Middle East

Ghosts and Jinns of the Middle East

“Hundreds of vehicles line the highway during a pilgrimage to the Imam Ali Shrine that divides the Valley of Peace Cemetery in An Najaf. More than one million Shia Muslims are buried in the cemetery. The cemetery, covering more than four and a half square miles, is the second largest in the world and the final resting place of Imam Ali and several other prominent figures in Islam.” Sgt. Johnnie French [Public domain]. From Wikipedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wadi_Al-Salaam.jpg















Every year I do a post on ghosts or the supernatural across borders, such a ghost ship in Canada, a haunted building in Hong Kong, a selection of spooky podcasts, or Japanese tales of the supernatural. With these posts I’ve covered a wide section of the globe, from northern folklore to a British novel. One region that I haven’t covered yet, however, is the Middle East. Back in September 2019 Sebastian Castelier and Quentin Muller published an evocative article in Al Jazeera titled Gravediggers claim ghosts haunt world’s largest cemetery in Iraq.

The article is based on interviews with the gravediggers at perhaps the world’s largest cemetery, called Wadi-us-Salaam or Valley of Peace, in Iraq. The cemetery is home to at least five million people, and graves there are highly prized. The gravediggers, however, report encounters with ghosts and the dead that leave them traumatized. One man even said that he was slapped by a corpse. I particularly liked the atmospheric pictures that accompanied the article.

Ruined palace that dates from the mid-fourteenth century in Fez, Morocco. Photo by Shawn Smallman

If you enjoy podcasts, you might like listening to Spooked. Season Two, episode three was titled the Iron Gate, for reasons that become clear during the tale. This story was told by a U.S. military veteran, who had an unsettling encounter in a strange, abandoned home in Iraq. Whatever it was in that house scared him as much as any sniper. There is something nightmarish about being in a house with many people, but at the same time being so truly alone. The first person narratives in the Spooked series are intimate. They may make you feel if you are listening to an old friend tell you a story across your kitchen table.

I also recommend the Relic podcast, in particular episode #46, “Atlantis of the Sands.” The episodes description says:

During World War II, an Englishman named T.E. Lawrence fought in the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire. While travelling, “Lawrence of Arabia” learned of a majestic city that he dubbed “The Atlantis of the Sands”, a kingdom that been buried under the dunes of the Empty Quarter. But this lost city was well known to the Arab world; it had appeared in the 1,001 Nights and was even mentioned by name in The Quran. Is Ubar, or Iram of the Pillars, waiting to be unearthed?

The episode combines folklore, archaeology and history. By the end, I wanted to start pouring over some satellite images of the Arabian peninsula in search of a lost city. But it’s not a story from the Arabian peninsula that has most impacted ideas about death in the United States.

Chefchaouen Morocco is known as the “Blue Pearl.” In this city, even the tombs are blue.

One point that strikes me is the persistence of images associated with ancient Egypt in cemeteries and mausoleums with gates, buildings, or doors that were built in the United States during the early twentieth century. As you can see below, even in the gate to the North Dorchester Burying Ground in Massachusetts, which holds good Puritans from colonial New England (including at least one of my own ancestors), has an Egyptian motif on its gate. You can see a similar motif at the Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was perhaps the most prestigious burial site in the state. For some reason, the well-to-do merchants, politicians and bankers in the state liked having an Egyptian image over this entry. In North America our idea of death has been shaped by artistic traditions from the Middle East for a long time. In the same way, frightening images of the undead -particularly the mummy- from the Middle East have shaped horror fiction, radio programs, podcasts and movies for generations. References to locations in the Middle East show up in fiction of the uncanny in the most unexpected ways. For example, one popular supernatural podcast, Tanis, is named after an ancient city in Egypt (doubtless inspired by the film Raiders of the Lost Ark).

North Burying Ground, Dorchester, Massachusetts. Photo by Shawn Smallman.

For anyone interested in a deeper dive into how Middle Eastern traditions regarding jinn have influenced film and popular culture, please see Peterson’s work (2007) in the references below. While the book focuses on jinn (alternative spelling djinn) in movies, it also does a good job to place jinn in the context of traditional belief. While we might associate jinns with the genies in Disney films, the folkloric roots for this being are far more frightening than Aladdin or “I Dream of Genie” might suggest. And who knew that jinn became associated with consumer culture and consumption in the modern era?

