Jinns, black magic, and cursed trees – several historical spots in the country have long been believed to be among the most haunted places in the world. This week, we take a trip to the far corners of the nation to separate the facts from the fiction.
“The day is for us, but the night is for them.”
Ghosts. Is their existence a notion conjured up by campfire tales, spooky flicks and sparked by one’s fear of the unknown – or is there more to it?
While science struggles to prove the existence of ghouls, spirits and the like, it’s evident that the Sultanate shares a fascination for life from the beyond – one that has grown out of fear and respect for the entity.
They have given it a name: ‘Jinn’, which is a (mostly) benevolent spirit that can appear in human or animal form.
It’s a topic not discussed frequently – and questions will either be met with skepticism (by the youth) or aggression by those that believe.
But, Oman didn’t simply make its way into the pages of National Geographic’s list of the ‘World’s Most Haunted Cities’ in 2014, for nothing. It did so for a reason – and that’s what we aim to uncover when we head to three of the nation’s most eerie regions.
But, it won’t take one long to realise that the term ‘jinn’ is taken very seriously in Oman. All our attempts to raise the topic with locals in Oman’s most ‘haunted’ city – Bahla – are shut down immediately.
We head to our starting point for this quest: the Bahla Fort – a UNESCO site since 1988, one of the largest fortresses in Oman and also the most haunted.
At plain sight, there’s nothing to give it away; it looks like any other fortress you’d normally see in Oman. But dig a bit deeper and you’ll realise that it has quite a history.
It’s one that 76-year-old Omani shopkeeper, Abdul Monim al Maksary, has no hesitation in divulging. With a twinkle in his eye, he tells us (translated from Arabic): “Bahla is very different to other cities in Oman. It’s a very sacred place and it has been known to be significant in the protection of people of the country.
“It is the home of the jinns (pointing at the palm trees around). They live in these trees, rocks, mountains, and even in the shadows, and they keep an eye on everything that happens here,” he adds with a smirk. It’s almost as if he has learned the lines to a script by heart to relate to us.
Legend has it, the city of Bahla – which is 180km away from Muscat –is the birthplace of the legendary jinn (although the concept dates to the pre-Islamic era), and subsequently is also a hub for black magic in the GCC.
Today, things have changed, and the city is recognised for its clay utensils, intricate pots, and jewellery. It’s also gaining traction as a tourist point due to its vicinity to the black volcanic mountains of Jebel Akhdar and Jebel Shams.
But, as it stands today, Bahla is famed for its jinns – and those in the region are believed to be so ‘mighty’ that they built the city wall around the 12km-long fort in one night. This belief, as Abdul points out, is only strengthened by the fact that the pre-Islamic era wall constantly disintegrates during restoration, and engineers don’t have an explanation for the phenomenon.
The adjacent fort, however, has been restored completely and has been opened to the public for viewing.
“Don’t play with the jinns. Your life will change forever,” he advises, before adding, “There are many rules that we had to follow since childhood. One of them was to never go and lean on trees or fences.
“If you do that, you will be transported to another land and you can never come back home. There are spells that have been placed that could have you cursed. Be careful,” he warns again.
When we ask him if he’s personally experienced any sign of paranormal activity, he nods to say: “Yes, but only one time.”
“I am the youngest in the family and I grew up seeing my elder brothers create pots. But, one day, they came back – I recollect that this was in 1948 – and they told my father that they’d seen a jinn on their way back.
“My father immediately called the ‘Moalim’ and asked him to help our family. I remember being told to pray more often and strongly, and to expect fires to break out in our home.”
A ‘Moalim’ – the literal translation from Arabic is ‘master’ – is a cleanser of jinns or evil spirits from the bodies of the living. Despite its condemnation in the Holy Book, the practice exists – to counter black magic.
