Traditional pearl diving in the Gulf is making a comeback

Picture: Mohammad al-Saleh, posted on Flickr, July 31 2008.

Due to the dominance of oil, diving for pearls as an industry was left by the wayside, but in recent years this traditional skill has been making a comeback. Our Kuwaiti observer takes us off shore with these treasure hunters.

Historically, the best natural pearls come from the Persian Gulf, particularly Bahrain. The pearls from this region have an exceptional sheen thanks to the mixture of salty and sweet waters in the Gulf.

But at the beginning of the 20th century, the discovery of huge oilfields in the Gulf and the competition from Japan's oyster farms put an end to this traditional industry.

However, over the past few years, several Gulf countries have been trying to revive the tradition. Qatar celebrates this activity during a special cultural week every year, while Kuwait inaugurated the Pearl Diving Festival, which aims to recreate the traditional pearl divers routes. Bahrain has now prohibited the import of farmed pearls and lodged an appeal Wednesday at Unesco for pearl diving to be protected.

Contributors

The return of the pearl divers in Kuwait


Picture: Mohammad al-Saleh, posted on Flickr, July 31 2008.

Picture: Mohammad al-Saleh, posted on Flickr, July 31 2008.

"The trips used to last four months"

Mohammad Al-Saleh is a pearl diver's grandson and a photographer from Kuwait.

In the summer 2008, I went to Ras Salimiya, on the Persian Gulf's shores to meet with divers who were coming back from a trip. Each year, Kuwait's Sea Sport Club (KCCI) organises a month long trip.

Once back on the dry land, the divers display their catches and demonstrate oyster opening techniques. This process is known as "Falg almahar" and generally takes place in open waters, before the "tawach" arrives - the pearl merchant who evaluates the size and quality of the pearls, and negotiates the price.

This secular tradition has its own rituals and terminology. In the past, the pearl diver's trip used to last four months. On the day of departure, called "dacha", and on the day of return - "gofal" - families would gather on the shore. But now only the "nahham" goes along with the divers on their long trip. To entertain them, he sings nostalgic songs about being far from home and the dangers of the sea.

"Falg almahar" or the opening of oysters in Qatar

Picture: Mohammad al-Manai, posted here

Picture: Mohammad al-Manai, posted here

Picture: Mohammad al-Manai, posted here

Picture: Mohammad al-Manai, posted here

Picture: Mohammad al-Manai, posted here

Picture: Mohammad al-Manai, posted here

Bahrain's natural pearls

A pearl merchant in Bahrain. Picture: Suresh Poliyath, posted on Flickr on August 6, 2009.

Picture: Suresh Poliyath, posted on Flickr on August 6, 2009.

The "gofal" and the songs of the "nahham"

A Kuwaitie diver boat on its way home. You can hear a 'nahham' singing. Video posted by elizabeth90omkasha on Youtube, Agust 20, 2008.

Comments

Diversification

As oil fields decline, new/old initiatives spring up. This is happening in other Middle East oil countries. It's a signal that oil production has peaked.

The pearls are beautiful.

Close