Stanley Kalu was raised in Nigeria. Since then, he and his family have lived in various African countries. He currently studies screenwriting at the University of Southern California. He is a friend of mine, and he has often told me stories about growing up in Nigeria. I asked him for folklore, and without even needing to ask for Nigerian folklore, he offered up several pieces, including two proverbs. When I asked why he gave me two proverbs, he said that his mother often said them to him, and that mothers and their proverbs are so infamous that there are meme websites dedicated to them that he visits when he feels homesick.
Stanley: So, I was going, my name is Stanley Kalu. I was going on a trip to a beach in Zanzibar and a Muslim friend of mine told me to watch out for Jinn. And I was like, “what’s a Jinn?” And she was like, “Yo, Jinns are like these people that look like people but aren’t people, they’re like more genies and they walk backwards and what they’ll do, what they do is they’ll trick you and steal your soul. So when you’re in Zanzibar living it up, sipping Mojitos on the beach, do not, if a person comes up to you walking backwards, run the fuck away.
In Muslim tradition, Jinn are spirits that can appear in human and animal form to possess humans. Often, Jinn require sacrifices and a commitment to them in order for them to be kind in return. In my previous understanding of Jinn, they possess humans or ask for tasks from humans. Stanley’s explanation of them “stealing souls” could be a simplification of their purpose. It could also show the particular folk beliefs about Jinn in Zanzibar–that perhaps they are used as a scare tactic, something to avoid at all costs.
My informant talked about the world of jinn. In Arab culture, but mostly from Islam there is mention of the jinn. They are kind of like ghosts that live in their own world. They are not necessarily bad. My informant described the jinn as just a spiritual being that existed in another world next to ours.
What I found interesting about this being is the definition my friend gave on what a jinn is. It was not what I had heard before. I had heard jinns being synonymous with genies. It was also interesting to see that these superstitions can be found within the pages of the Quran. (For another version of this spiritual being see “jinn de” in the USC Folklore Archives)
Main Piece: “So when you step on the back of someone’s foot accidentally, giving someone a ‘flat tire,’ it’s bad luck if you don’t immediately take your hand and squeeze the other person’s hand.”
Background: This has been a tradition in the informant’s family her whole life. The family is Afghan, but lives in the U.S., and values their culture very much. The informant’s mother told her that stepping on the back of someone’s foot is bad luck. Bad luck is significant for the informant’s family; she notes that Afghan people are extremely superstitious. Her family believes in “jinn,” that demons, ghosts, and evil spirits can inhabit one’s body and mind. The informant believes this superstition is connected to one’s past life, where people are shunned for their “bad luck.” According to the informant, bad luck can be a disease someone is born with, but is punished regarding decisions in the past life.
Performance Context: The informant and I had lunch together and sat at a table across from each other.
My Thoughts: Stepping on the back of someone’s foot seems to be an act of callousness, but squeezing the hand indicates care and respect. The generational superstition has continued through the informant’s mother to the informant; in fact, I have accidentally stepped on the back of the informant’s foot before and she asked me to squeeze her hand. Readings in ANTH 333 touch on the ways superstitions guide daily life and routine. The fear behind something that may compromise one’s luck is obviously a factor in being accepted by others as well as an indicator of future well-being.
For another version of this superstition, see: http://weirdrussia.com/2014/08/31/russian-traditions-and-superstitions/ for the Russian version.