to sell me.” The jinni claimed to only want to live in Bayt Tahweel undisturbed. Though Naseeb was naïve, he knew that jinn, being made of fire, could make themselves invisible at will, so he was certain that Jameel must want more than what he was revealing.
But Naseeb wanted what the jinni was offering so desperately that he would be willing to pay almost any price for the jinni’s services.
His nerves were still so jumbled that Naseeb’s mother noticed his fingers trembling as he smoked a cigarette after dinner. “Something happened in your travels today, habibi,” she said. “Tell me what is wrong.”
“I drank too much coffee with the other farmers,” he replied.
She questioned him no further, though she did not appear to believe him. And he did stay up all night as if he drank several cups of the strongest coffee, contemplating what he would do now that his wish would be realized. He imagined subduing Al-Sayf, forcing him and the other patriarchs on the council to work the fields. They would live in a castle as grand as the one he believed he entered when he met the jinni except the inside would match the outside, and every member of his family would have their own feather bed where servants would bring them breakfast every morning. And meat would be a part of every dinner.
He should have felt joy, and there was a bit, but it was mixed with so much anxiety that he could only identify his feeling as unease, which he attributed to cowardice.
He returned to Ighra’ the next morning and made a deal with Jameel. Overnight Bayt Tahweel transformed, the council members becoming peasants to ease the workload of the other peasants and provide them with more food and materials; the former council members’ houses now had to be split with another peasant family, and that family would be served by the women and children of the former council members.
But Amir Al-Sayf had to leave his family behind and live in the tiniest room in the newly constructed palace, serving as Naseeb’s manservant during the day but spending his evenings cleaning chamber pots and whatever menial chore Naseeb could think of. Naseeb took great delight—much more than he expected—in seeing Al-Sayf cringe or sneer or cry at the demeaning tasks. He only wished that his father could be here to see it.
Naseeb’s expectations for Jameel did not quite meet the reality of having a jinni live so openly in a village. Though Naseeb thought Jameel would be somewhat strange, he was surprised that many of the women and girls and some of the men and boys could not take their eyes off him as he floated through orchards and fields and stopped by people’s houses for coffee or a meal. Naseeb’s friends and advisors reported that women and girls would giggle as they sneaked glances in the fields or drinking coffee with their male relatives; a few men Jameel spoke to became flushed and speechless when Jameel fixed his glowing honey eyes on them. Naseeb had even caught his sisters and mother staring at him too long whenever he paid a visit to the castle. And, while he would never admit this to anyone, he noticed that Jameel was indeed a handsome being, one whose attractiveness had grown exponentially since he arrived in Bayt Tahweel.
“Many men think that Jameel’s beauty will corrupt the women of Bayt Tahweel,” one friend told Naseeb. “And enthrall some of Bayt Tahweel’s men in an unnatural way.”
Naseeb laughed and sucked his teeth at first, believing that once the novelty of the handsome jinni wore off, he would blend in with the rest of the Bayt Tahweelis.
But he received many complaints from fathers and husbands who wanted Jameel out of the kingdom because they feared their daughters would not marry the men they chose for them and that their wives would be unfaithful. If Jameel did marry or have carnal relations with any of the women, not only would the woman’s family be disgraced but so would all of Bayt Tahweel as it would become a bastion of jinn with Jameel’s offspring roaming about the village.
The first few complaints Naseeb brushed off by telling the men that these were family matters, and he thought, but would not say, that they were too craven to control their women. However, as the complaints became more frequent, Naseeb summoned Jameel to the palace, and, after shooing away his sisters and female servants who hid in every corner of the throne room, Naseeb told Jameel not to travel around Bayt Tahweel so often as it disrupted the village’s work.
“How am I disturbing anyone?” Jameel asked with a smirk.
Naseeb’s cheeks reddened, and he swallowed hard as he thought the words he did not want to say. “Everyone is fascinated by the jinni in town, of course. I’m sure you have experienced this before.”
“Indeed.” Jameel looked into Naseeb’s eyes with unconcealed pride. “They have remarked on my beauty, have they not?”
Naseeb rolled his eyes and shook his head. “I don’t know how it is for the jinn, but vanity is unbecoming in human men, so please do not show yourself around so much for the sake of peace and stability.”
“But I gave you control of Bayt Tahweel so that I could live here freely, meaning no impediments from foolish kings and prudish patriarchs.”
Naseeb did not know how to argue as he remembered agreeing to this condition, so he pleaded with him instead. “Can you please just stay out of sight for a few days while I figure out how to handle the problem?”
The jinni’s eyes flashed a strange auburn color. “I gave you a kingdom in a day for almost nothing and yet you still ask for more favors. ‘Ayb! ‘Ayb, ya khanzeer! You greedy pig!”
And Jameel disappeared, leaving Naseeb with a heart beating so hard that it echoed in his ears.
But it was Jameel who began acting ‘ayb when he lured the first girl, the daughter of one of the former council members, to his house and married her. Some questioned how the two could be legitimately married because it was unbelievable that Bayt Tahweel’s imam—or any imam—would marry a human and a jinni and speculated that the girl’s father lied about the marriage to reduce the family shame. Not long after a few other women ran off to “marry” or at least live with Jameel, and once he had more than four “wives,” all of Bayt Tahweel knew for sure that all of these could not be legal marriages. There was great fear expressed in gatherings throughout the village that they would soon be overrun with loose women giving birth to illegitimate half jinni children and pressure put on the fathers or other male relatives to take the women back from Jameel before he impregnated them.
