The perils of the pearl divers

Though for centuries the main source of wealth, pearling in the Gulf was a hard, dangerous and not very rewarding life.

Ras al Khaimah- March 30, 2009 - Jamaa al Batishi began working on a pearling boat at age 10, working for three to four years as an assistant doing odd jobs on the boat. He was photographed at the RAK Folk Art Society in Ras al Khaimah, March 30, 2009. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National)
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Though for centuries the main source of wealth, pearling in the Gulf was a hard, dangerous and not very rewarding life for those at the sharp end - the crews who harvested the oyster beds off Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Anna Zacharias concludes her two-part report on the industry

"Diving was a piece of hell," says Juma'a al Batishi. "It was hard work and very, very tough and difficult. It wasn't a trip." Mr al Batishi is a living full-stop at the end of a 7,000-year story. It was more than 50 years ago that he went to work on the giant dhows that once carried the Gulf's fortune in the form of a tiny gem: the pearl. The relationship between the people of the Gulf and what was once the region's only commodity was summed up in a remark attributed to Mohammed bin Thani, the ruler of Doha, Qatar, in 1863: "We are all, from the highest to the lowest, slaves of one master - Pearl."

In the 19th century pearl diving accounted for as much as 95 per cent of the region's income, and at its height early in the 20th century, about 80,000 men worked on the pearling vessels - 22,000 in the Trucial States alone. Young Juma'a started working on the boats as an assistant at the age of 10. Like thousands of others wholly dependent on the industry, for four months each summer he set sail from his home in Ras al Khaimah for the coasts of Qatar and Abu Dhabi where the oyster banks had names once known to all: Um al Shaif, Abu Hasir, Abu al Bukush, Ariela.

"I helped them with water, food and serving," he says. "We would go to the waters in Abu Dhabi, every ship on its own. We sailed on a sambuq [the typical dhow of the region] with 40 men or more." But not for long. Now in his 60s, Mr al Batishi was still in his youth when the post-war rise of the Kuwaiti oil industry spared him the life on the pearling ships endured by his father, older brothers and uncles.

The older generation still remember the hardships. At first glance, Othman Boulal, gaunt, toothless and nearly blind, appears to be a frail man, but a glance at his hands betrays the strength he had as a young man, when he worked as a rope-puller. Mr Boulal, who as far as he knows is in his 90s, worked on pearling boats for more than 20 years, including spells as a diver, usually sailing with crews of between 60 and 70 men.

Like Mr al Batishi, he experienced first-hand the spartan lifestyle of the pearl hunters, and methods that had hardly changed in centuries. The main season ran from mid-May or June to mid-September or October when the water was warm enough for divers to withstand extended dives. Some divers also took part in a 40-day excursion starting in April and a three-week dive before they set sail for the summer. Divers returned home for Ramadan.

Before any voyage, the dhows were rubbed with fats and oil to protect them from the seawater. The captains then navigated to the pearl banks "not only by the sun and stars and by bearings from the land when in sight, but also by the colour and depth of the sea and by the nature of the bottom", wrote John Lorimer, an official of the Indian Civil Service, in his Gazetteer for 1908-15. Sailors also had maps showing where the oyster banks were to be found.

Crews could be anything from 20 to 100 men, comprising divers, rope-haulers, a cook, a captain, a singer, and a boy assistant such as Mr al Batishi. The men rose early for prayer, ate a simple breakfast of dates and coffee and then dived from sunrise to sunset. Each diver worked in tandem with a hauler. The diver wore a nose plug of bone or wood, leather finger-guards, a stone weight attached to the ankle and, sometimes, a cotton bodysuit to guard against jellyfish - a hazard more feared than sharks. Many divers, including Mr Boulal, would forgo the bodysuit and wear only a cloth wrapped around the waist; the suit was restrictive and offered no protection against the worst of the jellyfish stings.

Divers would breathe deeply for a minute before entering the water, descending to depths of between four and 20 fathoms (seven to 30 metres). At the bottom, most divers had a maximum of two minutes to collect oysters in palm-rope baskets; when ready to surface, they tugged the rope to be pulled up. A diver was expected to collect as many as 20 oysters each dive. If lucky, he might find a tabrah, or cluster.