If you want some frightening first hand accounts from Dubai residents please read Rohit Nair’s interviews in his piece, “Dubai residents recount their scariest moments.” Of course, since Dubai is a cosmopolitan place the stories people tale take place from Sri Lanka to the ghost village of Jazeera Al Hamra in Ras Al Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates.

Finally, if there is one region that haunts the imagination of the British, Russian and United States armed forces, it’s probably Afghanistan, although it’s a Central Asian country. There have been some recent articles -and a SciFy channel documentary- about one American (formerly British) military base, apparently haunted by Russian soldiers. The title of the New York Times articles conveys the stories’ mood: An Ancient Hill and Forgotten Dead: Afghanistan’s Haunted Outpost. These stories speak to how the US soldiers -who could see the burned out armored personnel carriers that the Russians left behind- were haunted by the legacy of the soldiers and empires that fought there before them.  I would personally like to edit a volume on the ghost stories of imperialism (which would include British, Chinese, Roman, Russian and US tales) as a retirement project someday. But these accounts from Observation Point Rock are not literary tales, but rather the stories of people hearing Russian whispered in their ear in their fox holes.

It all reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 tale “The Lost Legion,” in which British soldiers have an eerie encounter with the ghost of an Indian regiment that had rebelled in 1857. As an aside, I wonder now if that story subconsciously influenced Tolkien in The Return of King. Much as in Kipling’s tale, the dead -who had violated their oath- could not rest, until they came to help an imperial force and by so doing fulfill their promise. I always thought that this section of the Return of the King was disappointing; shouldn’t the heroes have solved the challenge through their own abilities? And why did Gandalf give the ring to Frodo to carry, if he knew that Frodo couldn’t even place the ring in a fire?  Why send Frodo to Mount Doom, since he’d already failed the test? But I digress. The point is, the Western memories of imperial misadventures from the Middle East to Central Asia can show up in the most unlikely of places.

I haven’t researched this possible link between Kipling’s tale and Tolkien. There’s probably a PhD. thesis on this topic in a British library -and a hundred blog posts on this topic- that I should have researched and referenced before posting this idea.

If you are curious to read more about folklore outside the Middle East you might be interested in my own book, Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth or History, which covers a belief in New England and the upper Midwest in the United States, and most of eastern Canada. You can see a brief video about the windigo here, and a review of my book here. The windigo was an Algonquian belief. The Algonquians were the most wide-spread cultural group in North America. The windigo was the spirit of winter and selfishness, which could transform a person into a cannibal monster. Much like the jinn, the idea of the windigo evolved with time, and became associated with capitalist culture. As with the jinn, the wendigo or windigo (there are many different spellings) has become appropriated by the dominant society, which has used it in TV shows (Supernatural), children’s programs, video games, and novels. If you do read my book, whether you love or hate it, please do leave a review on Goodreads.

This year I expect that most families in North American won’t have a typical Halloween, given the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope that you and your families there can stay home and enjoy watching “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or some other spooky film.

If you are interested in hearing more about global topics, please listen to my podcast, Dispatch 7. You can find it on Spotify here, or by searching whichever podcast platform you prefer.

Berber cemetery in the Dades Gorge, Morocco. The grave markers have no script. Photo by Shawn Smallman, 2020


Castelier, S. & Muller, Q. September 10, 2019. Gravediggers claim ghosts haunt world’s largest cemetery in Iraq, Al Jazeera website. Retrieved on September 13, 2019 from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/gravediggers-claim-ghosts-haunt-world-largest-cemetery-iraq-190909194529119.html

Maxwell, February 19, 2020, “Episode #46, Atlantis of the Sands,” Relic podcast. http://relic.blubrry.net/2020/02/19/episode-46-atlantis-of-the-sands/

Peterson, M. A. (2007). From Jinn to Genies. Folklore/Cinema: Popular Film as Vernacular Culture1, 93.

Nair. R. October 30, 2015. Dubai residents recount their scariest moments. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.khaleejtimes.com/wknd/editors-picks/Dubai-residents-recount-their-scariest-moments

NPR Radio, August 15, 2018. “The Iron Gate”, Spooked podcast.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Roman text from Volubilis, Morocco. The Romans abandoned the city in the third century, but much of its ruins and mosaics remain in remarkable condition. I wonder if the Romans had stories about the lost legionaries who died fighting in the sands? And did locals preserve folklore traditions about the Roman ghosts haunting the city? Photo by Shawn Smallman, 2020.

