CULTURAL CROSSROADS AND DJINNS
An interview with Samantha Herron for the Idries Shah Foundation
1. What was a surprising thing you learnt about storytelling from your hosts in the Draa Valley?
Stories and storytelling are an innate and essential means of communication in traditional Moroccan society. The ability to feel out stories and shape narratives is as instinctive and unconscious as the body’s response to a rhythmic pulse. Stories shared informally in small domestic gatherings are seamlessly interwoven into the flow of conversation. As a listener there are many times when I don’t immediately recognise that the speaker has begun to tell a story. Each story is carefully placed within the dialogue, and so the listener gently approaches the arc of the narrative and is gradually drawn in and taken on a journey.
2. What’s a djinn and what draws us to stories about djinns?
The Quran tells us that there are three levels of beings: angels, humans and djinns. Djinns live in a parallel world beneath us, and just like human beings they have been created to worship God and with free will.
A djinn can at any time take on human or animal form and appear before us in our human world. A djinn can also take possession of a human or animal. Djinns are as diverse as we human beings. There are djinns who are good, honest and caring, there are djinns who deliberately cause harm and suffering, and there are djinns who are mischievous and enjoy practical jokes. In Moroccan folklore and in everyday gossip the focus tends to be on harmful or playful djinns, and humans who are possessed by a djinn.
I was amused and bemused when I first began to hear family members and neighbours tell stories about the exploits of djinns. Many of these stories concerned people in the village, who had been made physically ill or disabled or mentally deranged by an encounter with a djinn. At the time I was forming close relationships with women in the family and the village, and I was unnerved to realise that everyone believed wholeheartedly in the existence of djinns. Regardless of age or gender or education.
The djinn stories which I have heard have taken me on a journey where I have learned to open my heart and my mind to other possibilities. When I live with the family I live in a world in which djinns exist and are as real as I am, and I have come to enjoy the idea of a secondary parallel world. The existence of djinns reminds me that I can never be sure of knowing the true nature of any being. I live with the possibility that things may not be as they seem, may not be as I assume.
My journey towards understanding and accepting that there may be other powers, dimensions and sensitivities has enriched my experience of life and my creativity. It is a form of magic, a broadening and deepening of reality, much like taking a psychedelic drug. The world morphs before us and every sense is suddenly alert, reacting to new stimuli. Do I believe in djinns? I think I would have to say, yes!
3. Globalisation means we are all at a ‘cultural crossroads’ in our lives, with the option to mix foreign cultural influence with what we have grown up with. Living in Morocco what have you taken away into your current life?
I deliberately and consciously set out to see if I could change my cultural identity, because I wanted to see the world from a different perspective. From my early days in Morocco, before I could speak Arabic, I was fascinated by the constant refrain of phrases such as ‘God willing’ and ‘In God’s name’ and ‘Thanks be to God’. There is an unconscious habitual and lyrical element to these utterances, but they are also totally heartfelt, and the repetition of such invocations suggested the contours of a cultural landscape.
As I went on to spend more time in Morocco I became increasingly aware of my Western self, and the failings in my emotional understanding of Moroccan culture and the Moroccan psyche. I became intrigued to know whether I could uncover another version of myself, through ‘growing up’ anew inside a different culture. I wondered, could I be changed? Could I become, in some small way, a Moroccan?
I went to live with a wonderful family of former nomads, who live in a small village in Morocco’s Draa Valley. They welcomed me into their home and hearts, and without my saying anything they seemed to instinctively know what I was seeking, why I was there. They took great care to share with me every aspect of their life, and so I was able to immerse myself in the ancient rituals, traditions, beliefs and perceptions of their culture.
I have been profoundly changed by the time I have spent – and still spend – with the family. My experiences in Morocco have changed who I am, changed how I experience my life, how I reflect on my life, and how I interact with others. The family introduced me to Islam and Sufism, and taught me the true nature of patience, acceptance and laughter.
I do want to point out that it wasn’t always easy for me to embrace the new and let go of the old. It wasn’t a smooth journey by any means, and I encountered many challenges. I was surprised to find myself resistant to certain new ideas, new ways of seeing and understanding the world, new practices which I was being encouraged to adopt. My Western mind underwent many struggles before I reached the point where I was able to let go of the familiar and step into a new world.
Today, whenever I meet a Moroccan for the first time, they assume that I too am Moroccan. Not simply because of my language and accent, but because of shared essential values which I now hold dear.
4. In traditional Morocco are the tales the women tell different to those of men?
The first few times that I visited Morocco I was ostensibly a tourist, communicating in French and then later in classical Arabic. I was therefore conversing almost exclusively with educated men. It was only later when I could speak the Moroccan Arabic dialect that I was able to go into the villages and get to know the women – many of whom are illiterate, and rarely leave the family home.
The female characters who feature in stories told by women and shared between women are more nuanced, more complex and far less stereotyped than the women who appear in stories composed and told by men. In male storytelling we still tend to find ourselves in a world of prostitutes, nagging controlling wives and beautiful virgins. Many of the female characters who feature in women’s stories would never be found in a story shared between men.
The manner of telling a story is also determined by gender. When men gather and share stories in the cafe or the home, the male storyteller will ‘present’ his story to the audience, much as a professional storyteller does. Male storytelling has its roots in the dramatic, the theatrical.
Female storytelling is borne in a domestic setting. When women gather and share stories the female storyteller will tell her story in a simple and straightforward manner. She will relate the facts, without coercion or suggestion. As a listener I find it to be a beautiful and intimate experience. I always feel that a female storyteller has shared with me something personal about herself.
The art of female storytelling greatly influenced my writing of the stories in ‘The Djinn in the Skull’, and it continues to do so.
5. Were you always interested in stories before you went to Morocco – if not how did it come about?
It was Morocco that triggered my interest in stories – specifically the stories which Moroccan women share amongst themselves. I was immediately drawn to the stories I was hearing in the family home. I was – and still am – a captive audience. I have felt an intense array of emotions as I have listened to the many stories which I have heard and have submitted to the story and the storyteller.
I began to write down the stories which I particularly enjoyed and sometimes I would return to a story which had moved or puzzled me and ask the storyteller for more information, or an explanation. Occasionally I would ask the storyteller to repeat the telling of the story, so that I could fix it firmly in my memory.
I noticed that when I was in Morocco I experienced my time there as an unfolding of stories. I could feel the art, the expression, of storytelling taking root inside me, and I began to dream new Moroccan stories. My dreams led me to imagine and write my own Moroccan stories.
When I’m in Morocco I experience my life through stories, it’s a conscious awareness which I simply don’t have when I’m in London. For me as a writer storytelling is Moroccan, and my storytelling is Moroccan.
© Samantha Herron 2015