The pearl industry is shifting into a space of preservation, diversification, and restoration with the help of local communities in order to revive the ancient traditions in pearling that define the collective cultural identity of countries in the Gulf.
Editor’s Note: The name of the body of water referenced in this article is disputed. It is also commonly known as the Persian Gulf.
Today I was asked,
“What is the sea?”
I did not know.
(If only I knew).
— Mohammad Hamadeh, 1975
Secret of the sea, the pearl contains within its mirrored surface the mythical lore of millennia. Symbol of wisdom and hidden knowledge, of immortality and fertility, of purity and incorruptibility, it has long been linked to spiritual awareness, appearing in stories as far back as 5,000 years ago.
More is known to us about the surface of the moon than the bottom of the seabed. It is for this reason that the mysterious pearl in its symbiotic history with humankind has become an allegory for the ungraspable source of nature’s roaring infinite chaos of creation and transformation. Unlike other precious gems, such as diamonds or rubies formed as minerals underground, the pearl finds its mystical symbolism from the once obscure process of its creation, an organic act of life producing a radiant jewel far from prying eyes behind the oyster’s closed shell.
There is an old belief that says that pearls are formed when raindrops filled with moonlight fall into the sea and are swallowed by oysters. Other tales from the time of the ancient world trace the pearl back to the goddess of love, birthed from sea foam as divine tears of pure joy, as well as dissolved in the wine of Cleopatra, the great Egyptian Queen, a single symbolic gesture expressing her unyielding influence upon her people. Imbued with this great power, the pearl’s political weight has accompanied humankind in its desires for status and wealth, decorating the bodies of royalty, nobility, and with modernity, the necklines of the daughters of pioneering merchants trading on the high seas.
There is evidence of pearl diving being practiced for thousands of years, eventually becoming the main source of wealth for many coastal communities. Originating in Mesopotamia, the pearl trade flourished in the Indian Ocean all along the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan where it remained for millennia before demand from the monarchies of Europe sparked dives across the Western hemisphere.
From the mid-18th century with the rise of global trade, the Gulf’s pearl industry exploded; trade routes that connected Indian, Persian, and Turkish lands meant that the pearl eventually flooded European and Chinese markets. Pearling reached its apex in 1912, the ‘Year of Superabundance,’ almost a decade before Jacques Cartier first stepped foot in Bahrain to seek out Jiwan, pearls considered to be the most perfect and lustrous, arising in unique habitats where freshwater springs burst out into salt waters.
Though a global industry, there is something special and sacred about pearls from the Persian Gulf. Pearl diving in the region manifested itself in many forms: in myths and the stories of divers laced with the fantasy of local lore, in subtle rituals and in joyful ceremonies at the end of the season when divers could return home. Families in the UAE would typically decorate their homes with cloth flags called Bayraq in wait for the men of their tribe to return from their pearling voyages, while in Bahrain the women would congregate along the shore to perform before the sea, speaking to it and beating it with palm branches until the sails of the dhows (sailing vessels in Arabic) would appear on the horizon.
By the late 19th century, it is estimated that around 60,000 people, almost the entire population of the Arabian Gulf, stretching from Kuwait along Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, Qatar, and the Sultanate of Oman were involved in pearling, at times representing up to 95% of local incomes. In a relatively short period of time, the pearl’s value skyrocketed, rising to a global revenue of $4 million by 1905.
Pearl diving in the Arabian Gulf manifested itself in many forms: in myths and the stories of divers laced with the fantasy of local lore.
Pearl divers developed a unique relationship with the sea, dancing an intimate dance for generations with the mysteries of its depths. With a woven bag (Al Dean) tied around the neck, a nose clip made of wood or sheep’s bone (Al Fettam), the diver would tie a rope with a stone (Al Zubail) around his leg allowing him to remain stable on the seabed and dive off the edge of the dhow into the freezing darkness in search of treasure, his only connection to the surface a rope (Al Yada) managed by the Seib, who in his hands held the life of every diver on the ship.
