Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Pearl Divers’ Songs

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The following is an excerpt from an essay with poems that was published in Robin Barrat’s More of My Beautiful Bahrain

As gems, pearls hold a particular fascination for me. They come in a myriad shades and colours. When they occur naturally, they are formed by an accident. A tiny grain of sand, a little pebble, enters an oyster shell and irritates the mantle. In response the mantle secretes nacre to cover the irritant and in doing so creates a pearl. What a wonderful thing to do! What a beautiful response to an irritant. Instead of destroying the unwelcome guest, the oyster lovingly encases it to create one of the world’s most prized gems.

I can’t help think, that in some ways that’s a bit like Bahrain.

At one time the area referred to as Bahrain extended as far north as Basra and down to the Omani coast in the south1 its capital being Hajar1 . I had heard of Basra pearls even before I came to the Kingdom. So the mystique and magic of the island where the pearls came from, as well as the fact that this was the place where oil was discovered in the Middle East, added to the aura around Bahrain or as they called it, more accurately in the old days: Bahrein. That being closer to the meaning, two seas.

Long before oil became the mainstay of the region, Bahrain’s main source of income was its pearls. And, if certain sources on the Internet are to be believed, the region, if not the country, was ‘historically where the world’s best pearls came from.

As I understand it, fresh water aquifers beneath the seabed in Bahrain, contribute to the unique quality of Bahraini pearls. What made and continues to make Bahraini pearls particularly precious is the fact that back then the natural pearls of Bahrain were found and collected by ‘breath-hold’ divers. In addition, the pearl-diving season was short, lasting just over four months from June until early September.

The way it was done was that the divers would pinch their noses with a short peg made from the stem of a date palm leaf. They would then be let down on a weighted rope, remain submerged for about a minute, during which time they were able to harvest an average of eight to twelve oysters. These they would put into a bag, tug the rope and they would then be drawn up by the puller – a strong hefty man, who remained on the boat. After a number of dives one lot or divers would return to the boat to rest and recover while another lot were lowered to the oyster beds. Divers were not paid wages, instead they received a share of the profits from the sale of the pearls.

Given the nature of the work, the setting sail and staying away for around four months of the year it is not surprising that a unique and traditional music was developed that was exclusive to the pearl divers. This traditional music, known as fidjeri, is an age-old repertory of vocal music sung by the pearl divers of Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. The Nahham, or pearl diver singers, were backed up by a chorus of singers and clappers accompanied by the mirwas – a small drum – and the jahlah – a clay pot.

At one time Kuwait had, in its sound archives, some of the best collections of recordings of these aboriginal songs and music. These were sadly destroyed in the First Gulf War during what was called the ‘Fires of Kuwait’.2

To quote Bill Badley – an expert on middle eastern music especially as it relates to the Oud – ‘This music, strange and distant as it seems, is the most vivid recollection of the lifestyle of the pearl divers, singing praises to Allah, sometimes erotic poems, sometimes hymns to the sea; and with it we are able to imagine the boats and the annual pearl diving seasons, the rudimentary but elaborate pieces of clothing used by the divers that preceded the modern diving suits by many centuries, and perhaps conjure up images of the pearl divers – their hopes and dreams and their fears of the sea as well as their life, long before the oil economy.’

Water pollution resulting from spilled oil and indiscriminate over-fishing of oysters essentially ruined the once pristine pearl producing waters of the Gulf. Today, pearl diving is practiced only as a hobby. Still, Bahrain remains one of the foremost trading centres for high quality pearls.

While researching the songs of the pearl divers I was so moved by some of the material that I felt I had to write something about them. I have tried to capture the rhythms and movement of the gentle waves of the Arabian Gulf in my poems as well as subtly echo the strong drumbeat that was at the centre of the songs. In one of them I have imagined a mythical old pearl diver grown large and titanic in size beneath the waves rising one night and to his horror discovering the cause of the decline of the pearling trade – ‘cargo ships and oil tankers’, and in another I have asked the world at large and the powers that be in the Kingdom to resurrect the beauty of both pearling and this traditional music.

And here are two poems that are adaptations of the original songs,

Pearl Divers’ morning prayer

(Adapted)

Today again I sail out to dive

To the deepest blue of the sea below

Today once again you know I’ll strive

For a pearl, a pearl that I can show.

So heave you rowers heave, I say

Today is that day, today is that day!

 

O morning sun, come bless our dive

Make fortune smile on us today,

Pardon our sins and bless our lives

In the name of Allah, we do pray.

So heave you rowers heave, I say

Today is that day, today is that day!

 

Your mercy is unlimited, Lord

And from our sins we’ve turned away,

And so we pray that you afford

A following wind and a clear, calm day.

 

So heave you rowers heave, I say

Today is that day, today is that day!

 

Pearl Divers’ evening prayer

(Adapted)

From the depth of the sea

I have risen O Lord,

Twice times ten I went down below.

The date palm peg it held my nose

The weights on the rope,

They anchored my toes.