“Thankfully, nothing like that happened but all three of my brothers believed that they were put under a spell. The Moalim – Salim bin Mubarak bin Khamis al Ghafri – spent 10 days dispelling the curse from our family and on the last day, I remember my eldest brother, who is no more, losing his memory of the events leading up to the day.
“Till his last breath, he could not remember a single thing from those 10 days and we had to tell him about it after everything settled down.”
While we cannot validate Abdul’s story with his neighbours or his family, we’re perturbed by the ominous story. Moreover, rumour has it that Moalim Salim has exorcised – with his white magic – more than 5,000 cases in Oman.
Despite our qualms, however, we take the decision to take a tour of the ‘infamous’ fort.
Nothing’s out of the ordinary during our visit – we are even greeted by the well-dressed Omani man at the ticket-counter in English. The young man hands us our tickets with a smile.
But just as we’re handed the tickets, which set us back 500 baisas each, we question him (not revealing our identities): “Do you believe that Bahla and this fort are haunted by jinns?”
With his smile disintegrating, he asks us: “In all your years of living [in Oman], how many jinns have you seen?
We answer: “None.”
He then tells us: “Then why would you expect there to be jinns here? There are various beliefs in every country but it’s up to you to experience the facts and draw up a sensible conclusion from them.
“Just because someone told you about jinns won’t make the story real,” he replies.
We then proceed to spend a whole two hours in the fort exploring. And, apart from stumbling upon an occasional colony of bats, we don’t come across anything out of the ordinary.
In view of this, we speak with Mohammed al Jassasi, a history professor from one of the leading universities in the country. He says: “Bahla is one of the cities that has long been scrutinised for its past.
“Do jinns exist (?) I do not know the answer to that. But, what I can tell you is that it makes people think twice before heading there. Not only has this affected the reputation of the place, it has also killed the pottery industry of the city.
“In research I had conducted with my team of students in the field in 2014, we learnt that the 4000-plus-year-old art is slowly losing its value due to lack of demand.
“To find the best clay pots in Oman, you’ll need to go into the alleyways of Bahla. But, because tourists and expats were warned that jinns would attack them if they found themselves lost, there has been a definite drop in interest.”
Our interview with Jaffer, a young 13-year-old potter in Bahla further asserts this fact. He tells us (translated from Arabic): “The only time we ever get any sales now is if there’s an Omani who wants to buy items from us.
“My full family is in this field, and our best month is usually January, when we head to the Muscat Festival to sell our pots. And even then, when we tell them that we’re from Bahla, some people ask us if the pot is cursed.
“It hurts us,” he adds, before continuing to work on his latest creation. Ironically, however, Jaffer says that he believes in jinns and witchcraft even though he confesses that he has never witnessed or experienced anyone involved in the art.
No other Bahla resident answers our questions owing to the nature of the topic. And, one Bangladeshi expat shopkeeper of 13 years, who begins to share his knowledge of witchcraft in Bahla is quickly shut down by an elderly shopper in the mart.
In fear of a scolding – or worse, slander – he refrains from answering any further questions.
But, during our interview, Professor Mohammed shares with us his insights with us on the age-old art of black magic.
He tells us: “Black magic is one of the oldest forms of witchcraft and – there’s no other way to put it – it’s illegal in Oman.
“It is essentially the use of supernatural powers for invoking evil and summoning bad luck on an individual for one’s selfish purposes.
Even though Mohammed classifies himself as a skeptic, he considers witchcraft detrimental to the nation.
“Witchcraft predates Islam – and we’ve been taught in the Quran not to indulge in it. But, some people think that they can use it for their own well-being and success. There have been plenty of stories of people being haunted by jinns or turned into animals when cursed.
“I don’t really indulge in these stories anymore as I think that these are talks from the past, but yes, it does exist in Oman – and it is being used to spread a lot of negative energy.
“Where it turns serious, however, is when they make use of poisons and other Illegal and destructive substances to harm the victim.”
One case was in January 2013 when two Omanis were killed and four others were found unconscious in a case of black magic gone wrong.
