A sneak peek into the world of Emirati ‘mermen’

Sadiq Shaban
Filed on August 18, 2014
A sneak peek into the world of Emirati ‘mermen’

In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, musician Jason Carter talks about his upcoming documentary A Grain of Sand on how music was important for UAE’s pearl divers

Noted guitarist Jason Carter, known for hits like You Shine, is all set to put together an ambitious documentary on the music of the Emirati pearl divers. The musician-turned-filmmaker is planning to travel down the coast of the Arabian Sea, from Ras Al Khaimah to Delma Island, seeking out the remaining men who used to dive in the days of yore.

A sneak peek into the world of Emirati ‘mermen’ (/assets/oldimages/mermen1608.jpg)

A Grain of Sand will showcase the link between heritage and contemporary life in UAE. — Supplied photo by Paul Thuysbaert

The seamen will perform in a grand concert for the first and last time in December this year.

Carter said that he has been fascinated by the culture and heritage of the pearl divers for a very long time.

“I have performed with the old pearl divers in Bahrain and Kuwait, so in April 2013 I started to think about the whereabouts of pearl divers in the UAE and their music; that is how the idea to make a film about it came.”

Pearl diving used to be a simplistic but precarious way of life for divers. A Grain of Sand is an attempt to showcase the link between heritage and contemporary life in the UAE. A pearl begins its life as a grain of sand, the very sand which has been used in every tower block and piece of glass in every building in the UAE.

The juxtaposition of the music of the pearl divers in contrast to the development of the UAE and its current day music culture is a fascinating dichotomy.

“My good friend and film maker Ray Haddad was my sounding board from the beginning, so a few months ago I asked Ray if he wanted to embark on this exciting journey with me and he answered in affirmative. Quite a bit has been documented about the lives and stories of the pearl divers, but there is hardly anything recorded/documented about the music,” Jason said.

Role of music for pearl divers

Historically, music has always been a space for bringing people together, whether in the form of concerts, or group participation through folk songs.

“Music was important for the pearl divers. Songs were sung whilst the boats were prepared for the harsh seas, the community would gather on the shores and help in any way they could. Whilst at sea, music was sung by the divers to pass time, songs of longing for home, songs of loneliness and isolation, but also comical songs to raise their spirits. The most interesting role that music played at sea was to clock the dives that they took.”

Funding for the documantary

Pertinently a crowd-funding campaign for A Grain Of Sand will commence from September 17 this year. The filmmaker is using the UAE based crowd-funding platform Al Flamnah, offering selection of ‘perks’ to encourage people to give, ranging from credits in the film, to album downloads, on-site filming visits, house concerts, rights up to a hand-made 18-string harp guitar, donated by guitar-maker Sean Woolley.

“We would love this film to become a ‘peoples project’, as the theme is all about people, so we are expecting particular interest for the Emirati community since the film is all about their culture and heritage,” he quipped.

Filming is expected to start in about two weeks. Jason is aware of the enormity of the task. “The hardest part will be finding pearl divers in the big cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. We will begin filming in Delma Island because this is where the main pearl market used to be; the second biggest market outside of Bahrain. We will then head up the coast with Ras Al Khaimah being the final destination. One of the ideas is to bring these men together for a concert. This will be very special. We are also looking for a young Emirati Rapper/Singer, to throw into the mix at some point, again, contrasting cultures and stories.”

Jason reckons that he doesn’t believe that music or art can change the world but it can inspire change in individuals, which is a great start. “I would like to think that this film would provide a window into a unique disappearing world for anyone that is vaguely interested in the UAE or the Gulf in general.

There is so much bad news pouring out of the Middle East at the moment so I would hope that our film will be a gentle reminder of something magical, a final glimpse into a lost world of ‘mermen’, men of the sea, who risked everything in the hope that they would find that special pearl and alleviate some of the hardship of lives for their families.

The film A Grain Of Sand, which will be released on December 27, is expected to help the multicultural population of the fast-growing UAE reconnect with a different time and era. —

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