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  • Writer's pictureFolkloristan

Desert Night Tales

Izîl and Brahim have already settled around the fire by the time Askil arrives. He nods when his friends look at him, their question clear in their eyes, and slides into the spot between Brahim and his sloughi, Meddur. The dog growls a grumble at being moved from his comfortable position but a murmur of reassurance and affectionate rub from Brahim calms him down.

“Meddur has become grumpy in his old age,” Askil mumbles as he accepts a bowl of food from Izîl. “I remember when he was a sweet puppy who wanted to play with everyone.”

“You would be grumpy too if you had to spend your old age with a bunch of miscreants, sleeping on cold mountain rocks instead of a soft rug in a nice tent.” Silence descends on their group after Brahim speaks. Each man knows what the other is thinking. Why their friend’s  use of the word “miscreant” has thickened the air with a silence so dense and sticky, it stretches on long after he speaks, dented only by the sound of Meddur’s snores and Askil’s lip-smacking as he eats. The silence intertwines with the insistent whine of the wind across the mountains on which they sit, shivering in the chilly air. It is quiet now but they all know the war they are fighting is never far away.

“The jinns are riding the winds tonight,” Brahim finally breaks the silence. “Hopefully they will settle down so we can get some sleep.”

“Don’t speak of jinns tonight, Brahim,” Askil mutters with a shudder. “I don’t want to dream a bad dream.”

“Are you afraid of jinns, Askil?” Izîl asks, casting an amused look in the younger man’s direction.

“Aren’t you?” Askil retorts. “The are everywhere, always listening and if you’re not holy or careful they can cause havoc in your life.

“Izîl has spent too much time in France,” Brahim explains. “He does not believe the old stories anymore.”

“Just one more thing those cretins have taken away from me,” Izîl grunts.

“But they are not just old stories!” Askil exclaims. “My setti has met many jinn and other spirits. She told us stories about them and ghouls too! Do you know about the man from Boussemghoun who disappeared after he said he was going to climb the hill near the town and go to the well in the hills where evil jinns live?”

“Good thing your setti has not disappeared too then, since she’s met so many jinn.”

“That’s because she is a good and humble woman,” Askil continues, ignoring Izîl’s mocking words. “This man, he was proud. He told the people that he was going to prove to them that there were no jinns at the well. He asked them to gather at the bottom of the hill and wait for his return. But when he reached the well, the jinns seized him and strangled him to death!”

“That’s unfortunate….” Izîl says. “And the person who went to confirm this man’s death. Did he too suffer the same fate or return unscathed?”

“No one needed to go check on him,” Askil explains earnestly. “He just never returned as he promised he would and the people knew what had happened.”

“How convenient…” Izîl murmurs, filling his pipe with hashish.

“Stop needling the boy, Izîl…” Brahim chides the other man gently. In response, Izîl lights his pipe, inhales deeply puffs out a breath of smoke.

“There’s another story my setti told us,” Askil continues. “This one was told to her by the cousin of the man to whom it happened. This man’s sister was captured by jinns on her way from Boussemghoun to Ouargla. They took her up into the mountains and married her to their leader. Her brother went looking for her and she came down from the mountain to meet him. She told him what had happened and gave him a bag of gifts to take to their mother. She also told him not to stop or open the bag before reaching their village. But the man couldn’t help himself. He opened the bag and found it full of ash so he threw it all out and left just a little bit, which he took to his mother. When she opened the bag, she found pieces of silver, not ash. The man ran back to where he had stopped to open the bag but the ash he’d thrown out was gone. He went looking for his sister again but when she came to him, she scolded him and drove him away.”

“Serves him right,” Izîl drawls offering the pipe to Brahim.

“At least these jinn were more generous than murderous.” Brahim says before dragging in a lungful of hashish smoke.

“The jinn can be quite generous,” Askil responds, shaking his head to decline the pipe when Brahim offers it to him. “But they ask you to keep their secrets. My setti told us another story of a very poor woman called Omm Khalifah. She was also from Boussemghoun. She went to the river to bathe in the middle of the day so she was alone. A jinniyeh appeared to her as she bathed and asked to be her friend. The jinniyeh told Omm Khalifah that if she brought her henna and perfumes, she would give her lots of silver. Omm Khalifah did as the jinniyeh requested and became rich from the silver the jinniyeh gave to her. But the people of her town began to whisper that Moulay Ismail, the richest merchant in the town, had taken her as a lover. Omm Khalifah denied the accusations but they didn’t believe her. One day, the people secretly followed her to the river and saw her walk into the waters to meet the jinniyeh. They surprised them but the jinniyeh pulled Omm Khalifah into the water. She was never seen again.”

