In the Maldives, jinnis are cosmic specters existing parallel with tangible life forms, much like angels and humans. Jinnis who deviate, however, are blamed for everything bad that happens to the local people.
Jinnis live anywhere unsuitable for humans—the seafloor, cemeteries, thorny bushes—and emerge at peculiar moments of inconvenience for the islanders, wrongdoers or no. These islanders say the sea surrounding their main atoll is haunted by an evil jinni of enormous power, demanding frequent sacrifice of young female virgins. Girls are kidnapped and abandoned, tied to a pole on the beach at dusk, found raped and dead at dawn.
Ancient Islamic explorer Ibn Battuta: “I looked to sea and there was something like a great ship which seemed as though it were full of lamps and torches.”
Aligulha, or fireballs, are apparitions from the world of jinnis—spirits under the guise of flame. After surfing a dreamy right-hand point, a fisherman motored up to our boat and described a phenomenon he’d recently witnessed while working with his crew of five a half-mile offshore the isle of Suheli. One twilight, he was tormented by one of these jinnis appearing as a fireball, first clinging to the mast then jouncing atop the sea surface aside the ship, taunting its crew.
The man attacked it with a fishing pole, but struck nothing solid. In the wake of the thing's distaste for the animosity from the man and his crew, the fireball constructed illusions of great dimensions.
"Suddenly we found ourselves in shallow water," the man told me. "Then, on the horizon, a whale surfaced, its mouth wide open, its teeth glowing. It was coming straight at us to swallow our ship!
"We quickly motored back the island and narrowly managed to dodge the whale by reaching the sanctuary of the lagoon. Then, just as soon as it had appeared, the beast and fireball vanished. The lagoon saved us."