Jerusalem-based educator and artist Ahmad Nabil is preserving local folklore to help uncover the fantastical, imaginative character and heritage of the Palestinian community. “Some say they are small figures. Some say they’re a little bit chubby.”
“They wear white and you can’t see their facial features because cone-like hats are covering everything but a little bit of the eyes,” says Ahmad Nabil, a Palestinian educator, researcher and artist, who collects folklore and stories about jinn – supernatural, spiritual beings rooted in Arab and Muslim culture.
Nabil wanders Jerusalem’s Old City and speaks with Palestinian shop owners and residents about their memories of supernatural moments: the startling glimpse of a ghost, visits by Jerusalem’s “righteous” jinn (the virtuous spirits), folk tales and half-forgotten moments that have taken on supernatural lives of their own.
One recent story that Nabil collected was the reminiscence of an older man: “He’s a very intellectual man and he told me that when he was about eight years old, he wanted to go outside and play. The moment he opened the door he saw three white figures with some sort of a white cape. They were faceless and he could not see their features. They were floating and did not have hands.
“He was petrified, but they put him into a trance that took the fear out of him. On another occasion, he saw one of them taking his six-month-old baby brother out of the house. The next day, his baby brother died.
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During the recent renovation of his house, which Nabil believes is from the Mamluki era [of the 13th-16th century Mamluk sultanate], the man discovered a cave beneath it, with three tombs. Even though there was no written evence, some say they are “righteous people” who were buried in such a save underground
The topic of jinn is very sensitive in the Old City of Jerusalem, Nabil tells Middle East Eye: “People do not want to be [judged] or thought of as just fabricating the stories, so they have to trust you first to tell you these stories. They have to trust that you believe them.
‘Jerusalem is a very contested space… Folklore collection is a very important aspect of identity-building and history-making’
– Dr Jorg Matthias Determann, historian
“The Old City of Jerusalem in the 1940s and 50s, and even before, was swamped with magical stories and traditions. Many people describe jinn that live among the population of the Old City and are well known in the Old City. There are the jinn that perform wudu [prayer ablutions] at dawn, jinn that bring warnings, and jinn that offer consolation.”