According to Islamic mythology and Persian folklore Jinn or genies are creatures that live in parallel world to that of mankind.
My ominous association with ghosts goes back to my early childhood years. Aunt Sedighe, my father’s youngest sister lived in Shoushtar, one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back to Achaemenian dynasty (400 BC). Shoushtar used to be the winter capital of Sassanian dynasty and was built by the Karoun River. The river was channeled to form a trench around the city. A subterranean system called ghanats connected the river to the private reservoirs of houses and buildings, supplied water during times of war when the main gates were closed. The ruins of these ghanats still exist and one was connected to the basement of aunt Sedeghe’s house where my cousins and I explored if we dared to.
We were told by our elders that her house was the primary residence of Jinn and their immediate families. I admit I never was a big fan of Jinn especially the ones who dwelled in my aunt’s basement. I just didn’t care for their demeanor as these creatures scared the hell out of me when we visited my aunt in Shoushtar. Although I was forewarned about Jinn and their tendency to possess children, I never stopped playing in the mysterious basement and exploring the endless maze of the ghanat. Yet, the never ending canal linked to her basement was too narrow, too long, too dark, too musty and too creepy to ever conquer.
My eldest sister however believed the toilet in our aunt’s house was more terrifying than its resident ghosts. The toilet was so filthy that my sister did not go to the bathroom the entire trip.
At times I carelessly mocked this historic city, my aunt’s house and its Jinn-infested basement, entertained my siblings and offended a large portion of my father’s family who were rooted in this city as a result. I believe it was because of my lewd commentaries that a few years later, my aunt decided to move to Ahvaz and left the house to Jinn, its original owners.
Not going back to my aunt’s house in Shoushtar however was not the end of my encounter with “Az ma behtaran, the “better than us” creatures, a phrase I heard from my father in my entire childhood. The “better than us” however never left me alone. They appeared in my dreams, visited me in darkness and forever lurked in the labyrinth of my imagination.
During the first six years of my life in Ahvaz, we had no bath in our house. Each Friday, the only holiday of the week, my father woke me and my two older brothers hours before dawn and took us to the bathhouse, hammam.
“Why so early?” We pleaded with him every Thursday night and always received the same response. “We’ll be the first customers, receive better service and no waiting.” These facts did not alleviate my torment of trudging drowsily through the empty streets in bitter cold. No one should have to endure such an ordeal just to be clean.
In addition to my lack of regard for personal hygiene, I had a more compelling reason to avoid the hammam in early mornings. The creepy anecdotes my father had told us about the ghosts dwelling in hammams convinced me to remain filthy for life. Once he told us the story behind the famous Persian proverb, “Hump over Hump”.
“One early morning”, he said, “a hunchback goes to the hammam and faces a large group of weird creatures in a circle holding hands and stomping their feet in jubilation. Unaware of the nature of the crowd or the occasion, he impulsively jumps in the middle and joins the festive gathering and starts singing and dancing. The Jinn enjoy his pleasant company and admire his cheerful spirit. As a token of their appreciation, one of them touches the stranger’s back and removes his hunch.”
My father continued, “the man leaves the bathhouse completely cured. The former hunchback who could not comprehend what had happened to him rushes to the bazaar searching for his fellow hunchback to share his blissful encounter.” He tells his friend all about his unfathomable encounter with “better than us” and how the Jinn enjoyed his human qualities and rewarded him for his jolly spirit, “They love festivity and adore us when we have fun. I was acting like a clown and they just adored my antics. Singing and dancing is what they love I tell you man,” he continued.
The hunchback’s friend thanks him profusely for giving him a rare glimpse of hope to end his life-long agony. He obtains the address and the next morning before dawn he rushes to the same hammam. All the way he snaps his fingers, sings happy tunes and dances with delight. As he enters the hammam, he faces a host of mournful Jinn sitting with grim faces. He promptly breaks into the circle of mourners and starts making fun of their gloomy faces then he pulls his pants down and moons the crowd one by one as he snaps his fingers. The “better than us” do not appreciate the stranger’s lack of respect for their grief-stricken event. To punish the discourteous hunchback, one of them grabs the hump of the previous hunchback and stacks it on top of his and kicks him out of hammam with two humps.”
Fact of the matter is that I was more terrified by the tales my father told us about his personal encounters with the “better than us” creatures. This is what my father told us:
“One early morning in the hammam I was the lone customer with a few bathhouse workers. After relaxing in the hot water basin for a few minutes, I came out and laid face down on bedrock. One of the staff removed the bath towel from my back and meticulously scrubbed my entire body with the lathery loofa. As he was meticulously tending to me, I looked down and noticed he had hooves instead of feet. He was Jinn. As horrified as I was, I acted as if nothing out of ordinary had happened. After he finished his duty, I thanked him kindly and left him an uncharacteristically generous tip. Then I hastily dipped into the rinse basin for a few seconds and before washing off the soap out of ears, swiftly I jumped out of the basin, and only god knows how fast I dressed to race out of the damned hammam.
As I was rushing out the door, the bathhouse administrator, whom I knew for years noticed my anxiety and tapped on my shoulder and stopped me.
‘What happened Hajji? Is everything all right? Did you not like our service today, you are one of our best clients,’ Khalil inquired.
“Oh no, nothing is wrong, everything was fine Khalil,” I said.
‘Then what is it? Why are you so upset? I want everything to be perfect for you…’ he insisted.
I took a deep breath, composed myself, approached him and whispered into his ear, ‘Do you know that your worker has hooves--he’s is Jinn.’
The hammam administrator calmly nodded with a smirk on his face, pointed to his own hooves, and whispered back, ‘You mean like these?’”
After hearing this tale, every Friday morning in the hammam, my first order of business was to check people’s feet. Sometimes I even examined my own father’s feet just to make sure he had no hooves. Why did he know so much about Jinn? How could he know so much about jinn if he was not somehow connected?
At times I snuck up on hammam patrons while they were being washed or when they came out of the rinsing basin wrapped by the layers of towels and stared at their feet. My peculiar curiosity did not go unnoticed by bathhouse patrons. I could sense people eyeing me, whispering to each other in my presence and trying to stay away from me.
I was not at all concerned about how bathhouse customers reacted. What bothered me was my strained relationship with an orphan kid of about my own age, the adopted son of Khalil the administrator whom I met in that hammam. I enjoyed his companionship and cherished his friendship dearly. Although our amity was limited to my one-hour weekly visit and confined to Hammam, I’d grown fond of him as his presence alleviated my fear of that disturbing environment. We never had a chance to play together or talk much yet seeing him in that morbid surrounding every week was bliss. Being around him made me feel safe and helped me forget all about hair-raising Jinn. He was the childhood friend whose name I never learned.
My peculiar behavior had scared him away and hurt our friendship. Every Friday when he saw me entering the Hammam, he found every excuse to avoid me. Once morning as soon as we arrived, I went to his room upstairs, he was still asleep. I could see the terror in his face when he suddenly woke and saw me sitting next to him in bed. He ran out of the mezzanine screaming. I chased him shouting, “Don’t be scared, little boy. I just want to play with you.”
After that Friday visit, the hammam closed its door for good. The rumor was that it was haunted and no client dared return. The deserted hammam building remained intact ever since. Now those years are long gone.
To this day, I wake every Friday, hours before dawn and go to the same hammam in the city I was born hoping to meet my childhood friend again. As I sit by the basin washing myself and with a smile on my face I remember all the spooky ghost stories my father told.