The first card fluttered onto the table, feather-light. “A simple opening”, said Abdul Ibn Hassan, resplendent in red. On the face of the card, a lone bird floated in an endless sky. “I wish I could fly”, it whispered in a young woman’s voice. It looked at us bitterly. “She missed her next two wishes, too”, added Abdul. “Bird brains, you know.”
We nodded. A traditional start, but that is what I was expecting. Fakir Rabdan, floating on his cloud of golden dust, drew the next card from his curling beard. It clinked like falling coins. On it, a beautiful young man looked into a mirror, hands raised to his face. He shimmered, gleamed, shone, but did not move. “I wish to be beautiful, and rich!” cried a young voice. “Everything I touch should turn to gold”. Fakir smiled, teeth like diamonds. “You bait them with your frippery, Fakir!” protested Abdul, smiling. But that, we knew, was allowed.
“Your turn, Safik!”
I knew to start low. It would not do, to overplay my hand this early in the game. The stakes were too high.
A guitar riff, a drum beat. My card vibrated with unheard rhythms. Thousands of teenage girls raised up pictures of a man with straggly blond hair and smudged eyeliner. They cried and screamed as a coffin was carried through crowded streets. “I want to be famous” sang a rough voice, wistfully.
The others looked at me quizzically. “The most famous ones are always dead”, I explained. The card shivered, but stayed.
And so we played.
We brought dead loved ones back to life: Abdul made them soulless and ravenous, Fakir left them buried alive. I had them kidnapped by secret agents and experimented on.
We granted immortality: The cards showed wizened, shrunken ancients; walking skeletons; soulless cyborgs.
We offered happiness: mindless idiocy, delusional schizophrenia. Grinning maniacs frozen in eternal ecstasy.
The points racked up, in their secret ways, in complicated combinations. We all felt the game’s tides change again and again as the super-strong crushed their lovers, men stepped on the moon and could not find breath to ask for air, women asked for beauty and were disowned by their families. Round and round we went, each hoping it would be our turn to win.
The game is played for the highest stakes.
“The end game, my dear friends”, announced Fakir finally, stroking his silver beard. He was in the lead: his last card, a city trapped in a perfect day, doomed to relive it again and again, never changing, still glowed faintly atop the tall pile on the table.
Abdul carefully removed one last card from his crimson turban. He smiled his sly smile as he laid it down. “Peace on Earth” asked a sweet voice from within. A soft glow touched every being in the world. For one small moment no creature harmed another. It was as if the world held its breath.
The moment passed, and violence resumed. “Peace on Earth” laughed Abdul. “How about that!” He was right to laugh. He was in the lead now.
Fakir, pale and drawn, reached into the recesses of his kaftan. He presented his last card. It hovered and twirled in the air over the table. “Total control over reality” said a confident voice. The air inside the card stood still. “He needs to move individual molecules to get anything to happen”, explained Fakir. A man was frozen, helpless, in the middle of his card. Fakir beamed; his lead was restored.
My opponents turned to me. “The last move is yours, Safik.” Fakir’s lead over me was vast. “Even if you cannot win, you must play”, Abdul reminded me. Those are the rules of this ancient game, a game played for the highest stake: one jinn’s freedom.
I drew my last card out from my heart, where I hid my greatest secrets. It showed a young man in torn jeans rubbing an ancient oil lamp. A jinn emerged, majestic and blue. The scene was silent, but jinn and man talked or a long while, with much scratching of heads and waving of hands. Finally, they shook hands.
“I wish to become the Jinn, Safik Al Shahad, and take his place in the lamp”, said a young voice, resounding clean and clear all around us. The card swelled, grew.
Turned itself inside out.
Comprehension dawned on the red face, then the golden one. The game was won. I felt myself lifting up from the table, away from my lamp, free at last. I looked down on myself and saw my old, torn jeans.
I was back.