Bleeding Out the Jinn

Marginalized, ignored, oppressed—many here are broken. The rest are trying desperately not to break.

Erik Raschke has just finished his second novel, 11, about Islam versus secularism and...

 

He already knows about the divorce. The looming threat of deportation. My autistic son. My financial concerns over being a writer. With this knowledge, he anoints me with black seed oil blessed with words from the Qu’ran, places the cups down my middle, one near my neck, their positions relevant to the points on my body where stress pools.

The initial dry cupping numbs three-inch patches where my skin is sucked high like white mushrooms. After five minutes, the cups are removed and he quickly makes dozens of tiny cuts, releasing hundreds of drops of blood. He then returns the cups to my back, directly over the cuts, where he suctions, extracts, and waits for the tea-cup containers to fill. Facedown on a massage bench, I close my eyes, become light-headed, sense something fleeing my body, something invisible, indefinable yet malignant.

While I am immobilized, the practitioner tells me stories of his Amsterdam patients, men and women possessed by jinn: genies, green goblins embedded in their neck, ancient black devils curled in their guts. He tells me how, through hijama, he has removed these creatures, the jinn, kicking and screaming, the words of the Qu’ran serving as the antidote to the possession. The career I’ve chosen, a writer of fiction, is a field in decline, yet fiction seems to be in uncommon abundance: Facebook posts portraying gleeful, untroubled Thanksgiving family dinners; political spin doctors wiping away entire wars,; and now this, Muslim immigrants, living in a consummately secular society, yet simultaneously consumed by phantoms.

When the prophet Mohammed was my age, the angel Gabriel visited him for the first time. Mohammed was a loyal, kind, faithful, caring man, who had travelled extensively, and married Khadija, the daughter of a successful merchant. He worried that his encounter with an angel would lead people to think he was possessed, risking his reputation. Mohammed was middle-aged, he had yet to write the Qu’ran, and his greatest achievement, the creation of Islam, would place incredible pressure on a man already known for his extreme sensitivity. Perhaps this is why Gabriel recommended hijama.

There are two kinds of forty-year-old men: those who are broken and those trying desperately not to break.

We are inspired by the lives of those who endure similar hardships and those who have found ways to weave around the insurmountable. But just as I once admired Dreiser yet felt no desire to become a naturalist writer, I can find solace in the recommendations of Mohammed without converting to Islam. My own struggles as a middle-aged man have been minutely cruel, quietly agonizing, and often ridiculed as whiney and insignificant, but the nuances of a middle-aged man’s successes and failures, or the stories of those who cared enough to caress these middle-aged men through their doubts, just as Khadija did with Mohammed with her mature resolve and vast wealth, are enough to console me in the evening, when my two boys are in bed, and I am exhausted, empty, my intellect rattled by Lego and tinny alphabet songs. I am slowly beginning to learn that these brief, turbulent years give the greatest vision to those who need it most.

***

There are two kinds of forty-year-old men: those who are broken and those trying desperately not to break.

The latter are the least interesting, universal in their own way: graying, skinny-jeaned marketing executives ignoring their children while dominating conversations with digressions about the popularity of their SoundCloud playlists. Their language has a brittle, honed persuasiveness, a polished shield against the indifference of a culture whose fetish is youth.

The broken forty-year-old men, however, dot and litter the landscape, men just as comfortable alone and facedown in a dive bar as they are in a polyamorous, bisexual marriage. Men who have lost so badly and so often, they deal with life as they do with their extra unwanted pounds, humorously and gracelessly, men like myself, a man snapped, then disharmoniously reassembled in an awkward representation, a midquel bereft of the original cast.

My childhood neighbors, the Korean and Vietnam war vets, spent evenings on their porches, waving hello with frosted plastic glasses, their exuberance weighted by liquid depressants. In the early morning, they gave penance, trimming their hedges, mowing their lawns, mowing half of ours as well. Broken men holding their worlds together with ancillary gestures. These men became my role models, middle-class, middle-aged men forever championing my success, tirelessly urging me to embrace the same world that had broken them.

