Robert W. Lebling Jr. is an American writer/editor and communication specialist who works as a public affairs advisor for a major industrial company in Saudi Arabia. A graduate of Princeton University, he has worked as a journalist in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States. His areas of interest include energy, the environment and Middle Eastern cultures. His books include Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and genies from Arabia to Zanzibar.
1. Why were you originally drawn to the subject of the Jinn?
I have long been interested in the mysterious, paranormal and unexplained. Years ago, I became interested in probing the edges of science and human knowledge. I worked as a normal journalist for years, covering the usual topics: politics, economy, society. But in my spare time, I investigated and sometimes wrote articles about ancient mysteries. Even before the World Wide Web was born in the 1990s, I was one of the owners of an information discussion group called “Enigmas” on a national dial-up bulletin board service in the USA. We looked into all types of unexplained phenomena: ghosts and spirits, UFOs, cryptozoology, ancient mysteries, borderline science, etc. I believe that scientific skepticism is important and essential, but it should go hand-in-hand with open-mindedness. It is worthwhile to investigate the frontiers of science, because that is where new truths are found (as well as frauds and hoaxes!). The old legends of the Arabs and others in the Middle East seemed to me to be based on some hidden realities which it is worthwhile pursuing.
Living in Saudi Arabia as I do, I have had a few personal experiences with the unexplained. One involved seeing a shadowy, human-like shape walking from room to room in my home. I normally don’t scare easily, but this time the hair on my arms stood up in alarm. I searched the rooms where the shape was, but I found nothing. Such apparitions are common throughout the world and are characterised as ‘Shadow People’. They could very well be jinn.
2. Can you explain what a Jinn is, and their place in folklore of the Arab world?
All we know is what is captured in the legends. Jinn are believed to be a species of intelligent, social beings who share the Earth with humans. They have families, tribes, cities, courts and all the trappings of civilisation. They have free will and can choose to be good or evil. Evil jinn are commonly called demons. Jinn are mortal, though they appear to live much longer than humans. They have many powers humans lack – sort of like Superman – and, importantly, can shapeshift, taking the form of animals, humans, or even monsters. Under most circumstances jinn are invisible to us, suggesting they inhabit a different dimension or wavelength of reality.
3. Why do you think Hollywood always portrays Jinn as loveable/comic characters?
Hollywood views jinn (genies) as either cartoonish or horrific. The movie industry goes with what audiences like, and both of these clichés are popular. Someday we may see a movie about a jinn creature with more complexity, but so far not yet.
4. Do you have a favourite story that contains Jinn from The Arabian Nights, or another treasury?
My personal favourite is ‘The City of Brass’, which appears in the Arabian Nights and elsewhere. The lost City of Brass was said to have been built somewhere in northwest Africa by King Solomon (Sulaiman) with the help of the jinn. In the Middle Ages, people thought it was a real city, probably covered by the sands of the Sahara, and one of the leaders of the Arab/Berber conquest of the Iberian Peninsula actually led an expedition in search of the city. Legend and history become mixed, but it is a great story. There are many other Arab tales about lost cities in the Sahara and Arabia’s Empty Quarter. Some of these tales date from the Middle Ages but others are thousands of years old.
Related to the City of Brass is the legend that Solomon rounded up some rebel jinn and locked them in casks or boxes and threw them in the sea off North Africa. When the casks were found many centuries later and opened, the imprisoned jinn were still alive, and they shot up into the sky, crying out for the forgiveness of King Solomon, and were never seen again.
5. Can you comment on the role of The Arabian Nights and other collections of tales from the Arab world, and give your view on why such stories are so alluring?
The Arabian Nights tales and other collections of their type, despite their fantastic flavour and their use of jinn, magic, monsters and the like, are very human stories that never lose their appeal. We human beings have brains that are hard-wired to enjoy and benefit from good stories, and the survival of The Arabian Nights and similar works is testimony to this.
6. Some scientists are starting to give credence to the possible existence of the Jinn. Could you elucidate?
Scientists tell us that modern physics, including string theory, accommodate multiple dimensions beyond the three dimensions of space and one of time that we are able to sense. Some people speculate that the jinn inhabit these other dimensions. Others think that jinn live in our own dimensions but are invisible because they give off infrared or ultraviolet light, which we cannot see. I saw an article last year that says cats and dogs are able to see frequencies humans can’t and thus can see ghosts and other spirits. (https://themindunleashed.com/2017/08/can-cats-dogs-see-spirits-science-confirms-can-see-frequencies-cant.html) So we may be in for some surprises, thanks to our pets….