The Djinn Hunters
Nadia Niaz

Rabbit Poetry Series, No. 19, 2023

‘A Map of Mothers,’ the first poem of Nadia Niaz’s The Djinn Hunters, opens as does a chute, dropping us inside the soft cavity of its speaker’s mouth:

I carry my mother in my mouth

in teeth and warm

bladed tongue

Reversing the relations of carriage between mother and child, it is an opening which calls attention to the mouth as a generative, fertile space. A recurrent object across the collection, this ‘bladed tongue’ is deftly inscribed as the organ which invokes both language and the body, the word and flesh.

And it is perhaps via this tongue that the speaker subsequently steers us to her other parts (‘my speckled skin,’ ‘my feet,’ ‘my chin,’ ‘my belly,’ ‘my bones,’ ‘my palms’), steadily tracing a cartography of her body as a site both inhabited and animated by generations of foremothers. Indeed, announcing a profoundly self-conscious inauguration to the collection, this ‘map of mothers’ is at once the multiform, multigenerational figure of the speaker and the collection itself.

Women’s lives, as both embodied and storied, past and present, personal and political, in Pakistan and in Melbourne, thus inspirit Niaz’s work, its formally varied poems arranged in a cascading series. And again the tongue, as a vehicle of earthly knowledge and, indeed, delight, assumes a heightened significance in many of these. Where ‘Paan,’ with its propulsive spondaic rhymes (‘brass box,’ ‘moist cloth’) stages a young speaker’s initiatory experience of betel, ‘the first burst of bitter / leaf,’ ‘Sugarcane’ pivots to its sweeter counterpart, and the speaker’s uninhibited affirmation, in both language and body, of her desires and capacities:

Yes, I say, and reach for it, mouth

watering for the fibrous touch of cane

on my tongue, the sweet juice I will crush

out of it with my strong child’s teeth.

But if these women often enjoy tasting the worlds they move and dance and speak within, they are also frequently imperiled by them, and many of the collection’s poems register their vulnerabilities with a seismographic sensitivity. In ‘Fine Aggregate,’ set in an unnamed Pakistani city, ‘Young women wander under strict instructions to stay close / crowded as pomegranate seeds,’ and in ‘Handi,’ set in Melbourne, its Pakistani speaker squeezes by a white man on a tram who casts her as similarly consumable:

I love a good curry

he growls low

in my ear

I shrink

into myself

Niaz’s women eat the world, but they are also at risk of being eaten by it. The ‘bladed tongue’ cuts both ways.

The collection’s poems take colour amid a variety of locations: Lahore and Khewra figure principally in the collection’s first half, Melbourne is introduced, to some surprise, midway through in ‘Eid is Another Country.’ Indeed, the work’s dedication is For all who wander. These poems wander too, unspooling via associative slips that still manage to accommodate the work’s generous formal and thematic range. The surrealism of its opening ‘A Map of Mothers’ flows on to ‘Night Fragments I,’ and then ‘A Dream of Daadi’s Paan Daan,’ itself a kind of dream fragment with two configurations of wandering text interspersed across the page.

But the wandering line is, like the wandering woman, always at risk of falling into errancy and straying into the unacceptable. In the Biblical imaginary, it was of course Eve’s tasting of the forbidden fruit that brought on humankind’s expulsion from Eden, and thereafter its perpetual wandering. Women’s tongues and feet have long been thus collocated. The multilingual first-person speaker of ‘I Sing,’ who sings of ‘broken shackles, leaving / overripened plains for dunes,’ indeed confronts the uncertainties of such a leaving. And many of Niaz’s poems showcase such mature ambiguities, wonderings, and anticlosural incitations marked by questions. In the fittingly open strophes of ‘Traces’ the speaker turns and offers some of these up to her grandmother:

you wanted to prove yourself equal

to the world, how you ran through

your life like the rivers of your childhood

ignoring the dams until it was too late.


Remember this, remember me, you say.


But what worth are messages written in water

once the earth has claimed you?

To wander is to press willingly, sometimes willfully, into the unknown, sometimes the unknowable. Whereas this sense of unsteadiness is enacted by the minimal two-line verse of ‘Shagird,’ a poem which opens to a group of schoolgirls in their Bharat Natyam class, its speaker finally shoulders the ineluctable resistances which attend women’s claims to self-emancipation, her line break cleanly executing the cut she describes:

Marionettes with our strings

severed, learning to move of our free will.

The collection’s titular poem, ‘The Djinn Hunters,’ the first of its three ghazals, and dedicated to Niaz’s paternal grandmother and sisters, frames wandering as a form of waiting, this time for the djinn. ‘In Islamic cosmology, beings of smokeless fire created before humans,’ the collection’s notes provide, the djinn live on earth with humans, but in another dimension, largely without interference. But the ghazal’s speaker, from the poem’s matla, its opening sher or couplet, issues instructions to the djinn hunters to conjure precisely such an encounter:

First you must find a copse where there is lore of the djinn

then await the summer rest when elders think no more of the djinn

The djinn, with her ‘long body of smokeless fire’ and ‘burning eyes’ is here the object of the hunt — a term inflected always by both desire and desperation — but is also the originary principle of the poem, each terminating radif, or refrain, of the ghazal (‘of the djinn’) announcing both a return and a departure. And the hidden qafia, or rhymes, which immediately precede each refrain cleverly encode this mission, most obviously ‘the allure’ / ‘to know more’ in the ghazal’s second and third sher.

With its roots in sixth-century pre-Islamic Arabic verse, the ghazal is one of the oldest forms of poetry still in use today, predating the sonnet by several centuries. It has since crossed multiple territorial borders and accrued many afterlives. Ancient yet endlessly self-renewing, the ghazal, occupying still a central place in Urdu poetic culture, indeed perfectly reflects the djinn hunters’ quest to bring past and future into unexpectedly original, generative dialogue. Each of its functionally end-stopped sher can stand alone, yet together these form complex unities with their surrounding others via rhyme and refrain. Across time and space, the djinn hunters are thus both apart and together. And here perhaps we arrive at the purpose of their wandering, their waiting: they wander to, and wait for, the light.

i Carl G. Jung. Qtd in Stanley R. Hopper, “Once More: The Cavern Beneath the Cave.” Archetypal Process. Edited by D. R. Griffin. Northwestern University Press, 1990, p. 118.

Deeksha Koul is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Her research examines the literary characteristics of key constitutional texts in Australia.