Sunday, February 15, 2015

My article: A Pearl Diving Song, published in ALO magazine.

Three years or so later... Here is my pearl diving article which was published in ALO magazine in 2012.
All the photographs are mine except for the last one, not sure where that came from.
I hope that there will be more articles to come in the future.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

falcon hunting in Qatar

this post it not necessarily related to pearl diving, but it is definitely related to Qatari history, and its AWESOME.
Here are a few photos and video clips of some Bedu that I visited with a couple of friends. We called it the 'camel club,' but there really wasn't a name for the place, or an address for that matter. It was just a random spot in the desert where a couple of Qataris would go on a regular basis to hang out with eachother, run around on camels, horses, and go falcon hunting.


they also raise and breed Saluki dogs, the oldest breed of domesticated dog in history, and also the only type of dog accepted in Islam
Sherwa, a Saluki

saluki puppies

They also raise, train and sell camels...dozens and dozens of them

And they are renowned for their prized falcons which they catch (using little kangaroo rats as bait), train, sell and hunt with


This falcon was the smallest, and newly caught- this day was its one of its first days of training... and yes, they hunt with falcons in their SUV's



click on this link! -its a video I took of the falcon hunting/training in action

This is Tornado, he ran the facility,- trained the falcons, rode the camels and horses, sang and played traditional Bedouin music...and was an absolute bad ass...In this photo he is riding an amazing Egyptian Arab which they finally agreed to let me ride, after excessive pleeding and convincing
Tornado (Mohammad)


By the end of the night, we all sat in the Majilis, made traditional Bedouin bread (which was cooked under the embers of a recent fire), drank camel's milk (fresh.....still warm, but very strange/wonderful), and listened while Tornado, Mohammad, Mohammad, Mohammad and Mohammad played and sang traditional Bedouin music.
 It was an amazing time.
crazy Bedouin bread

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

jewelry!!! yep, i made it.

Here is some jewelry that I have made so far with pearls,
some of the work is with akoya pearls (cultured) and some is with natural Gulf Pearls that I acquired during my interviews in Qatar.
I will label each image accordingly

These are all natural Persian Gulf Pearls, except for the pink one on the right, it is cultured

natural Persian Gulf Pearl

natural Persian Gulf Pearl

natural Persian Gulf Pearl

Cultured pink button pearl

Cultured AA grade pearl

Cultured AA grade pearl

Cultured AA grade pearl

Cultured AA grade pearls

Cultured AA grade pearls

The pearls on either side of this stone are natural Persian Gulf Pearls

this is the reverse side of the above necklace

  Natural Persian Gulf Pearl

Cultured button pearls

Monday, October 19, 2009

Two nights ago I interviewed Mohammad Abdul Rahim, one of the Pearl diving musicians that came on the Pearl Diving shoot. He called the day before the interview and asked me to send him some questions via email so that he could come prepared with the information. He was so prepared, that he put my little notebook of questions to shame. Rahim and his band are the only pearl diving musicians in Qatar. My intent of this interview was to get an inside scoop on the music, its origins and meaning, and its significance to the Gulf people. This was very difficult information to attain. Pearl diving has been a trade here for thousands of years, and its origin is without history. The music is near impossible to translate. The Mawwal (pearl diving poetry) was 80-90% prayers to God and thanks to the Prophet. Some of the words are a mixture of African and Arabic words, resulting in sounds that have no literal meaning. I believe, from what I have learned about pearl diving, that the music developed out of
a) necessity, as the work was unbelievably difficult and probably impossible to perform without a high morale, and
b) the arabs' inherent ability to find ways to lighten their spirits during any dreary and difficult task.
The words of the music itself, I think, were not as significant as the feeling of the music. I asked Rahim what qualities a person had to possess to become a Nahaam (a marine entertainer). He says that when the music starts, he feels it coming on him like the snap of his fingers (he literally snapped to make this point). Being musically, and in other ways talented, is believed to be a gift from god as well as genetically inherited from the parents; one knew at a young age whether or not a talent for a particular trade was bestowed upon him by god. This is also true for the few pearl experts that were Tawwash (pearl traders). Five out of a thousand Tawwash were real pearl experts. These men would be called upon by the sheikhs to look at a pearl and determine the quality and price. A Dana pearl was often hidden under a layer of Nacre that had to be pealed off in order to reveal its true quality. A pearl expert had the ability to decipher that quality before the outer layer was removed. The process of removing that layer was extremely difficult and involved a steady hand and a knife. The pearl experts had to be trusted as they would start the bidding process of the pearl before pealing off this layer. The abilty to determine the real quality of pearls was believed to be a talent bestowed upon by god. It was a trade specialty that had to be learned and practiced with the help of a mentor, but first and foremost, it was a god given gift. The same is also true for the Hajamh, people who performed an age old traditional healing technique that has been practiced in the Arab world since the prophet gave it to his people. Al Hajamha is the practice of bloodletting. Many ailments were alleviated by poking holes on the top of the head and sucking out the 'bad blood' through a straw. Another healing technique is Kewee. This involved cauterizing the skin in certain places as a healing remedy. If the divers suffered from the bends, which they often did due to the incredible depths at which they dove, the Noukhatha (captain) would cauterize (with a fiery hot steel rod) the spot behind each ear lobe, after which the diver would get right back in the water and continue working. The people that performed (and still perform) these techniques posses a talent to do so which the people believe was given by god. These skills may have been learned and practiced, but they were only done so by people who were blessed by god with a gift to do so.

