Life in the Persian Gulf revolved around the natural pearl for centuries, according to archaeological evidence dating back to the Late Stone Age in 6000–5000 BC. It was this object – occurring spontaneously in the world – that not only brought a specialty dhow trade to the Gulf, but also incredible risks to the divers who endeavoured to find it.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from 700 BC Mesopotamia that is among the first recorded examples of literary fiction, describes how the hero dived to the depths with weights tied to his feet for the “flower of immortality”, a well-known early allusion to pearling. By 100 AD, Pliny the Younger had declared that pearls were the most prized goods in Roman society, with those from the Gulf reigning as the most esteemed.
For the humble men who harvested the pearl, it was much more than an object of beauty; it was a way of life. They were mostly after Akoya pearl oysters (Pinctada imbricata fucata), known locally as mohar, which grew to a shell length of 60–80 mm; “Lingah shells”, named after a place on the Arabian side of the Gulf; and the sudaifee or zinni (P. margaritifera), a cream or light grey species that reaches up to 200 mm in length.
Pearl grounds originally stretched on the Arabian side from Kuwait along the coast of Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman. They also ran along nearly the whole coast of the Persian side of the gulf, from near Bandar-e Bushehr (Kharg island) to Bandar-e Lengeh (Kish island) in the south and even further south into the Strait of Hormuz. The Phoenicians, who likely held the first monopoly on the pearl trade, were succeeded by early Arab seafarers undertaking long, arduous journeys in their primitive sailing ships, dhows.
The fishing season was usually concentrated between April and September. At first the shallow waters were fished, leaving the deeper areas for the warmer season, which were fished in rotation in order to ensure they were left fallow for several years. An important person aboard the dhow was the nahhams, who sang the ritual prayers that determined the schedule of the day.
The captain, called the nokhata, had absolute command of the pearl divers, known as the ghai ghawwas. These early freedivers were equipped with a wooden nose clamp (fitaam), cotton soaked in oil for the ears, a basket (dadjin) to hold their catch, and a knife for removing the oysters from the bottom. On their fingers and toes they wore small leather caps, khabbal, to protect their digits from sharp coral, rough shells and the occasional encounters with poisonous marine creatures.
According to historical evidence, a diver descended on two ropes, which his assistant, the saib, held and controlled from the ship. He would remain underwater for 60 to 90 seconds, typically reaching depths of between six and 20 metres. With as many as 40 divers per ship, each individual usually went beneath the surface 30–40 times daily. A crew of 30 divers could harvest a staggering 8,000 pearl oysters in a single day. In certain areas of the Gulf, some divers were taught to grease their bodies to conserve heat in an effort to combat low water temperatures. The most skilled could manage dives of as much as 26 metres on a single breath. But such depths were undeniably life threatening.
Even though deep diving was a daily affair, there were many rituals surrounding the practice. One of the most significant was the firing of pistol shots heralding the auspicious find of a large pearl – the sound of which could be heard in far away places on the coast. The captain would collect all the finds in a traditional red cloth, and after selling the first pearls, he would pay the divers in cash. However, the unfortunate ghai ghawwas took the smallest cut, and the majority of them was still subjected to a vicious cycle of poverty. Nonetheless, for men with access to few resources on land, the wild pearl offered a wealth of opportunity to feed their families.
From the mid-18th century, pearls from the region were exported to India, Persia and Turkey and sold on to European and Chinese markets; the Gulf ’s pearl industry boomed with the integration into global markets. It attracted divers from Yemen, the Indian Ocean island of Socotra and Oman’s Batinah Coast. By around the middle of the 19th century, approximately 60,000 people, nearly the whole population of the Arabian side of the Gulf, were working in the pearl fisheries.
In less than 120 years, from 1790 to 1905, the value of pearls grew six-fold. Between 1830 to 1900, Gulf pearls generated significant global revenue of about US$1.75 million a year, and by the early 20th century, this figure had risen to US$4 million. These “jewels of the sea” had not only become one of Asia’s most treasured commodities, they left a legacy of tenacity and fearlessness that embodies the spirit of the modern-day freediver.