The Djinn’s Apple is a fascinating historical murder mystery set in Baghdad’s ‘golden age’ (around 800 CE) during the Abbasid caliphate of Harun Al-Rashid. 12-year-old Nardeen is a doctor’s daughter who enjoys reading and memorising the manuscripts that pass through her father’s hands. After her father falls out of favour with the caliph, the entire family apart from Nardeen is brutally murdered.
Nardeen narrowly escapes being sold into slavery and is then taken in by the learned doctor and teacher Muallim Ishaq who, realising the value of her medical knowledge, continues her education at the bimaristan (hospital). As she learns more about medicine, she also considers how she can discover who killed her family and whether to seek revenge.
This is a brilliant immersive work of historical fiction which transports us to the medieval Islamic world, a period which will be unfamiliar to many young readers. As the historical notes at the end of the book make clear, this was a time of great intellectual and cultural advances, particularly in medicine, pharmacy and public health. Readers might be surprised at how similar the bimaristan in Baghdad is to hospitals today, despite the 1,200 years separating them.
It is a beautifully written book, sensitively translated from Djamila Morani’s original Arabic by Sawad Hussain (for which it won an English PEN Translates Award). For instance, when reflecting on her family’s killers, Nardeen muses that ‘Dirty hands are never seen, always hidden from people’s eyes. You never see dirty hands, but they always leave marks that can’t be wiped away.’ And she later describes how ‘Pain gives birth to hatred, which grows, puts down roots. Its features form like a foetus in the womb of pain. When such hatred comes out in the light of day, you can’t say that it’s ugly, because the pain that gave birth to it is uglier.’ There are many similarly profound and imaginative descriptions.
The plot held my interest throughout – in addition to the central mystery, there is also a budding romance which is jeopardised by political intrigue and Nardeen’s pursuit of revenge. At only 132 pages, this novel is eminently usable as a KS3 class reader or tutor time read as a way of exposing pupils to the richness of Islamic history; a helpful glossary would also aid pupils in reading the novel independently.
Winner of the English PEN Translates Award
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