***

Youth tells us we are witty so we announce our importance to the world with all the cadence of a seasoned bore. We write stories imparting our reflected, regurgitated wisdom, and together, we are tiny swallows, stretching millions of wings, expressing our individuality barely beyond the border of cliché, while, to an outsider, we are nothing more than a swarm.

I return from the Peace Corps, begin my M.A. in Creative Writing at City College of New York. During the day, I install fiber-optics, endless tubes of glass converging in the subterranean levels under the World Trade Center, negotiating arguments between angry white Con Edison workmen from Long Island and resentful African-American Verizon workmen from the Bronx, hundreds of floors of glass and steel balancing above, two towers of stupendous human initiative somehow mitigated by their petty racist tirades. At night, I sit at a table and workshop stories, treading lightly between those demanding fiction be anchored to the truths espoused in political identity and those who, as Henry James put it, “took refuge in the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth …”

My banker girlfriend and I take a week-long safari in the Sahara, where, conspicuous amongst the vast dunes, we are stopped and then chastised by al-Qaeda sympathizers. They are honest, worn shepherds, sincere in their outrage over western decadence and immorality. My girlfriend and I do not know anything about al-Qaeda, and over sweet mint tea they explicate, their wisdom glazed in exotic Qu’ranic quotes, the message having all the sugar and spice of Paulo Coelho.

Four months later, my girlfriend and I are sitting around a Brooklyn table with friends, deceiving ourselves that our collective admonishment of American gluttony exempts us from fault. “We need a good war,” we say while sipping cocktails that cost more than twice the minimum wage. “War will shape up all those fat Midwesterners.”

The next day the planes hit.

As Americans, our collective reflection is as comprehensive as a montage, while our national dialogue is little more than cayenne-chocolate hyperbole. We bathe in tepid self-criticism, love to lube our party banter with self-deprecation, all under the pretense that our conversation is enlightened. However, when fatal mistakes are made, when real introspection is demanded, debate required, we fervently blame Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, the other fifty percent of voters, but never ourselves.

No one in Holland seems to appreciate my joke that being Dutch requires demanding government entitlements, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and regularly employing a hushed, ubiquitous xenophobia.

We had that war, a war traumatizing those fat Midwesterners, returning their fat Midwestern sons home slim, physically strong, yet dangerous, mentally damaged. The American middle class subjected to combat yields the hopelessly grotesque, the Lynndie Englands, the almost two thousand veterans who have committed suicide since the American military pulled out of Iraq. It is a persistent, pernicious myth that war makes us stronger. IEDs, snipers, cluster bombs, suicide vests do not build character. It took me forty years to learn that the concurrence of my naivety and arrogance often ends in a delta of toxicity.

***

At sixteen an unexpected pregnancy feels common. At thirty-three, ludicrous. But here we are, this new Dutch girlfriend and I. We have created a life from irresponsibility.

I am devoted to Manhattan, but I am also aware that sending my child to a New York public school requires a special faith. My girlfriend wants to leave the United States and return home. The lush Dutch safety net is more than vast governmental departments. It is her psyche.

She has completed film school, studying under some of the best American directors, but the making of her films has left her consumed and exhausted. She is on anti-depressants. Sleeps for hours. Feels unprepared for pregnancy.

We go to Amsterdam, arrive in a land of blonde, white, wax figurines. There is no homelessness, no one uninsured, no destitution. The canals, the marijuana, the tolerance; a white, western bubble. There is the possibility our child will avoid real struggle here.

However, much like the Smurf village, there is something immediately unsettling amid the dykes and thatched roofs. The Dutch are obsessed with immigrant assimilation, have created vast bureaucracies around it—language courses, culture classes, religious tolerance training. Assimilation asks little from the host, but demands everything from the migrant, a kind of psychological amputation, a permanent altering, a transformation from one complete identity into another, an exchange of one set of hard-fought values for another; in essence, submission.

