UAE: Jullnar of the Sea
A sea of sand shifts below my feet as a light breeze caresses my hair. The glow of the dying sun illuminates’ wave after wave of golden dunes, glowing like embers as day becomes night. This far from civilisation, the eternal Milky Way stretches across the indigo heavens. As the cool wind blows, the sands seem to tinkle, like fairy bells in the hushed breath of stillness somewhere between day and night.
Eventually, music begins. A dom-dom tukka-tuk, winding, rhythmic pattern with haunting string and air instruments, weaving a spell in the dark. My body begins the familiar dance - sensual, sinuous and mystical. Acrid frankincense and myrrh are heavy in the air, the plumes of smoke dancing wispily about me. It’s intoxicating. Or, at least, this is how I always imagined it would be.
The Middle East, has always been an enchantment for me. From the time of Alexander, the Great, Westerners have yearned to venture east, led by tales of wonder. These lands have a reputation of a dark and terrible beauty, a fascinating blend of exoticism, luxury, danger and ‘otherness’ that many find irresistible.
The Middle East is also a land of mysticism and magic. There exists a rich mythos of spirits and otherworldly creatures.
Some of these beings are mentioned in the Islamic Q’ran. Djinn are said to be spirits made of “smokeless fire”, with many subspecies. They are complex and are more like the British Faerie Folk and Scandinavian Elves than they may seem at first glance, having their own culture, societies, powers and personalities. Djinn interact with humans from time to time. They are neither good, nor bad and tend to operate in a grey moral zone (similar to most humans!) There are many types of djinn (for example, Afreet) and water spirits are counted in their number. Some claim that the Marid are a type of djinn originating in the sea.
Perhaps you have heard of Djinn. From “I dream of Jeannie” to “Genie” in Aladdin, these creatures have crept into our own mythology and made their presence known.
But did you know that the Arabian Sea is also home to a rich and fascinating mythos of sea people?
As a desert people, the local Bedouin view water as priceless. The jewel-like waters of the cyan Arabian Sea must have been an endless source of inspiration for storytellers. It completely contrasts with the arid desert in which they make their home.
In the 1001 (Arabian) Nights stories, tale-less mermaids and mermen appear human, but have the ability to breathe underwater. There are entire cities under the sea, populated by these sea people with their own unique culture and customs.
In one tale, Jullnar “of the sea” or “the mermaid” is a slave who is married to a sultan and bears him a son. The tale follows the many adventures of her son, featuring Jullnar and her people throughout.
In another story, Abdullah the Fisherman becomes Abdullah the merman when he begins to breathe underwater and explores the cities of the sea peoples in the depths of the ocean.
Other tales also contain varied interactions with these mysterious merpeople.
It was with a combination of excitement and trepidation that I prepared for my first trip to the United Arab Emirates. I was fortunate enough to visit both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Both places are unique, but not necessarily unalike. I was struck with two main observations from my visits.
The first is the wealth, much of it on ostentatious display. Both cities are oases of culture, food and prosperity, sprung out of the very sands of the desert. It’s impossible to ignore the glory and splendour of the Emirates. From the beautiful Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi (without a doubt one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever been blessed to lay eyes upon), to the towering boldness of the Burj Khalifa, the United Arab Emirates is almost otherworldly in its splendour. As a visitor, I felt like both an adventuring mermaid, having left my sea for the first time to stare at the world anew, and a princess, partaking (temporarily), in decadence unlike I have ever experienced. My inner Aphrodite relished in the luxurious surrounds and I spent countless hours (window) shopping in both the bazaar and high-end shopping centres alike.
The second thing I knew, but came to fully realise whilst in the UAE, is how misunderstood the Islamic communities are in the West. In 1001 Nights, the Arabian explorers who visit the sea people’s realm do so with wonder. They observe a culture so unlike their own and learn from them. Please don’t misunderstand me; the stories are not necessarily paragons of virtue. The protagonists are flawed human beings and both extreme cruelty and kindness live side by side in their hearts by their very nature. But one can tell a lot about a culture from its stories! The tales in 1001 Nights evoke both curiosity and empathy in the audience. Who among us has not experienced a profound sense of wonder or connection with a story, be it a book or movie? It is not unlike travelling. Stories are a way for us to travel without leaving home. Too often we read sensationalist news that tells us what to think, rather than turning to the stories people tell about themselves and their culture. The stories that have endured, due to the universality of the human themes discussed within them are an invaluable tool for understanding our fellow human, even when language or culture divides us.
For me, the sea people represent a people and culture that the audience doesn’t fully comprehend. I imagine how these alien people must also see us; humans who individually can be kind, but as a whole are capable of great creation and great destruction.
Something I try to carry with me into my everyday life is that sense of mermaid-like curiosity. I, like many, often feel like I don’t quite “fit” with my own people, or even with humanity as a race. In part, my “mer” stems from my perception of otherness. But that can be a boon. When I’m faced with a challenge, I try to see it with mer-eyes. I try to evoke that sense I get when I travel, (like when I visited the UAE for the first time) - one of childlike curiosity. When I am looking at something I just don’t get, I try to see it with a sense of wonder and marvel (even the bad stuff like others bad behaviour). I ask myself “how must Jullnar have seen us, taken to a strange land as a slave?” And, it was with her quiet observance, her stillness, her curiosity and empathy that she went from slave to queen.
And isn’t that the essence of so many mermaid (and women’s) tales? The power to endure. Be it a Scottish selkie who has had her skin stolen and is forced to remain on land as she yearns for her sea family; or Jullnar, the slave, taken from her home and her people and married to a foreign King. Mermaids are resilient. Curiosity about another culture and compassion are strategies that allow us to connect with others and foster resilience.
So, I would like to challenge you. If you find yourself in a situation that makes you uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar, new or different, try to respond with curiosity. Anger or anxiety is a response that can be triggered when we are safe, but facing something we feel we don’t yet have the tools to deal with. Instead of going to your go-to reaction, give yourself a moment to observe before you respond. Look at the place, people or situation with wonder. Pretend you are a mermaid, seeing it for the first time. How does that change your perspective? Now look at the situation with compassion. This means not taking things personally, giving the benefit of the doubt, and focusing on the humanness of the other people (rather than judging their behaviour). How does it change your own experience?
Sometimes, walking in another’s shoes (or swimming in another’s tale as it were) allows us to truly embody the essence of ‘mer’.