The Dark Jinn Invade America


A while back, while writing about 100 Years of Solitude, I speculated that electing Donald Trump may have been a case of America choosing spectacle over technocratic reason. Who wants “no drama Obama” when we can get reality television every night?

I’m currently teaching Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights and see that he has the same idea. In his fantasy novel, dark jinn have invaded earth and America’s rational president is at a loss. The president clearly is Obama:

In those days, the days of the strangenesses and the War of the Worlds that followed them, the president of the United States was an unusually intelligent man,eloquent, thoughtful, subtle, measured in aowrd and deed, a good dancer (though not as good as his wife), slow to anger, quick to smile, a religious man who also thought of himself as a reasoned action, handsome (if a little jug-eared), at ease in his own body like a reborn Sinatra (though reluctant to croon), and color-blind. He was practical pragmatic, and had his feet firmly planted on the ground.

Then comes the kicker:

Consequently he was utterly incapable of responding appropriately to the challenge flung down by Zumurrud the Great, which was surreal, whimsical and monstrous.

Rushdie’s novel appeared in 2015, which was before the last election but not before Trump had become a hero in some quarters for his birth certificate conspiracies. Fan though he may be of Obama, Rushdie sees him out of his depth when confronted with rightwing fantasizing.

Rusdie’s novel is a reflection upon fantasizing, both good and bad. On the one hand, fantasies provide humans the colorful stories that we feed off of. But fantasies, in the hands of fanatics, can be destructive, and the invasion of the jinn resembles the excesses of the Muslim fanatics that Rushdie knows only too well. Consider the following passage, in which the narrator describes

cannibal jinn eating people’s faces in Miami, Florida; and executioner jinn parasites stoning women to death in desert places and suicide bomber jinn parasites allowing their host bodies to explode on army bases and then immediately possessing the nearest soldier and murdering more of his fellows in what was called an insider attack, which it was, but not in the conventional sense of the term; and crazed paramilitary jinn parasites in charge of tanks in eastern Europe, shooting passenger aircraft out of the sky…

In this last reference, Rushdie moves from Al-Qaeda and ISIS to to the Russian-backed Crimean insurgents who shot down a Malaysian airliner.

As Rushdie sees it, there are two strains of Islam. One emanates from the 13th century enlightenment philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who introduced the West to Aristotle and mathematics, and one traces back to Al-Ghazali, the 11th-century mystic philosopher who saw God as the cause of all things.. These two philosophers show up in the novel, locked in a centuries-long battle. Whereas Ibn Rushd thinks that Reason and love will ultimately prevail, Ghazali relies on fear. Having once trapped Zumurrud in a bottle, his one wish is that the jinn “instill fear” in humankind:

Only fear will move sinful Man towards God. Fear is a part of God, in the sense that it is that feeble creature Man’s appropriate response to the infinite power and punitive nature of the Almighty. One may say that fear is the echo of God, and wherever that echo is heard men fall to their knees and cry mercy. In some parts of the earth, God is already feared. Don’t bother about these regions. Go where Man’s pride is swollen, where Man believes himself to be godlike, lay waste his arsenals and fleshpots, his temples of technology, knowledge and wealth. Go also to those sentimental locations where it is said that God is love. Go and show them the truth.

While Rusdie’s jinn are not religious, they become entranced with theology and philosophy, which gives their power a certain shape. Dunia, a benevolent female jinn, falls in love with Ibn Rushd and spawns a race that, in the end, fight for Reason and love. Zumurrud, as we have seen, is entranced by Ghazali’s fear-inducing God and goes beyond what Ghazli intended, raining down chaos.

In Rushdie’s fantasy, the jinn are puppeteers manipulating humans. But they can do so only because there is already a dark craziness within humans:

Looking back, we tell ourselves this: the craziness unleashed upon our ancestors by the jinn was the craziness that also waited inside every human heart. We can blame the jinn, and we do, we do. But if we are honest we must blame human failings too.

The novel becomes an Avengers-type drama, where humans discover that they are the descendants of Ibn Rushd and Dunia and have the power, when they join forces, to fight back against the fear and hatred as the dark jinn. Zummurud is captured inside a bottle and deposited somewhere, maybe under Mount Everest or in the Marianna Trench. His defeat leads to a world “ruled by reason, tolerance, magnanimity, knowledge, and restraint”:

Fear did not, finally, drive people into the arms of God. Instead, fear was overcome, and with its defeat men and women were able to set God aside, as boys and girls put down their childhood toys, or as young men and women leave their parents’ home to make new homes for themselves, elsewhere in the sun. For hundreds of years now this has been our good fortune, to inhabit…a peaceful, civilized world, or hard work and respect for the land. A gardener’s world, in which we all must cultivate our garden,  understanding that to do so is not a defeat, as it was for Voltaire’s poor Candide, but the victory of our better natures over the darkness within.

This peace, however, is achieved at the cost of dreaming. Obama and Hillary’s preference for reason-based reigns supreme once the wormholes between fairyland and earth are closed, but the narrator doesn’t sound altogether happy:

Mostly we are glad. Our lives are good. But sometimes we wish for the dreams to return. Sometimes, for we have not wholly rid ourselves of perversity, we long for nightmares.

Since the novel was published, that particular longing has been more than fulfilled. It’s as though Zummurud has escaped from his bottle and the dark jinn are once again wreaking havoc on the world. Be careful what you wish for.

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