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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