Almost immediately, I enroll in language courses, inburgerings (or assimilation classes), but my decade in New York has made me too cynical to swallow Dutch culture uncritically. Immigrants are supposed to be grateful, obedient, almost servile, but I grew up with my mother’s “Question Authority” bumper sticker on the back of our Ford Fiesta. No one in Holland seems to appreciate my joke that being Dutch requires demanding government entitlements, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and regularly employing a hushed, ubiquitous xenophobia.

***

During the last three decades, Moroccan Muslims began arriving in the Netherlands by the millions. Originally brought in the late Seventies as cheap labor, or gastarbeiders, by the Dutch government with the unstated directive that they’d leave when the hard work was accomplished, they nonetheless stayed, rooting in the distant suburbs. While the champagne socialists in Amsterdam toasted multiculturalism, Rotterdam-Arab cousins began marrying Rabat-Arab cousins, Oosterhout-Berbers married their Ouarzazate-Berber neighbors’ daughters.

In the new millennium, multiculturalism was distilled down to tri-culturalism; the white Dutch, the integrated Turks, and finally, as whispered by the white consensus, feral Moroccans. Poorly educated, less likely to get jobs, many Moroccans began to pull heavily on the plush Dutch welfare system. Every day newspapers screamed, “Moroccans More Likely To Commit Crimes” or “Moroccans Performing Worse In School Than Dutch Students.” The numbers spread like a chanting mob. “Eighty-five percent of Moroccans have been to the doctor at least three times in a year compared to only twenty percent of white Dutch.” Most seemed to view these bullying headlines as little more than the sensible truth.

Racism in America might be institutional, but in Europe it is tumorous. Secular enlightenment values are sometimes as self-serving and constrictive as their predecessors’ canonical laws. As the Muslim population multiplied, the parliamentarians aligned. Quietly, discreetly, in Dutch fashion, surveys were conducted, studies initiated.

In this country of the Hague, of the International Criminal Court, creating a law targeting only Moroccan immigrants would be blatantly hypocritical. Thus, a law hailed as championing human rights, a law trumpeted to be as egalitarian as the Dutch society itself, is passed. Marriage is excluded from the visa application process. Children also have no influence. Instead, Eastern, Western, educated, uneducated, gay, straight … all applicants would have to meet only one condition: a minimum salary requirement.

The law, a legal rafflesia arnoldii, bloomed for the world to see. It was as equanimous as it was rotten. The surveys, the studies, the data had secretly proven that most Muslims, especially Moroccans, would not be able to meet this minimum.

Since I wasn’t allowed to have a job, I spent hours reading second-hand books and writing and wandering through Amsterdam. I was in between worlds: an unwanted immigrant, a despised American.

So this became my new life: an American ex-pat in a European country where anti-Americanism was in vogue, where the vast majority of its citizens were proudly against Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a country mercilessly critical of the Patriot Act, a country repulsed by what they viewed as Bush’s war against Muslims … and yet one where I was caught in a Dutch immigration law whose sole purpose was to discriminate against Muslims.

Years later, when a Moroccan man challenged the same income-based immigration law, the European courts ruled it illegal. Afterward, the presiding judge admonished the Netherlands as if it were a felon.

***

We didn’t meet the minimum income requirement, this writer and pregnant filmmaker. Neither did many artists. An exodus of Muslims and almost 50,000 creative professionals, all heading south to France and Belgium, began.

My girlfriend wanted to stay and fight her country’s burgeoning xenophobia, so we spent our days in government and welfare offices, sitting in rooms filled with headscarves and burqas, stubbly men with faded shirts grunting Arabic, Berber, or their own Moroccan dialects into their phones. They all had stories. Fleeing the Atlas Mountains, illiterate, sick, and starving, young children dying along the way. Now they were here, in these stale offices, taking time off of work to fight a law targeting them.

