Sharjah in 2121--The Arabian Mermaid Returns
THE ECOTOPIA 2121 PROJECT DETAILS THE GREEN UTOPIAN FUTURES OF 100 REAL WORLD CITIES ACROSS THE GLOBE -- 100 YEARS FROM NOW. THIS WEEK, WE FEATURE THE FUTURE OF THE ARABIAN CITY OF SHARJAH.
“Jullanar. I see Jullanar. I see the sea-girl!” shouts a young boy excitedly as he leans over the side of a small dhow bobbing gently upon the sea of the Arabian Gulf. He’s there, just off the coast of the city of Sharjah, with his grandfather, a fisherman — though long since retired. They’ve quietly escaped together from the family home in a rented boat for an afternoon of secret fishing. However, as is usual for this part of the sea, there are no fish.
The city of Sharjah is packed tightly right next to flashy Dubai city, and Sharjah likes to thinks that whatever Dubai can do, so can Sharjah. So in the mid-twenty-first century, when the rulers of Sharjah see the rulers of Dubai building spectacular towers and palaces on engineered artificial islands, the Sharjah rulers think: We can do that. We will do that!
Alas, Sharjah’s magnificent marine towers are prone to failure—through both structural degradation and financial woe. So in the Sharjah of the first years of the twenty-second century, there exists a huge, decrepit monument decaying off the city’s coast. It was planned as the massive Statue of Arabia in the sea, the Emirati version of New York’s Statue of Liberty, which would let Sharjah residents and its visitors bask in a sense of splendor as they looked out from their balconies facing seaward. Instead, it is a crumbling pile of concrete ruins destroyed by bad planning and bad weather.
But all is not lost. There is ecological salvation from this degradation. For many years, the cities on the Arabian Gulf have been destroying coral reefs and marine communities with busy ports, military disasters, and oil spills. But here the abandoned Sharjah statue is to become a place where coral can form, oysters can mature, seagrass can develop, fish can breed, and a patch of mangrove can grow.
It’s around this place, one day in early 2121, that we find the young boy and his grandfather in their dhow. They were in a state of serious relaxation, just watching the clouds drift along above, breathing in the balmy air, waving at passing boats. They gave up on the fishing, since there was nothing alive in the water. Or so it might seem. Suddenly, the boy cried out excitedly, pointing at an undulating shadow in the water:
“Jullanar. Look! Grandfather, I see Jullanar!”
The fisherman was a bit startled before he saw what the boy was pointing to. Then a huge smile crossed his face. Jullanar is the name of a mermaid from an ancient Arabian myth. The grandfather knew there probably wasn’t a mermaid in the water—but the reality was almost as amazing: a dugong, a shy, peaceful marine mammal very similar to a manatee, the likes of which the grandfather had not seen in the Gulf waters since he himself was a boy.
For grandfather and grandson, the sighting was truly remarkable, but the two of them together were hardly believed when they went home that evening and told their story to the rest of the family. By the twenty-second century, dugongs are generally acknowledged to be extinct in the Arabian Gulf, and the boy’s father and mother, and his brothers and sisters too, all just laughed at them. However, grandfather and grandson were convinced of what they had seen, and the two of them vowed to sail again out near the statue in the sea to try to sight the dugong once more. This time they’d aim to get a good photograph of it to show the whole family.
Later that evening, perched atop their roof over looking the darkening sea, the grandfather recounted to his grandson a half-forgotten story that had been passed down from ancient Arabia. It told the tale of Jullanar and Abdullah:
Abdullah is a fisherman in olden times, and he and his wife are blessed with a bevy of children in their small, modest home. As he sets out to fish one morning, his wife tells him that another child is on the way. Unfortunately, Abdullah is not so blessed when it comes to catching fish, and for months his luck has been against him and he comes home with a paltry catch or nothing at all.
Today is another bad day. Abdullah has not caught a single thing. Once again, like many times before, he stops off to see his friend, the baker, to sit and chat for a while and then ask for any spare bread so he can feed his children that night. The next days are the same. Hours are spent on the sea. No fish are caught. He visits the baker on the way home, chats with him quite a while over tea, and then asks for help. The baker is always kind in response.
