The jinn came to Madiha just before dawn.
She sat frozen, covers pulled up to her chin with trembling hands.
The jinn stared at her with insectoid black eyes that were much too big for its small, angled face. Thin lips, flat nose, papery skin stretched taut. Its legs ended in black hooves.
And then it moved.
Madiha wanted to shut her eyes against the sight. Nothing moved like that. Nothing was supposed to move like that.
Madiha’s teeth began knocking into each other. She dug her nails into her palms and felt skin tear open. It steadied her jaw long enough for her to begin speaking.
“A’uthu billah min al-shaytan al-rajim,” she stammered, stumbling over the words. I seek refuge in God from the accursed Satan.
The jinn’s face split open into a grin that spilled over to the back of its face, making it seem as though its chin had dislocated from its body. Lips vanished to reveal rows and rows of jagged sharp teeth, layered atop one another, a dilapidated gate to the lumpy black maw that was its mouth. That hideous grin never left its face as it slowly folded itself into the darkness to fade away.
The young woman looked ordinary, for a sahira. Not that Madiha had met many women who dabbled in magic. The sahira wore a loose black abaya that did not manage to hide her small frame. Pale skin clashed against dark hair pulled back into a loose knot. Her nose was wide, her lips full, and her eyes large and downturned. She had lined them all around in thick kohl. She told them her name was Halima. Like the Prophet’s nursemaid.
“Shall we?” Halima’s fingernails were frayed, bitten down to the root. Madiha grimaced. The sahira had a nervous habit. Wonderful.
Halima took a seat at the round table, where Menna and Sherouk already sat. Menna glared at Madiha hovering by the table, and impatiently gestured for her to sit down. Madiha hesitated, until Halima looked at her expectantly. Dragging her feet, Madiha approached the table and took a seat between Menna and the witch.
The chair was rickety and unbalanced, too stiff and straight-backed to be comfortable. A large bowl in the center of the table burned frankincense and myrrh. Smoke billowed upwards and outwards, obscuring Menna and Sherouk. Ash dribbled onto the velvet black tablecloth. The only other source of light in the small, dank room was a lantern hanging by the door. It was all too theatrical for Madiha.
“Maybe we should rethink this.” Madiha spoke low, though she was sure Halima could still hear. Sherouk looked up, eyes wide.
Menna scoffed. “We already talked about this! We’re doing it.”
“But—” Madiha coughed. The smoking resin on the table was overpowering; it flooded her nose and made her eyes water. She could taste its bitterness in the back of her throat.
“And we already paid.” Menna shrugged as she talked over Madiha’s coughing fit.
“No refunds,” said Halima suddenly.
The girls turned to Halima. Madiha pursed her lips. The woman had taken 800L.E. from them for this. “We won’t ask for a refund. Menna—”
Sherouk looked between Madiha and Menna as they glared at one another. Madiha forfeited the battle and looked at Sherouk. “What do you think? You don’t exactly look happy.”
Sherouk swallowed and took a deep breath. “Madiha—” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Stop it,” snapped Menna. “We already decided. I’m doing this, and if you’re not interested, there’s the door.”
Madiha’s scowl didn’t phase Menna. Sherouk had gone silent, fingers nervously playing with the tail of her blue hijab. Halima sat quietly, back straight, staring at them with black eyes.
Menna leaned back into her chair and nodded to Halima. “We’re ready. Her name is Ashraqat Mohamed Dawood.”
After the jinn disappeared, Madiha didn’t stop trembling until the sun came up. She wanted to move, to lie back down, to get up and run to her mother, something, anything, but she was frozen. Her mother was just down the hall. Madiha wanted to run to her, crawl into her bed and hold her hand tight. But then her mother would ask her what was wrong, and Madiha would have to tell her what she’d been a part of. Madiha would not be able to stomach the horrified look that was sure to be on her mother’s face when she told her what she, Menna, and Sherouk had done with the sahira.
Under her breath, loud enough to be heard but not loud enough to be noticed, Madiha muttered the same invocation over and over and over again. “A’uthu billah min al-shaytan al-rajim.” She chanted the words until they blurred into one another, no longer making sense. Finally, when Madiha’s mouth was too dry to speak, she stopped. Her heart still raced.