I think the word "Inshallah" (god willing) has taken on a new meaning for me.
Every one here uses this word after every phrase. I may say to a friend, 'would you like to get dinner tonight,' and I know that the answer will be either be 'no,' or 'Inshallah.' After Islam swept across the gulf, everything that happened, happened according to 'god's will'. The bedu and the coastal people of the gulf were constantly face to face with their own mortality. They faced this constant danger and destitution with dignity and without fear, and I believe they did so by placing their destiny in the hands of god. The old pearl diver that I interviewed, Sa'ad Ismaeel, told me that the sharks which roamed the waters of the pearl beds were not dangerous. He assured me that any diver that was attacked by a shark was meant to be attacked by the shark. It was god's will, not the will of the shark. And therefore, the sharks did not pose a danger to the divers. I was a bit confused by this statement, but after a few more interviews, and a little bit of reading, I think I am starting to understand this mentality, and I think it may indeed be justified due to the lifestyle that they had to withstand. The inhabitants of the gulf had almost no control over anything that happened to them, so it must have been pretty easy to absolve themselves of any control or responsibility of their fatalistic existence. But coming from a progressive western society where people are taking pride in having control of their own destiny, I can see how international relations between the West and the Middle East may be a bit rocky. Could you imagine being a western diplomat, sitting across a table from the King, Emir, or Sultan of a Gulf state, trying to come to an arrangement in regards to a very important international crisis, and the closest thing to a 'yes' that you will get is "Inshallah?" I think that would be frustrating to say the least - But I also believe that Westerners could work a bit harder to understand this mentality.

After my interview with Rahim, he invited me to go to a recording studio where he and some other musicians were recording a song for a Qatari wedding. I accepted the invitation and invited a friend of mine to come with me. On the way, Rahim told me about his best friend Rafael, a flamenco guitarist, and proceeded to give me a CD by him. It was pretty cool and absolutely random driving around the streets of Doha with a Qatari, accompanied by this Spanish ambiance. Doha is so much more enticing when Lola and Raphael are serenading in the background.

After we arrived at the recording studio, we were served sugar with a little bit of tea. If my cavities weren't bad before, they will be unseemly when I get back. The song was recorded layer by layer, the only instrument was the keyboard, the rest was done by the computer.
The men recorded each part of the song separately, including the female voices in the background (hilarious) which was fixed via computer technology after wards and made to sound like real women singing.