Weeks after my arrival, I managed to get a temporary visa that allowed me to stay, but not work. My pregnant girlfriend, like so many of the unemployed Moroccans, became adept at navigating the system. One can live reasonably well on the Dutch welfare system if the paperwork, meetings, and phone calls to counselors are treated like a full-time job. Eventually, she managed to get the Dutch government to pay us a respectable monthly stipend, cover our apartment, healthcare, and even child-care.

Since I wasn’t allowed to have a job, I spent hours reading second-hand books and writing and wandering through Amsterdam. I was in between worlds: an unwanted immigrant, a despised American. I had become, in a way, like the men from my childhood neighborhood, men stumbling, but always stumbling forward. I began to take notes: “a street cleaner turns onto the end of the street. Two Moroccan men lead the charge with straw brooms. They push debris into the spinning brushes of a four-wheeled sweeping machine. I give a short wave and they wave back, stiff-wristed and frowning, as if they are not used to waving or being waved at. When the cleaners turn the corner again, disappearing from sight, their dust rains in the morning light.”

I started to understand the second-generation Moroccans who sat out in our courtyard every night, smoking weed, drinking, selling drugs. They had seen their parents and grandparents mistreated, abused, humiliated by the Dutch, and now they wanted no part of this Northern European society.

The owner of the hardware store where my mother sent me for light bulbs or screws had a Winston Churchill quote above the cash register: “Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy.”I had grown up blue-collar, hard working, independent, yet here, the massive, invisible forces driving Dutch immigration, in conjunction with the welfare system, were stopping me from supporting my family. An anger unlike any I had ever felt infected every interaction: The same society I had once believed to be sensible, nurturing, even progressive, now seemed wholly rotten.

Jihad literally means “struggle”—not like ISIS’s campaign of extreme cruelty or Knausgaard’s campaign of documenting the minutiae of occasional middle-class discomfort, but of the internal human struggle. War is the lesser jihad, self-betterment the greater one. The Moroccan immigrant’s struggle, my struggle, our jihad, was against the bi-product of our government-managed impotence: rage.

Many years later, one version of this rage was made manifest in the Charlie Hebdo murders and later the Paris attacks. The assailants had European passports, were raised in European cities, spoke their adopted country’s language fluently and without accents. They travelled to Afghanistan or Syria and learned how to fight, trained with military hardware. Men and women alike, enfeebled at home, journeyed abroad to regain their pride. The vast, immovable government bureaucracy that had sat heavily upon them for so long seemed to turn on a dime. Literally overnight the white European’s proud individual rights were exchanged for martial law. Killing indiscriminately with the assault rifles of revolutionaries, then chased after, shot at, searched for, hunted, these children of Muslim immigrants were, in the blink of an eye, remasculated.

***

In the first year of my immigration, a bar opened up under our social housing flat, speakers placed just under the baby’s room, smoke venting straight into our bathroom. We were on the phone for hours with the government housing administration.

The pregnancy was also going poorly. My girlfriend was on anti-depressants, as well as blood-thinners to treat pregnancy-induced thrombosis. My rage was now coupled with an anxiety that made me lose my temper over even the smallest things. Between my visa and the constant paperwork for welfare, her already anxious personality, and my own emotional imbalance, my girlfriend was becoming thinner and thinner.

The doctors told us, with the stridence of zealots, that her medications wouldn’t harm our child. They could back this up with studies. Articles. Science was in their sails.

“It’s been proven again and again that anti-depressants have no effect on a fetus,” the doctors muttered, often patronizingly. Our worries, they told us, were not reasonable.

The Netherlands is the birthplace of reason. This is where Descartes once claimed, “I think therefore I am,” and four hundred years later everyone had iPhones—materialism validating individuality, as Baudrillard concluded.