But they had talked to her. Ashraqat. She had been dead two weeks, but they had talked to her. Her sweet voice, high and girlish, coming over muffled from the other side, had sent a wave of warmth down Madiha’s back, even as goosebumps plagued her arms. Madiha had closed her eyes at the sound of that voice, picturing Ashraqat as she had last seen her. Menna, Sherouk, and the sahira faded into the smoky room as memories overtook Madiha.
Madiha recalled Ashraqat vividly, all wild curls and excited brown eyes. When she smiled she exposed all her teeth, dimpling her cheeks in the process. A scarf of red, white, and black—the colors of the Egyptian flag—was twisted around her shoulders. She practically bounced on the balls of her feet as she grasped Madiha’s hands.
“Come with me!” said Ashraqat.
Madiha shook her head, but couldn’t help laughing softly at Ashraqat’s enthusiasm. “My mom would kill me. You shouldn’t be going either. It’s dangerous.”
Ashraqat rolled her eyes, as she always did whenever anyone tried to warn or admonish her. “Girl, everyone’s at the Square right now. Besides, Tamer’s going with me.”
Tamer, Ashraqat’s older brother, had come back without her, eyes empty, a bruise blossoming above his right eye like a violet. It was only two days later that they were able to recover Ashraqat’s body.
Madiha put her memories aside and slowly lifted her covers. Her feet moved sluggishly, refusing to obey. She felt a perverse fear at the idea of letting her feet dangle against the bed. So instead she crawled forward on her knees, to the footboard that went all the way to the floor, and jumped over it. Her nightgown snagged on a splinter as she did this. The ripping noise in the silent apartment was like a lion’s roar.
She turned on her lights, then opened the door to her room, letting the light wash over the pitch dark living room. Shadows and shapes emerged in the still-dark corners of the room. Doing her best not to look, Madiha scurried forward and flicked another light switch.
The door to her mother’s room was cracked open. But what could Madiha say to her? What could her mother possibly do to help?
No. She needed to find the sahira. Halima. Halima had started this, and she would end it.
Menna had come to them with the plan at Ashraqat’s funeral. It was dusk, and Madiha was leaning against the balcony railing, staring at the red tent where the men mourned. The steady intonation of Q’uran was all around them. Menna came in blazing, a black hijab wrapped loosely around her hair, which she had recently dyed teal. The color contrasted sharply with her dark brown skin, but brought out the flecks of green in her hazel eyes.
Sherouk trailed her, closing the balcony doors behind them as Menna came to stand by Madiha. Dried tear tracks stained her cheeks.
“We need to know what happened,” said Menna.
Madiha stood up straight. “The police said—”
“Fuck the police,” snarled Menna. “We’re gonna find out ourselves.”
Madiha glanced at Sherouk, who nodded. “How?” asked Madiha.
It was Sherouk who answered. “We’ll talk to her ourselves.”
Madiha laughed, an obscene sound when set against the wails of Ashraqat’s mother. “Right.”
“Don’t laugh!” Menna curled a fist around the balcony railing. “I know how.”
“Really?” Madiha was unsuccessful at keeping the sarcasm from seeping into her voice.
Menna squared her shoulders. “Yes, really.”
Madiha scoffed. “Maybe you’ve been watching too many American movies, but—”
“I’m not making this up!” Menna snapped. “There are people who do this sort of thing.”
“And you can find someone?”
Menna smirked. “I can find anyone.”
“Then we’ll know for sure,” added Sherouk.
What good will it do? Madiha wanted to ask. But Menna’s scowl and Sherouk’s hopeful expression deterred her. If she protested, if she pointed out the futility of it all, they might say that she didn’t care as much as they did. Menna and Sherouk had grown up with Ashraqat; Madiha had only met her three years ago. They would do whatever they wanted to do without her, and then she might lose them, the only parts of Ashraqat she had left.
Ashraqat needed to be buried, and someone had to perform the cleansing ritual.
When she saw her daughter’s body, Ashraqat’s mother had let out a sound Madiha still heard in her nightmares, a strangled half-choke, half-shriek that seemed to tear apart her vocal cords. A moment later, she fainted. Before the task was put to any of Ashraqat’s other female relatives, Sherouk had quietly volunteered.