After the song was recorded, Rahim took my friend and I back to our houses and graced us with an interesting (to say the least) conversation about magic, spells and curses.
Rahim, believe it or not, is a liberal Muslim. His wife is unveiled and only wears the abbaya. And I think his fervent superstitious beliefs are a Gulf trait rather than a Muslim trait. I have heard some pretty wacky stories about superstitious practices amongst Qataris, but I didn't believe it until Rahim gave us his shpeel about immigrant magic.
He was explaining to us that he is trying to raise his children to be self sufficient, unlike most Qatari families that allow their maids to do everything for their children. He told us that he tries to keep the maids away from the children so that they will learn to do things for themselves. He went on to relay that he only hires Indian maids and drivers. "Indians have a very long history with Qatar that goes back for thousands of years" he said, which I know to be absolutely true due to the pearl trading industry. "We know how the Indians are, and they know how we are, but the other workers from the Philippines, Nepal, Indonesia etc... are new to this country and I do not trust them or their magic."
He elaborated to say that many of the immigrant workers bring magic from Africa and other countries into the houses of their employers and will often put spells on them. He said "I know you may not believe it" which I assured him that I did not, "but I have seen such things," he said.
"When you have an ailment, and the doctor cannot find out what it is, you know you must go to the Imam and have the Quran read to you to rid yourself of the curse. Every morning, I must read three passages from the Quran to protect myself from the magic that people bring to Qatar."
Whoa. Pretty wacky and pretty wild.
I am scheduled to have tea with him tomorrow afternoon and I hope to return with more knitty gritty info about Qatari beliefs and traditions.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Yesterday, I woke up at 3am and prepared to meet the morning after 1 hour of sleep. My taxi (Karwa company) was 15 minutes late and I was pissed. The film crew told me to be at the LaSigal Hotel by 4am if I wanted to come along on the Pearl Diving documentary shoot. My Karwa driver was nervous, and I can only imagine that it was because I was so flustered when I got in the car. He got lost for another fifteen minutes in Education City trying to find the exit gate. I couldn't help him because there are at least 3 different security gates and each driver has to use a different one depending on his company.
This wasn't the first time that Karwa tried to ruin me, and I'm sure it wont be the last.
It didn't matter that I scheduled my taxi 30 minutes earlier than I needed, I was still late... but luckily, so was the film crew.
we made it to the dock where four boats, 2 dhows and 2 speed boats, were hired for the shoot.
I met the 2 directors (Mark and Clare) and the 3 videographers (Ralph, Scott and John).
I almost peed my pants when I heard Ralph and John mention their previous work for Planet Earth.
I asked Mark about it, thinking that I may have heard wrong, and he assured me that the videographers on this shoot were some of the best in the world. After wards he added that the directors (Clare and himself) weren't so bad either.
Mark works for the National Geographic channel in New Zealand, and has worked extensively for the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and more. John, in addition to filming for Planet Earth, mentioned that he filmed episodes of Meerkat Manor.
"Spectacular creatures," he called them.

Mark (left) Scott (right)

Ralph (left) John (right)
All the videographers had cool matching hats

Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, and Animal Planet are just about the only channels that I watch, and have watched since I was was 8.
The first time I saw an episode of Planet Earth, one of the deep see episodes, I all but changed my major to marine biology.
These people were impressive, to say the least, but I was more affected, and even envious, of their unbelievable patience which was tried over and over and over again by everyone and everything, from the beginning of the shoot until the very last take.
They had to manage a crew of about 20 Qatari pearl divers and ship operators, about eight pearl diving musicians, two speed boats (nobody in either of these categories spoke english), and each other.

The old Qataris on board made the day very pleasant. They spent most of the time making jokes with each other and casually making music.

They did as the directors asked them, and often, they did it over and over and over again. When it came time to shoot the actual diving, there were some complications as the Qataris were too fat for the weights which were attached to their feet. They wouldn't sink. Fifty years ago, the real pearl divers who used the same weights to sink to the bottom, were not as well fed, and it would not have taken much to pull their lean, malnourished bodies down to the ocean's floor. I am quite sure that the majority of this Qatari crew had never actually gone pearl diving. Nonetheless, they knew how it was done, and were able to give a pretty accurate reenactment.

They didn't although, seem to understand that their movements were being filmed, and didn't wait for the cameras to start rolling before they played their parts. Once they knew what they were supposed to do, they did it immediately.

It was absolutely hilarious to see them jumping into the water over and over again, and each time they jumped, they didn't wait for the crew to get into position.

They just couldn't wrap their minds around the fact that there were more than just human eyes watching them.

The musicians performed different songs as each occasion arose. They performed a song when the sail was hoisted,

one during the rowing, one as the anchor was pulled,

and many for leisure.
The musicians as well wouldn't wait for the sound technicians before they started to play each song.

These traditional songs and dances have deep roots and traditions whose importance far exceeds that of the camera which they were expected to wait for.