 

We thank you O Creator

That you have made our lives so easy.

We thank you O Creator

For making a generous sea.

 

Our riches and hopes and prayers

O Lord, they come from you.

Today we bring good tidings

To our neighbours and families.

 

The sun, the sea and the wind

O Lord, they sting my hands and skin.

But these are like nothing, O Lord

When we see the pearls within.

 

Reference:

1 Manama People & Heritage by A. Karim Al Orrayed

2Reference: David Douglas’ Film ‘Fires of Kuwait’ / Bill Badley Wikipedia

 

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Of cows, Indian cities and a story that’s yet to be told

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This is a children’s story that I wrote a very long time ago. I have been trying to find a publisher, ideally in India, who’d be willing to publish it as a stand alone. It’s not very long and I’m sure that with the right illustrator it would be a delightful read for children all around the globe. It’s not a traditional folk tale but has been narrated as if it were.

Here are the opening paragraphs… Tell me what you think. What’s more, ask your children or grandchildren what they think. Would they want to know more about this story?

WHY THERE ARE COWS IN INDIAN CITIES

As anyone who has been to India may have noticed, even in large cities like Bombay or Mumbai as they now call it, New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata in fact all over India, in cities and towns there are cows in the streets.

The cows are everywhere: on the roads, standing on pavements, nuzzling their heads in garbage heaps, lying on the side of the road, chewing cud. Sometimes they just stand and blink at the passing traffic. Sometimes they walk across the road. And, when they do that all the traffic comes to a respectful stop. And sometimes they just stand and stare at passersby with a look to remind them of something that happened a very long time ago.

Now, as every boy and girl, man and woman, has sometimes wondered, you too might ask, ‘why are there so many cows in big cities in India?’ And you might think, shouldn’t they all be in the villages and out in the fields? And shouldn’t they eat something other than scraps and straw and old paper? They should. But Indian cows are very clever and adaptable.

What’s more, many years ago they did only stay in and around the villages and never even so much as wanted to go to the cities. But, those were the days when there was only one cowherd for all the cows and buffaloes in India. His name was Govinda.

Govinda was a young man with a merry twinkle in his eye and a ready song at his lips. Sometimes he played a flute, and it was the most beautiful sound as it danced lightly like a butterfly over the cows and buffaloes as they ate grass, or sat and chewed the cud or slept. All the cows and buffaloes loved Govinda and he loved them.

The cows and buffaloes spoke to Govinda in a language quite different from ours. Whenever they needed him they would lower their heads and call out, “Gooooovinnnnndaaaa!” And he would come running as fast as he could, hopping, skipping and jumping over the backs of the cows if necessary. He could run very fast, there were some who said he could run almost as fast as the wind.

Govinda and his cows wandered wherever their fancy took them. If the cows wanted juicy green grass, Govinda would run ahead, pluck out a stalk, chew it from the roots to test if it was juicy enough and then he’d call the cows to follow him. When they moved in the direction they were called, the enormous herds looked like a great monsoon storm that was changing direction.

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Desert Flower blooms!

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As with so much of my writing, a chance remark, a question, a comment, often sets me off and before I know it, usually out comes a poem, sometimes a rant, sometimes a story.

And that’s how I came to write Desert Flower.

I had just started working at the Chronicle Herald, we were based in Dartmouth at the time, when I was surrounded by some colleagues all mildly intrigued by me. I guess I was something of a curiosity. The fact that I was “from away” in itself was strange. India, they had all heard of. But, Bahrain! “Where on earth was that?”

Some colleagues told me they couldn’t comprehend the heat I was talking about. And there I was, in the throes of trying to wrap my mind, my arms and my shawl (worn over my sweater, further fortified by stockings on my feet) around how cold it was and that was the middle of May.

“So, how hot does it really get?” One colleague asked me.

I started to explain it to him and then I thought. ‘I’m a writer. Why don’t I write it down for him.’ So that day over lunch, I started to write. And before I knew it, this romance story, jumped on me, like a devil on my back and every lunch hour for the next two weeks I simply had to bash out this story. Until it was done.

By then it was June. The story had gone galloping off in its own direction, so of course the colleague who’d asked the question never saw this. But I did share it with some of my other colleagues who thoroughly enjoyed it. It was too long to be a short story and too short to be a novella so it lay with me until I returned to Bahrain and shared it with some of my young Bahraini colleagues.

“You have to publish it”, they insisted.

“How do you know about so many of our old traditions? Like the ‘mashata, the dallal…”

“These are being forgotten…”

Finally, I was able to publish it. But that’s why, the opening lines are…

How can I explain that sort of heat to you?

Dry. The air so hot you can hardly breathe. The sun: a high, burning, intense fire in the heavens. You can’t look up to see it. It is shrouded in a heat haze, so that although one is aware of a single heat source, the entire dome above seems like a pulsating radiator reflecting that relentless heat back to the baking earth below.