Hour after hour, I lie on the floor and play with this beautiful, sweet boy. His mind constantly creates fantastic cognitive puzzles. Images tumble into his brain and he is forced to piece them together with strange, often melodious connections. He will say something nonsensical, associative, and it will take me days to uncoil the meaning.

Intuition, that old vagary of seers and prophets that once guided Roman armies and Greek navies into battle, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, fine psychic tentacles sifting the imperceptible, was, here and now, in the Age of Science and Technology, viewed as little more than holistic healing. But my intuition howled. I sensed the struggle of our unborn child.

In the end, the doctors were wrong. My son was born autistic. Three years later, another study was conducted and the same anti-depressants my girlfriend was on were conclusively linked to autism. Science, like any religion, is just as destructive in its authoritarianism.

***

Most authors will tell you that writing is their therapy, that not to write means a kind of death. I always tell my students to write what they know, then find a thread and pull with all their might. But the things I know are frighteningly disparate. I have no idea how to begin my second novel.

There is one thing, though, that has been consistent. At least once a week I am haunted by dreams of low-flying planes, buildings falling, white clouds engulfing Manhattan. The cloud I watched roll through the city from my rooftop has not faded, but instead, consumes my subconscious. It illuminates the darkest corners of my dreams then sears, burns, and vaporizes everything. And within that cloud I see shapes, figures that are neither human nor ghostly.

***

Administering an I.Q. test to someone with autism is like forcing a blind person to take a driving test, but they put my son through it anyway. As expected, this strange all-encompassing calculation, this score culled from rearranging wooden pieces, is low. Based on this test, on this data, one leading psychologist after another tells me that I need to lower my expectations. The best I can hope for is that my son will become a dishwasher or a janitor.

However, hour after hour, I lie on the floor and play with this beautiful, sweet boy. His mind constantly creates fantastic cognitive puzzles. Images tumble into his brain and he is forced to piece them together with strange, often melodious connections. He will say something nonsensical, associative, and it will take me days to uncoil the meaning.

Slowly, I begin to realize that the world my son sees is a world far different than the one I do.

Concealed, it is nonetheless a real, tangible, alternative world.

He is constantly clenching several toys, hands full, and even if we are leaving to get ice cream, something he loves, he will not let go of the toys in order to put on his shoes. Instead, he panics and cries, frozen by his inability to choose, as if freeing his hands would be worse than death.

Other times, in the playground, we will see a small child head toward a group of pigeons, and my son will begin to scream for the child to stop while the parents smile at the fleeing birds. However, within those pigeons is a resting swan that suddenly unfurls its great wings and charges at the surprised and terrified child. I am simultaneously disturbed by and proud of my son’s sixth sense.

Much of the fiction on autism I find is written by mediocre writers with only cursory interaction with the affliction, parents, psychologists, researchers. So I study the first-person non-fiction narratives, Temple Grandin and Naoki Higashida, autistics explicating their own autistic minds. I scour science journals, read endless autism forums. I realize that the Dutch psychologists and therapists I deal with daily do not read the journals coming out of America and Australia, where progressive therapies are helping autistic kids become functional and independent and even successful. These Dutch scientists and psychologists who say that my son will be nothing more than a dishwasher, who believe that data is holy, who automatically defer to the celestial grandeur of rationality, who compare empiricism to the hand of God … their understanding of autism is limited to old data, data limited to a very specific time and place.

To fly over the Netherlands is to see a tidy quilt of towns and land. The Dutch are organized: land for recreation, land for farming, land for business, mapped and marked down to the very last inch. Each person is, very early on, placed on a personal trajectory. The Dutch have a popular expression: the person who sticks their head too high above the field gets their head cut off.

