Lustrous pearling heritage of the UAE lives on

Before the discovery of oil, pearl diving was the UAE's main source of wealth, and the task of pearl divers was made easier thanks to the men who accompanied them on their journey, rowing their boats while singing poems to bring them luck.

ABU DHABI // Long before oil was discovered, the UAE's wealth depended on the pearls that were found in the depths of the Arabian Gulf.
And the task of pearl divers was made easier thanks to the men who accompanied them on their journey, rowing their boats while singing poems to bring them luck.
"We are from the Juma bin Majid association from Ras Al Khaimah," said Nasser Hassan Al Qass Al Ali, also known as Abu Hassan. "We are demonstrating the songs and activities that used to be done before and during the process of pearl diving."
Traditionally, Mr Hassan and 11 other Emirati men would row and sing songs about the pearls and any bad weather they might face on their journey.
"A long time ago, people used to come from all over the Emirates to Abu Dhabi to dive deep and pick the pearls out," said the 76-year-old. "Pearl in Arabic is lulu but, back in the day, we used to call them hassba, yakka, jioun and dana."
The most beautiful pearls were the yakka and jioun while the largest and most expensive were the dana. Finding a dana would bring in enough money to last throughout the year.
"The value of a pearl used to be determined by its weight," he said. "We would weigh them with small weights or even Indian rupees sometimes. A large one would go for Dh6,000."
Pearl picking has its season. The men would go out to sea from summer until winter, after which they would fish.
Ras Al Khaimah is known for its pearl divers and fishermen, especially in the coastal town of Rams. But before oil was discovered, Abu Dhabi was a hub for them too.
"Abu Dhabi was a source of goods and it was full of pearls," said Mr Hassan, who used to help pearl divers at the age of 13.
"But that changed from pearls to petrol and it's our responsibility to keep the pearl tradition going."
Each man had a different job on the boat. There were divers, those who helped rope them out of the sea and those who opened the shells.
"The divers used to tie a rope around their waist and dive down," said Nasser Obaid Al Ali, a 70-year-old Emirati. "When they pulled on the rope, I would pull them out."
He's been helping pearl divers for the past 30 years and Mr Al Ali said he has enjoyed every minute of it.
"I loved it because it made me feel like a man," he said.
"You have to be very strong to be able to do this. We all learnt this from our parents, our grandfathers and we used to do it as kids but we have to keep traditional activities alive and teach it to our children."
cmalek@thenational.ae

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