Matthew Helmke let us publish one of his short stories in Issue No.2. He was also gracious enough to answer some question we had about Morocco, supernatural beings, people who believe in supernatural beings, setting stories down in books, and publishing those books yourself.
Dove&Snake: Your story in Dove&Snake Issue No.2, “A Wife from the Mountains,” is from a book you wrote called Nowhere Else to Turn. What is the basic premise of that book?
Matthew Helmke: The book retells stories of interactions that various Moroccans, who I met firsthand, have had with the supernatural. I published it as fiction solely because I added some details to certain stories to make them longer and fuller, or because I changed some details to protect the identity of the source. All of the stories were experienced either by me with a Moroccan or were told to me directly by the person claiming to experience it.
D&S: “A Wife from the Mountains” mentions something called jinn. What are jinn?
MH: In Islam, jinn are spirit beings that can be either good or bad, may fear God or serve themselves. Like men and women, they are created beings. However, as men were made from earth, jinn were made from fire or smoke, depending on who tells you the story. They will also either go to Hell or Paradise, just like humans, depending on their actions and God’s mercy on the Day of Judgment. Belief in them is pervasive in Moroccan, Arab, and all Islamic societies. They are considered common knowledge, but not talked about terribly often out of fear of reprisal from the jinn who may not want to be exposed. They are different from angels or demons, which are explicitly good or evil.
D&S: How did you first hear about jinn? When you first encountered stories like this, what was your reaction?
MH: I believe the first time I heard of them was from the story of Aladdin, which in English uses the term “genie.” There was also the tv show called I Dream of Jeannie. In those contexts, I reacted as kids usually do to stories of supernatural beings (like fairies, elves, etc.) and simply thought they were a cool addition to the mythical creature lexicon. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that not only do people believe in jinn today, but that some do so quite deeply.
D&S: What was your first encounter with a jinn story in Morocco?
MH: I honestly don’t remember the first time I heard about jinn in Morocco. It was very likely within days of my arrival, as they are mentioned in conversation regularly (both seriously and in jest). We did have a lady that came to the house once a week to help clean, and she would not put hot water down any drain in the house because she was convinced it would anger the jinn that live in the drains.
D&S: How often did you hear stories like those in your book, the supernatural told as matter-of-fact?
MH: These kinds of stories are extremely difficult for a foreigner to hear. Moroccans are generally reluctant to talk about them, either out of fear of the jinn, which all other Moroccans know about anyway, or out of fear that the foreigner will lose respect for the informant and think they are either crazy or superstitious.
D&S: If it’s difficult to hear these stories as a foreigner, how did were you able to collect so many?
MH: The first step involved learning Moroccan Arabic well enough to convince people that they could talk with me and I would comprehend them. This also meant learning a lot of cultural subtext and the meaning of many idiomatic expressions. Second, I had to convince people that they were not going to be mocked, regardless of what they told me. To do this, I would try to build bridges by discussing stories, ideas, and other things I had heard about the supernatural and clearly state that I believe the events we were discussing could happen–not necessarily that they did, but that they could.
D&S: How do you view stories like this in the context of your own spirituality and theology?
MH: I think there are several possible answers to this. First, there are times when unexplained events may have natural causes that are simply undiscovered, so I would be careful not to take every supernatural story at face value. However, there are also things that happen that cannot be explained by any known natural occurrence. What then? I think it is probable that these could have supernatural cause. I mentioned building a bridge with my Muslim friends for these discussions–this is part of the bridge. I believe the supernatural realm exists, not so much in the woo woo, X-Files sense, but in the Biblical sense. I believe angels exist, demons too. Jinn aren’t mentioned in any Christian context, but could certainly fit in as a subcategory of demon. Admitting that I don’t have all the answers and that I believe there is a God, etc., forces me to confront the possibility that there is more to this world than what may be observed by and proven with the scientific method.
D&S: Is Morocco a highly spiritual place? Do most of the people believe in the supernatural?
MH: Morocco is an Islamic country where all but 0.8% of the people are Muslim. By definition, Muslims believe in the supernatural. Morocco is also a place where Islam has been mixed with pre-existing animistic folk religion and other non-standard Islamic practices and beliefs. A belief in the supernatural is pervasive in the society, but not universal. It would be reasonable to estimate that at least 80-85% of Moroccan people believe in the spirit world and that God, angels, demons, and jinn are active.
D&S: How does that belief in the activity of God, angels, demons, and jinn, play out in the everyday lives of Moroccans?
MH: It really depends on the person. The answer would be very different if we were to discuss an urban-dwelling, university educated Moroccan scientist versus a rural, uneducated farmer. I will say that, on the average, people in Morocco are far more open to the possibility of the existence of the supernatural realm than people in America or Europe. For many, they will make a verbal assent to the existence of jinn, etc., but not give them much thought. Many others will make a point of avoiding behaviors that the culture says will offend the jinn, just to make sure they are safe. This is what the entire book is about: exploring the differing perspectives on the supernatural that exist within diverse parts of the culture of Morocco through stories told from many different perspectives.
D&S: What made you decide to set these stories down in a book? Most people would have just kept them as interesting anecdotes to bring up in conversations.
MH: Primarily, there are almost no examples in print of these sorts of anecdotes in English (there may be in French, but I didn’t find any), and I had the permission of my sources to record their stories. Second, these sorts of stories and beliefs are difficult for foreigners to learn about because of the things I mentioned earlier, but they are vital to understand if one wishes to adequately understand, communicate with, and engage the culture. So much of Moroccan culture will make more sense to people experiencing it for the first time or living in it if they have read the book or heard these sorts of stories.
D&S: Where did you look for stories like these in French?
MH: Bookstores, libraries, and online. I’m afraid that most of what I found was rather belittling in tone, and that made it less useful for my purposes. The French literature I encountered primarily took the view of “Isn’t this quaint?” and were attempts to document the beliefs of the “backward, but noble savages.” Perhaps other materials exist in French, but I didn’t have the pleasure of finding it.
D&S: Why did you self-publish the book and not try to go the traditional publishing route?
MH: I self-published the book for two reasons. First, I wanted the book to be accessible to as many students of Moroccan culture as possible and decided to license the book in a special way (using Creative Commons license) to allow people to make copies of it and share them or to make derivate works (like study guides or recordings) without fear of lawsuits (see the book’s license section for more information). Also, I didn’t feel that a major publisher would be interested in publishing a book that wasn’t likely to be a best seller even though the information was of high quality and worth publishing. However, by publishing myself and using a print on demand company, I can list the book on Amazon and make it available and easy to find for people with an interest in the topic (and I’m selling approximately one copy every two days, which is better than I anticipated).