The Monsters We Keep
An essay by Sami Shah, author of Fire Boy, an urban fantasy novel set in Karachi.
My monsters are different from yours.
I'm talking about true monsters, the things that exist only in the thinnest moments before sleep, or just as you enter a dark room and can’t find the light switch, even though your hand is pressed against the place on the wall where it should be.
When you walk into that room, or when you lose the struggle against sleep just as a silhouette passes in front of the window, you will fear things that I would not. You might think of ghostly little girls rising behind you, or vampires lunging from the corner. Maybe a werewolf. Perhaps as zombie.
But if you were walking through the moonlit streets of Manila, you might instead hear the tik-tik of anAswang pulling closer, its mouth opening as a hollowed tongue unfurls towards you.
If you were to look in the rear-view mirror while driving across an American highway, you might see askin-walker standing on its hind legs, a coyote’s head turned towards the night sky. Then you’d hear it scream. Not howl. Scream.
In Karachi, when, as a child, I whispered prayers of protection to Allah with my face hidden under a blanket, it was djinns I feared. Not the djinns you know of though. Not a blue animated genie trapped in a lamp who speaks with the voice of a dead comedian, nor large men with turbans, and fangs curving like scimitars. The djinns we grew up with did not grant wishes. They were made of fire and it was that which identified them, for it was visible in their eyes. They were malicious and cruel, scaring children into insanity by becoming that which you feared the most. They hated mankind because Allah had chosen us over them, and the good ones who might defend us were too few.
I had an uncle who could speak to djinns, could even see them. My mother told me it was because he was so dedicated in his piety that Allah had gifted him with the ability. They would wake him before dawn, in time for the first prayer of the day, and advise him on the true intentions of those he met. I remember once, as a child, asking him if there were any djinns in the TV room in which we were all sitting. ‘No,’ he said with a smile, ‘there are no djinns here’. Then he pointed to the hallway leading to the storeroom. ‘But there is one there. Don’t worry, it’s a good djinn’.
I avoided the storeroom for years after.
There were rules to djinns, although none involve numbers of wishes and prohibitions on love and death. If a djinn chooses to kill you it can do so easily, and if it chooses to fall in love with you, that too is beyond your control. But the rules offer some protection. If you are a girl, avoid trees with overhanging branches, especially if you have long black hair. Djinns live in those branches and are attracted to long black hair. Never leave a room empty for 40 days, for if it unattended for so long, it belongs to a djinn. If you recite one of the many surahs contained in the Quran that offer protection against djinns, witches, and black magic, then a djinn cannot approach you. If you see that they have fire in their eyes, you might run away in time.
These are the things I remembered as a child when warding off the fear that builds in the dark.
Of course, all of this was useless against the Churail. Or the Pichal Pairee. For they are not djinns, but other … things entirely. The latter is why I always check to see which way a woman’s feet are turned before letting her enter my house, a habit of superstition.
These are the monsters I grew up with. They were told to me by friends who claimed to have either seen them from a distance, or relatives who knew of a friend of an uncle of a cousin who had just escaped one. When I slept it was potential visitations by these one-eyed men, false-women, and creatures with eyes of fire that woke me screaming.
When I moved to Australia in my late-thirties, I considered myself too old to fear them. Besides, I reasoned, their mythology is tied too intimately with the city in which I grew up. To fear djinns in Karachi makes sense, because that is where djinns live. But to fear them in Perth, or Melbourne, or London, or New York, is ridiculous. Those cities have their own creatures of horror, and those are the ones we fear when there.
But, like all immigrants, I missed my homeland. That yearning for the familiar is at its strongest when trying to settle into a new country, especially when confronted with the most mundane puzzles that immigration forces on us: What’s the best calling plan? Which bank should I sign up with? What is superannuation? How do I get my international driver’s license converted to an Australian driver’s license without having to get a Learners Permit despite having driven for 20 years? No, seriously, whatis superannuation?
During the day, the things I’d miss about home were my parents, the food, and the familiarity of intuitively understanding a system of life after having lived in it since birth. At night, however, the things I thought about were djinns. I wondered what they were doing in Karachi. I wondered if they ever left the cities they began in. And most of all, I wondered if I could tell their stories to others.
We learn about other places and other people by their food, by their language, by their dress. I think there’s another way though. I think we can also learn by the stories they tell to frighten themselves. Those mythologies reveal them at their most insecure; they teach us of their perceived weaknesses.
Mostly, though, they remind us all that when the lights go out, there is so much more to fear. So much more, indeed.