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Pearling In The Arabian Gulf - A Romantic Trade From The Past

posted on: Sep 21, 2016

  Pearling In The Arabian Gulf - A Romantic Trade From The Past

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer

For a month my daughter and I had roamed the United Arab Emirates, visiting almost every city and town in that country. As we travelled, at the back of my mind was always the thought, “I have to find time to sail in an Arab dhow.” I not only yearned to feel the thrill of riding this romantic type of ship but, as I sailed, discuss with a pearl diver the story of this ancient trade.

The days slipped by and Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, was upon us. Now it was harder than ever, not only to find time, but also to locate a dhow for hire. The days when dhows, the majority of these pearling ships, filled the Gulf waters, had long past.

In Qatar, another land which once hosted thousands of these Arab sailing ships, it was the same story – no time, no available dhows. A trip in one of these ancient wooden ships remained a fantasy – that is – until we reached Bahrain, the last stop on our Arabian Gulf Journey.

Now, as my daughter and I sailed the calm waters of the Arabian Gulf, I felt relaxed and content. My dream had become a reality. We were now sailing on a hired dhow – a vessel whose ancestors had cruised these waters for thousands of years.

Like most Arabs who live in the Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula, Khaled Jassim, the dhow’s helmsman, was pleasant, friendly and helpful, especially when he learned of my yearning to sail in one of these Arab vessels. “You know, this is a dhow that we once used for pearling – a trade my family has practised for years. I love to dive for pearls.” Khaled appeared to be in a dream- world as he spoke about the industry that a little over half a century ago employed almost every able bodied man in the Gulf countries.

Pearling In The Arabian Gulf - A Romantic Trade From The Past

Khaled continued, “My father, who is now in his 70s, dived for pearls as did his father before him. It’s hard and dangerous work, but I like it much better than what I do now, sailing tourists around the Gulf.” He said that his father, like most divers still alive, was crippled with arthritis due to the years of diving, but he still dreamed that one day he would find a perfect pearl.

Now as the cool salty waters of the Gulf refreshed my body, I reflected about pearling and the men who knew nothing but this trade – often dying long before their time. It was a harsh life, but a good number of men like Khaled longed for its return. “There must have been something captivating for those who plied this trade”, I thought to myself as I laid on deck and dreamed of the bygone days.

Pearling was eastern Arabia’s chief industry for over 5,000 years. For centuries, the Gulf area has been fished for oysters containing these precious gems – once the main source of income for almost all the people who lived in this part of the world. Before the discovery of oil, pearls – the main product – along with fish and dates, were the only three commodities the Gulf had to offer the world. If they did not take part in gathering these products there was no other way for people to make a living.

From the early 1900s until the 1930s, out of Bahrain’s population of 100,000, 20,000 worked as divers and diver-helpers, producing almost all the country’s wealth. In addition, for hundreds of years, the Island served as the main trans-shipment point for all the pearls found in the Gulf area. In Qatar, until the 1940s, the fishing and pearling industries were the only source of the country’s wealth. Over 12,000 men; half the country’s population, earned their livelihood from the sea.

For centuries, in all the Gulf area, from April to mid-October, the pearl gathering season would be in full spring. During this time, each pearling dhow would make three journeys – the first lasting for two months; the second 40 days; and the final trip would continue until the pearling season ended. During the time at sea, supplies would be ferried to the pearling men by other dhows.

Each pearling dhow usually carried a crew of from 40 to 80, headed by a captain (nakhuda). The crew consisted, in the main, of pullers (ridheef) and divers or (ghys) – the most important of the workers on board.

The equipment of the divers was very basic. It included a cotton diving suit, worn only when there were jellyfish in the water; a turtle-shell nose-clip; leather gloves for protecting the fingers from the spines of sea urchins; and a small bag in which to collect the oysters. During the plunge, the ears of the diver would be plugged with beeswax, cotton or wool.

Pearling In The Arabian Gulf - A Romantic Trade From The Past

It was the nakhuda’s skill and experience in navigation which would locate the oyster beds. His only instruments were the sun and stars, bearings when land was in sight, and the colour and depth of the sea. However, in picking the best section of the beds, the nakhuda was limited by the skill and daring of his divers.

When the bed was chosen, divers would be let down on a weighted rope and would plummet through the water to the seabed. They would remain submerged from one to three minutes in water up to 15 m (49 ft) deep, collecting, on the average, eight to twelve oysters.

At a tug of the line, the puller or saib, usually a well-muscled man on deck, would quickly bring the diver back to the surface so he could empty his bag and fill his lungs with air. Between descents, the diver would rest in the water, holding on to the sides of the dhow. After ten plunges, he would come aboard to rest and usually drink coffee while another diver took his place.

The almost unbearable work of the day was lightened by the constant singing, clapping and the beatings of rhythms under the direction of the dhow’s nahham, the principal singer.

The crew was usually divided into two groups – one did the work while the other clapped and sang in order to encourage those working and at the same time to entertain themselves. So cherished was the nahham that on larger dhows he was exempt from physical labour and received the same share as a diver.

In the evening, soon after they had performed their religious duties, the divers had the main meal of the day – usually fish, rice and dates. This was followed by coffee, then, at times, a social visit to a nearby dhow.

The next morning began with the opening of the oysters collected on the previous day. These were sifted, under the watchful eye of the nakhuda, into different sizes. At the top were the jiwan, followed by the vaka, qulo and badleh – names of the different sizes. The crew then ate a light breakfast of dates and coffee, after which the divers prepared themselves for another day of diving.

Since the work was very strenuous, divers were physically prepared in a traditional method before the season began. A superficial cut was made in the neck or shoulder to remove the diver’s ‘bad blood’ and make him more tolerant to discomforts. Chalk or ash would then be applied to the cut as an antiseptic.

Pearling In The Arabian Gulf - A Romantic Trade From The Past

During the diving season whenever a diver complained of unusual discomforts, the treatment was placing a hot iron close to the external opening of the ear. On the whole, even though the work was extremely arduous, the only health hazards usually experienced by the divers were skin diseases and respiratory problems.

Divers were not paid wages. Instead, they received a share of the profits from the sale of the pearls. Dhow owners would advance money during the year and this usually ensured that the divers remained in the debt of the owner – many, all their lives. Pearling made the nakhudas and pearl merchants (tawash) rich, but for the mass of divers pearling was a brutal profession. Yet, a good number still yearn for the days when the pearling ships covered the waters of the Gulf.

In the 1930s, Japanese cultured pearls, the discovery of oil and the Great Depression caused a drop in prices, almost totally eliminating the pearling market. By the mid-1940s young men could earn much more in the oil industry. In no time, pearling in the Arabian Gulf was virtually dead.

Today, commercial pearling has, to a great extent, disappeared from the Gulf area. Pearls have become much less valuable than in the past and today they are seen by many as exotic gems from a time of long ago.

Yet, the pearling tradition, in a minuscule way, lives on. In the Gulf, once or twice a year, a few dhows always set sail for the pearling banks in search of the ‘Jewels of the Deep’. The older inhabitants still have fond memories of the days when pearling was a way of life and a form of traditional camaraderie. It is a trade, which has earned a proud place in the heritage of the countries of the Arabian Gulf. In the words of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, “A people who know not their past can have neither a present nor a future.”          

Pearling In The Arabian Gulf - A Romantic Trade From The Past