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AGM & Lecture: Diving for Pearls by Ms Julia Johnson

Event Date: 06/07/2006

Pearls from the Gulf have always been highly prized. In the heyday of pearl–diving, they accounted for 95% of the region’s income. 80,000 men earned their living from the pearling industry. The big dives took place from May to September each year. The Nakhuda signed up the crew and paid advances. While the crew were at sea the women, children and old men left the humidity of the coast for the oases. Diving was, to some extent, a game of chance: a lucky dive could establish a family’s fortunes. A man who found a good pearl when opening the oysters was rewarded. A nosebleed on the first dive of the season was a good omen, as was the sight of dolphins in the boat’s wake. Occasionally a diver came across a packed mass of oysters, known as a “tabreh” which was invariably pearl–bearing: in this case he would be entitled to new clothes from the Nakhuda. Divers were prohibited from diving during the month of Ramadhan when it fell in hot weather.

Ideal conditions for pearls to grow are warm, shallow clear water, the best banks being level with fine whitish sand. Many different craft were used for pearling, including the sambuq, or pearling dhow. The ship hulls were rubbed with oil and fat for protection from the salty waters. Flags were carried by the chief boat in the fleet, to indicate departure, identify origin or signal for help.

The captain, the Nakhuda, would either own or hire the boat. He would be responsible for weighing and recording the day’s harvest. Often he would make the first dive. On board would often be a singer, sometimes accompanied by drums. A diver, known as a ghais, would be partnered with a hauler, a saib, who would lower and raise him. Their share of the pearls would be divided 2 to 1, with the larger share going to the diver who had the more dangerous role. There could be 40 to 150 men in a crew, depending on the size of the boat and wealth of the Nakhuda.

Equipment used for diving included a horn nose clip, (al fatam,) a white cotton suit to protect against jellyfish, a string basket (al diyin) hung round the diver’s neck, leather finger covers (khabat), a sinking stone (al hassah) weighing 10–14 lbs on a rope, with a noose placed over the foot and a second rope round the diver’s waist. The diver, on reaching the bottom, removed his foot from the noose and the saib hauled it up. When the diver could not hold his breath any longer he jerked the other rope and the saib hauled him to the surface. As many as 50 plunges a day were made if the weather was favourable.

Trust between divers was absolutely necessary and stealing was very rare, leading to shame for the discovered thief among his colleagues, tribe and people. The ailments suffered by divers included physical strain, cramps, paralysis, burst ear drums, deafness, respiratory infections, softening and rotting of the skin, boils and heat rashes and dehydration. Remedies could include herbs, salt, an ointment made from dates, cauterising with a hot iron (favoured) and words from the Koran recited over water and sprinkled over the sick man.

The Arabic for pearl is lulu, but there are other names. They are valued according to their size, purity of shape, colour and lustre. Black pearls were considered as of no value. The pearls were bought by the tawwash or merchant after agreeing the price by touching fingers under the cover of a red cloth in a secretive transaction. Grading for size was done using metal sieves: weight was determined using small scales and sets of weights. Every year the finest pearl, called the dhana, would be discovered and the dhow making the discovery would cut short its voyage to race home with that pearl, which the merchants would rush to buy.

The majority of pearls were exported to Bombay but some were sent to Bahgdad. Large, fine pearls were sold singly, smaller ones in quantities. With the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls in the 1930s, the Gulf’s pearling industry went into a decline.

The speaker added: “In writing the story ‘The Pearl Diver’ I enjoyed the challenge of weaving fact and fiction into a good read for children, with the intention of making local history and culture come alive. I was keen to fascinate the reader and to stimulate enquiry, to be truthful to the people of the past and to create the atmosphere of a bygone age”.

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