The Djinn's Apple: A young girl’s defiance in Abbasid Baghdad

The Djinn's Apple: A young girl’s defiance in Abbasid Baghdad
Book Club: In 'The Djinn's Apple,' a young girl challenges societal norms in Abbasid Baghdad, driven by a quest for justice after her family's tragic fate.
5 min read
26 June, 2024

“What forbidden fruit did I take a bite of?” asks the young girl whose perspective we follow in The Djinn’s Apple by Algerian writer Djamila Morani.

This historical crime fiction, which won the English PEN Translates Award in 2021, is set about a thousand years ago during the golden age of Baghdad.

The young adult novel’s translation from Arabic by Sawad Hussain delivers a lyrical and fast-paced narrative. It pulls back the curtain on the society and politics of a prominent era in Islamic history — the Abbasid period — told through the lens of a fierce female character forging her path in the world.

The Djinn’s Apple, peppered with wisdom and set prominently in the medical field, sometimes reads like a love letter to the profession of healing”

“All the books I had read, all the plants whose names I had memorised staying up late with my father,” Nardeen laments, faced with the terrible yet commonplace fate of the time — slavery.

“All the dreams I had piled up one atop the other, all gone up in smoke.”

The novel starts with a shocking scene that sets the tone for the sense of justice at the heart of the story: Nardeen is unable to drown out the piercing screams of her siblings as they are butchered to death in their home.

When the Baramika family name becomes a target owing to a political conflict and unfortunate timing rather than any actual wrongdoing on their part, Nardeen becomes the only member of her family to survive the massacre. She inherits a powerful desire to seek revenge against her family’s murderers.

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The tragic events set her down a new path in life, prompting her to later question whether one chooses their fate or if it chooses them.

While she is erudite with a strong desire to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor, Nardeen lives in “a world ruled by men,” reflecting the limited options available to girls and women at the time.

Wanting her daughter to play by society’s rules — which could ensure a safe and comfortable life for her albeit devoid of academic pursuits — her mother would often remind her of society’s expectations for her gender: “Men were made to use their brains and women to look pretty.”

Now, facing a future that had not been charted for her, Nardeen is left alone and confused, mourning the loss of her entire family and being cut off from the protection she’d enjoyed as a doctor’s daughter.

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In a swift turn of events, Muallim Ishaq, a professor and respected doctor of medicinal herbs who worked and taught at the same Bimaristan (a hospital in the historic Islamic world) as her father, rescues her from slavery and takes her under his wing. He becomes a father figure to her as she grows into her teenage years.

As he takes on the task of raising her, he often shares his thoughts with Nardeen, hoping to guide her down a fruitful path suitable for a young mind with her talents.

Speaking of loneliness, the professor, who had lost his wife and son, tells her, “The true birth of a person isn’t when they leave the world, but rather when they leave the world behind to look inwards, and that only happens when you’re alone.”

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Herself alone in the world, Nardeen adjusts her life to the professor’s rhythm and becomes his star student at the Bimaristan. She defies the odds, irking some of the male students with her wit and intelligence, and carves a rightful place for herself in the male-dominated medical field — all while the desire to avenge her family’s murder only grows stronger with time.

From Nardeen's perspective, Baghdad in the novel is portrayed not only as a society where people of various faiths coexist but also as a hub of medical innovation and education.

The Bimaristan is portrayed as a jewel of the medieval Islamic world, a largely untold history that the author brings to light in this book.

In a note at the end of the book, the author provides greater detail about the historical context and relevance of the Bimaristan, painting a fascinating picture of these institutions of learning and innovation.

As Nardeen navigates her lessons — which include the medical ethics of the time and how to claim power in society by earning a position as a respected doctor in Baghdadi society — she becomes aware of the complex social politics of the era and how her gender can give her unexpected advantages in her mission.

Her journey uncovering the identity of the individual behind her family’s horrific murder leads her down interesting paths that push the limits of morality, loyalty, and accountability.

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The Djinn’s Apple, peppered with wisdom and set prominently in the medical field, sometimes reads like a love letter to the profession of healing.

Unexpected moments of treachery and betrayal add to the narrative’s sense of peril and mystery.

The novel also pays homage to translators. A mysterious manuscript and its translation are at the heart of the story, propelling the narrative onward and reflecting the historical truth that it was often the work of translators that influenced shifts in society and led to discoveries and advances that perhaps were right under a person’s nose the whole time.

As a murder mystery and a magical story of vengeance with surprising shades of romance, it’s hard to stop reading The Djinn’s Apple once you begin.

Sumaiyya Naseem is a CNN Academy-trained media professional and literary content creator specializing in reviews of novels by Arab, South Asian and Muslim authors. She works as a freelance page production editor by day and explores literary worlds by night. All other hours are reserved for her cat Gatsby

You can find her work on The New Arab and Instagram @sumaiyya.books