It was only recently that the French stopped blaming “cold mothers” for autistic children. Likewise in the Netherlands, there is government money available to help parents of autistic children, but the restrictions on spending that money are maddening. Only a small group of people here in northern Europe looks to help autistic kids reach a certain potential; most treatments are linked to behavior modification. Years ago, these were the sorts of therapies that forced left-handed children to write with their right or “corrected” transgender tendencies.11See Steve Silberman’s chapter on the ABA method in Neurotribes, a wonderful, anecdotal history of autism. It is a belief that those who are different should either learn to fit in or be institutionalized. Being an American parent in Holland only painfully illuminates the discrepancies. In America, where thinking differently is increasingly being sold as a necessary business strategy, the new autism therapy methods are expensive and out of reach for most parents; in Europe, there is money for all parents, but it can only be applied to antiquated therapies.

The old autism therapies focus on management, while the new focus on fitting the functioning pieces together and making the child whole. They attempt to link the associative to the logical mind. My son learns entire words, assisted by pictures. He must memorize facial expressions, for all social interaction is as complex as algebra.

Typical for an autistic person, his poor motor skills hinder him from riding a two-wheeled bike and therefore he rides a three-wheeler, which looks strange in this land stuffed with bicycles, but with his balance centered, my son transports himself with relative ease. And we two ride together, broken man and broken son, odd, different in a country with strides for normalcy.

***

One day, I find myself in a store flipping through a glossy, discount book about metaphysics. It tells me that, according to String Theory, we currently exist in eleven dimensions. Physicists have proven mathematically that you are, right now, reading this sentence simultaneously in eleven different ways. You might be blue. You might be a cat. But you and other people exist in multiple, invisible forms. String Theory is widely accepted by physicists; it’s one of the motivations for Hadron Collider scientists to attempt to shoot a particle into the fourth dimension.

As the book goes on, it gets into Islam and Arabic folklore, traditions that tell us there have always been people living alongside us, people in alternate dimensions. They are called jinn—genies. For years, the idea of the jinn was scoffed at by the west, but with the theory of eleven dimensions being deemed worthy of increasingly serious mathematic and scientific investigation, the concept of beings in parallel dimensions is suddenly somewhat acceptable. In his book How the Hippies Saved Physics, David Kaiser writes about how imagination and creativity pulled physics out of the logical, saved it from the military complex, returned it to the magical. Every day, it seems, we are discovering things about our universe that are so bizarre and incomprehensible that to lack an imagination is to be handicapped. I learn that in Islamic theology, the invisible is just as relevant as the visible. Alam al-ghayb wa al-shahadah—the seen and the unseen. There is a balance: there are just as many “seen” dimensions, worlds, universes, as there are “unseen.”

These Muslim immigrants who clean their houses and care for their children exist, like the jinn, in parallel worlds. The prosperous white Dutch don’t understand that, much like quantum entanglement, when one paired photon shifts, so does the other. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.” I call it the quantum mechanics of modern discrimination.

The jinn are everywhere in the Qu’ran, instructed on how to behave and what to believe: Therein are (maidens) restraining their glances whom neither humankind nor the jinn (race) have deflowered before them… or I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me. Since the Qu’ran is the word of Allah, and the Qu’ran, unlike the Bible, is not necessarily open to interpretation, all Muslims must believe in the jinn.

I think of all the Moroccan immigrants I encounter daily. Many wear headscarves and burqas, sit unnoticed on trains and busses, shuffle through menial jobs, are rarely present at the theater or museums,22Which could be for a multitude of reasons why the arts are neglected by the underclasses, lack of funds, lack of interest, consuming work schedules, or, in the case of some Muslims, mostly Sunnis, the a literal adherence to command by the compiler of the third Hadith, Abu Dawud Sulaymān ibn al-Ashʿath al-Azdi as-Sijistani, that Muslims should not enter the home where there are pictures. (Abu Dawood 32:4140) Much like fundamental Christianity, Islam has a long history of destroying art and archeology as well. ISIL’s destruction of Palmyra isn’t just an aberration of Islam: it’s rooted in serious theological readings. their voices and faces absent from Dutch television and movies. The Moroccan drug dealers, two abreast warbling Korean scooters, flash past stirring gentle Amsterdam evenings, bees dispatched. I have known the same dealer since moving here, a Moroccan man who began on one of these scooters and has since graduated to a stealth black Mini Cooper. He and his many brothers wear only black, conceal themselves in dark corners, beckon through text, and each time affectionately hug me and inquire about my family.