Madiha had stood by Sherouk’s left, Menna on her other side. Ashraqat’s father was sagging, his ungroomed beard creeping towards the plum-sized bags under his eyes. He looked as though he had lost ten kilos overnight. When Sherouk made her offer, he had looked at her wearily for a long moment.
“Are you sure, child?”
Menna grasped Sherouk’s hand. “I’ll be there too.”
They could have asked someone else to do it.
They should have asked someone else to do it.
Ashraqat’s father glanced at Madiha; she couldn’t speak over the perpetual lump in her throat, but she nodded, eyes wet, hoping he understood that of course she would be there too. That she could never give up a chance to say good-bye.
In the end, he acquiesced.
When Madiha saw Ashraqat’s body, a flutter went through her chest. She stumbled, grasping onto the table Ashraqat lay on. The colorful scarf was still around her shoulders, spattered now with mud and blood. Her eyes were closed, though one was swollen. Her curls fanned out beneath her head like a halo. The serenity on her face belied the bruises on the rest of her body, which were revealed one by one as Sherouk and Menna undressed her.
Madiha stood frozen as Sherouk and Menna mechanically removed Ashraqat’s clothes, scarf, and bracelets, until she was naked. Madiha almost shouted at them to cover her back up, that she would freeze with the draft in this room.
Sherouk began gently cleaning Ashraqat’s face with a towel, while she murmured Ayat al-Kursi. The Verse of the Throne. The cleansing was methodical: head, neck, right side, left side. Then came the camphor powder, on the forehead, palms, knees, and toes. The parts of the body that touched the ground when performing prayers.
Ashraqat hadn’t prayed in years.
Camphor. When the stench of the preservative, thick and penetrating, hit Madiha’s nose, she began to shake.
Menna looked up. “Madiha, you don’t have to be here. Get out.”
Madiha gripped the table. No. She wouldn’t let them push her aside.
“I’m fine.” Madiha clasped Ashraqat’s cold, camphor-covered hand as Sherouk and Menna continued the rites. She joined Sherouk in her recitation, murmuring softly under her breath, stroking Ashraqat’s hand with every verse.
They dressed her in white. Sherouk braided her hair and wrapped it up, then covered it with a hijab. Finally, they shrouded her. A large, heavy white cloth was placed beneath her body, tied at her feet. Before they tied it closed at her head too, Sherouk knelt by Ashraqat, her dry, silent grief palpable nonetheless. Menna furiously wiped a falling tear as she adjusted Ashraqat’s hijab, then turned away.
Madiha reached out, ran a finger lightly along Ashraqat’s cheek. She was so cold. Madiha bent forward, kissed her lips—it was like kissing wrinkled cardboard. Sherouk was staring intently, with pity or revulsion—Madiha could never tell, and Sherouk had never seemed inclined to clarify.
With a deep, shaky breath Madiha began to recite Surat Al-Fatiha in a whisper, still holding Ashraqat’s hand. Sherouk and Menna joined her, not quite in unison, so their hushed words lost their meaning as they echoed unevenly in the small room.
That first time, they only spoke to Ashraqat for a moment. They exchanged pleasantries only, the girls all struggling to speak over their disbelief. Menna said nothing at all, only sat open-mouthed. None of them had expected to hear Ashraqat’s voice. Madiha had expected Halima to twist her own vocal cords into an approximation of a younger, sweeter girl’s throat. That way, Madiha would have been free to roll her eyes at the farce, scowl again at Menna, and storm out.
But Halima’s lips weren’t even moving. They were pursed tightly, their fullness smoothed into a thin, wrinkled line. Her eyes were squeezed shut, eyebrows knotted. She almost looked as though she were in pain. But Madiha didn’t care. She barely spared the woman another glance when she heard Ashraqat’s voice.
And then, suddenly, whatever it was shattered; silence replaced Ashraqat’s voice. Halima’s eyes and mouth flew open as she sucked in a breath.
“What happened? Bring her back!” Madiha urged.
Halima swallowed, shook her head. “I can’t,” she rasped. The sahira wouldn’t meet Madiha’s eyes as she stood up roughly. “I did what you wanted. Now leave.”