The allure of the pearl is equalled only by the intensity of the darkness and desperation which enveloped it—its history unfolding together with the practise of forced debt and slavery that marks the Indian Ocean. Still a topic of extreme taboo in the Arabian Gulf to this day, thousands of slaves from India and Africa were transported through Zanzibar into the region in order to meet the world’s gargantuan demand for pearls. Facing extreme physical hardship and peril, and with no protection aside from their refined instinct and honed resilience, enslaved divers would sink over 100 feet in a single breath and remain underwater for up to two minutes. Besides the risk of drowning, diving up to 40 times a day under such extreme pressures could cause divers to experience hallucinations, blackouts, loss of vision, and even organ failure. And oysters holding pearls were exceedingly rare; knowledge of the best diving spots was gained through extreme peril and passed down for generations.
Despite the immense threat to their lives, sailors were forced to brave the thrashing currents of the ocean season after season in search of the mythical gem on which they depended, their hardship and experience with the subtle art of the sea ritualized in the Aghani al Ghaws, ecstatic symphonies of song and drum led by the ship’s Neham.
Today, only one in about 10,000 wild oysters will yield a natural pearl, and not every pearl draws enough value to compensate for the risks involved. Though rare in itself, centuries of overfishing have almost wiped out the rich oyster beds of the prosperous shores of the past. By the 1950s, the discovery of oil loosened the region’s dependency on pearling, supplanting it as the new bedrock of its flourishing economy and allowing divers to seek out safer careers.
Although pearl fishing on a mass scale in recent years had become environmentally unsustainable, the effect of oil was disastrous. The desert lands of the Arabian Gulf harbor a very delicate ecosystem; land reclamations, land filling, and dredging from the new oil operations have had an enormous impact on the region’s biodiversity, almost extinguishing local benthic species—a group of organisms comprising millions of microscopic species crucial to the maintenance of marine life such as seagrass beds, corals, mangroves, and other creatures of the sea.
Pearls, once a symbol of nature’s hidden beauty and mysterious forces, are now harvested or man-made. Billions of affordable pearls are produced in controlled, regulated, and environmentally sustainable farms whose survival depends on the maintenance of clean water and ocean biodiversity— two factors critical to the formation of a pearl within an oyster. Though not as enchanting as unearthing a hidden treasure, culturing pearls is forcing us to closely examine the fragile interdependency between human and environment, teaching us how to walk alongside nature as we attempt to recreate its delicate processes of creation.
The pearl industry is slowly shifting into a space of preservation, diversification, and restoration in collaboration with its divers, traders, and local communities. Conservation efforts are being initiated in fragments all along the coast in order to revive the ancient traditions and rituals in pearling that define the collective cultural identity of countries in the Gulf. The Bahrain pearling trail (three oyster beds in its Northern waters) is now a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site. In a recent nod to their history, the Emir of Kuwait has inaugurated the Pearl Diving Festival, a celebration of culture in the form of dhows sailing over historic pearling routes.
In the UAE, a 2000–hectare protected site on one of its last stretches of natural beach acts as one of the last remaining havens conserving the art of pearling in all its purity. Initiated and run by the last surviving traditional pearl diver, the site acts as a cultural center of education, involving local youth in environmental protection activities and historic rituals with the same spirit of camaraderie found on the once infamous pearl diving ships. After reclaiming the land from the grips of one of the largest property developers of the region, the site has seen the return of mangroves, dolphins, and the once famed pink flamingos that used to line the shores of Jebel Ali.
A few years ago, what appears to be an 8000-year-old pearl was discovered at a neolithic site off the coast of Abu Dhabi, piquing interest in the region’s rich history and raising a question that, in recent years, has become increasingly relevant: that perhaps our past stretches out much farther back than we envision? As we run forward at breakneck speeds, our histories retreat silently into shadow. There is so much left for humankind to unearth. It is in these secrets of our past that we find this milky white gem throughout cultures and centuries, harboring within its stories and promises of mysteries to be unveiled.
This series is a love note to the sea and to its ancient traditions; a sensory retracing of the feminine essence shot while immersed in warm, emerald green water with salt and wet sand on our skin, cracking open oysters with the guidance of a local diver as we watched the sun slowly fade and the moon begins to shimmer.