Once in a while, during these tough times, Abdullah can be found on the rocks by the sea weeping silently and praying, wishing desperately for some few fish to come to his net. His despair is such that one day he falls dejected into the sea to drown his tears. After a short moment of panic, Abdullah is calmed by a touch on his shoulder. He spins around to see a woman floating below the surface of the sea with him. She is breathing water as though it is air, and the bubbles wash over him and into his lungs. Abdullah breathes the bubbles in, and miraculously, he finds he too can breathe the water. The woman is Jullanar, the mermaid, and she swims below into the deep and gestures for Abdullah to follow. In the wake of the mermaid’s flapping fluke, Abdullah follows her to a grand city, deep underwater.
The mermaid takes him around the city, and everything seems strange, as though it’s an inverted copy of what is common on land. Here, people are happy to care for fish, not to catch them, and the sheer joy of caring is sustenance enough to live on. Here, also, people work in cooperation, with no fighting, and no war and no leaders and no kings; and nobody has any money and nobody wears any clothes.
Another inversion that suits Abdullah is that the underwater city is festooned with myriad precious jewels, all sparkling in a hundred shades of blue and rose. They are strewn all around the city, willy-nilly and completely unsecured, as though they have no value beyond their shining beauty. Jullanar notices Abdullah’s fascination with the jewels and, at the end of her guided tour around the city, she gives him a few radiant pieces. Abdullah thanks Jullanar with a smile and swims to the shore.
Abdullah climbs onto land then rushes with the jewels to his friend, the baker. The baker welcomes him with tea and sits down for a chat. Abdullah offers the baker the small set of jewels.
“Oh, thanks, Abdullah. What are they, my friend?”
“They are jewels from the sea. I give them to you as payment for all the bread you’ve given me.”
“Thanks, Abdullah, but the chats with you over tea are payment enough. You are my friend, and I always have bread to spare. And besides, my friend, these ‘jewels’—they just look like pebbles.”
Abdullah looked at the jewels again and saw the baker’s words seemed true. They were pebbles. Quite pretty pebbles, to be sure, but just pebbles. Abdullah was puzzled, for they looked so much more spectacular in the sea.
He then undid his shirt, still wet from the sea, and held it over a glass vase. He wrung it tight so seawater squeezed out and dribbled into the vase. He then dropped the pebbles into the water. Now, they glistened and glowed in a hundred shades of blue and rose, the most radiant and magical jewels either of them had ever seen. The baker was stunned. “I have many things to chat to you about, my friend, but I must go home to my family now.” The baker told Abdullah to help himself to some bread, as he continued gazing into the vase.
By the time the story was finished, the grandson was asleep in his grandfather’s lap.
As it happens, the next day the pair did manage to sneak off on another dhow and voyage to the shadow of the statue. They waited in the shadow for many long hours but did not manage to spot the dugong again.
As the day wore on, and a cool winter’s evening approached, at the moment when the last rays of sun were hovering and flecking the small waves with color, when the dhow rested silently in the water, at a moment as calm as any other, ever so gently an enormous snout covered in giant whiskers slowly broke the surface mere feet from them. Both grandfather and grandson opened their mouths wide in surprise, but neither uttered a sound, in fear that the dugong they saw before them would be frightened and sink fast below the surface again. For a just a few seconds, the eyes of the creature looked into the eyes of the two people. Then, with a gentle swish of its fluked tail, it moved closer toward and then under the boat.
“Camera! Camera!” said the grandfather sharply.
The boy reached into a pocket, fumbled with the camera, lurched to the other side of the boat, and with his heart thumping and eyes glaring, he managed to snap just one photograph.
The dugong swam slowly away, then submerged and disappeared. As its ripples faded, the boy and his grandfather waved good-bye to the creature. They turned to each other with broad smiles, then they looked together at that one photograph and were overjoyed. Anybody could see it was clearly a dugong in the water. But also, by dint of the light from the setting sun or the shadows contouring the dugong’s body, or because of the tantalizing blue and rose color of the dugong’s skin, it looked a lot like Jullanar as well.
When a local newspaper ran the story with the photograph a few days later, the entire city was suddenly reminded of a forgotten part of its natural history. The Sharjah leadership was quick to use this public fascination to rebrand the failed statue as an eco-zone, a place to be proud of and celebrate. With great urgency, the statue was cordoned off so motorboats couldn’t move in too close. The leaders sent out a legal decree that no Sharjah person or Sharjah business could do anything that might harm a dugong. This meant that the nuclear-powered desalination factories had to be abandoned, the shipping ports had to be more tightly regulated, and mangroves had to be replanted along the coastline.
By 2121, Sharjah was eco-friendly enough that dugongs would come back again and again in ever greater numbers for all to enjoy.