By Riham Adly
That day, the air had a drugged quality to it—the kind that hovered around the unfamiliar calm of the house. Mama touched her face where Baba’s fist last punched her. She looked ethereal with those swollen, split lips, and for some reason, all I could hold in my head was an image of that American actress, Angelina Jolie.
She was looking at the window’s cracked glass. “Amany, I think you’re possessed,” she said.
“Why are you so sure, Mama?”
Her inflamed eyes turned here and there. She sniffled with her pink-rimmed nose before lifting a face that opened up like the sunrise—in layers.
“There’s that big black dog that follows us everywhere. Big black dogs are djins. Didn’t they teach you that in religion class? We need to find a good sheikh to release you.”
I shuddered at the sound of “release.” It hissed in my ears. I remember how I felt then; first it was so unreal, like someone walking straight into a dream-like night-curved door, but after that when it started to sink in, I felt…discontinued. In a way, I was like this ugly, misplaced tooth that had to be pulled out. This led to that state of separateness I would later embrace without ever letting go.
“What about Baba?” My truck driver father was away. We didn’t expect to see him ‘til next week, but I feared for her, for the tragic inevitability of him finding out, and for what would happen after.
She dressed in her darkest abaya, picked a niqab to cover her face. I was used to her in loose-fitting, colorful head scarves that allowed some sheaves of bleached hair to slip out like she usually liked it.
In Old Cairo, we weaved through congested alleyways and market stalls that sold fruits, spices, kitchenware, fertility remedies, and drugs often abused by truck drivers like my father. Mother stopped in front of a little shack at the end of the road where the bustle of life no longer contended.
The sheikh, who didn’t look at all like a sheikh, welcomed us in, like he was expecting it. He didn’t wear the traditional jibbah and kaftan.
“How old is she?”
He sported a light goatee rather than the hefty beard of the pious.
“Add another fourteen.”
His eyes were the smiling type. After uncovering her face, my mother smiled back.
The sheikh placed a hand on my head and started reciting suras from the Quran that I couldn’t recognize. I had a bad memory, but I never forgot when father pulled me out of school. Mother begged and begged to let me stay. He broke her nose that day, and much more.
When the sheikh was done, he confirmed it.
“She is possessed by a…Djin El Ashik, an enamored djin, one who is also a Tayyar, the flying type. Quran alone will not be enough.”
He handed mother a higab, a kind of protective amulet, and told her that if it didn’t work, I would need a Zaar ritual to exorcise the djin.
When we went back home, I bent over my prayer mat, and for days and days, kept pleading with the Almighty to keep my winged lover.
Two weeks later, when my father left for work, my mother looked as otherworldly as ever with a row of butterfly stitches right above her perfectly plucked eyebrow. This scar was so deep there was no turning back on what would happen next.
“The big black dog still follows us everywhere. I saw him in the market the other day and right now after your father left.” Her hands bloodied the spike-like shards of what was left of the windowpane.
“You’ll need a Zaar.”
She had the crazed look of someone hell-bent on finishing off loose ends. I feared for my djin and for my mother. People in the neighborhood practiced the hush-hush rituals in secret while preaching against it in mosques like it was the plague. Father would find out in the end, and she knew it.
A few hours later, we walked right through the smoke screen of incense, its rolling, dark, and secret smells pulling at me like an umbilical cord around an infant’s neck, undulating only to make way for the Zaar women decked in screaming red and jingling galageel bracelets.
My face felt damp with fever as they started their chanting, their lead singer’s voice loud with calamity. They danced barefoot in a circle, shaking their heads backwards and forwards. Regret pounded inside my skull with every beat of the drums, but the sounds became muffled, like an echo from a faraway place the moment my eyes found the sheikh’s clean-shaven, youthful face. I saw a lilt of sadness in his light-filled eyes, like someone not content with a parting. My mother smiled at him, but he didn’t smile back.
I couldn’t breathe, so I tried holding the air in my lungs. I prayed and prayed as the frenzied movements picked up and the women’s chants intermingled with the drumming. The girl-woman inside me stirred. I woke up to a deep knowing that broke out from the depth of my soul: All realities were unreal until I decided to dream them into being.
A scream took shape inside my chest and with it came the release I so longed for all my life.