At lunch, across the street from my house, the nursing and mechanical engineering schools empty and under the headscarves is a cacophony of Arabic, Berber, and Persian, all coalescing near the Turkish pizzas and doner kebab stores. The white Dutch stride uneasily through these groupings, chastising with sober, Calvinist snipes, while the unconcerned Eastern voices meld into a booming, rumbling undercurrent.

In our social housing flat, we share the Moroccans’ smells, their broken elevators, their domestic clatter. I have heard several white Dutch neighbors refer to our apartment as “the Muslim building,” white neighbors with fantastic houses, living very successful lives, yet so very vocal in their disgust.

We have a Moroccan nurse who has cared for my son since he was a baby. Many of his manners and morals are hers (and are also closer to mine than those of the Dutch), his body is built from her cooking, and because of her Mediterranean-style affection, his hair and cheeks smell for days of her perfume.

I have found living in an apartment building with immigrant Muslims is also closer to my understanding of community. There is often a cousin or two visiting from abroad, trying to find work, getting an education, a perpetual relative sleeping on a couch, happily chopping up Dutch and English to communicate a morning greeting to me. I am more inclined to borrow an egg or to give these neighbors a spare key, for they understand that human relationships transcend individual rights and that equality is more than self-satisfaction.

These Muslim immigrants, these Moroccans who clean their houses and care for their children, exist, like the jinn, in parallel worlds. The prosperous white Dutch don’t see it, don’t understand that, much like quantum entanglement, when one paired photon shifts, so does the other. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.” I call it the quantum mechanics of modern discrimination.

***

Romantic relationships are fragile beings. Ours did not survive the strains of immigration, our son’s autism, the government welfare machine.

My girlfriend and I separated, became co-parents, a label chilling in its understatedness.

That year, the freedom of my separation was coupled with severe pangs of loneliness. Co-parenting requires almost daily communication with an ex, a fate often more toxic than an unhappy marriage.

I moved into my own apartment, closer to the center of the city, near the Dam Square, where I would walk with my son, looking in windows or stopping off for ice cream and eating chocolate croissants along the canals. One day, we saw a small plume of gray smoke rising into the air. We heard sirens. People were frantic. Curious, my son and I investigated. Near the Royal Palace, next to a white obelisk commemorating those who lost their lives to the Nazis, we located its source.

He was an Iranian refugee, I found out later. After ten years of living in the Netherlands, he had been denied asylum and was soon to be deported. The Iranian refugee protested loudly and wrote letters to the papers, but no one paid any notice. He refused to be invisible, he told his roommate. Quietly, calmly, he went to one of the busiest places in the Netherlands, set down his briefcase, smeared petroleum jelly over his body, and set himself on fire.

***

The planes. The collapsing buildings. The white cloud. And now this burning refugee. Kurtz’s “horror” swells subconsciously.

In my dreams, the white cloud vaporizes lower Manhattan while the man on the Dam Square, his skin blackened, crisping-off, the ambivalent crowd filming with cellphones, crackles like a torch.

The Qu’ran states that the jinn are made from the fire of scorching wind. They’re complex and varied. Having free will, they make their own decisions, pray to whom they want to pray, inhabit human beings or cows or wells or mountaintops. The jinn have vivid colors, much like the colors in quantum chromodynamics. They have children, raise livestock, live long and prosperous lives. Even though we cannot see them, we live alongside them and they alongside us, and we must co-exist in harmony.

