4/10/09 - pearl diving

In today's excerpt - pearl diving. In the small oceanside villages that were the predecessors of modern day Abu Dhabi, pearl diving was the primary source of income for millennia, until the industry was decimated by the invention of cultured pearls by the Japanese:

"Pearls have been treasured and traded as beautiful adornments for the wealthy for centuries, and, until the 1950s, the [Persian] Gulf was one of the most prolific pearl producing areas in the world. In fact it was pearls which initially attracted foreign traders to the area. ... Although the fruits of their labor were exquisite, the conditions under which the pearl divers worked were abominable and it was with considerable dread that Abu Dhabians anticipated the onset of each pearling season. ...

"The pearlers—divers and their helpers—were separated from their families for the duration of the three to four month long season, despite the fact that they were often within fifty kilometers of mainland Abu Dhabi. ... The boats ... could comfortably carry six or seven people. When they set out for the season, however, they were overloaded with as many as twenty-seven men ... [and] there was hardly room for the men to sit, let alone sleep at night. During the day the sun beat down on them, mercilessly making the already unbearable heat and humidity even more hellish. ...

"Divers were in the water just after dawn and often stayed there until twelve hours later when the light began to fade. They dived constantly throughout the day, only stopping, literally, to catch their breath. A diver's equipment included a bag in which to gather the oysters, a goat horn clip to close his nose and a rope tied around his waist by which a partner on the boat pulled him up at the end of each dive. The dives lasted for about two minutes each—time enough to pluck a dozen or so oysters from the sandbank soil twenty meters below. They paused for only a minute between each two minute dive, resting a little longer after every tenth trip to the bottom.

"These long stretches in the salty depths caused debilitating and dangerous muscle cramps, as well as painful skin and eye diseases for which the only available treatments at the time were herbal medicines. If a diver surfaced too quickly he risked damaging his ears or his brain, too slowly and he risked death by drowning. ...

"In rare cases the divers were compensated handsomely for a particularly large and lustrous pearl, but the majority could hardly make ends meet, let alone pay off their loans. ... The boats rarely returned with sufficient pearls to pay the debts of all those aboard and still make a small profit. In fact the men and their families often slipped into a spiraling circle of debt from which there was little hope of escape. ...

"They came back from the diving expeditions sick and undernourished, often suffering from scurvy or skin afflictions and completely worn out. It took them three to five months to recover from the three month season."


Mohammed Al-Fahim


From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi


Makarem G Trading


Copyright 1995 by Mohammed Al-Fahim


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