Dubai’s pearling tradition dates back millennia. Nikki Schreiber steps into the shoes of the emirate’s traditional pearl divers and discovers just how intrepid they really were
Forget the hustle and bustle of modern-day Dubai – just a 20-minute drive outside the city, between Jebel Ali and Ghantoot, life looks much the same as it did before oil. And life before oil was pearls, the most important industry for the coastal town of Dubai.
Pearling in the emirate goes back thousands of years – archaeological evidence suggests as far as the 6th century BCE – with divers coming from all over the region to take part in the industry. Gulf pearls were and still are highly prized for their quality, and in the 19th century almost all of the pearls found off the coast of Dubai would have ended up in the bustling pearl market of Mumbai.
As the desire to own pearls grew so did their value, and the period between 1900 and 1930 was the high point of the pearl trade in the Gulf. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. In 1929 the Great Depression had a huge impact on the sale of pearls and then in the 1930s the pearl trade was dealt a final blow; the Japanese perfected the art of cultured pearls and they flooded the market at a much lower price than the natural pearls of the Gulf, reducing demand massively. By 1950 the pearling industry seemed to be over.
In the past few years, however, under the aegis of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre and its subsidiary the Dubai Pearl Exchange, the pearl industry has experienced a rebirth with demand for natural Gulf pearls growing locally, in the surrounding Middle Eastern market and in Australia and India. And with this increasing demand has come a return to the traditional ways of doing things; pearl diving is back and becoming important to the region again; the lure of finding natural treasure is irresistible.
And so it was for me.
We cross the gangplank in single-file wearing the traditional pearl divers costume to guard against jellyfish stings. This is a voluminous white cotton shirt with hood and matching trousers, tied by a drawstring, in which one size really does fit all; it’s possible to fit three reasonably proportioned people in one pair.
Carrying fresh water urns on our shoulders, we board the traditional wooden dhow with its one huge white sail, juxtaposed against a calm teal blue sea, and its small rectangular tarpaulins strung together overhead as protection from a fierce sun. The decks are covered in thin turquoise tapestry upholstered cushions and we sit and wait to sail, hoping there will be enough wind to take us where we want to go; manoeuvring a dhow is difficult because it’s designed to catch the wind and then go as fast as it can in one direction until the breeze subsides. There’s a gust of wind and the crew, all from traditional pearl diving families, haul in the anchor and hoist the sail, their singing disguising their exertion, and we’re off to the oyster beds, full of anticipation, just like centuries of pearl divers before us.
Once the anchor is dropped, a large teardrop-shaped rock tied by two pieces of string on either side and weighing approximately 5kg is produced along with a bucket in which to put the shells. The rock is dropped over the side of the boat by a helper who holds onto the strings and a diver jumps in and demonstrates how to slip your foot into the space between the strings while holding both ends in one hand. A clip that would originally have been made from tortoiseshell is fixed to your nose to stop the rush of salt water and then, when you’re ready to dive, you let go of the string and the weight takes you down to the sea bed.
It’s not easy; the distance to the bottom is about five metres and I have to swim hard to get there with cotton flapping around holding me back, my ears beginning to ache from the pressure. Once down there I realise why it’s best to be wearing gloves; oysters cover the bottom as do sharp rocks and sea urchins and in a frenzy to pick up as much as possible before your breath really does give out it’s difficult to be discerning. I stay down for as long as possible, which isn’t very long, and then just when I start to feel panic I tug on the string and the helper pulls me up.
When the basket is full we stop diving and congregate on deck to learn how to open an oyster shell and start the meticulous work of looking for a pearl. Natural pearls come in all shapes and sizes and are usually to be found under the outer rim of the fleshy part of the oyster. It’s painstaking work and we are all hungry from diving so lunch takes over. And just as we are finishing, one of the crew opens an oyster and shouts that she has found a tiny yellowy-white pearl. Everyone crowds around, incredulous, but it is true, natural treasure has been found.
From 2012 Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai is running authentic pearl diving experiences through its dive centre. Visit www.visitdubai.com/en/pois/pearl-diving-with-major-ali