Pearl Diving in Kuwait – Revisiting History
When you think of Kuwait, the first thought that pops up in your mind is probably of an oil-rich Arab state, which is absolutely true as Kuwait has more than 10% of the world’s estimated oil reserves and is a leading exporter of petroleum. If you are a tourist who loves wandering around souqs, mosques and other sandy traces of ancient Bedouin days, Kuwait should be a good match for you.
The post-oil boom era that happened about four decades ago, transformed Kuwait completely, not only in terms of the infrastructure but also the population structure, which changed completely with the huge influx of manpower from various countries, required for the constant development. Today’s population of Kuwait comprises of over 100 nationalities reducing Kuwaiti citizens to a minority in their own country.
In this blog we are going to talk about a lesser known fact about Kuwait, a shiny and bright past before oil became the main source of the economy. A lifestyle that more or less served a major part of the country’s population in the pre-oil era.
Did you know that pearls, in the past, were the main source of wealth in Kuwait and not oil as it is today? Now, annual pearl diving festivals are held to help the younger generations to feel the excitement and hardships faced by their forefathers. It’s literally a dive in to their past heritage and history for today’s young men. These festivals are a tribute men who spent their lives searching for pearls and making their daily domestic ends meet; a far cry from today’s prosperous Kuwaiti lifestyle.
In the pre-oil era sailboats and dhows were mostly made of imported Indian teak which was waterproofed by using the traditional mixture of sheep oil and lime! The boats were maintained on shore for cracks and other repairs which were caulked with cotton dipped in shark oil. Finally, the body of the ship was manually smeared over, up to the water line, by a thick coating of noora (a mixture of shark oil and powder).
Before the dive the young divers would make extensive preparations and arrangements for the event; they were submitted to rigorous diving and sailing training, met experienced captains and old divers and listened to them explaining the intricacies of pearl diving and familiarised themselves with the necessary equipments. After extensive training, young divers use traditional equipment, such as the dieng (neck basket) and the hajer (toe anchor) to search for pearls. The costumes the youngsters wore were the same as their forefathers’. They wore the Izar, which is a wrap-around skirt that also serves as a head wrap, along with diving trunks and t-shirts. When diving, the diver was secured to the boat’s railing with a rope tied around his waist. Each diver also had a helper who at the surface held the rope all along the dive. The end of the festival, locally known as qafal, was celebrated with traditional singing and dancing.
The festival which this year is expected to take place sometime after Eid al Fitr is now seeing a healthy increase in the number of participants each year making Pearl Diving in Kuwait is one of the most enjoyable and entertaining activities today. It has now become an integral part of the Kuwaiti culture which keeps the tradition alive and makes the youth aware of the rich heritage of their country!
Oman Air operates 13 weekly flights from Muscat to Kuwait!