Master of the Jinn


prologue Man is a witness unto his deeds. —The Qur’an, LXXV: 14 In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. I, ishaq, named the scribe, am commanded by my Master to set forth the tale of the journey, from which, by the Mercy of God, I alone of my companions have returned. Ali and Rami are no more. I saw them enter the fire. And Jasus also, that diviner of hearts, leaped into the flames. What became of the Hebrew sage and his daughter, or of the great Captain, I do not know. They would not leave when I bid them go.

But of this I am certain: The demon waits there still. Baalzeboul—Lord of the Jinn.

We show them the signs, on the horizons and in themselves. —The Qur’an, XLI: 53

At the first light of dawn over the middle desert, the black scarab-beetles come out of the sand and scurry up the face of the dunes to pray. Standing in line after endless line along ridge and crest, they face the rising sun and bow, as if in the prostration of obeisance; lifting their hindquarters to the warmth, gathering the morning dew of the cool desert night into droplets of water that role down the hard shell into the waiting mouth.

I wept at the sight of them. My last tears.

Here is a living mirror of the Merciful, I thought, prayer that is answered each morning with the sustenance of life.Would that my own heart reflected such devotion, that such unguarded surety filled my own breast instead of this wary beat that is man’s lot; this accursed confluence of doubt and desire. Even wonders beyond measure devolve into worldly reason as the mind seeks desperately its own level, its diminishing order.

Rightly did the Master command these words. Well he knew both my doubt and my desire. Even at the beginning, on that day now long ago, each was evident to that unclouded eye.

I had walked all night again without water, bearing west and north across the erg, the great sand sea of the Tenere, hoping to cut the road that led to Agadez. My strength was nearly spent. Three hours before first light I fell exhausted beside the slipface of a small, crescent-shaped dune, half-digging into the barchan to find what warmth I could against the desert night.

The wind had eased and I could see the stars in the moonless sky. Strangely I felt no fear, though I knew I could not live another day. My mind was calm and clear and distant as the stars. The desperation and sorrow that had overwhelmed me was nearly spent, ebbed away with my body’s moisture, lost in the days and nights of my wandering. I could not explain it. Perhaps I had been given some small measure of sakina, that tranquility of heart that comes only with submission to the will of Allah, or perhaps I was mad, delirious from sun and thirst, but as my eyes closed I feared neither snake nor scorpion, nor any wild beast, nor death. Empty and dreamless, I drifted without thought or knowledge into dawn.

When the light woke me I thought for a moment that I was still dreaming. My dulled consciousness could barely comprehend the beetles suddenly rising by the thousands around me, swarming like huge black spots before my startled eyes. I had never seen the like of them, and my first thought was that they had come to devour me. I quickly pulled myself out of the sand and crawled away, but to my surprise they regarded me not at all, hurrying up the dunes to form their lines toward the sun, called by that most ancient of muezzins to prayer.

Tears welled in my eyes as I saw the first droplets of water roll down their carapaces in answer, and so I struggled my own aching shell to kneel toward the dawn, and touched my own forehead to the sand.

The Tuaregs came upon me then, even as I invoked the All Merciful; advancing toward me in answer no less swift than to my insect brothers. Like spectres they came, riding slowly, suspicion narrowing their eyes above veiled faces; uncertain whether they had come upon a madman in the sand or a demon.

They had been following the old salt trail West, guided by the star they call Hajuj, and surely had never found any more unlikely game on a morning’s hunt. I shook my head when they made warding signs at me, but remained silent when they spoke. I could only understand a few words of Tamashek, their language, though I also wore a blue gandura robe, and so not knowing what to make of me they led me to their caravan’s encampment.

There I was given water from a leather flask as we waited for their modougou, their caravan boss, to return. And I thanked the Almighty with every sip, and with every breath I praised Him for my deliverance. Slowly I felt a little better. After some time, the modougou rode in. He wore a long broadsword in a red scabbard and a black turban wrapped to veil all but his eyes; yet by his eyes I knew him. It was Afarnou.

We have met before, Afarnou and I.

“Pah!” he exclaimed, without dismounting. “I had given you all up for dead by now. Where are the others?”

He spoke French well and Arabic badly, but when I did not answer to either he dismounted and looked at me more closely. What he saw I could only guess, for he then explained slowly, as if to one gone simple-minded, that his camels were heavily laden with cones of salt from the mines at Tisemt and bound for Damergu in Niger to be exchanged for millet. Yet he would grudgingly spare one man and two camels to bring me to his father, the Amenukal of the noble people.

A camel litter was prepared and, without farewell, my guide and I crossed the Tenere. In two days we were in Agadez, and here I am still, tended by the Amenukal’s wife and an elderly woman servant in a small room of their modest home.

The Amenukal, I have learned, wields authority over three tribes of the Kel Ahaggar in a loose federation, and is also the amrar, the ‘Drum Chief ’ of his own tribe. What better symbol of a chief ’s authority among the once war-like Tuareg. But that was long ago. The long years of French occupation had changed nearly everything of the old ways.

In courtesy, the Amenukal wears his small kingdom as if it were a robe of honor. He is an old man of impeccable hospitality and courtly manners, who carries himself with such quiet dignity that it ennobles the household.

He stood by my bedside and considered me gravely, but asked no questions at my condition, taking the note I had written without comment. Perhaps I am not the first fool to be found wandering in the desert, or perhaps he expects some reward, but he is a kind and generous host nonetheless, following the Arab admonition, “Do good, and do not speak of it, and assuredly thy kindness will be recompensed thee.”

The two women, however, sit each day by the door outside my room, their whispers full of concern and uncertainty, wondering if I have been struck dumb by hardship and desert sun, or sorcery;

whether I am addled or cursed.

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Well might they wonder.

Now my pens are before me, and white paper and ink. The body is restored, yet the silence continues. I have not spoken since fleeing into the desert; mute to all now save the scribe’s trust. Useless are any words but the full telling of the tale. Allah grant me clear memory.