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  • Chantal Brocca

A Cultural and Mythological History of Pearl Diving in the Arabian Gulf - ATMOS EARTH

Today I was asked:

“What’s the sea?”

I didn’t know (If only I knew.)

-1975, Untitled Arabic poem

Secret of the sea, a luminescent spirit enclosed deep within the liquid folds of the ocean, the pearl draws within its mirrored surface the mythical lore of millennia. Symbol of wisdom and hidden knowledge, of immortality and fertility, of purity and incorruptibility, the pearl is birthed within the great unknown of the ocean, the immense and powerful home to the unknowable mysteries of the ages.

Mystical treasure sought in the darkest depths, the pearl has long been linked to spiritual awareness and is imbued with a global symbolism, appearing in our stories as far back as 5000 years ago in the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh as the flower of immortality, secret elixir of life guarded closely on the ocean floor by the Great Flood’s last surviving alchemist.

Immense, dark and powerful, more is known to us of the surface of the moon than the bottom of the seabed, and it is this powerful allegory of ocean and mystery that accompanies the pearl in its symbiotic history with humankind, embodying the ungraspable source of nature’s roaring infinite chaos of creation and transformation, home of the first germinating seeds of life and ancient expression of the universal feminine that gently brings life into divine balance.

The series is a love note to the sea; a sensory retracing of the feminine essence shot while immersed in warm, emerald green water with salt and wet sand on our skin, watching as the sun slowly faded and the moon began to shimmer.

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, their mesmerizing lustre evoking the innate spirit of wonder that has filled the hearts of humanity for eons, gazing up at the starry universe in vain search for the origin of their world.

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.

From the time of the ancient world, its origin was shrouded in myth and cosmology, rolling down the rose cheeks of the goddess of love birthed from sea foam as divine tears of pure joy or drained in the glass of wine of Cleopatra, the great Egyptian Queen, as a sign of her unyielding influence. Imbued with this great power, the pearl’s political weight has accompanied mankind 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, 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 insatiable demand from the monarchies of Europe sparked dives across the New World.

From the mid-18th century with the rise of global trade, the Gulf’s pearl industry exploded; a chain of trade connected Indian, Persian and Turkish lands, with the pearl eventually flooding European and Chinese markets. Pearling reached its apex in 1921, the ‘Year of Superabundance,’ at the same time that Jacques Cartier first stepped foot in Bahrain to seek out their ‘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, thought to produce the most beautiful gems. 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. The history of the pearl is one of song and celebration, of honey and sweet water and words that elicit a deep respect for the blessings bestowed by the ocean. Families in the UAE would decorate their homes with cloth flags called Bayraq in wait for the men of their tribe, 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 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 percent of local incomes. In a relatively short period of time, the pearl’s value skyrocketed, rising to a global revenue of US $4 million by 1905. In 1863, Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani of Doha, Qatar, infamously declared how all were slaves to the one master - pearl - indicating it’s vast historic importance for the economic stability of the region.

When the land is dry and arid, the ocean remains as a source of vast riches. Pearl divers developed a unique relationship with the sea, dancing an intimate dance for generations with the mysteries of its depths.The art of pearling carries with it the generational wisdom of an ancient practice dependent upon the delicate harmony of man, as he masters his physical body, and nature, the chaotic essence.

With a woven bag tied around his neck (Al Dean), 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 comes hand in hand with extreme physical hardship and peril - with no protection aside from their refined instinct and honed resilience, divers would sink over 100 feet in a single breath and remain underwater for up to 2 minutes. Besides the risk of drowning, diving up to 40 times a day under such extreme pressures could cause divers hallucinations, black outs, loss of vision and even organ failure. With such a legacy of courage in the face of darkness and danger, the image of the pearl diver acquired a special respect and quality of superhuman tenacity; a spirit of fearlessness that accompanies the free diver to this day.

Oysters holding pearls were exceedingly rare and the ocean is infinite; knowledge of the best diving spots was gained through extreme peril and passed down for generations. Despite the ordeal, sailors would 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 1 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 1950’s, 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 was far from being environmentally sustainable, the effect of oil was disastrous. The desert lands of the Arabian Gulf harbor a very delicate ecosystem - land reclamations, land filling and and dredging from the new oil operations have had an enormous impact on the region’s biodiversity, almost extinguishing local benthic species - a category comprising millions of microscopic species crucial to the maintenance of marine life - sea grass 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 man and environment, teaching us how to walk alongside nature as we refine 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 so define the collective cultural identity of countries in the Gulf. The Bahrain pearling trail, three oyster beds in its northern waters, are now a UNESCO protected world heritage site. In a recent nod to their history, the Emir of Kuwait has recently 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 is being raised more often, that perhaps our past stretches out to 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 promises of mysteries to be unveiled.

This series is a love note to the sea; a compilation of visuals meant to invoke a strong sense of respect and admiration for the beauty brought forth from the depths of the ocean; a sinuous, dark and unexplored body that expresses humanity’s eternal fascination with the unknown, the irresistible call of the sea.

Find full story on ATMOS Magazine

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