When writers say that their character has "flaming eyes", they usually don't mean it literally – but Neil Gaiman does. In American Gods he introduces us to an 'ifrit' or 'jinn' from the Middle East who has fallen on hard times and now drives a yellow cab in New York City, enduring 30-hour shifts and passengers who defecate on his seats.
We get a sneak peek of the jinn (Mousa Kraish) early on in the series when he brushes past Shadow in a cafe, revealing burning eyes hidden behind sunglasses. But his starring moment comes in episode three, when he picks up a passenger called Salim in his cab...
*Series one, episode three spoilers to follow*
What happens in the story?
Salim (Omid Abtahi) is a young Muslim man from Oman who has just moved to New York to work as a salesman for his brother-in-law. Unfortunately it is going terribly and money is running out. Exhausted after another failed sale, he hails a taxi and forms an immediate connection with the exhausted Middle Eastern man at the wheel as they share their stories of living in America.
When the jinn falls asleep at the wheel, Salim reaches forward to gently shake him awake, and catches a glimpse of his eyes which "burn like fire". He gives the jinn his hotel room number, and they spend the night together. In the morning all Salim's belongings are gone (including his ticket home) – but the jinn's taxi keys and ID remain in their place.
He begins his new life as a taxi driver, and it is implied in the novel that he may have taken on the ifrit's powers as the sunglasses are also left behind.
Who is the jinn and where is he from?
We get a sense of the jinn's age when he asks Salim if he knows the city of Ubar – the Lost City of Towers, or the Atlantis of the Sands, that supposedly perished two or three thousand years ago.
Ifrit come from Middle Eastern and Islamic mythology and are a sort of of jinn. Jinn are like demons or genies (just don't ask them to grant wishes: "If I could grant wishes, do you think I would be driving a cab?").
They are mentioned frequently in the Quran and other Islamic texts, where they are described as supernatural creatures who were created from a smokeless and "scorching fire". According to Arabic mythology, there are three classes of being: angels, humans (made from mud) and jinn (made from fire).
They are physical in nature (so you could meet one in real life) and have free will, so you'll find good and bad jinns.
Ifrit in particular are powerful and dangerous, and known for their strength and cunning (so running off with all Salim's belongings is entirely in character).
In the novel, Salim (who is from Oman) tells the taxi driver: "My grandmother swore that she had seen an ifrit, or perhaps a marid, late one evening, on the edge of the desert. We told her that it was just a sandstorm, a little wind, but she said no, she saw its face, and its eyes, like yours, were burning flames."
What about the sex?
There are stories about male and female ifrit having sex with humans. But the homosexual sex scene between Salim and the jinn, portrayed in such graphic detail in the TV series, is highly unusual.
Stating that the jinn and Salim are gay characters, Gaiman has written: "I tend not to write characters with sexual orientation as a starting point, unless that's how they define themselves. Most people don't."
Some have suggested that the ifrit is – as a supernatural creature – genderless and without a real sexual identity. Other readers have wondered if Salim's sense of alienation is tied to his suppressed homosexuality, which is unlocked by the jinn.
Speaking to Out magazine, jinn actor Kraish said: “The Jinn comes into Salim’s life to say, ‘It’s OK to be who you are.' Now, more than ever, that story is incredibly powerful. The sex scene is so intense and intimate. I don’t think anything like it has ever occurred on TV.”
American Gods is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes added every week. Episodes air on US channel Starz on Sunday nights
This article was originally published in 2017