x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Return of the pearl divers

To keep the tradition of diving for pearls alive in Kuwait, the 21st Pearl Diving Revival Festival sailed off from Bahrain.


KUWAIT CITY // Dozens of teenagers arrived back in Kuwait last weekend after more than a week at sea as part of an annual pearl diving festival which, for the first time in its 21-year history, sought out pearls in Bahraini waters. Some 184 Kuwaitis, mostly between the ages of 14 and 20, took part in the Kuwait Sea Sports Club's Pearl Diving Heritage Revival Festival, which attempts to keep the region's traditions alive by teaching the younger generation about the age-old techniques of sailing and diving.

Five of the club's 11 dhows had motored through rough seas on a nine-day round trip to Bahrain, while the other six ships had remained in Kuwaiti waters. Other GCC countries have on occasion participated in the event, but this year's mission was the first time the boats had ventured to Bahrain. "In 1995, all of the GCC joined us here, but this is the first year we went to Bahrain to dive," the chairman of Kuwait Sea Sports Club, Fahad al Fahad, a retired major general, said at a party in the south of Kuwait.

"If they accept, next year we will go to Saudi, but the furthest country we can visit is probably Qatar. Even to reach Bahrain, it takes three days of sailing." The crew had spent all summer learning how to swim, sing traditional songs and prepare their dhows before the first fleet set sail on July 28, and the Kuwait fleet two days later. One of the captains, Mohammed al Najar, who is on his 11th voyage, said he has never experienced conditions as rough as he did on the journey to Bahrain. He said some of the young sailors were seasick.

"There's a big difference in sailing if you stay near the beach. The further you go from shore, the stronger the wind becomes and the higher the waves get. Water was pouring into the dhow," Mr al Najar said. "I kept all seamen close to me on the back of the boat while they were sleeping in case we lost anyone to the sea." There were other challenges too, he said. "Some lights on sporadic buoys were not working properly, and at night we nearly crashed into a few of them because the visibility was so poor. All of the fleet's ships stayed very close, within a few metres of each other, so we would not become separated. I had to stay awake because I'm responsible for the boat. My assistant can take care of the wheel but not everything, so I only slept for about two hours a day."

Mr al Najar said the five ships collected about 3,000 oysters in Bahrain, which yielded about 30 pearls. He said the biggest problem for the divers was painful sinuses after the repeated dives. But experiencing "the hardships that our grandfathers had to bear" is part of the experience, said one of the divers, Fahad al Kandari, 18. Past generations had to endure a hard life on the dhows for months at a time as the Gulf's communities relied on the sea to gather the region's main export.

By the mid-1800s the pearl trade dominated the Gulf, but after the invention of the cultured pearl and the Great Depression in the 1930s, demand for the pearl collapsed. The discovery of oil in the Gulf soon after shifted jobs back to the land, and pearl diving and its traditions almost completely disappeared. "We got so many shells, but unfortunately not too many pearls, though there were seven or eight large pearls from Kuwait," the club's chairman, Mr al Fahad, said.

The frugal lifestyle on the boats could not contrast more sharply with the normal lives of the young sailors, many of whom come from Kuwait's wealthy classes, including the royal family. Mr al Fahad said the festival teaches the young men respect and discipline. "They have to have their hair cut short and kiss the heads of their elders," he said. "They have to learn how to swim, learn the names of the ships and the traditional songs, and they're not allowed to smoke."

"Many of the captain's started when they were aged 10 and now they're fathers. They usually work their way up through the ranks." The young Kuwaitis start as cleaners and then move up to saib, who stays on deck and reels in ropes attached to the diver and his basket of oysters. After that, they will take the roles of ghawwa, or diver, naib nakhuda, vice captain, and eventually become the nakhuda, captain. Such promotions can take years.

The billowing, triangular sails of the 11 dhows were an impressive sight as the ships, each with a crew of between 10 and 15, made their way to the oyster beds on Tuesday. The importance of the saib's rope became apparent as the divers were tossed around by the rough sea. If a swimmer became exhausted, a line attached to his partner might be his only hope of getting back to the dhow. The ghawwas dived to the seabed a couple of metres beneath the surface with only a wooden nose clip and a weight to ease their descent. Once at the bottom, they needed all of their skill to find the shells in the murky water.

Their catch was brought to the fleet's large dhow to be cracked open by dozens of the club's young trainees. The process is facilitated by leaving the shells for three days first, so the stench of rotten oysters filled the air around the boat. Ali al Qabandi, the head of the festival's committee, sat on a platform overlooking the deck, receiving the pearls as the young Kuwaitis found them. "This is the first time any pearl diving ship has gone to another GCC country since the discovery of oil" in 1938, he said. "We want to make this culture alive again."

Back at the welcome-home party on the beach, Kuwaitis supported their relatives' mission, but also expressed their concerns. "I worry about them," said Ibrahim al Sayyar, whose brother, father and nephew were on the dhows. "This is the sea. You never know what will happen. They go every year and when they do I'm very sad because the house is so quiet, but today the whole family will come to my house to celebrate their return."

jcalderwood@thenational.ae