It was apparent that the mood of the musicians, and their audience, were necessary elements of the song. I think that the restrictions placed by the cameras and directors made it somewhat impossible for the songs to have full effect. The whole point of pearl diving music was to enhance the spirit of the pearl divers. It was music that was created for its audience. Mark, wondering what he was going to tell his producer who paid 3,000$ for one day of these musicians, kept asking for a translation of each song. He wanted to know their meanings and he wanted to hear stories. The musicians kept replying "this song is about the sea," or "this song is about the desert." The director wanted more, but the musicians were getting impatient and didn't want to explain further.

I spoke to one of the musicians after wards and asked if I could meet with him sometime this week to try and get information about the stories and folklore that many of these songs were based upon. He was more than willing to assist me, and I hope to get some real translations of these songs and poems. A translation might be impossible, but at the least I want to find out what events were happening that inspired the words of the songs.

When noon rolled around, one of the Qatari men placed his right hand on the right side of his face and began to recite the call to prayer.

It was a bit surreal to see him standing amidst all the chaos singing so clearly and intently. Eventually, the majority of the men lined up in the middle of the boat like it was a mosque. One man lead the prayer, and the rest followed him.

The film crew didn't seem to pay much attention, but I know that everyone could feel the presence of religious dedication hovering over the boat. It was pretty incredible.
Later in the day, I watched the men, one by one, do a ritual washing of their hands, face and feet in preparation for another prayer.

There were a few scuba divers on the shoot, one of whom gathered baskets full of oysters which were opened on the boat as part of the shoot.

I got a little too excited at the prospect of finding treasures inside the oysters and had to contain myself so as not to get in front of the camera.

They found two little pearls.
Mark, Scott, Ralph, the stills photographer and I boarded the speed boat to race the setting sun and get some wide shots of the Dhow.

I was so excited that I waved at the Qataris on the other boat not realizing that they would probably wave back and ruin the take.
Thank god none of the crew noticed. Although I'm sure they will when they start the editing process.
As I was the only tag along on the shoot, I knew that they were worried and expecting that I would be a hassle.
I never would have been allowed on the shoot if it wasn't for my association with another film director here. He connected them with me because they were in need of some research on the subject which I had. In return, I asked to accompany the shoot.

By the time the filming was over, everyone had what they wanted, including myself.
I was pretty freaking overwhelmed with everything I saw and experienced on this shoot.
After leaving the dock I went to the beach at the Sheraton hotel and retired my tired self under the (almost) full moon. Pretty great.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I went to Souq Wagef again tonight... this may have been my 8th or 9th time.
It is, in fact, my favorite place in Doha.

It is far from original, as the authentic souq was torn down to be rebuilt (and made to look old, just like the original- wtf) about ten years ago.
But inside of the souq are still some of the same Qatari store owners whose austere presence and unbelievable kindness make me feel like I am in a real place, and not in a saran wrapped bubble.

Plastic cities and cultures are popping up all over the world, and I should know best, coming from the United States; but plastic is plastic and no matter where I am, I don't like it.
None have developed so fast and gregariously as they have in the Gulf.
As a result, the history and cultural traditions of Qatar are disappearing with a similar quickness.

Gulf pearls (especially from Bahrain and Qatar) were valued more than any in the world. Some thing in the sea beds of Qatar and Bahrain made the pearl's brilliance, color, shape and size superior to that of any other pearls. The pearls were taken to pearl trading centers in Dubai and Bahrain after which they were shipped to India where they were in high demand by Maharajas for lavish decorations; and what was left was sent to Kings and Queens in Europe.

these are Tasas which pearls were sifted through and sorted by size

and this is a tiny little pearl scale

Pearling was much more than a livelihood in Qatar. It was the ONLY livelihood, and everything was centered around it. The Tawwash (pearl traders), when they weren't buying or selling pearls, they were gathered together at a coffee shop in Souq Wagef to discuss the pearl market inside and outside of their region.
During the off season, Pearl divers and marine entertainers would congregate at Duoor (specific houses) to practice different forms of Nahmah (marine entertainment). Nahmah was the most essential component of pearl diving which included the songs, poems (Mawwal), chants and other rituals that were performed on the boats to enhance and encourage the working spirts of the pearl divers. These artistic forms of expression were not taken lightly, and involved the entire community. The poets and singers were highly respected artists who were a foundational structure of Qatari coastal communities. Any action that was performed in relation to pearl diving, including ship building, the hoisting of the sails, the departure and return of the divers, and much more, was accompanied by a specific Nahmah ritual. This practice was cherished and loved to such a degree that it became a common practice even during the winter months when pearl diving was not in season.
It is worth noting that through out history, Arabs (city, coastal and Bedouin alike), have found ways to maintain a high morale, good humor and a ripe spirit even in the dimmest of circumstances.

