I have a troubled history with multi-author short story anthologies. Sometimes it’s me: I can’t get myself to stick with each story till the end, or I can’t get myself to reach the end or even the middle if the first few stories are so-so, or I simply can’t handle the frequent gear-shifts from story to story. Sometimes it’s them: the most common problem being uneven quality (with a lot of mediocre stories, a few bad ones, and one or two very good ones), though I also dislike it when the stories or the book itself go on for too long (though I realise this is not a problem for readers to like to dip into books rather than consume them from cover to cover). Luckily for The Djinn Falls in Love, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, I read it on a long journey, so it was easy to make myself be patient with it and read it in its entirety. And, luckily for me, it is an excellent anthology, with almost only good or excellent stories. Lengthwise, too, the book perfect–I can’t give you exact page numbers because I read it on my Kindle, but each story took me between 10 and 20 minutes to finish.
The djinn–or jinn, anglicised as “genie”–is a creature from Islamic mythology. The story goes that, when Allah created man, Allah also created the djinn. Indeed, the running theme of this anthology is the close bond that exists between human and djinn: they are our brothers and sisters, parents and children, friends and lovers. Like us, they struggle with their faith, they drive taxis, they open restaurants, and, of course, they fall in love. Some of them are tricksters, but sometimes humans trick them; sometimes they can grant wishes, but sometimes humans use this to exploit them; they can dwell in lamps and bottles, but they can also live in dingy apartments and sub-standard housing.
The Djinn Falls in Love includes a broad range of genres and moods, from dystopian sci-fi to social satire, from erotica to horror, from prose poems to actual poems. In Saad Z. Hossein’s Bring Your Own Spoon, a ragtag team of humans and djinn living in the dystopian slumland surrounding a futuristic metropolis decides to open a restaurant for the poor and downtrodden. In Kamila Shamsie’s The Congregation, a child wakes up one morning to find that he has unwittingly slipped into the djinn world. In Monica Byrne’s Authenticity, a student in search of “authentic” experiences helps film a sexual encounter between a djinn and an Iranian pornstar. In Helene Wecker’s Majnun, a djinn-turned-exorcist is employed to free a teenage boy from possession. In Maria Dhavana Headley’s time-twisty Black Powder, a rifle loaded with djinns instead of bullets changes lives from century to century as it passes from hand to hand. In Sophia Al-Maria’s The Righteous Guide of Arabsat, a sex-phobic man becomes convinced that his wife is possessed by a lustful djinn, with darkly humorous consequences. And there’s also an excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, that beautiful bit about that Syrian immigrant in New York encountering, and falling in love with, a taxi-driving djinn.
The best story, however, may be A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds, where Amal el-Mohtar recounts the perpetual struggle between djinns and the “wizard-nation” (that is, humans) as a series of transformations–from bird to bird for the djinns, predator to predator for the humans–not unlike the duel between Merlin and Madam Mim at the end of The Sword and the Stone, though lyrical and moving where the latter is OTT and cartoonish. It could also be read as a metaphor for the struggle any immigrant faces in a new country. Reap, by Sami Shah, also gripped me like few others–it details a series of creepy occurrences in a Pakistani village, but from the point of view of the personnel at a US Air Force Base who survey the village via drone. Between the unusual perspective and the disturbing imagery, I suspect it will be difficult for me to forget this story. Readers be warned, however: Reap does include some brutal moments.
The Djinn Falls in Love is also the sort of book that gets better the more you think about it. The whole time I’ve been writing this review, I’ve been itching to re-read it my favourites. I also cannot wait to read them aloud to someone else–my cat, my wife when she starts a new knitting project, or my nephew when he’s a little but older.