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Volume 41, Number 5September/October 1990

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Servants of the Pearl

"We are all, from the highest to the lowest, servants of one master - pearl."

Muhammad ibn Thani, 1863

Written by Eileen Khoury
Photographed by Victor Lambourne

When Muhammad ibn Thani uttered those words to William Palgrave, much of the population of the Arabian Gulf, around 60,000 people, were servants of the pearl. Their lives and livelihoods were compressed into the six months between April and September, pearl-diving season. If the oyster beds produced a good harvest, they would have enough money to feed themselves for the rest of the year. A bad season meant hunger and poverty for all but a few.

For thousands of years, the pearl has been a prized possession, a treasure sought after by the earliest civilizations of China, India and Persia in the East; Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Americas in the West. Throughout history, the magical luster, the almost other-worldly glow of the pearl, has captivated the wealthy and powerful. The Queen of Sheba, Moghul emperors of India, Queen Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great were among those who spent their lives collecting pearls.

Even today, pearl dealers of New York, London, Geneva and the Arabian Gulf battle regularly at Christie's and Sotheby's international auctions in an attempt to buy some of the remaining fine-quality natural pearls before they disappear from the world market.

One such pearl dealer is Hussain Alfardan of Doha, Qatar. He estimates that his family has dealt in pearls for over 300 years. They have traced their origins to Sittrah, in Bahrain, though now there are branches of the family throughout the Arabian Gulf.

It was the grand patriarch of the family, the late Hajji Ibrahim Alfardan, who established them as a leading pearl dynasty. Hajji Ibrahim is still remembered by old pearl divers all over the Gulf as an extraordinary pearl man. He was known as The Surgeon for his exceptional skill and patience when using a knife to remove the microscopically thin outer layers of an ugly majhoolah pearl to reveal a perfection of quality, color and luster underneath - an operation that sometimes took weeks. Hajji Ibrahim died in 1981 at the estimated age of 111 years, one of the last of his generation totally involved in the pearl.

Why do men like Hussain Alfardan and his uncle, Hajji Hassan Makki - himself a venerable man in his 80's - still occupy themselves with the many details of the pearl business, from buying and selling, to selecting designs and fashioning jewelry with their own hands? The answer appears to be that, though they are leaders in their field and widely acknowledged experts, the moment a fine pearl drops into their hands, it takes over. It is the master, for some reason in their blood and their genes; it embodies their childhood past and their cultural heritage. The pearl has an attraction that Hussain, a most articulate man, cannot put easily into words.

"I have my own private collection [of pearls] which is not for sale," he says. "When I'm sad or tired, I take the pearls out and look at them, losing myself by dreaming of the past and singing the old pearling songs. And I feel happy. Just looking at pearls makes me happy. Their monetary value is nothing compared with the special feeling I have for them."

To understand this rare passion we must look at the pearl itself. Every pearl is unique - nature at her glorious best. They need no enhancement, no cutting or polishing to add to their natural beauty and symmetry. They are found in almost every color of the rainbow: pink, blue, green, black, gray, yellow, cream and bronze, but the most prized of all is white with a faint sheen of rose pink, ideally combined with a deep luster that gives the pearl an almost translucent quality.

Arabian Gulf colloquial Arabic has many words for "pearl," such as lulu', dana, hussah,gumashah, and hasbah, and the Alfar-dans still use the old, traditional names to describe shape and color. There is the sujani, or pear-shaped drop; the khaizi, with an elongated upper half and a half rounded bottom; the adasi, cylindrica with flat sides; the majhoolah, or unknown a large, irregular, ugly pearl which on ran. occasions conceals a perfect one under it' exterior. The sindaali is flesh-colored, sofri is yellow, and the khardil is black. The sinjabaasi is the finest black pearl of all, and the nimro is a pearl fixed in the shell. Lastly, there is the jiwan - a corruption of the Persian word jawan, meaning young or premature - the perfect pearl, rose-tinted white, completely round and with a luster so pure that it comes alive with radiance.

Pearls are still sorted and graded using a series of 25 brass sieves collectively called gurbaai, each individual sieve is a tasah. And, while the rest of the world weighs precious gems in carats, the pearl merchants of the Arabian Gulf still use the old unit, the chow, whose relationship to the carat is complicated. One writer claims that one carat equals 0.6518 chow but two carats are 2.6074 chow; dealers use handbooks with equivalency tables.

A symbol of purity and chastity in the East as well as the West, the pearl's mysterious origins have been variously described as magical drops of dew or rain; Sumerian tablets refer to them as "fish-eyes." Even today, experts cannot agree on how they form: Is a parasitic worm responsible, a grain of sand or a disease? Some pearls have a clearly defined parasitic nucleus while others have no nucleus at all. The only thing that is clear is that the oyster coats the irritant deep within its shell with layer upon layer of nacre, the secretion with which it builds its shell, until a pearl is born.