In the 1940's two things happened which contributed to the demise of pearl diving. The Japanese Cultivated Pearl flooded the market with such force that a G1 Dhana pearl (best quality) went from 5,000 rupees a Shoo (like a Karat) to 50 rupees. the other contributing factor was India's independence in 1947. India in the 1900's (and much earlier) was Qatar's biggest pearl buyer as well as the largest pearl market in the world. After they gained independence, an abrupt halt was put on imports of luxury goods. Qatar underwent one of the most devastating recessions known to the Gulf. Pearl diving was replaced with destitution and poverty. The population in Qatar decreased from 25,000 to 10,000.

The transition from a life of extreme toil and hardship to a life of lavish luxury happened quickly and without deliberation.
Oil was discovered and money swept across the Gulf like a sandstorm.

Pearls soon became a luxury to the Gulf inhabitants instead of a livelihood. Woman of the Gulf began to acquire a taste for pearl jewelry which they had never worn until this point.
It was also around this time that the demand for the Gulf pearl rose again. It became evident to pearl collectors that the cultivated pearl lost its glister and shape while a natural pearl stayed true for many many years.
Diving although, was no longer practical in the Gulf, so the same people in the Gulf that sold the pearls (Tawwash) went back to their buyers in India and Europe to retrieve the same pearls that they sold.
Today, the Gulf pearl is high in value and demand, and low in quantity.
But maybe, just maybe, I can get my paws on one little pearl to take home with me.
That would be worth many hours of wandering around the Souq, which I will do regardless.
The shop owners at Souq Wagef are starting to recognize me. And each time I go I make a new friend. There is one old Qatari shop owner that invites me into his tiny little shop every time he sees me.
And each time I go I stay for long periods of time while he sits on the floor and tries to speak to me in broken english and serves me tea and coffee and gives me little trinkets. In two hours, I take away about 2 complete sentences. The rest is gibberish and I love it. His hospitality and surreal kindness communicate more than words could translate.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I'm not sure how to go about describing tonight's interview.
It was awkward to say the least.
A friend of mine accompanying me said that it made her muscles tense. For whatever reason, Sa'ad Isma'el was not happy to be interviewed. He was very willing, but at the same time he seemed perturbed about it.
As a young boy, he dove for pearls with his father. He showed me the rock that he would attach with a rope to his foot to sink to the bottom. He also showed me the plug that he used for his nose when diving.
He put a basket net around his neck that he used to put the oysters and clams in.
For his family, he would bring back starfish shaped like camels and his mother would put little saddles on them.
He is the first genuine pearl diver (no scuba gear) that I have met. He was young when he dove, as pearling hasn't been practiced out of necessity for 50 or 60 years in the gulf.
He said he knew the songs of the pearl divers. He also said that he could sing them, as well as translate them.
But he would not.
He kept saying, "why does it matter," "who will care..."
I promptly said that I would care.
He responded with a long pause, during which I waited with my camera ready.
No songs for me.
not today anyways.
I asked him if he new any stories, legends or folklore told from pearl divers.
he said that he did, and then proceeded to tell me a TOTALLY unrelated story about his beard, a strand of hair, a box, and loaning someone some money.
I was perplexed.
But I think that he was trying to convey something about trust, and that a man's word used to be worth something. -Today, in Qatar, trust and honor are not what they use to be.
I believe pearl diving represents something more than just a novel memory to Sa'ad Isma'el.
Oil and gas are fine and dandy, and everyone is fat and happy...but in the process of rapid development and money trees popping up everywhere, certain things were lost, and maybe there are some people that miss those things.
On November 15, 2005 the Doha Debates proposed this question to Qataris and Arabs from all over the Islamic world: was the oil a blessing or a curse?
the result: "This house believes that oil has been more of a curse than a blessing for the Middle East"
The motion was passed 63% - 38%.