Many people complained to Naseeb that it was his duty to expel Jameel because even as they voiced their distaste for the women lured to Jameel’s house, they feared that someone in their family might give in to temptation as well.
Naseeb gave assurances that he would handle Jameel, but he had no feasible plan. As king he expected to deal with finances and wars that would bring him glory; instead, he had this enigmatic being, who Naseeb’s mother insisted was a ghoul, not a regular jinni, because of his captivating manner and appearance, seducing the village into its own destruction.
Jameel would not answer any of Naseeb’s summons anymore, so Naseeb went to Jameel’s house and found that it was now surrounded by trenches. “Only those who are welcome can enter my home,” Jameel’s disembodied voice shouted at Naseeb and the guards he brought with him.
“I have come to announce that you are hereby exiled as a public nuisance,” Naseeb said in the most formal and emotionless tone he could muster. “Your sinful ways have offended the entirety of Bayt Tahweel, and you are intent on making this village suffer a fate as miserable as Sodom and Gomorrah.”
“I have invited no men into this house,” Jameel said, “though many have come.”
“But you have dishonored several families by taking their women without permission.”
“These women came of their own volition.”
“You know well that a woman’s father or brother must also give his permission.”
Jameel’s laughter boomed so loud that the ground beneath Naseeb and his men shook.
Naseeb ordered his guards to dive in the trenches and climb their way out to the other side to force Jameel from his home, but an invisible force blocked their entry. “I gave you Bayt Tahweel, and you will lose it if I ever leave. You wanted me to break the rules that kept a peasant like you down from taking power, but kept everything else the same regardless of who suffered under it.”
Naseeb yelled from deep in his belly. “But I made life better for the other peasants and created more equality among the classes! I do good for Bayt Tahweel!”
“Just for others like you and no one else.”
Naseeb had no choice but to retreat to his castle and strategize with his advisors on how to take down Jameel. Some suggested firing cannons and guns until his house came down, but they were overruled by the wiser ones who reminded them that Jameel was not a human, so he could not be taken down the same way as one and could possibly ricochet their own weapons against the village. It was decided that they would send someone to recite the Quran’s Throne Verse, extolling the virtues of God, and nearly all agreed that it should be King Naseeb.
Naseeb’s body grew more rigid as each advisor agreed to him being the one who should recite the ten-line verse. He had no way to argue against his election because he was the leader, but he did not feel the fear, hatred, or disdain for Jameel the way most of Bayt Tahweel seemed to. He had affection, even love, for the ghoul because Jameel transformed the painful monotony of his life into something magnificent and exhilarating. It occurred to Naseeb that this may have been part of what lured so many people to this ghoul.
He told his advisors none of these things and went with his guards to recite the Throne Verse in front of Jameel’s house, feigning a passion and belief in his words.
Naseeb was not surprised when nothing happened, so he encouraged his men to recite in unison with him, but still Jameel’s house remained intact. The ghoul did not utter a word.
“What should we do, King?” one of his men asked.
“We must devise another plan to defeat him.”
But Naseeb had no time for that because while he was at Jameel’s house, a large group of Bayt Tahweel’s men and women gathered in front of his castle, demanding to know if he had managed to defeat the ghoul. He told them that he had not but would in no time, and, before he had finished, Amir Al-Sayf, dressed in the fine clothes he wore before Naseeb acceded the throne, denounced Naseeb as a vile snake who colluded with evil elements and made the village the disgrace of all of Palestine, if not all Muslim lands. Several joined in and demanded that Naseeb and his family leave Bayt Tahweel and never return.
Naseeb turned to his guards and soldiers, ready to have them quell the mob, but they pointed their swords at him and made the same demand.
So Naseeb and his family were left to wander in search of a new home until Jameel found them and offered shelter, a home at the bottom of the sea, far away from their troubles above ground.
“So you mean to kill us now and dump us in the sea?” Naseeb asked, too sad and exhausted to fear imminent death.
“No, you will breathe under water and be content in a way that you have never been here. Or you can eke out an existence traveling from place to place on the ground.”
Despite himself, Naseeb wanted to follow Jameel, to see if it was truly possible for humans to live in the sea. If he died in the attempt, it would not be so bad. After all, he had lost nearly everything else and believed that he would never be able to redeem himself in this world. The rest of his family raised no objection as they were defeated by the shame of their rapid descent.
Though Jameel gave his family the ability to breathe under water the same as he did for Naseeb, Naseeb discovered that he was the only one to develop powers that sustained him decades longer than his mother and sisters. He spent the first few years dreading the debt that Jameel would come to collect for saving him and his family, but the ghoul only returned once to report back on the state of Bayt Tahweel after nearly sixty years, soon after the death of his last sister that left him as the only human in the sea.
“Amir Al-Sayf established a dynasty, and they have been thriving,” Jameel said. “His grandson now sits on the throne.”
Naseeb thought this was meant to be the blow from Jameel that would finally end his life, but while his breathing stopped for several seconds, Naseeb was still alive.
Jameel vanished, so there was no one to stop Naseeb from falling when his legs buckled. His nostrils burned with sediment, and he shed a few tears that could not be distinguished from the water already surrounding him.
He lifted himself up and tried to reach the surface of the sea but was sucked down the way he had always been when he tried to escape.
After several attempts he sat down, clenched his fists, and placed a curse on the Al-Sayfs. A curse that would ensure that no one in that family would have a peaceful rule.
And he made a promise that he would one day return to Bayt Tahweel.