The smelly sheikh sat atop the edges of the raised pool and supervised the cleaning. Sometimes he uttered threats in his aquatic babble which no one understood. As the workers cursed him back, he would bare his fangs and laugh, and his large, translucent belly shook. Then with a burble of what sounded like abuses, and a swish of his large tail, he would lunge and disappear into the pool. He seemed finally at home in the alabaster pool made for him. The jetstone and granite pools made earlier had not agreed with his constitution, and he had fouled the water.

The governor was not to blame for the merman’s captivity. When the fishermen who had caught the sheikh in their nets near Alexandria first presented him before the governor, he was ambivalent about accepting the gift. It was the geographer, physician and astronomer, Abu Yahya Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, who had encouraged the governor to house him in his palace. He found him a fascinating study, and wrote in detail about him in the now lost treatise The Mysterious Life of the Aquatic Human Male.

In addition to the housing, numerous other expenses had followed as a result of the merman’s moving into the palace. Al-Qazwini had not told the governor that the sheikh would require a regular supply of saline water. A whole chain of supply had to be established for trains of mules to deliver water from the sea in waterskins made of the bodies of female sharks, because in them the saltwater retained its quality longer.

The caliph, who had been notified of the presence of the sheikh by the governor, finally arrived one day with his retinue to inspect the marvel. The governor had cautioned him that the sheikh's behaviour was erratic at best, and he may not expect to see a perfectly duteous and tractable creature. For several hours before the caliph’s arrival, two men had stood by the walls of the pool and recited strings of verses known to calm wild beasts while the sheikh grunted and splashed about in the water within.

To the surprise of the governor, the sheikh was most well-behaved as the caliph ascended the steps of the platform to inspect him. The onlookers attributed it to the majesty and authority of the young caliph.

As the governor and al-Qazwini looked on, the caliph asked the merman if everything provided for his housing was satisfactory. Then he asked a few questions about the merman’s tribe, his language and his habitat. To all of these the merman replied in his sea language. The caliph kept nodding his head in amusement. Of those present there, only al-Qazwini realised that the merman understood Arabic, for he had caught a glimpse of comprehension on the merman’s hairy face when he was asked the questions by the caliph. The man of learning wondered about the possibilities if his observation was correct.

Before he turned away, the caliph asked the sheikh if there was anything he needed. The merman now began communicating with the caliph animatedly and to the governor’s utter horror, gesticulated in a vulgar fashion to demand a female. Both startled and amused, the caliph looked around and asked the governor what he thought of the merman’s demand. The governor looked askance at al-Qazwini who begged leave to reply to the caliph’s query.

Al-Qazwini knew of the reports of mermaids caught by Arab and Greek sailors in the seas whom they released after coupling with them. It was possible one could be caught and brought for the sheikh. But that is not what al-Qazwini wanted.

Thus it was that at his suggestion a slave-girl was procured for the merman to be given to him as a concubine. The learned man had surmised that if a human female were to couple with the sheikh and the two had offspring, the children would naturally know the language of both mother and father, and could act as interpreters between them. More importantly, al-Qazwini could then interrogate the sheikh, and become privy to the many mysteries of the deep sea he wished to learn. It was only a question of whether offspring could materialise from the mating between a merman and human female. The sheikh himself looked more than equipped to have offspring.

The slave girl was still being trained in swimming and diving by the soldiers of the caliph’s navy to prepare her for her new life when a religious and legal complication arose. Religious scholars were of the opinion that since one party to the contract was not fully human, the normal laws of concubinage would not apply, and a nikah contract was required.

The matter was finally resolved when on behalf of the merman the governor acted as the vakil and a nikah contract was duly made with the caliph settling a mehr amount on the slave girl as the merman’s lord.

The historians of the caliph’s court, quoting the chroniclers of the governor’s palace, have written that a male child was born to the couple after the completion of a lunar year. They also recount that at the birth of the child the mother rapidly started losing her language and her speech began to resemble the merman’s.

When these developments came to the notice of al-Qazwini who had attended the childbirth and closely monitored the conjugal life of the couple, he ordered that the couple be separated. But the merman fought furiously when the guards first tried to remove his wife from the poolside, and thereafter he attached himself to her body whenever someone approached in such a way that their skins fused and it became impossible to separate them short of cutting them apart.

The male child too, did not speak a word of Arabic and always stuck close to his parents. He did not have the webbed hands of his father or his tail, but he had inherited his father's gills and fangs.

Matters deteriorated rather rapidly from there. The slave girl was reputed to have found a lover in the captain of the guards of the governor’s palace who was often observed keeping a lusty watch on her. The governor was asked to provide troops for a campaign to put out a rebellion in a port city, and the captain was sent away. The family of the sheikh disappeared on the same night.

There was too much political ferment at the time for the governor to send a search party for the smelly sheikh and honour al-Qazwini’s request. He probably also felt relieved at his disappearance, because the smells from the pool had grown only stronger.

Some clues to the whereabouts of the sheikh’s family were found when the body of the captain of the guards was recovered some days later from near the port. Some sharp-toothed animal had chewed off his neck. A large and empty wooden trunk lined with sharkskin was also found beside him.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author and translator. He can be reached at and on Twitter @microMAF.