Turkey’s strikes in Syria

“Chest X-rays, 3D Image of lungs, Sagital Plane Image” by Praisaeng at freedigitalphotos.net

With the COVID-19 pandemic rampant, it’s easy to forget that other world events are still taking place, and with good reason. No other events now matter as much. Even so, after 33 of its soldiers were killed by the Syrian military (or perhaps by a Russian airstrike) last month, the Turkish government launched a devastating counterstrike against the Syrian military on February 27, 2020. The use of drones and other technology simply overwhelmed the Syrian armed forces, and let to the destruction of even the most sophisticated Russian equipment, such as the Pantsir anti-air systems. As usual, the Oryx blog has the best information. The list of destroyed military equipment on this website is striking. For example, the Syrians likely lost 32 tanks, which they could ill afford, and eight aircraft (mostly helicopters). …

Iran, COVID-19 and a pandemic


Sign to SARS memorial in Hong Kong

Canadian health authorities have announced a positive test for SARS-2-COV in a returning traveler from Iran. Yesterday, Iranian authorities announced two deaths from COVID-19. There are eighteen confirmed cases, which are spread across the country, and include a case in Tehran. It would seem plausible based on a the death count so far, and a case fatality rate of two percent, that there are over a hundred cases circulating in Iran. It is telling that one of the Iranian cases is a doctor, which suggests transmission within the health care system. Given that a case has appeared in Canada, which likely has fewer travelers than Iran’s neighbors such as Iraq, we can expect that health authorities will announce  new cases in these nations in coming days. Unfortunately, two of Iran’s neighbors -Afghanistan and Syria- are in the midst of civil wars, and have damaged health care systems. Sadly, the cases in these countries will likely first be detected in critical cases, which will make it unlikely that these countries can control community transmission. …

Iran, history and War

Last Thursday, June 13, 2019, two tankers traveling in the Gulf of Oman were struck by explosions. The crews of both ships were quickly evacuated, and there was no loss of life onboard. The United States’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly announced that Iran was responsible for these strikes. The U.S. government released military footage that it said showed an Iranian ship removing a limpet mine from the side of one of the tankers. There had been an attack on four other tankers within the last month. The U.S. alleged that Iran was carrying out these assaults because of U.S. pressure regarding the nuclear deal. …

Shane Harris, @ War

An Opte Project visualization of routing paths through a portion of the Internet. (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5) via Wikimedia Commons.

With the constant media attention to the alleged Russian involvement in the last American election, there is perhaps more media attention to the issue of cyber-warfare than ever before. In this context, Shane Harris’ book, @ War: the Rise of the Military-Internet Complex is provides a sweeping overview of how the U.S. government and its corporate allies have sought to respond and use cyber tools for espionage and war.

Harris has a background as a journalist, and he has extensively interviewed people in both the U.S. federal government and industry. His work provides a deep understanding of how these actors view cyber-conflict. The book is particularly good at showing how corporations are intricately connected the armed forces in cyber-warfare: “Without the cooperation of the companies, the United States couldn’t fight cyber wars. In that respect, the new military-Internet complex is the same as the industrial one before it” (Harris, p. xxiii).

At the same time, this book views this issue through an American lens, and at times has an unreflective view of technology’s role in war. Ever since the Vietnam War, the United States has relied on technology to win wars, while not similarly prioritizing cultural, strategic and historical awareness. One can see this issue in the opening section of the book, which examines U.S. efforts to use cyber-espionage to target ISIS in Iraq, in what he describes as a triumph: “Indeed, cyber warfare -the combination of spying and attack- was instrumental to the American victory in Iraq in 2007, in ways that have never been fully explained or appreciated” (Harris, p. xxii). Even though his description of U.S. operations in Iraq is fascinating, this part of the work has not aged well, and confronts the reader with technology’s limitations more than its capabilities. …

Canada, Saudi Arabia and the CBC

As one of my colleagues often states, there is no escaping media studies in International and Global Studies, because the news media is how most of us receive information about global issues, even in an era of Twitter and blogs (OK news on the U.S. Presidency might be an exception). It’s interesting, therefore, to look at how different publications cover the news. As Colin Dwyer described in an article on the NPR website, Canadian diplomats denounced Saudi Arabia’s arrest of multiple human rights activists. Dwyer details how Saudi Arabia responded to the statements by denouncing Canada’s actions as meddling, recalling its ambassador, and freezing all new trade investments. Now Saudi Arabia has announced that it is withdrawing students from Canadian universities. …