In such a land nothing lives, save a few daring palms that would cheat the heat, and not let it extract their moisture by thickening their trunks and shredding their leaves, or scrub trees, those tenacious acacias – gnarled and thorny, husbanding their water and sap, even their chlorophyll into the tiniest imaginable leaflets – extracting from the unforgiving environment more cleverly than Shylock, life. In this inexorably cruel environment, is it any wonder that trust is a precious commodity, almost as valuable as water?

And love? It is a rare jewel. It lives as the cactus flower, bright, showy and flamboyant, but only for a brief while. It is a thumbing of the nose, from that plump succulent stem with its spiny leaves, at the heat and wasteland around it.

Such was the love that I had found so very long ago on a tiny island, just east of Saudi Arabia, called Bahr’ein, because of its two seas, the salty one that flowed around it and the sweet water sea that lay hidden both underground and beneath the seabed. So much like us, we who call ourselves Bahraini, with our salty and crusty exteriors hiding the sweet softness beneath.”

You can read the rest at any of the links provided at my publisher’s page here: http://www.ex-l-ence.com/Desert-Flower.php

As for the pen name? Ah, that’s another story.

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Dai the Aries Cat

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Last week at our Bahrain Writers’ Circle workshop, a number of us brought in and shared excerpts from pieces we had written. At the end of the session, we decided that if a piece is read out aloud, mush of its success depends on the reader. Certainly, as far as my contribution (below) was concerned, I felt this was true. As you can see, some words are a bit long and a bit of a mouthful, so the person reading it stumbled over these words. 

Did it adversely affect the impact of the story? This of you who were there, tell me what you think after reading this one!

“Just Another Day”

As anyone who’s ever known or had a cat knows with some certainty, from way back when, that a cat always has three names. There’s the name the family gave him or her that very ‘sensible everyday name’, then of course there’s the name by which the other cats know him or her, and then there’s that marvellous third name, which, as TS Eliot so cleverly called it, the ‘ineffable, effable, Effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular Name’ which only the cat knows.

But, Dai, as the family called her, had only one name. “And that,” she said with a meoooowwwrrr, that rang all the way down that elegant street and struck terror into all the other cats and dogs and even some of the neighbours where her family lived, “is Dai!” She had to be singular. “Or else,” she purred, “what’s the point of being me at all?”

In fact she made the family call her Dai by grabbing the diamond bracelet that Angus had given Madeline the day they brought Dai home. She and the bracelet were Madeline’s birthday present. But Dai was the gift that Madeline loved most. Even the children Jeff and Tara couldn’t get away with as much as Dai could.

She insisted, by imperiously scratching at the door that the family make a separate entrance for her and fluffed out her fur and marched in and out whenever she wished. When she sashayed down the street with her tail in the air, everyone gave her a wide berth. She chuckled wickedly to herself when she did that, “It’s such fun!”

“You’re mean, you know?” her friend the street cat, who everyone called Katz, said. He was the only one who could walk alongside Dai and say almost anything to her as he’d chased off a nasty dog the very first day that Dai had ventured out alone.

“Am I mean to you?” Dai purred so low it was just a little rumble in her throat.

“Naah. You wouldn’t be.”

“Don’t tempt me Bozo,” Dai grinned as her whiskers twitched testing the sensitivities of passersby. Bozo as you may have guessed was Katz’ cat name.

Today was a stroll and check-it-out day, not a day when Dai and Katz were looking for adventure or stuff for Katz to eat.

So by the time they’d spent the day chasing pigeons, sitting on a wall and watching the street while the sun warmed their backs, climbing a tree, which Dai decided today was not the day she’d go to the top, and it was time to go back, the evening shadows had started to grow long.

“Ahhhhh!” said Dai as she stretched her slim body “Yawrrrr” she sighed as each leg was stretched so that Bozo just had to look the other way. “Let’s head home, I need some of that cat food Madeline leaves for me, and maybe I’ll demand a little cuddle.”

Bozo said nothing. He just sighed; sometimes he wished he had a home to go to.

The house was still dark as Dai slipped in like a soundless shadow through her private entrance, not a single light on. “That’s odd” Dai thought as all her senses became alert and she silently sniffed the air.

And then she froze. Madeline was tied to the kitchen chair and gagged. Angus wasn’t home yet and the children were still at their friends.

Dai just looked at her and went into the bedroom where she saw a man with a mask throwing Madeline’s jewellery into a bag and with it her diamond bracelet.

Dai a furious streak of flame leapt at his face, scratched his eyes and removed the mask.

Bozo, on hearing Dai’s yowls came rushing through the cat door and attacked the man’s hands.

He dropped everything and fled through the door and down the street just as Angus was driving into the driveway. Angus leapt out of the car, ran after the man and caught him before he reached the street corner.

By then there was enough of a hubbub. The neighbours came. Madeline was released. The police were called. Tea was made. The burglar was taken away.

Madeline told everyone how marvellous Dai had been but where was Dai?

In her favourite place. On the back of the sofa, fast asleep. Or was she?