After finding the book on String Theory and Arabic folklore, I read book after book about physics and jinn. One book that I kept going back to, Islam, Arabs, and the Intelligent World of the Jinn by Amira El-Zein, argues that the jinn are not simply a phenomenon within a culture, but are representative of the complexity of a religion that is far more than ISIS and misunderstood jihad. Islam is a religion with a rich imagination, a religion with celestial layers and parallel worlds. El-Zein calls this the “poetics of the invisible.” Allah is called “the Lord of the Worlds,” worlds that can only be seen with imagination and faith. “Imagination,” Al-Zein writes, “is like alchemy, a force for change; it is not fantasy,” and later concludes with a quote from the great Sufi saint, ibn ‘Arabi, “There is no intermediary or measure between imagination and meaning, just as there is no intermediary or measure between it and the corporeal object. Hence, imagination is the centerpiece of the collar; meanings go down to it, and the corporeal object is raised up to it, for it comes across the two planes through its quintessence.”

When we die, he tells me, we return to Allah, leaving our body nothing more than an empty vessel. That vessel understands things that we cannot understand, things beyond our comprehension, things only Allah truly knows. That is the way of the universe. The way of life. Alam al-ghayb wa al-shahadah. The seen and the unseen.

Living in the hyper-secular Netherlands, I had come to realize that facts, data, reason, logic, the vessels and vestments of the enlightenment, only confine. Imagination is the sole vehicle that moves effortlessly through seemingly disconnected ideas. Imagination crosses the strict boundaries established by reason. And this is my point. Islamic theology is filled with imagination, worlds, dimensions, celestial lands inhabited by phalanxes of angels. It is a religion open to fantasy and the fantastic.

No matter how battered the profession of a novelist had become, no matter how few books I had sold, I knew fiction, like the jinn, moved deftly through worlds and ideas, and was ultimately the only way to convey my experiences since the day the planes hit. Non-fiction and essays are limited by subject, space, and time, but employing fiction, imagination, my characters are suddenly free to cross those planes. The white cloud can, in essence, be reassembled.

***

Often, during my weekly meeting with my psychologist, she’ll ask if I know why I’m so angry. This broken man cannot give her a simple answer. I am angry even though, five years after separating from my child’s mother, I am happily remarried, have a Dutch passport, I can work, my autistic son is going to a wonderful school and is generally happy. But the events since 9/11 have changed me into someone I am not entirely happy with. I have become divided inside, often temperamental. My rage and frustration have hardened like plaque.

When the hijama practitioner holds shimmering red strands of my blood on the tip of his scalpel, he explains that my body is eager to expel more toxins. There are things inside of me that need to come out.

When we die, he tells me, we return to Allah, leaving our body nothing more than an empty vessel. That vessel understands things that we cannot understand, things beyond our comprehension, things only Allah truly knows. That is the way of the universe. The way of life. Alam al-ghayb wa al-shahadah. The seen and the unseen.

Are there jinn inside me, I ask.

They have come and gone and left their mark, he replies.

***

I still dream of that cloud, but when I wake up at night, I hear the sounds of my son sleeping. I hold my hand to his head and run my fingers through his hair. It is almost impossible for him to connect, to make friends. He lives a life of almost complete alienation.

He has struggled for years to learn the alphabet, but when we visit museums, he easily deciphers the abstract art, announces the title before I can read the explanation pasted to the wall. Such graceful interpretation of imagination must be a gift.

I know some day that anger will emerge in him, resentment from his inability to assimilate into the world at large, and I will have to guide him. I will tell him that to be broken yields insight. I will tell him that it is not so bad to be disconnected from a society enamored with facts and data, fixated on what is visible, but which clings to a planet spinning furiously through the least understood matter, dark matter. I will tell my son that I will always be there for him, the best I can, and together we will swim through a pool with no bottom, me holding his hand and leading him to what I can only hope is a new and wondrous place—where the invisible flourishes and where imagination thrives beyond the confines of reason.

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