Menna found her voice. “Leave? Are you joking? We paid L.E.800 for that?”
“That was more than worth L.E.800,” said Halima stiffly.
Menna stood up and leaned over the table. “Listen, you daughter of a—”
But before Menna could spit out the insult Halima slammed her hands on the table. Resin powder spilled onto the black tablecloth. Madiha and Sherouk jumped.
“Leave,” hissed Halima.
Something in the sahira’s eyes shook even Menna. She muttered something under her breath but followed Madiha and Sherouk, who were already inching towards the exit.
None of them could forget the sound of Ashraqat’s voice in that room. So they sought Halima out again. The sahira tried to weasel out of another meeting, but Menna would not relent. She threatened to report her to the police, and at that, Halima gave in.
The second time, Ashraqat’s voice rang even clearer in the room. Halima was hunched over, smudged kohl clouding her scrunched eyes.
“What happened?” Menna’s voice cracked on the words. “How did you die?”
But Ashraqat told them it didn’t matter, that all that mattered was that she was here now, that they were all together again.
In the corner of her eye, just outside the periphery of her vision, Madiha noticed a shadow—something—standing in one corner of the room. But she ignored it. She assumed it was just a trick of light from the flickering candles. It didn’t matter, not when Ashraqat was here.
“I—we miss you,” said Madiha. “So much.”
Madiha could hear the smile in Ashraqat’s voice; she wanted to sob when Ashraqat gently chided her, told her that she was here now, and that she could be here again, if only . . .
“What do you mean?” asked Madiha. “If only what?”
That was when Halima’s eyes shot open. “Enough.” Her voice was raspy, like sand against cement.
This time it was Madiha who countered the sahira. “No, wait! She was just about to tell us—”
“People don’t come back from the dead, girl!” snapped Halima.
“I’m done with you.” Halima stood up, wrapped her shawl around herself with trembling hands. “I don’t care who you report me to. Get out. I don’t want to see any of your faces ever again.”
She practically shoved them out, slamming the heavy metal door behind them. Madiha heard several locks clicking into place. It was Madiha who slammed slapped her hand against the door furiously, until her palm throbbed and stung. On the other side, there was only silence.
It began following her that night. It never seemed to really be there, always hovering just out of sight, vanishing when she turned to get a closer look. Madiha could feel it, though. She could feel herself being watched. The others didn’t. When Madiha broached the topic in hushed whispers—not wanting to name it, to give it the power to be real—Menna and Sherouk exchanged worried glances.
“Maybe you should see a sheikh,” suggested Sherouk.
Madiha said nothing. They didn’t understand. The thing plaguing her didn’t really matter, not if it meant hearing Ashraqat’s voice again. How did the sahira do it? Would she reveal her secrets to Madiha? If she could talk to Ashraqat every day, even the presence of it would be worth it.
It was still dark when Madiha got out of her cab, the sky awash in shades of blue. The sahira lived in an old, decrepit part of Cairo. Madiha struggled not to step in muddy puddles in the impossibly narrow, winding alleys of El Gamaleya. Small shops were gearing up for the day. A wrinkled old man in a stained galabeya was setting up chicken cages, while a small barefoot child in dusty pajamas was arranging metals in a smithery next door. The smell of roasting sweet potatoes from a smiling but toothless wrinkled vendor mingled with the stench of the hot garbage littering the ground in piles.
Eyes followed Madiha as she made her way further into the alleys, their questioning frowns like targets on her back. She didn’t belong here, and they knew it. It didn’t matter.
Madiha arrived at Halima’s building just as light began to fill the sky. The dark alley took on a golden-orange sheen, sand twisting in the air. The rusted metal door to the building creaked noisily as Madiha pushed it open. Bits of rust fell onto the cracked floor. Inside, a cockroach scurried away from the light. Madiha coughed at the strong smell of dust and neglect.
As she went up the uneven cement steps, Madiha held on tight to the banister, her fingers coming away soiled with dust and chipping paint. Halima lived on the top floor of this six-story building, so Madiha was out of breath by the time she was at Halima’s door.
She knocked, softly at first. When no response came, she knocked harder.