“Trust jealous busybodies to poke their noses where they don’t belong.” Brahim grumbles.

“Do you remember any of your setti’s ghoul stories?” Izîl asks. “I like ghouls. They are straightforward with their violence.”

“She told us one about a ghoul prince who changed himself into a horse and tricked another ghoul family into letting him into the house where they hid their daughter so he could kidnap the girl.”

“I’m sure that ended well!” Izîl laughs.

“Her father and the eldest of her seven brothers changed themselves into lightning bolts and went looking for her. They tracked her to the ghoul king’s palace but the prince tricked them by pretending to be dead. When they came in to pay their respects, he trapped them in a room and set them on fire.”

“See!” Izîl crows. “Straightforward violence.”

“It gets worse!” Askil continues, thrilled to now have Izîl as his captive audience. “The six other brothers and her mother changed themselves into gusts of wind and flew to the palace but the prince trapped and killed them all too.” Izîl’s bark of laughter echoes across the mountains.

“I know a ghoul kidnapping story too,” Brahim interjects getting into the spirit of things. “But in this one, it is humans who kidnap a ghoul’s child. They take the child to their king and he keeps it so it can entertain his children. But then one day, the young ghoul refuses to play so the king strikes it with an iron rod. The blow wounds the ghoul and a drop of its blood lands on the king’s leg. The leg immediately transforms into a ghoul leg. The king is enraged and strikes the ghoul harder but more drops of its blood lands on the king and soon he has completely transformed into a ghoul. He runs away and hides in shame but the young ghoul now knows its power. It sprinkled drops of its blood on everyone who came into the room in which it was trapped and soon it had transformed almost all the people in the palace into ghouls.”

“I like this ghoul,” Izîl chuckles.

“The people of the kingdom finally gathered into a mob and stormed the palace to stop it. The ghoul transformed more of them but they overwhelmed and killed it. Now, the ghoul’s mother had been looking for it. When the mother arrived at the palace, she found her child’s dead body and a palace full of ghouls who smelled like humans. The mother realized what had happened and pounced on the people, killing many of them. The few who managed to escape ran to another kingdom. They told the king of that land what had happened and begged him to avenge them. When the king heard their story, he sent his men to see what had become of their land and the palace. The men found the country deserted.”

“It’s what they deserved.” Izîl says firmly.

“Yes,” Askil agrees, “but I thought you didn’t believe in the old stories, Izîl?”

“Well, tonight I do,” Izîl declares indignantly. “Especially if it is a ghoul avenging herself after one of her children is killed!”

The three men fall silent again after Izîl speaks.

“Shadi’s sacrifice will not be in vain, Izîl.” Askil’s softly spoken words elicit a bitter laugh from Izîl.

“I don’t think it matters anymore, Askil. I should never have let him join us. If one of those jinn which strangle people at night comes for me tonight, I hope he does his job well.”

“Don’t speak like that, Izîl.” Brahim rebukes his friend gently. “Also Shadi may have been your sister’s son but he was also a grown man who made the choice to join the fight. His death is honorable.”

Izîl does not respond. When he buries his face in his hands and starts to sob gently, his friends shuffle over to his side to comfort him.

“We must win this war,” Izîl says through his sobs. “We must win. That is the only way his death will not be in vain.”

“Inshallah, we will win, my friend,” Brahim soothes. “Inshallah we will win.”



Contes populaires berbères by René Basset

  • The Hill of Djinns (page 123)

  • The Djinn’s Gift (page 135)

  • The Woman and the Fairy (page 98 – 99)

Contes populaires sur les ogres, recueillis à Blida et traduits by Joseph Desparmet

  • The Kidnapping of the Ghoul’s Daughter (page 12 – 17)

  • The Ghoul Who Changed A Nation (page 80 – 85)

This is a compilation of short Algerian folktales, retold and contributed by Mythological Africans.

It is a part of our series, Folklore Worldwide. We are currently open to submissions from around the world, and you are welcome to send us your stories!

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