x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Ali Story: Pearls of wisdom

Because my grandma has passed away, she doesn't know how much of an impact that had on me when she said that she never wore a pearl necklace before in her life.

'Yadooh, Yadooh, khabreeni qesat danat yadi Abdulla" (Grandma, Grandma, tell me about my grandfather Abdulla's big pearl), said a 10-year-old boy.

Yes, that was me. I remember asking my grandma to share this story even when I reached 18 years old, a year before I left for the US. My beloved grandmother, who passed away a few years back, is the best storyteller I ever knew. She had the ability to put us all to sleep half way through a story because she would suddenly break and order me and my sisters, nieces and nephews to go to bed if we wanted to hear the end of it, and this kept going on for the next night and so on.

Later, I realised that none of her stories ever had a proper ending, because she would always plan to stop in the middle. So the next day we would feel the urge to go to bed early to hear the rest of the story, but she always managed to start a new one. Oh, Grandma, how much I miss you! God rest her soul in peace.

One story I never forgot was about my grandfather's special "dana". Dana is the name of the most expensive pearl that can be found in the ocean. It's the largest, is darker in colour, and is worth lots and lots of cash. Back in the day it used to be a treasure for any pearl-diving boat captain who managed to find one because it meant he and his team members wouldn't need to suffer for a whole year working on such a harsh type of activity.

Anyway, my grandmother told us how my grandfather was lucky to find a dana on one of his pearl expeditions. He didn't keep it, though - after selling it via the captain of the boat, he received a fair percentage of the sale and bought some silver and gold for my grandmother. I was shocked, and remember asking my grandmother: "How come he never brought the dana to you instead of buying some gold or silver?"

I was amazed by her reply: "Son, we never wore pearls back in those days."

I thought my grandmother, for the first time in her life, was lying to us!

I asked: "Yadooh, how come? It's a pearl, too expensive, so beautiful, why didn't you wear one?"

And then she replied: "Son, in the past, when a pearl was found and collected by all men and captains it got shipped to India, and from there to Europe. Hence, pearls were like the best type of jewel, worn by queens and princesses, or women from aristocratic families. Owning a pearl in our region was only for those who were able to afford it, and they were really rare. Besides, women never really felt wearing one would add any special feature to them, and silver was much more appreciated."

Interesting, isn't it? Because my grandma has passed away, she doesn't know how much of an impact that had on me when she said that she never wore a pearl necklace before in her life. This encouraged me to think of a way to bring the pearl legacy back and make them available for all women to enjoy wearing and to learn more about their significance.

Her pearl story inspired a vision I had two years ago when I decided to do something about reviving pearl expeditions. I introduced what is called the Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey (www.adpearljourney.com), an experience that is considered the first cultural and tourism experience of its kind in the capital.

It's a unique "edutainment" (education and entertainment) experience, designed to enrich people's knowledge of the history of the pearl industry in the Arabian Gulf, and to remind people how our forefathers dedicated their lives to collecting thousands of seashells in the hope of finding a pearl.

I was blessed to meet someone who made this vision possible and brighter: my brother and friend Abdulla Rashid Al Suwaidi and his Japanese business partner Daiji Imura, who founded a company in the UAE and called it RAK Pearls. After a couple of meetings, it wasn't difficult to decide to launch this unique experience, which I had dreamt of for a long time. Both residents and visitors here deserve to come closer to the history of pearl diving and learn more about it to understand it better and appreciate it more.