The door opened slowly. A bleary-eyed Halima scowled at Madiha.
“I thought I told you I never wanted to see your face again,” said Halima.
“I’m not done with you,” said Madiha.
Halima rolled her eyes, but before she could say anything else Madiha took out the kitchen knife she had carried in her purse and pointed it at Halima.
The sahira stared at the knife for a few seconds, then her lips curled upwards. A huff that might have been a laugh of disbelief escaped her. “What are you doing?”
“Let me in.” Madiha held the knife high, pointed at Halima’s chest.
Halima obeyed. Madiha shut the door.
The apartment looked dingy when it was not bathed in incense smoke and candlelight. The stale peach paint on the walls was crumbling; the black and white tiles on the floor were faded and cracked. An old-fashioned, flowery couch was piled with various items, all tucked away to make room for the circular table in the center of the room, where Madiha had sat just a few weeks ago.
“I need to speak to her again,” said Madiha.
Halima was silent for a few moments. Then, “No, you don’t.”
Madiha waved the knife. “Do you think this is a joke?”
Halima swallowed, then went to her table. Slowly, she lit up the candles, then used those to light up the incense. The smoke rushed out as though fleeing its prison; soon the room smelled thickly of the resin. Halima took a seat at the table and looked at Madiha.
“You don’t want me to do this,” said Halima. “Your friend, I don’t think she’s—”
“Shut up and do what I say,” said Madiha. She brandished the knife again.
Halima closed her eyes with a sigh, then leaned over the table, as she had before. She began to hum, then chant under her breath. Despite the sunlight seeping in through the shutters, the room began to suddenly darken, until all Madiha could see was Halima and the smoky shape slowly taking form behind her.
Black hooves clacked on the floor as the jinn moved. That smile again, hideous, taunting. But Madiha couldn’t hear Ashraqat anywhere in the room.
“You’re not doing it right!” she shouted at Halima, whose eyes were squeezed shut. “Where is she? Where’s Ashraqat?”
“I’m right here, Madiha.”
The knife trembled in Madiha’s hands as she turned.
The jinn’s mouth moved, and the voice that came out of it was sweet and high and girlish. The voice that came out of it was Ashraqat’s.
“I’ve always been here.” Ashraqat’s lovely voice coming out of that lumpy maw.
“No . . . ” Madiha’s voice was barely a whisper.
“You’re the one keeping it here,” said Halima. Madiha turned to the sahira, whose eyes were now wide open—and terrified. She was looking not at Madiha, but the jinn, who had tilted its head curiously to look at Halima. “I’m not doing anything anymore.”
Madiha turned back to the jinn.
“You want me here,” it said, still in Ashraqat’s voice. “You can keep me here forever. We can be together all the time, like before.”
And then—Ashraqat’s face swam in Madiha’s vision, her curls and wide smile plastered onto the jinn’s body, only for a moment, and through a haze. Then it happened again, flickering in and out of sight, until Madiha felt herself going mad at the speed of it.
“We can be together,” said the Ashraqat-jinn. “You only have to kill her.” It pointed a spindly finger at Halima, who had gone utterly still. “She’s keeping me away from you.”
“I’m not doing anything!” shouted Halima. Madiha watched her try to stand, only to somehow be shoved back down again, missing the chair and collapsing onto the floor.
“She’s nobody,” the Ashraqat-jinn drawled. “A poor, lonely orphan with no one to grieve for her. Not like me. You can have me all to yourself.” Then its voice dropped an octave, the high-pitched tones of Ashraqat mingling with a deep, screeching rumble. “You just have to stab her through the heart.”
Madiha looked at Halima, who sat frozen. Madiha’s chest was rumbling, her breath catching with every migration of Ashraqat’s face. Madiha’s grip on the knife tightened as the Ashraqat-jinn smiled at her. Its flickering facade finally stabilized, until she was just Ashraqat. Reality faded away as the faint scent of rosewater filled the room. Ashraqat had loved soaking her curls in rosewater. As Madiha inhaled the familiar fragrance, it transported her. Her mind was inundated with memories of Ashraqat, all racing against one another, until a single one emerged from the chaos.