This is the difference, and, conversely, the similarity between a natural pearl and a cultured pearl. When pearls are cultured, an irritant, usually a tiny piece of shell, is placed inside the young oyster, or spat, which is then returned to the sea to grow for another two to 10 years, or even more. But the cultured pearl loses its luster, both dealers and wearers believe, and its color fades a few decades after harvesting, whereas there are natural pearls 300 or 400 years old that are as lustrous and beautiful today as when they were found.

While natural pearls are found all over the world, those from the Arabian Gulf are acknowledged to be among the finest, and no other location has produced pearls of such quality and quantity so consistently. The center of the Gulf pearling industry was Bahrain. Kunz and Stevenson, in The Book of the Pearl, published in 1908, stated that the "Gulf fisheries employ about 3,500 boats, large and small, of which 1,200 of the best are owned at Bahrain, 700 on the coast of Al Hassa from Al Qatar to Kuwait, and the remaining from various parts of the Gulf, especially from the Pirate Coast east of Al Qatar."

Today Bahrain remains the main pearl-trading center. It is also a cultural repository for the pearling way of life, thanks to people like Ahmed Alfardan, who founded the Pearl Divers' Society in Bahrain, providing premises - the dar -where pearlers can meet several evenings each week and relive the old days. While many of the divers have retired and no longer work, some are still active as pilots in Mina Salman) Bahrain's main port. Almost all are in their 70's, and they gather to sing the old pearling songs that are so much of their past. There are two or three young men present in the dar, grandsons of the older generations, but they do not dive; they only come to sing and preserve the songs for posterity. Indeed, the Bahraini divers today travel all over Europe, singing their plaintive melodies at cultural festivals.

During the pearling season, in the old days, men and their boy tabbabah, or apprentices, worked, ate and slept on the open deck under the iron rule of the nokhatha, or captain, who was frequently also the boat owner. The nokhatha earned his position by his expertise at finding the best pearling banks, called hayrat, an navigated only by the sun, the stars and hi knowledge of the Gulf waters.

Traditional methods of pearl diving changed little in thousands of years. It required only the strength and endurance of a two-man partnership: the ghais or ghawwas - the diver - and his rope-tender, or saib. The saib literally held the diver's life in his hand, for if he did not pull him up fast enough, the diver would drown. The ghawwas dived from sunrise to sunset, and was expected to go down at least eight times in 15 minutes, depending on the depth - typically around nine to 12 meters (30 to 40 feet) - before he was allowed a rest. With dayyeen, a net basket, strung from his neck, a rope weighted with a stone tied to his waist, a nose clip, or fetatn, on his nose and leather fingerstalls called khabat to protect against sharp coral, the diver sank to the sea floor in search of mother oysters. Some wore cotton overalls to protect them from jellyfish stings or to ward off shark attacks.

Other important members of the crew were al-mejaddimi, the second-in-command; al-musally, the prayer leader, who also relieved the saibs when they were praying; and the nahham, who kept everyone's spirits up by leading group singing. While many of the songs were plaintive and sad, all had the strong beat of the drum as a base, still predominant in today's Gulf music. The first song of the morning, however, usually went like this:

Oh, blessed morning!

May we be fortunate today.

Oh, pardoner of our sins,

May we ask you to forgive us.

Your mercy is unlimited.

We therefore appeal to you

To bless and forgive us.

Oh, God, I repent

And turn from my sins

To your love.

It is you who grants us pardon....

After evening prayers, the nahham would always finish the day with the evening hymn:

Oh, God, make our lives easy.

May riches come to us from God.

So that we may announce the good


To our families and neighbors.

And anger the envious.

Life on board the pearling boats was spartan, and the pearlers suffered great hardship. They were frequently undernourished, with their staple diet of coffee and dates for breakfast and lunch, and fish and rice for the evening meal. Whatever flesh was on their bodies at the beginning of the season quickly disappeared, and only skeletal shadows of men returned to their villages at the end. They suffered from lung disease, fungal infections of the skin, scurvy, rheumatism and arthritis; they faced shark attacks and, more seriously, they must frequently have suffered slow degeneration of the brain caused by a lack of oxygen during the long cycles of diving.

The hard-won oysters were placed in a pile on deck and were left for two or three days to dry out, making the task of opening them much easier. Finding pearls was a matter of pure luck. Sometimes a day or a whole week would pass without a single pearl being found in thousands of oysters. At other times, a few hours' diving would bring a rich haul of pearls. The captain took charge of all those found and kept them in red cloth pouches, still used by pearl merchants of the Gulf today.

