Pearl Kuwait
Pearl diving in Kuwait
By Pamela Q. Fernandes

Ask anybody about Kuwait and they will mention two things: the Gulf Wars & oil reserves.

Amidst the sprawling malls and grand souks, it’s hard to remember that early Kuwaitis subsisted on date plantations, camel rearing, fishing and pearl diving.

For those who may not know, Kuwait is a tiny desert nation perched on the tip of the Persian Gulf. With a long coastline, Kuwait is strategically placed for pearl diving. In the early 1900’s the pearl business thrived and made the merchants — most of whom have now become prominent citizens of the desert nation — rich.

Kuwait is still not as commercial as some of its glitzy neighbors, though it’s citizens have not forgotten their humble beginnings.

Kuwait
Kuwait Towers. Photo courtesy of Gross1970/Pixabay

Pearl Diving In Kuwait

Back then, pearl diving was difficult without all the modern technology and diving equipment. The men dived thirty to forty times a day, risking serious injury and death.

Yet, despite the hardship, it proved to be a financial blessing. Pearl diving was so popular that Kuwaiti author Saif Marzooq Al-Shamlan published Pearling in the Arabian Gulf: A Kuwaiti Memoir in 2001. In it, he included the diving laws, types of dhows (a type of traditional sailing vessel), pearl diving traditions and merchant names, hoping to perpetuate the tradition among the youth.

As oil production boomed, the dependence on pearls has waned. Seven thousand years after the first pearl was found in Kuwait, the pearl market has all but vanished from the country and its shores. The government finally closed the pearl-oyster market in the year 2000, despite local protest.

This came as a surprise to many in the Kuwaiti community, especially since pearls from this region were known for their exceptional sheen from the mixing of salty and sweet water in the Arabian Gulf. The emergence of the Japanese cultured pearl was the final nail in the coffin for this once thriving business.

The ancient tradition of pearl diving is being revived in #Kuwait. Here's how. Share on X

Reviving Tradition

Today, Kuwait is trying to revive this tradition among its young men. Under the patronage of the Emir, the government has undertaken special expeditions for pearl fishing. Held every summer, when the waters are warm and clear, hundreds of Kuwaiti men set out on pearl diving expeditions.

Over the last three years, they’ve turned it into an event known as the Pearl Diving Festival. This festival is organized by the Kuwait Sea Sports Club (KSSC) and is five days long. Prior to the expedition, the youth are trained and taught diving procedures at the coastal center and the sports club.

In August, the men set out on ships amid much fanfare surrounded by family cheering them on. A traditional “Dasha” ceremony is held. Dasha translates to farewell in Arabic. The sound of beating drums and traditional music of their ancestors plays on. It’s a proud moment for many of the older generations, who consider it a rite of passage for its young men.

The youth — ranging from 14 to 30 — seem excited and even tentative about the trip. After all, the wooden ships they will set sail on are nothing like the opulent catamarans and yachts they’re used to. They’re simple and rustic, with white sails, floors covered with sackcloth and little else.

Some of these ships were donated by the former Emir, Sheik Jaber Al-Ahmed Al Sabah, who was keen on reminding his countrymen of their roots.

Arabian Dhows
Dhows for Pearl Diving. Photo courtesy of BeaAmeya/Pixabay

A Challenging Expedition

For five long days, the expedition sends out divers in the morning to harvest oysters. The process is long and tiring as the boys are newbies at this, and practicing in a swimming pool far different from the ocean. The boys will tell you what they want to find; the big pearls often called Dana and Jawhara. And if nothing, even a small one like the Qumasha will do.

They follow their instructors; some as old as seventy. Following tradition as closely as possible, the men dive without modern equipment. Each dive lasts less than a minute, and searches beds 10 to 15 feet deep. Between dives, they rely on dates and Arabic coffee. Their meals are simple on board, with freshly caught fish and plain rice without any condiments or cutlery, just like their ancestors ate during their seafaring days.

For the Kuwait men, the jute-covered floor and the dorm style bedding is a far cry from the grand homes they’re used to. By sundown, the oysters are shucked and the pearls are evaluated, prompting celebration among the men. And at the end of five days, the boys have absolutely become men, a camaraderie among them and an appreciation for the life their forefathers had. And that’s how the older Kuwaitis expect it to be.

Can you believe what these young Kuwaiti men do to #dive for pearls? Incredible! #kuwait Share on X
Kuwait pearl
Arabian Pearl. Photo Courtesy of NeuPaddy/Pixabay.

When they return they’re hunched over in exhaustion. Their families greet them on the shores with hugs and a big feast is organized where there’s dancing and eating. Jubilation rings in the air.

The festival has now grown and allows participants from neighboring countries like Bahrain and UAE, where efforts to revive this tradition haven’t been as successful. Last year this festival yielded close to six hundred pearls.

Pearl diving may not return to the ways of old, but Kuwait is doing it’s best to develop and keep its traditions.

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Pearl diving in Kuwait

Pamela Fernandes

Pamela Q. Fernandes is an author, doctor and medical writer. Born and raised in Kuwait, Pamela writes romance, women's fiction, speculative fiction and Christian non-fiction. You can read more about her at www.pamelaqfernandes.com

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