Flu, Protest and Iran

While many factors are driving the current protests in Iran, Michael Coston has pointed out that a significant outbreak of avian influenza in that country has driven up the cost of poultry and eggs, which has likely contributed to peoples’ food insecurity. His blog post is an interesting attempt to tie influenza to economic factors, which in turn may be connected to politics.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

The secret deal in Raqqa

Destroyed neighborhood in Raqqa. By Mahmoud Bali (VOA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
By the summer of 2017, the city of Raqqa in eastern Syria was the last remaining stronghold of ISIL in the Middle East. The U.S. backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) launched a major attack on the city beginning in June. On October 17, 2017, these forces announced the fall of the city and the utter defeat of ISIL. The BBC, however, had reporters on the ground, who reported a shocking twist to the story of the city’s fall. Members of the attacking forces had cut a deal to allow hundreds -perhaps thousands- of fighters to escape from the city. In a video titled, “Fall of Raqqa: The secret deal,” the BBC reporters traced the convoy’s path as far as Turkey, where they interviewed smugglers who took ISIL members across the border. Amongst the people who escaped were many foreign fighters, who threaten their own country’s security when they return. France, in particular, seems to be a target. …

The Dogs of War

Image of the Persian Gulf from the CIA World Factbook

Recently, there have been a series of articles pointing to the signs of war in the Middle East. Of course, given the ongoing civil war in Syria, the chaotic situation in Libya, and the current blockade of Yemen, it’s also true that war is already ravaging the region. Still, many observers are pointing to the real risk that the region might slide into the equivalent to World War One. The long-standing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia pushes the region towards unrestricted and massive warfare.

Of all the articles on this topic, I particularly like Michael Coren’s on the CBC News website, “Ominous signs that the next war in the Middle East is coming, and it won’t be pretty.” Coren points to particular signs that suggest that a conflict may be impending. What struck me in particular was the fact that 2,245 people had commented on this piece, which suggests that many people were as impressed by this brief analysis as I was. Highly recommended.

Shawn Smallman, 2017




The Syrian conflict

“Members of the XI International Brigade of the Republican International Brigades at the Battle of Belchite ride on a Soviet T-26 tank.” Испанская_11_интербригада_в_бою_под_Бельчите._1937-edit

The Syrian Civil War (2011-present) has been a test of our current world order, much in the same manner that the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was before World War Two. In both cases, diplomacy and the international organizations proved unable to stem the violence. The two conflicts are also similar in that each has revealed the fissures of the modern global era, and quickly devolved into a proxy conflict. In both cases foreign fighters flocked to the battlefront for ideological reasons. The international volunteers in Republican Spain’s International Brigades (as well as the mostly Communists and anarchists in the POUM militias) have their Islamist parallels in the Syrian civl war. While their ideologies were completely different, in each case you saw young people streaming to the battlefield not because they had been sent by a state, but rather because they felt a sense of duty to a cause. In Spain, the nationalist leader Franco welcomed foreign units from France, Germany, Italy and Morocco, which perhaps parallels how states such as Iran and Russia have sent support to Bashar al Assad in modern Syria.

Of course there are differences in the two wars. After the Spanish Civil War most foreign combatants were welcomed home. Perhaps the key difference, however, in the struggle has been that in Syria a major non-state actor -Hezbollah- has proven to be a key and unified power on the battlefield. Still, even a cursory comparison of the two conflicts leads to a strange feeling of deja vu.

This similarity extends to the realm of military affairs. Much like the Spanish civil war, the Syrian conflict has also proved to be a test of modern military equipment and tactics. In both conflicts external actors lent aid not only to support their allies, but also to test their systems. In the 1930s it was Germany that drew the key lessons from the battles in Spain, particularly regarding the role of close-air support. Western democracies did not pay similar attention to how technology had changed warfare (especially Britain and France), which proved to be a major mistake. In the case of Syria, Hezbollah has made immense progress in urban warfare tactics, while Russia has used the conflict to display its naval and air capabilities. Together with the Iranians, the Russian intervention has changed the course of the war. There can be little question now that the momentum now is with the Syrian regime to such an extent that President Assad can aspire to reclaim control over the entire nation, with the possible exception of the Kurdish region. This is a dramatic change from the state of affairs even two years ago. …

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