11 facts about pearl diving in the UAE
Glistening pearls. - Supplied photos
Dubai - Here are 11 facts we know about pearling, thanks to Thalith:
"The easiest way to steal a pearl is to swallow it," said Nasif Kayed to a majlis full of expats, seated on white cushioned ottomans at the Jumeirah Mosque Majlis on a Wednesday evening.
The audience laughed at what Kayed said next - a discreet aside about how one then had to retrieve the swallowed stolen pearl.
Nasif Kayed is the managing director of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. He was translating a lecture from Arabic to English on the history of pearl diving. The actual lecturer was the Arabic-speaking man of the hour, Juma Khalifa bin Thalith, author of nine books on Emirati heritage. Thalith even brought with him to the lecture a nose clip (for pearl divers) made from the horn of a gazelle, that was allegedly 320 years old, and cost Dh75,000.
Here are 11 facts we know about pearling, thanks to Thalith:
> 4 months and 10 days is how long the divers - all men, would be gone for.
> They would be at sea from mid-May to early September.
> Men were inducted into the pearling business at age 9 - when they had to pry open oyster shells with knives to get to the pearl. Age 12 onwards, they began to dive. Around 50, it's time to stop.
> The first 10 days of the new pearling season were the toughest for divers. They'd be side effects, nausea, sea sickness -attributed to the body getting used to the diving routine.
> Divers would dive for 12-14 hours, before sunrise, and till sunset.
> The rhythm was dive 5 times, rest once. Repeat.
>Ten metres is how deep on average a diver went.
> All trading was done in Indian Rupees. All units of measurement and scales are in Hindi.
> Sweet and salty water, the combination is the best environment for oysters. And the pearls gathered from these oysters are the pearls with the best colour.
>The best pearls are the size of chickpeas. And nobody likes green pearls. They do exist. But the market value is nowhere close the yellow/white/pink/ grey ones.
> Pearl diving in the Emirates is a tradition that goes back a 1,000 years. Much before the gulf was known for its oil. Men would be gone for the summer months when the water wasn't freezing. The women would be left behind, with a designated man to look after and protect them.
There are locals very much around, who have descended from pearl divers and are driven to keeping the tradition from dying out. One such person is Major Ali al Suweidi, president of the Emirates Marine Environmental Group, a non-profit body that works to protect UAE's marine life. It's quite a sight when Major Ali, walking around the Ghantoot Reserve near Jebel Ali one minute talking about turtles, shifts to pearling.
He stops, fishes out a red silk kerchief, unties a knot in the fabric to reveal a glistening grape-sized yellow pearl. At the eyes-wide-open reaction of an onlooker he laughs, and explains, "I carry it for luck".
While pearl diving in the UAE has all but completely died out, one of the Emirates - Ras Al Khaimah - is creating cultured pearls "much better than the ones in Japan", Kayed said.
Yellow pearls, pink pearls - of all various measurements are on display at the Dubai Museum and the Saeed Al Maktoum House, both in the Fahidi n=eighbourhood. There is an extensive explanation at both museums of the procedures and equipment, the fishing nets, scales, baskets, the copper scoops, and even accessories such as the 320-year old gazelle horn nose clip.
At the Dubai Museum, some facts that leap out of the descriptions. "In 1905" - a sign says - "the revenue from pearl sales was Rupees One Million. Pearl divers made three main journeys between the 5th and 9th month each year. Summer was the busiest time."
Thalith spoke at the Majlis about the peer pressures of pearl diving, too. If one diver brought in only 20 pearls, and his fellow divers reached say 150 pearls, the captain of the ship was going to need an explanation.
"At Dubai Creek in the early 20th century there were about 300 pearl diving dhows with over 7,000 sailors on board. The captain (Al Nokhaza), sailors, divers and apprentices left to the haunting melodies of the song Al Nahham. When the divers reached the pearl beds (Al Hiraat), they started work under the burning sun. They made very deep dives, with only a nose clip, leather finger protectors, a basket made of rope, a stone weighing about 5kg to pull them down and a rope to raise them to the surface again. About 50 dives were made a day, each about 3 minutes long. They earned between 200 and 300 rupees a year."
Thalith said that there was a relationship of trust between the divers, and the man on the vessel who pulled the diver out of the water.
To minimise "accidents" that might be borne out of debt-related grudges. Basically, a diver wouldn't want someone he owed money to, to pull him out of the water, for the fear that, he might let go of a hand.
The museum description ends with this: "50 daily trips in the sea, with all their associated difficulties made the joy of returning home more precious than the pearls collected by the captain."
The 320-year old noseclip.
Pearl map. Supplied photo