On the Bu Maher shore of Muharraq, in the former capital of Bahrain, women and children gather to bid farewell to the men in their community. A steady beat of drums fills the air, and women’s voices singing the mrada, wishing their loved ones good fortune, wafts toward the sea. Virtually every male resident in the city then boards dhows — Arabian-style ships that seem to effortlessly slice through the turquoise Gulf waters — and sets sail for pearling season. Much of the crew will be gone for several months, making daily dives to support their country’s biggest industry.
The early 20th century was the peak of the pearl industry in the “kingdom between two seas,” with an estimated 90 percent of the country working in some capacity at finding, transporting or selling the gemstones. Nearly 20,000 seamen would float over oyster beds, using little equipment other than a bone noseclip for the dives and a curved knife for prying open the bivalves to extract their treasure. In 1912, it was as stable as pearling in Muharraq would ever be. The Gulf still supplied between 65 and 80 percent of the world’s pearls — with Bahrain the dominant harvester and Muharraq the most important pearling town in the region. The country would rake in more than $2,500,000 from the trade in that one year — a high-water mark.
But in Bahrain, as it was throughout the Gulf, pearling was a man’s job. The ancient Qatari poem “The Legend of Mai and Ghilan” tells the story of a female pearl boat captain who refused to tow a male captain with her fast rowers. So he invented the sail, finding inspiration from a grasshopper, and then refused to tow her in return. Not the sort of legend that helped the women’s cause in an industry also known for being both physically taxing and dangerous. Every June, when the winds were calmer, the water warmer and the days long, Muharraq’s men, except for the elderly and young boys, would head to sea, and the city would take on a changed character. It would become a city of women.
“The women just had to get on with it,” explains Robert Carter, whose Sea of Pearls recounts the history of pearling in the Gulf. “If something needs to be done, if someone’s house starts falling down and the wall needs rebuilding, then the women would get together and do it,” he says. They would take up occupations like bread baking and fishing, according to the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiques (BACA), and gather in groups to weave the kurar, a traditional decorative embroidery made of gold or silver threads. And, according to resident testimony from that time cited on BACA’s website: “Women of Muharraq don’t veil their faces when walking in public during al-ghus al-kabir [the diving period], because any man that did not leave the city was not considered a man that women would need to cover for.” There’s a paucity of historical data on what precisely life was like in Muharraq during this time, Carter explains, but the accounts he managed to uncover speak to a tight-knit community of women who joined together in support of one another.
A myth of a more enlightened liberal city with greater women’s engagement could simply be a modern spin by Bahrain’s government.
“They take care of the town,” says historian Victoria Hightower. From hauling water to caring for the animals, every task fell to them. And socially, whether because of their large numbers or out of necessity, some likely had greater standing while the men were away. “They could have had a little bit more power or authority when it came to making decisions in terms of punishment or adjudication of disputes.”
And yet, Hightower is quick to note, women in the Gulf were never fully devoid of men’s influence. “I don’t buy that they were as alone as we think,” she says. The men, after all, controlled the income for the island. A myth of a more enlightened liberal city with greater women’s engagement could simply be a modern spin by Bahrain’s government, she theorizes, as a way to flip the country’s conservative history on its head and encourage women’s participation in civil society and the workforce.
Returning to the shores of Bu Maher, on the prescribed date that the pearling season ended, the women of Muharraq would come together once again, this time to welcome home the dhows and their crew. A black flag hoisted by any of the ships would signal to the waiting families that there had been a death during the months at sea.
Before long, however, a confluence of events would sound the death knell of pearling in the Gulf. The worldwide depression in the 1920s reached even as far Bahrain’s pearl divers, as demand for their jewels dropped. Around the same time, Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kōkichi released his artificially cultured pearls onto the market. It was a one-two punch that leveled Bahrain’s pearl trade, which had nurtured a culture for 2,500 years.
But there were other riches lurking just below the surface. The first oil reserve on the Arabian side of the Gulf was discovered in 1929 — in Bahrain.
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