Madiha and Ashraqat, standing in a brightly lit kitchen. They were in Menna’s recently purchased beach house in Sidi Abdel Rahman, right on the coast of the Mediterranean. At Ashraqat’s pleading, Menna had given it to her and Madiha for a weekend, just the two of them, a rare chance to be alone.
Madiha had made them a light dinner of freshly caught shrimp and rice. Ashraqat, who couldn’t stand still long enough to cook, had danced around Madiha as she worked on dinner. Literally danced—she’d turned up the volume on her phone to an old baladi song, and alternated between singing and dancing. She was terrible at both, but that never deterred her. She even dragged Madiha into it—if it were anyone but Ashraqat, Madiha would have rolled her eyes in annoyance, but with Ashraqat, she could only ever laugh.
After dinner they’d drawn all the curtains and fallen into bed together for the first time. They fell asleep to the lullaby of ocean waves and woke up to a bedroom bathed in sunlight. Neither of them was inclined leave that bedroom and venture into the real world.
“Wish we didn’t have to go back to Cairo,” Ashraqat murmured, her fingers absently playing with Madiha’s hair.
“I know,” Madiha said softly.
Ashraqat’s fingers stilled. “When we go back—I want this to be the same.”
Madiha stiffened, but indulged her, like she always did. “Is that possible?”
“We can make it possible.” Ashraqat grinned. “Girls live together all the time, no one can prove anything. We can find jobs in the same neighborhood and rent an apartment together. If anyone asks we say we’re saving on rent and that it’s not proper for a girl to live by herself.”
A litany of obstacles ran through Madiha’s mind, but she pushed them away and smiled. “We’ll see.”
The memory blackened and cracked at the edges, shriveling away until Madiha was staring right at the Ashraqat-jinn. It was so close now. It had Ashraqat’s face, her smile, her voice—Madiha could have her back again, even if she wasn’t real, even if there was no future of any kind.
It wasn’t like Madiha and Ashraqat had ever had a real future anyway.
Ashraqat would be here. It would be her, solid and smiling. Even if that smile didn’t quite reach the jinn’s eyes. Even if it was imploring her to kill?
Ashraqat would have killed herself before hurting anyone else.
Something of her would be here, with Madiha, as long as she wanted.
Madiha flung the knife.
Straight at the jinn’s face.
The jinn vanished in a scream of smoke, the hiss of extinguished fire. Light flooded the room again. Madiha’s shoulders dropped. Her relief mingled with a bitter disappointment. She could feel it thick on her tongue, clogging her throat in a coagulated lump.
It wasn’t Ashraqat. It would never be Ashraqat. It could look like her and smell like her and sound like her but it could never mimic her brightness, her warmth, her endless energy. It was just a shadow. Like a tainted memory.
Halima slowly got to her feet just as Madiha fell to her knees. “I don’t understand,” Madiha whispered.
“You know it was never really your friend, right?” said Halima. “I didn’t realize it until the second time. They can take on people’s voices, to trick you, make you do what they want.”
Madiha looked up at the sahira. “Is this what you do to people?”
Halima pursed her lips. “I didn’t do anything.” She paused, her features softening. “It’s not possible to speak to the dead. It’s just not. Usually I just . . . make it seem like it’s possible. I don’t know what happened this time. This . . . it wasn’t me. It was you.”
Madiha’s vision blurred. She hadn’t cried, she realized. She hadn’t cried at all, not when she got the news, not when they were preparing her body, not at the funeral. “So we never spoke to Ashraqat?”
“No. It was always the jinn.” Halima paused. “I’m sorry.”
Madiha felt the wetness on her cheeks before she realized she was crying. She crumpled, shoulders shaking.
There was a jingle of jewelry, a breeze of cheap, spicy perfume—and then a warm arm went around Madiha’s shoulders. She turned to Halima, who was pointedly looking away even as she gently hugged Madiha. Halima murmured something that went unheard.
Madiha could feel something flickering in the edges of her vision. No, it wouldn’t let go so easily, just as Madiha hadn’t truly let go—she squeezed Halima’s arm, heard her gasp as Madiha’s nails sunk into flesh, splitting Halima open—
The jinn grinned at Madiha from across the room.