The divers worked for 30 minutes at a time, taking short rests between each dive, not leaving the water but holding on to a rope attached to an oar. On average, divers performed 40 dives per day, although some estimate they made as many as 100. Afterwards, they would rest on board while others took their places in the water. Underwater hallucinations were frequent, widely attributed to the supernatural jinn but probably the result of a lack of oxygen. Ronald Codrai, a British photographer who lived in the Gulf at the end of the pearling trade, once recalled: "There were very few divers who did not claim to have endured weird spectacles in the silent depths - headless camels, cutlass-wielding women and monsters with multiple heads were among the many frightening sights they said they had encountered."

At night, the crew would pray and share a dinner of rice and fish or, if necessary, oyster meat when no fish were caught. The crew slept on the deck, which was often so crowded there was no space for the men to stretch their legs. The day's catch would be shelled early the next morning, a process overseen carefully by the captain. Rarely did men try to steal the pearls and when they did, punishments were severe.

The captain stored the pearls in a wooden chest and sold them on his vessel, at temporary markets, or at established pearling trade centres such as Manama and, much later, Dubai. The pearls, presented on red cloth that best displayed their lustre, were sorted with sieves, weighed with counterweights made from agate found mainly in Yemen, and valued according to size, weight, lustre and colour. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, pearl merchants were often the richest men around. Charles Belgrave, the British adviser to the ruler of Bahrain from 1926 to 1957, wrote of the traders' ships: "The pearl merchant's launch was the antithesis of the diving dhow. It was carpeted with Persian rugs and covered with cushions."

Although the pearls brought fortunes to merchants, the men who harvested them were often very poor. The vessel's owner would lend the crew money to support their families while they were at sea. If a season was bad, debts were carried over to the next year. If a diver died at sea - not uncommon, given the dangers - his debt passed to his family, condemning many to perpetual bondage. It was not just the marine hazards, though those were plentiful enough - stingrays, jellyfish, sharks, barracuda, sawfish - the divers also suffered frequently from aneurysms, lung problems, blindness, deafness and skin cancer.

"Accidents do not very frequently occur from sharks, but the sawfish ... is much dreaded," wrote Lt JR Wellsted in Travels in Arabia, as quoted by Charles Davies in the 1997 book The Blood Red Arab Flag. "Instances were related to me where the diver had been completed cut in two by these monsters." The men faced these dangers because they had no choice - and, says Mr Boulal, because "God gave us the power because we have a family and we have to feed our children and we didn't have any other job.

The sharks, he recalls, "used to pass close by us and not do anything. The jellyfish attacked many times but we were used to that so it didn't hurt a lot." For Mr al Batishi, "the only risk was the Shamal", the north wind. "There were no sharks, no pirates. We had to park the boat until it passed. We'd feel the wind and see big waves and knew it was coming. It would last two to four days; 200 or 300 ships would moor inside [the bay] when the winds hit."

Tragedy was inevitable. Mr al Batishi remembers the anxiety of the haulers: "I saw a few men die because they didn't have oxygen. I didn't carry anyone up but a few of my friends carried them up. I don't remember how many. "We used to wash the body and pray and put the cloth and tie with the rope and throw it in the water. "There was no doctor," he says, "only God." The return home was always a joyful occasion. Codrai described the scene in the book Seafarers of the Emirates: "Towards the end of September, the boats began to return from the pearling banks. Chanting loudly in rhythm with the oars, the high-spirited crews rowed the last two or three miles into the harbour, splashing, rather than pulling on, as many as 20 oars with three men on each oar - an impressive spectacle as the crews intended it to be. It ended with a cheer as the anchor was dropped and the boat came to rest."

At its peak in 1917, an estimated 80,000 men worked in the pearling industry, including nearly the entire male population of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. But over the next few decades, the growth of the Japanese cultured-pearl industry undermined the diving business fatally, leading to hardship and starvation. The arrival of oil came as a lifeline and in the years following its discovery in Kuwait and Qatar, more than 18,000 Emiratis went to work in other Gulf states.

Mr al Batishi was one of them and did not miss his life on the sea: "After a couple of years I didn't see why I should go pearl hunting. I went to Kuwait and worked in a government department." Yet long after the trade has gone, the pride of those who plied it remains: "Back in those days we would swim until we lose sight of the city," he says. "Now when I put my foot in the water I feel scared. In those days we were young and didn't count any dangers."

And all who lived through them will never forget the true value of the days of pearl, their master: "It was our oil," says Mr Boulal, lifting his palms.