A little over a year after the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols, on Thursday, 24 July 1259, a noisy crowd followed a strange creature some Mediterranean fishermen had brought overland to Baghdad in a canopied boat filled with water and fitted with wheels. To the beat of the kettledrums heralding their progress, the procession moved slowly in the blistering heat towards the governor’s palace where the creature was to be presented to Governor Juvayni, a man both feared and revered as Hulagu Khan’s foremost official.

People climbed over each other’s shoulders to catch a glimpse of the creature in the boat and cried out excitedly, as the palace gates opened to admit the fishermen’s procession. The drums stopped beating as the gates closed, but the crowd stayed to hear of the creature’s fate.

Like others present at court, Governor Juvayni felt an ill omen at the first sight of the creature whose bulging eyes, protruding from a forehead as wide and high as a bull’s, crowned a face lined with a network of thick veins. Sharp canines hung over his lower lip. Broad shouldered, with sinewy arms, the merman’s powerful, scarred torso was partially covered by long, dark hair trailing to his navel. His unified lower body was covered with scales. A cloud of flies and the ripe smell of fish enveloped him. Submerged in the felt and leather-lined boat, he haughtily leaned back against the bow, without displaying fear or concern about his fate.

The leader of the fishermen who had found him caught in their nets bowed before the governor, and after a litany of praises addressed to Juvayni, introduced the creature as Gujastak, meaning the Accursed, a name given him by the fishermen because the merman’s presence frightened away the fish in the sea for miles.

Governor Juvayni waited for his excited courtiers to fall quiet so that he could dismiss with a small reward the fishermen along with the merman. He wished the creature out of his sight. Pressing matters of state needed his attention. Tasked with restoring Baghdad’s infrastructure and reviving its economy, his hours were taken up with supervising the city’s reconstruction, and rebuilding the commerce and trade routes devastated in the Mongol attack on the city.

Agriculture had been badly impaired from the destruction of the dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, and he had the added responsibility of overseeing its revival. The assignment had come in the middle of his work on the universal history which he believed would keep alive his name, and inform the futurity of how the wise military and foreign policies of the Mongols influenced the course of history – policies which Juvayni had helped shape as the Ilkhanid Mongol dynasty’s chief diplomat and administrator.

While Juvayni listened in silence to his courtiers, a court official brought up the question of whether or not it was permissible to eat a sea animal resembling a human, querying the experts present about the applicable dietary law. Far away in the palace corridors, cats that had stalked the merman’s boat through the streets could be heard meowing loudly, as the guards tried to drive them away.

In reply to the court official, the chamberlain quoted the renowned juridical text Qunia which maintained that should such a human-shaped animal make speech in Arabic, and state that he is so and so, and son of such and such man, his statement should not be deemed worthy of investigation, and he should be eaten. Manifestly, the jurist who wrote Qunia had met a merman endowed with the power of speech who escaped his cooking pot by filling his ears with confusion and deceit.

For a while everyone wondered about the lost story of The Jurist and the Merman, which had not come down to them, unlike the story of Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman told by storytellers in the marketplace, which gave the account of the friendship between a fisherman and a merman.

The governor sought the opinion of Qazwini, who stood on a stepladder, inspecting the merman. In addition to his accomplishments as a geographer, physician and astronomer, Qazwini was an authority on the interpretation of religious law. The final word in juristic matters at the court was reserved to him.

Qazwini stepped down and, gathering the folds of his dishevelled dark blue robe, gave a bow to the governor. Rather than offer a short reply to help him dismiss the matter as Juvayni had hoped, Qazwini launched into a discourse, based on his preliminary inspection of the merman, about the difference between the merman and the fish resembling humans described by the authors of bestiaries from antiquity to the present, dwelling upon the instances where such fish had been seen or caught, and their histories. These included the Sheikh of Sweet Speech who stole and bartered the secrets of conjugal beds; the Man of the Sea who rued offending his benefactor; Sheikh Yehudi who knew the underwater burial place of Hermes’s Emerald Tablet of Magic; and the Horned Demon-Tortoise whose reincarnation was interrupted.

Juvayni knew that Qazwini did not make the lengthy preamble from a pedantic instinct or verbose impulse, but from the necessity of offering a logical argument. He listened attentively to understand why the creature had stirred his friend’s curious mind.

Qazwini declared that the merman was one of Creation’s marvels, which god revealed to humans so that they could reflect upon the ingenuity of his creation. To even jestingly speak about eating it was akin to making light of god’s signs. Qazwini quoted Pliny the Elder from the Naturalis Historia that all land animals have their equivalent in the sea, and the same was true of all sea beasts. The theory seemingly encompassed humans, Qazwini commented, as validated by the merman’s presence. What remained to be seen, Qazwini added, was if the diverse temperaments of the human species were also represented in their aquatic counterparts.

Qazwini offered that he would study the creature’s faculties and share any further marvels he discovered in the merman. Looking keenly at Juvayni, Qazwini suggested that as the guardian of the land and the creatures which inhabited it, the governor ought to display Gujastak the Merman in his palace for all visitors to behold the manifest sign of God’s handiwork.

Governor Juvayni’s voice rose above the courtiers’ buzz. He said if the merman were kept in the palace grounds, the few hours of quiet study left him after the court ended would also be ruined by the noise of palace guards herding and chasing spectators and idlers. The sanction to keep Gujastak the Merman at some other location was implicit in the governor’s reply, however. Qazwini offered to look after arrangements for a pool to house the creature.

Despite Juvayni’s discomfort at the creature’s sight, he could not deny the learned man’s need to study the creature. He settled with the fishermen, and commissioned one of them to stay behind as a keeper. Before the merman’s boat was wheeled away, Juvayni cast another look at the creature. Oblivious to the court chatter, Gujastak lay unstirred in his boat, his only motion a twitch of the skin to drive away the flies.

The Merman and the Book of Power

Excerpted with permission from The Merman and the Book of Power: A Qissa, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Aleph Book Company.