The sorcery was reportedly conducted by an African man in Mabelah – and involved herbs and other ingredients that produced a poisonous smoke.
In an interview with Y, a Royal Oman Police (ROP) official, who declined to be named, says: “Sorcery is illegal in the Sultanate of Oman and practising it can land you in jail.
“All of this is wrong and those who conduct such practices only have one intention: to extort money from the common man.
“The ROP used to tend to these cases, but of late, not many are being reported when compared with what we used to face when I was only starting my career in the forces (in 2010).
“The reason for this drop is the coming of youth – who don’t particularly believe in these old traditions. So, fewer people now approach magicians with requests.”
The official warns everyone to stay clear of any sorcerers and report immediately any suspicious activity.
“Don’t lay witness to such acts; nothing good will ever come of it. I also urge everyone to call 9999 if they do believe that someone is taking part in such practices. It’s our duty to maintain the sanctity of Oman – and when something stands against our religion, culture, and beliefs, then we must act immediately to stop it.
“True faith comes when you put all your faith in Allah,” he weighs in, before ending our conversation.
Piqued by our fascination on the topic of jinns, Professor Mohammed sets us up with a face-to-face interview with a leading scholar in the field of Islamic studies.
Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, the scholar prefers to remain anonymous.
But, it is with much gusto that the 40-plus-year-old scholar speaks on the topic. He says (translated from Arabic): “According to the Holy Book of Quran, a jinn is a mystical being that is not much different to regular humans – though, they possess great physical abilities, like being able to shift shapes and be invisible.
“Moreover, sometimes jinns are mischievous and ill-behaved. For instance, they can move utensils to play tricks and scare the inhabitants of the house. You need to know that this is not sorcery.
Little wonder then that several Oman residents have reported sightings of jinns in Muscat, too.
To get clarity on this incident, we approach the religious scholar again. But, surprisingly, he takes a different stance to Tyler.
“I am aware of this villa,” he says, “But, it’s not haunted like many believe. That’s just the word of mouth spreading false information to the public. And once a person shares the news with someone, it spreads quickly.
“However, I can confirm that there have been sightings of jinns at homes and in wadis in Muscat. A lot of people also claim that they see jinns on the road while driving – but in most cases, there’s no way to document any evidence.
“Even so, we cannot simply throw away anyone’s words; they may have really encountered a jinn. My role is to speak to people who approach me with cases of sightings. While I’ve been able to debunk several cases as paranoia, a lot of them have been real, too.
The scholar claims to have experienced ‘several’ jinns in Oman, though he says that none has harmed or given him sleepless nights as much the one he saw in the flesh (literally!) in June 2012.
“I had a habit of lying down on my bed next to the window and observing the entrance to the mosque overlooking my home until I slept. This was something I did frequently, until one night, I saw a woman running towards the mosque.
“I didn’t even have enough time to flinch, but by the time I had realised that it was a woman and sat up on my bed, she turned towards me and smiled. Then, out of the blue, she disappeared into the wind.”
In his studies, the scholar also tells us about how jinns can take the form of a deceased parent or friend to convince the person that the dead person is still alive and well.
“A lot of confusion can be caused when you begin distinguishing between a jinn and your mind. While your mind can play games on you, a jinn can sometimes take a physical form that you – and only you – can witness.
“Therefore, several people see it as a terrifying prospect. Nobody wants to see a dead person walking towards them,” he laughs.
We’re not sure whether it’s the forthrightness of the scholar or of the people who interact with us on this topic, but we exit the interviews one step closer to believing in the existence of the entities.
Prof. Mohammed is with us on this: “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in jinns or not – this is jinn country – and the stories that float around are convincing enough to even smelt the toughest of skeptics.
“I won’t lie: I could never stay for a night in Bahla. The one time that I did try staying there, I was certain that I’d provoked the spirits by asking questions of the residents.
“I may not advocate the existence of jinns – but I don’t want to face one… ever.”