Why Salim and The Jinn’s story is the heart of “American Gods”

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I’ll say up front that I am an American Gods virgin. I’ve never read the book, so I went into this entire season blind. Heck, I still don’t know exactly what I witnessed in my three-episode binge-watch, but I do know these three things:

1. Shadow Moon might be foine, but he’s annoying. He’s a character whose characterization is both inconsistent and nonexistent. How much magic has to happen around you before you believe in these gods, Shadow? You’ve got the freaking moon as a coin your pocket for goodness’ sake!

2. I’m liking all of the “Somewhere in America” scenes better than the actual storyline. If the show was just a meditation on the old gods and how they are trying to both fit in the new world order and keep their dignity (plus gain some worshippers in the process), that’d be fine by me. The less I have to see Shadow Moon dismiss the clear reality of gods, the better.

3. Salim and the Jinn’s “Somewhere in America” vignette might be the best one so far. 

I was heavily spoiled by Twitter before watching these episodes (not complaining about it), so I already knew about Bliquis swallowing people with her vagina and Mr. Nancy/Anansi telling his worshippers–now captive slaves on a surprisingly clean-looking slave ship–how the African people will be royally screwed in America. With all of the hype, I’m not exactly sure what I expected, but I probably would have been more “OMG!” about it all if I hadn’t known anything about those scenes. At the same time, there’s a lot of fodder to discuss, from the arguments that could be made for and against using a black woman’s body (Bliquis, the fertility and love goddess) to discuss sex and/or sexual objectification, to the haunting nature of Anansi telling his people the horrors they were in store for. No doubt I will write some articles on these very topics. But for right now, I’m voicing my opinion that for me, the Jinn and Salim are the heartbeat of American Gods. Here’s why.

• The Jinn, like all the gods, is seeking his former glory. But unlike other gods, he isn’t stealing worship. What I loved about the Jinn is that, compared to gods like Bliquis, Odin/Mr. Wednesday, Czernobog and even Mad Sweeney, the Jinn doesn’t demand tribute in the form of war, sexual conquests, fighting, or killing. Instead, it seems like the Jinn just demands respect. Sure, all the gods want respect, but the way the Jinn complains about his lot in life is more earnest and relatable than any of the gods so far. He seems to yearn for human connections in a much more intimate way than his fellow gods. Furthermore, his humiliation at having to taxi people around in New York City, hearing Americans believe the Jinn are just wish-fulfillment dieties, and cleaning up “wet shit” from the back seat rings much closer to real life issues people of color have had to historically deal with in America, such as cleaning white people’s homes to being thought of as stereotypes, to just feeling anonymous, with not many understanding your real power and worth. On several levels, the Jinn is just more relatable than some of the other gods as a whole.

The Jinn’s happiness comes from finding someone who finally understands what he’s going through. To be even more specific, the Jinn and Salim’s taxi ride was a scene all about code-switching. To be with someone from Oman seemed to take him back to a time when he was at home and was powerful, but most importantly, at peace. Again, that resonates with the very real feeling of being the only person of color in a white space and finally catching the eye of another person of color who gets exactly what you’re feeling through your shared history. You feel like you don’t have to navigate the space by yourself; you can voice your real self to that other person, and more than likely, they’ll understand.  Talking with Salim and having that human connection made the Jinn feel home, and he was able to be himself, which was more valuable to The Jinn than stealing someone’s worship.

• The Jinn and Salim are linked together as equals. Out of all of the gods, the Jinn and Salim’s story had the most calming and most normal resolution. With the rest of the gods, something has to be given to the gods, but the gods don’t give back anything in return. Instead, the Jinn and Salim’s story showcases a give-and-take that makes their relationship a lot more realistic and makes the entire scene a standout in the midst of the “Somewhere in America” scenes we’ve had so far. Salim worships the Jinn by showing him respect, compassion, and care; the Jinn worships Salim by empowering him through making love and leaving Salim with his identity as a taxi driver. The Jinn continues to thank Salim for his kindness by taking on his job as a tchotchke salesman.

Let me expound some more on the term “making love.” Usually, that’s a term I hate. I’ve never even uttered it in real life before, I hate it that much. Perhaps it’s because we as a human race sometimes interchange the phrase with “having sex,” even though the two are completely different acts. Anyone can have sex; it takes a special moment and a special person to actually say you’ve “made love” to someone, I think. I’m also a person who believes there is a such thing as a cosmic sexual experience (i.e. expanding your consciousness via tantra and tantric sex, etc.), and that’s what Salim experienced with the Jinn. The Jinn truly did worship Salim through this act, which is huge, since it’s not like Salim’s a god. But Salim’s interaction with The Jinn meant so much to him that, in the Jinn’s mind, Salim is on a high enough pedestal to be worshipped like a god.

At the same time, the Jinn gave Salim permission to be himself. As has been said in various articles, Salim is used to having intercourse quickly, cleanly, and in secretive places. I’m sure that for Salim, there’s a certain amount of shame associated with sex as well. To quote showrunner Bryan Fuller from The Hollywood Reporter:

“To portray Salim and the Jinn in a way that’s sex positive for a gay man who comes from a country where homosexuality is punishable by death and you can be thrown off of a rooftop. It was very important to us to look at Salim’s story as a gay man from the Middle East whose sexual experience was probably relegated to back alley blowjobs and didn’t have an intimate personal sexual experience. In the book, Salim blows the Jinn in the hotel, and then he’s gone. It was important for us in this depiction to have Salim drop to his knees and prepare to achieve sex the way he’d been accustomed to, and the Jinn lifts him off of his knees and kisses him and treats him much more soulfully and spiritually to change this perception of who is is and what his sexual identity has become. That felt like it was empowering in a different way, showing a protagonist as the one who is being penetrated. That comes with all sorts of preconceptions of gender roles and what it is to be a gay man at the same time.”

I’d go so far as to say that Salim is the only one so far who has encountered a god and came away with a positive experience. If anyone has faith in any of these gods, it’d seem like Salim has the most reason to have faith in his Jinn.

• The Jinn is one of the few gods that actually feel like characters you can identify with. Perhaps I should speak for myself–the Jinn is one of the few god characters feel like I can identify with. Maybe it’s how Mousa Kraish speaks while in character–the accent he gives the Jinn and the timbre of his voice sounds rich and musical–but I get where the Jinn is coming from. I don’t get that with Wednesday, Czernobog, or, heck, most of the gods we’ve met so far. Too many of these gods are opportunistic, and that’s not a criticism; I think that’s part of what the show is exploring. But Kraish’s Jinn looks and sounds like an earthy, warm protector. He wants what all us human want, which is to be understood, respected, and seen for who he is–he also requires no frills, unlike the other gods. I get that.

I’ll say again that I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if any of my current feelings towards the Jinn with change (I hope they don’t). But as for right now, I’m all about the Jinn and Salim and I can’t wait to spend more time with them.

For more on Salim, the Jinn, and American Gods, check out this Ars Technica podcast featuring award-winning fantasy author and critic Amal El-Mohtar, who gives her insights on the treatment of Arabic and Middle Eastern identity in American Gods so far.