As soon as the captain sold some pearls, he paid each member of the crew in cash. There was a payment hierarchy that was rigidly defined and meticulously adhered to. The largest share was set aside for the captain, another for the boat, and the remainder was shared in proportion to the position each individual held in the hierarchy. Divers frequently borrowed against their share before the season started in order to provide for their families during the six months they would be at sea, so if the season were good, they might just have enough to see them through to the next season without having to borrow again. If not, they faced ever-increasing hardship, hunger and debt from which even death could hardly free them, for when a man died, his son had to assume all his debts. Many divers were thus heavily burdened even before their first dive.

The tawwash, or pearl dealer, was the next link in the chain of the pearl. The lesser tawwash traveled around the pearl beds in dhows every week buying what they could, and then reselling the take to the larger merchants. The more prominent merchants received consignments of pearls sent ashore by special messengers, who were paid with a share of the value of the goods.

Buying pearls was strictly governed by a complex system of bidding that all considered fair. In fact, pearls are traded in almost exactly the same way today, except that the traditionally furnished rooms of the past have given way to air-conditioned, modern offices. The Italian furniture is pushed aside and the traditional red cloth is spread atop the luxurious carpet, while the dealers discuss the merits of the pearls. Even the old system of silent bidding may be used: If a dealer does not want the others present to know how much he is offering for a pearl, he and the seller cover their clasped hands with a cloth and indicate their bids and counter-bids with a system of finger signals that dates back at least a thousand years.

From Bahrain, the pearls were sold to the leading Indian merchants, who sent them to Bombay to be drilled by hand. Finally, they were sold to the Europeans, whose hunger for pearls was insatiable.

Of Hajji Ibrahim Alfardan's nine sons five are still in what remains of the natural pearl trade today: Hassan and Ali in the United Arab Emirates, Hussain in Qatar and Khalil and Ahmed in Bahrain. They grew up during the great worldwide depression of the 1930's, made much more severe in the Gulf by the loss of traditional pearl markets to the more easily available cheaply produced Japanese cultured pearls. They learned the art of buying and selling sitting at their father's feet, where they also learned the necessity of hard work and the rewards of doing it well.

As Hussain Alfardan, now in his mid 50's, recalls: "We went through a very difficult period when the pearl trade came to an end. Some people had to sell their homes and others tried to find work in other fields. The whole area suffered terrible poverty for a time. While the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf waters heralded a great economic future for the Arabs, it took many years for the effect of the oil wealth to trickle down to the ordinary people of the Gulf."

They made a modest new beginning, that became the foundation of a jewelry, empire that now covers all of the southern Arabian Gulf, and places the Alfardan family on the level of Tiffany or Chaumet. But they are still best known for their fine pearls, whose prices, unfortunately, are now beyond the reach of most people. Fifteen years ago, a single-strand necklace of perfect pearls would have cost perhaps $8,000. In today's market the same necklace lace would cost around $100,000. Indeed at a recent Christie's auction in Geneva, a pearl necklace estimated before the sale at around 80,000 Swiss francs sold in fact for more than 400,000 francs - some $300,00 at current rates.

If pearls are so commercially valuable why don't divers go down with modern equipment and start to collect oysters again? It is not a simple matter. First, there is the question of territorial waters. Then Arab governments have banned scubadiving for pearls in order to prevent the pearling beds being stripped, but they are also unwilling to permit the hardship and exploitation the divers suffered in the "good old days" - and no one knows whether willing divers could be found today. The question of commercial viability is unanswered without actual experience of modern running costs. And finally there are the unknown effects on the pearling grounds of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, with its probable oil pollutior mines and other hazards.

Will the natural pearl have a future in the Arabian Gulf? Dr. Sami Abdulla Dannish of Bahrain is finding out. He is the head of a Bahraini government study project on oysters in Bahraini waters. His study is at present surveying the oyster beds, and will then go on to study the growth of oysters, their habitat and the effects of pollution and fouling agents in the Gulf waters. Based on the final results in three to five years from now, Dannish may then look into the feasibility of rearing spats artificially to repopulate oyster beds or create new ones, thus - it is hoped increasing the potential harvest of natural Gulf pearls.

Such scientific and economic studies are the key to the future, for however traditional the old pearling industry may be and however great the nostalgia that surrounds it, any effort to re-establish it must at least break even. Yet so little understood is the genesis of the pearl that even oyster beds full of oysters are no guarantee that the oysters will be full of pearls. For now the future of the natural Gulf pearl is uncertain at best - and so is the future of its few remaining fascinated servants.

Free-lance writer Eileen Khoury lived in Qatar for 14 years and worked with the Alfardan family. She if now based in Bristol.

This article appeared on pages 24-31 of the September/October 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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