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Turkish Islamic Horror vol.1(11 Apr 2015)
By Miss Tugce Bicakci
For those of you who joined the journey to Istanbul with this post, I would like to give a short summary of what I discussed last week.
In my earlier post, I introduced you to the earliest Gothic character of Turkish literature, Gulyabani, and its interpretations in Turkish popular culture. As a supernatural being, Gulyabani offers a mixture of mythology and folklore for Turkish audiences and has gained parodic connotations through the years. In this post, however, I would like to move away from parody and talk some serious business.
As I remarked last week, Turkish Gothic has a unique character different from its Western counterparts and the difference of religious tradition is one of the most important reasons for this uniqueness. Although there have been literary and cinematic horror works which draw on Turkish culture outside religion, Islamic tradition has been an effective factor in creating the Gothic horror genre in Turkey particularly in the 21st century. Before then, religion was only a way to protect and save the characters from evil beings. However, in the new millennium, it became the source of deadly fear and created a new subgenre: Islamic Horror.
In Turkey, Islamic Horror or Turco-Islamic Horror are used to describe Horror novels or films which obtain the supernaturalism in their stories from Islamic tradition or demonology. In these stories, what happens to the protagonist is always explained by an Islamic possession or haunting caused either by the protagonist’s own actions or someone else’s grudge against him/her. Sometimes, the haunting might occur without a specific reason except for the supernatural being’s own desires. Most of the time, the protagonist and his/her environment are portrayed as having a non-religious life, or if there is a religious person, he/she stays unharmed by the supernatural events in the story. Although the stories start in the city, most of the time the horror surfaces in a place which has an ancient and mystical essence such as a rural village, an old house or a cave-like space. The horror of the stories, possessions and hauntings, all point at one supernatural being, that is, the jinn.
Some of you might already be familiar with the concept through The Arabian Nights and its famous tale Aladdin. In fact, one of the earliest Western representations of the jinni dates back to an 1886 poster of Theatre Royal in London. This version of the tale was dramatized by Irish writer John O’Keeffe in 1788 and performed as a pantomime for almost 200 years. The poster shows some jinn in the background with their pointy ears and unlikeable facial features. However, the jinn that I want to talk about here are very different than the jinni in Aladdin's lamp.
Mentions of the jinn date back to pre-Islamic Arabian mythology which describes the word as ‘to hide’ or ‘to be hidden’. Therefore, it is known that they were even considered as equal to gods and worshipped in Arabian culture before the arrival of Islam. However, according to Islamic tradition, God created three forms of life; angels, humans and jinn. Referred to also as djinn, jann, genie or jinni (singular), the jinn are creatures made of fire and unseen to human eye though they live among us, like us. They have similar features to humans but they are not exactly the same. The jinn are known as being crafty and smart, and, obviously, have supernatural powers such as changing their shapes or entering into human bodies which cause possession or haunting. The Koran mentions good jinn who actually help humans from time to time (such as the ones on the left). These jinn appear beautiful or handsome to human eye when they are in human form. However, the evil jinn are the ones who pose danger for humans when two species interact. All evil jinns are basically devils who serve Iblis (Satan) but Shaitan, Ifrit and Marid are the most powerful ones. The interaction between the evil jinn and humans can happen through sorcery or when a person offends a jinni in some way. It is also known that the jinn can interact with people emotionally or sexually which is again another way of haunting.
The jinn belief in Turkey is widely known as derived from Islamic tradition, yet one should consider the fact that the Turks were practising Shamanism before they embraced Islam and even after Islam they were influenced by other civilisations that lived in and around Anatolia such as the Hittites, Babylonians and Greco-Romans. In Greco-Roman and Byzantine periods before the Ottomans, for example, the jinn were like nymphs and believed to live in forests away from civilisation. When the Turks converted to Islam, their Shaman roots which acknowledged evil spirits that haunt and possess people united with the Arabic understanding of the jinn. Although, not as strongly as most Arab Muslims, Turkish Muslims also believe the existence of the jinn in invisible, animal or human form. In fact, conventional wisdom suggests that one should not talk of or refuse the existence of the jinn in rural or unsettled areas since it might offend the jinn and result in “being struck”. When a person is struck by a jinni, he/she ends up with a dislocated limb or joint and can only be healed by prayers from the Koran. To be protected by the jinn, Turkish people use steel jewellery or other artefacts such as knives and daggers on the walls, turquoise colour stones or triangular amulets (muska) which contain prayers from the Koran. The wolf, the cultural symbol of the nomadic Turks, is still accepted as the enemy of the jinn. The jinn can easily be killed if it is in human or animal form. If a jinni dies in its own form, it turns into ashes since its life source, fire, consumes itself.
As is seen, the belief in the jinn, in its simple form is not so different from its Western equivalents. Similar to vampires’ fear of silver, the jinn are afraid of steel and turn into ashes when killed. Like ghosts, they are most of the time unseen to human eye. Like werewolves, they can change their shape. Like evil spirits, they can haunt and possess people. Like fairies, they live in forests or places excluded from civilisation. In fact, the jinn are also believed to be in dwarf or giant proportions when changed into human form. This might give further insight to the previously discussed Gulyabani creature which is thought to live in forests and have a gigantic appearance.
This similarity between Western and Eastern interpretations of evil creatures was, perhaps, the reason why the director of famous The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Tobe Hooper was drawn to the idea of the jinn. Directed by Hooper, Djinn (2013) (on the right) is the first Horror film shot in the United Arab Emirates and uses regional legends of the UAE. The film tells the story of the revenge that a female jinni takes for her lost half-man half-jinni baby. Although Hooper’s name raises expectations, the film suffers from a weak story line, bad acting, duality of English-Arabic languages and very poor special effects.
Djinn’s take on the jinn phenomena shows similarities to Turkish versions in certain scenes. However, in terms of story line and creating the folkloric atmosphere, I believe Turkish Islamic Horror narratives have more to offer to audiences.
Next week, I will have a closer look at those narratives.