Diving into Bahrain's pearling past Print E-mail

The group sets sail for the oyster beds
The group sets sail for the oyster beds

By Rebecca Torr  »  Like most women I'm always captivated by a romantic love story, especially a true one. So I was fascinated when I first heard the tales of Bahrain and its once thriving pearl diving economy.

I pictured men going out in droves for months on end to search for oysters, hoping to unearth the most magnificent pearls in the world. Then bringing them back home to show their loved ones, before selling them on to be turned into a beautiful necklace or a ring or an earring, which might end up being worn by a rich aristocrat or a princess or a deserving mother the other side of the world.

These men were heroes of their day, not just in Bahrain, or Arabia but the whole world, they left an unforgettable legacy.

With this warm hearted story in mind I was thrilled to be invited to go on a pearl diving excursion and retrace the footsteps of these legends of the sea.

The trip for our group of eight was organised by explorer and traveller Ali Mushaima and led by Al Dar Islands island manager Mohamed Slaise.

As we climbed on board and drifted away from the harbour I could almost picture hundreds of women and children singing and waving goodbye to their husbands, father, brothers, uncles and cousins as the dhows drifted away into the distance.

How proud they must have been of their men going to search for treasures at sea but I wonder how heartbreaking it would have been knowing this could be the last time they would see their loved ones.

The men would be away for four months and 10 days and some through sickness or hazards of their profession never made it back home, with their bodies being buried at sea.

On board a small speed boat the journey to the coral reef near Shaikh Ebrahim Island the eight of us were excited at the prospect of maybe finding a pearl. The men snorkelled for the oysters and on board me and three other women did our best to open them - and therein lies the rub!

Rebecca searches for pearls
Rebecca searches for pearls
Opening these almost mini like rocks that are indeed alive needs a strong and patient hand. I quickly learned the trick is to find one that is slightly ajar and speedily place your knife inside before it locks tight. This is no mean feat.

The men diligently collected the oysters for the coral bed until there were scores of these things. We then made our way to Dar Island and began the laborious task of opening each oyster and trying to find a pearl.

It's much more difficult that you would think. I imagined you cracked open an oyster and there staring at you would be this beautiful round pearl. Not so at all. You need strength, a surgeon's eye and a seamstress' patience to find one.

As we all sat round cutting open the oysters and searching for pearls I really felt humbled by these Bahraini men of history who were pearl hunters for a living. It was no wonder to me why they were heroes of the day.

They were away from the luxuries of home life, living mainly off fish, rice, dates and coffee and they braved the dangers of the sea. Every time they put their hand out to grab an oyster they risked it being caught in some kind of clam or muscle that wouldn't let go, but would literally hold them until they drowned.

After collecting all these oysters they then spent back breaking hours with a knife in one hand and an oyster clutched in the other. They were courageous and ambitious men who were working not only to make themselves a living, but to power the whole economy of their country – they were marvellous!

Out of several hundred oysters and hours later some of us managed to find several tiny little pearls. The one I found was minute, but still it was a pearl.

On each find the whole group let out a gasp or a "wow" as we rejoiced at our success. One man in our group found three pearls and couldn't stop smiling about how he was going to take them home to his wife.

As we returned to the shore with our newly acquired treasures I imagined in times past the excitement of the men with their bagfuls of precious pearls and the relief on the faces of the women who awaited their arrival.

The tears of joy and the heartfelt welcome home festival that would await these brave warriors was truly deserved, as was the respect and love of their society.