- Diving

Pearl Diving in the Gulf of Arabia

For hundreds of years, pearls originating from the Arabian Gulf have been recognized as one of the worlds’ finest gemstones. In the mid 1800’s, the lion’s share of the inhabitants surrounding the Arabian Gulf were in some way connected to the local pearl industry. The core of the Gulf’s pearl industry was located on the island of Bahrain: “Gulf fisheries employ about 3,500 boats, large and small, of which 1,200 of the best are owned at Bahrain…” (The Book of the Pearl: G.F. Kunz 1908). A typical crew on a Bahrainian boat, known as a ‘Dhow’ or ‘Sambuk,’ that fished for pearl oysters included:

o The ‘Nokhadha’ (Captain): The captain was usually the owner of the boat, an expert fisherman with knowledge of all waters and the best pearling banks.

o The ‘Al-Mejaddimi’ (Second-In-Command): Responsible for maintaining the captain’s rule.

o The ‘Al-Musally’ (Prayer Leader): A religious figure, similar to a chaplain in the army.

o The ‘Nahham’ (Singer): In charge of singing pearling songs and chants to keep the crew’s spirits up and to bring luck.

o The ‘Saib’ (Diver’s Top-Man): Performing a critical job, they stayed top-side monitoring the lifeline attached between boat and diver.

o The ‘Tabbabah’ (Apprentice): Deck hands who performed all manner of tasks at other crew member’s behest.

o The ‘Ghawwas’ (pearl diver).

The life of a Bahranian pearl diver was harsh. Even before leaving home for the pearling season between April and September, most pearl divers were already in debt; forced to borrow money from their captains to ensure their families survival while they were away diving. Even if their dives were fruitful and the harvest high, thus effacing their debts, the diver’s still had to weather the next six months until the diving season started again. The entire crew’s existence on board was frugal to say the least; living off a diet of dates, fish, rice and coffee. However, it was the divers who suffered most; aside from overexertion and malnourishment, they faced the daily threat of shark attack, and long-term neural diseases caused by insufficient supplies of oxygen to the brain during prolonged submergences.

The diving methods employed on these boats had remained rudimentary, unchanged since diving for pearls had first started. Once moored off the oyster beds, everything revolved around the ‘Ghawwas’ and their ‘Saib.’ A ‘Saib’ literally held the diver’s life in his hands, for if he did not pull the diver up fast enough, the diver would drown. The ‘Ghawwas’ dove in 15 minute shifts, and in that time made at least 8 visits to the sea bed thirty to forty feet down. They sank to bottom helped by a rope weighted with a stone, wearing a nose clip called a ‘Fetatn,’ leather gloves called a ‘Khabat’ to protect against sharp coral and a ‘Dayyeen’ net basket hung around their neck. After the divers resurfaced the oysters were piled on deck, left to dry out and opened; whether or not the oysters contained pearls was a matter of pure chance. Up to a whole week, and thousands of oysters, could pass through the crew’s hands without a single pearl being found. Then again, a few hours of diving could result in the mother-load. However and whenever they came to the surface the pearls, called ‘Lulu,’ always ended up in the captain’s red cloth pouch.

The captain would cash in his pearl harvest with the local ‘Tawwash,’ or pearl dealer, who would visit the boat to purchase the pearls and then resell onto bigger merchants. Once the captain had received the money, he paid each crew member according to their hierarchy, the largest share going to the captain and the boat. Arabian dialects used around the Gulf number a variety of words for pearl: ‘Lulu’, ‘Dana’, ‘Hussah’, ‘Gumashah.’ Then there are the names to describe a pearl’s shape and color: ‘Sujani’, pear-shaped drop; ‘Khaizi,’ high domed upper half with a half rounded bottom; ‘Adasi,’ rounded cylinder with flat sides and ‘Majhoolah,’ a large ugly pearl that can conceal a finer pearl inside. Extraordinary expertise and tolerance was needed to remove the thin layers of a ‘Majhoolah:’ a process that could take weeks. Of all the pearls that a crew hoped to see was the ‘Jiwan,’ meaning young, which was the perfect rose-tinted white, round pearl with pure luster. Gulf pearls were, and still are to this day, sorted and graded using a sequence of sieves called ‘Gurbaai.’ Pearls are weighed using an ancient complex unit of weight called a ‘Chow,’ one carat equals 0.6518 ‘Chow.’

The buying of pearls sometimes revolved around a system of silent bidding, where a dealer who does not want others present to know what price he is offering, will cover his and his client’s clasped hands with a cloth indicating the amount with a system of finger signals. From Bahrain, the pearls were sold to Indian merchants, who sent them to Bombay to be drilled by hand. From there the pearls were sold to Europeans, whose thirst for Arabian Gulf pearls was unquenchable.