Pearls were once the oil of a 19th century UAE, and pearl diving was considered a pillar of the country's economy; one that contributed immensely to development and growth.
Once the backbone of the country’s earnings, pearl diving is now no longer the massive industry it once was. However, it is still very much alive in the collective memory of many Emiratis.
Here are 10 facts about pearl diving in the UAE that will bring out the nostalgic in you.
1- The number one occupation in the UAE
If you were the main breadwinner in a 19th century UAE then you were most probably a pearl diver or had a job related to the trade. Thousands of Emiratis worked in pearl diving. They performed different tasks, from sailing the boats to collecting the shells, to sorting the pearls, to selling them.
2- IT had its own organizational chart
If you were a Falleej فلّيج then you were the guy responsible for opening the shells and extracting the pearls. If you were a Sayyoub سيوب then your job entailed pulling pearl divers back onto the boat after a dive was completed. If you were a Tawash طواش then you were the person who purchased the pearls from the divers to sell them in the market.
3- Every tool had a special name
Pearl divers in UAE used many tools in their job. These include:
- Dyyeen: a woven bag the diver hung around his neck to put the shells in.
- Fattam: a clip made from turtle shells that divers put on their nose to block the water from coming in.
- Yeda: a long rope that tethers the diver to the boat.
4- There will be pearl fishing ... and there will be music
Singing played a major role in pearl fishing. On every boat there was a Nahham, which is a singer who performed traditional songs and prayers to motivate the divers, entertain them and set the rhythm of the rowing.
No diving trip was complete without a Nahham. Sometimes bigger vessels had more than one. Nahhams too received a share of the profits.
5- Pearl divers nourished themselves with rice and ghee
The Majella is the food supply carried on the boat. It mostly consists of rice, ghee, sugar, tea and coffee.
6- Divers had an especially important social status
Divers were highly respected in the Emirati society because they risked their lives to bring wealth to all members of the community. This is why they received special on deck treatment and were allowed to sleep in the best spot (usually situated at the back of the boat), eat with the captain and were exempted from doing chores. The best divers were called “habb el reeh” هبّ الريح and were ones who were able to perform some 50 dives per day.
7- Different diving practices for different times of year
In the UAE, pearl diving was performed in 4 times of year:
1- Al Khanjeya: starts in April and lasts for one month. Diving during this time of year is usually performed in shallow waters.
2- Al Awd: Also known as the big season. It stretches from May until September. Big and small vessels participated in pearl fishing during this season.
3- Al Raddah: It starts in October and lasts for only 3 months due to the declining temperatures of the water.
4- Al Radida: It starts towards the end of the year and is only exploited in pearl farms.
8- A good ending
The end of the pearl fishing season was called the “qafal” and was celebrated so as to mark the safe return of the boats and all those involved in the trade.
9- Difficult odds
The odds of finding a pearl inside a shell is 1 to 1000. It is impossible for a diver to know if a shell contains a pearl just by looking at it.
10- There are diving hot spots in the UAE
Delma and Al Bzoom islands in Abu Dhabi were considered to be among the best spots to find pearls. Delma was even nicknamed “Little Bombay” in reference to its buzzing and prosperous economic scene.