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With Oil Drying Up, Bahrain Finds New Luster in Pearls

Times Staff Writer

Hassan Arrayed opened a ragged square of red felt on the desk in front of him and lowered his face like a falcon swooping on its prey.

With a cackle and a gapped-tooth grin, Arrayed held his prize out to a woman customer who, as tradition still dictates in conservative corners of the Arab world, was enveloped in gauzy black silks down to her tattooed hands.

“This one is $6,000,” he said proudly.

Clutched in Arrayed’s hand was a lustrous pearl the color of Devonshire cream. The pearl, which caught the sunlight flooding in from the streets of Bahrain’s gold market outside the tiny stall, was the size of a grape.

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Measure of Wealth

Long before anyone knew the value of petroleum under the Arabian sands, pearls were the measure of wealth in the small emirates like Bahrain that line the western shores of the Persian Gulf. Pearls from the oyster beds in the gulf were considered the finest in the world, treasured from the royal houses of Europe to the exotic bazaars of India.

However, the gulf’s pearl industry, which prospered for thousands of years, collapsed in the 1930s, a victim of the worldwide Great Depression, the discovery of oil and Japan’s perfection of the cultivated pearl. Now, the pearl industry is little more than a pleasant but distant memory, an anachronism limited to a handful of pearl merchants and a few hardy divers who try to turn a profit from a hobby.

But Bahrain’s petroleum is running out. At current levels of production, the oil will be exhausted in 1996. And the tiny island, seeking ways to diversify its economy, is again turning to the pearl.

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In 1985, the government set aside $54,000 in an attempt to revive the pearl industry, which had flourished since the dawn of time from Oman in the south to Kuwait in the northern gulf. Bahrain was always the heart of the business.

The Bahrain Center for Studies and Research bought a research ship, the Pearl of Bahrain, and trained 10 scuba divers in an effort to survey the old oyster beds. The testing is still going on.

“There’s been no pearl diving since the 1950s,” said Sami Dannish, the head of the Center for Studies and Research. “But the idea that for 30 years the pearl beds hadn’t been fished and were loaded with pearls turned out to be a fallacy. We’re still trying to determine if the project is feasible.”

There was no such uncertainty about the importance of the pearl industry at the turn of the century. Sepia-colored antique photographs of the day show hundreds of pearl boats setting sail from the island, powered to the oyster beds by their slanting lateen sails.

Historically, pearls have been renowned in Bahrain since 2000 BC, when a recently uncovered Assyrian inscription spoke of the “fish eyes of Dilmun,” a former name of the island’s civilization. The Roman historian Pliny said Bahrain, then known as Tylos, was “famous for the vast number of pearls.”

Huge Fleet

Before oil, pearls were the primary source of income, either through diving, boat building or trading with foreign merchants. The pearl fleets, often including more than 5,000 boats known as dhows, would set sail for the oyster beds in June and not return until October. The gulf’s culture revolved around the pearl season, from songs of the pearl fishermen to the gold and silver embroidery that women wore to welcome the pearl fleet home.

As Dannish--who is the son of a pearl diver--attested, life for many of those involved in pearling was extremely arduous. Divers had no more help than a bone clip for their nose and a rock to make them sink. They went to depths of 80 feet without air tanks, wet suits or goggles.

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“It was a harsh life,” said Dannish. “It wasn’t like sailing the QE-2 to Europe.”

Ramadan Hassan Ramadan is one of the few surviving pearl divers in Bahrain. He worked as a diver until 1951, when he was only 15 years old and the pearl business was in its dying days. Many of his companions were only 12.

“It was very dangerous for us,” Ramadan said. “The sharks used to circle the oyster beds, round and round, and if they didn’t move, we had to. Divers were always prone to headaches or broken eardrums. It was a hard life.”

Two Hours of Diving

The diving began at 5:30 a.m. and lasted for two hours, with each dive limited to about one and a half minutes. A diver’s life frequently depended on a less-skilled partner, even younger, who manned the two lines that lifted the diver and his net bag filled with oysters. At sea all day, the divers sustained themselves with nothing more than dates and water until the evening meal at sunset. At night, they slept on the decks, which were several inches deep in oyster shells.

In the tradition of pearl diving, the treatment for a punctured eardrum was pure machismo : holding a red hot nail to your temple.

According to Ramadan, even by the 1950s pearl diving was hardly more than a form of indentured servitude, with boat captains lending money to a diver’s family and the diver endlessly attempting to pay off the loan. A standard salary for four months’ work was $30.

“I’m happy that pearl diving stopped,” Ramadan said bitterly. “The ship’s captain owned us. When the diving stopped, we became free.”

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In 1932, the first oil well in the Persian Gulf gushed petroleum onto the sands of Bahrain. In two years, Bahrain became the first Arab country to start exporting oil, creating hundreds of new jobs. Meanwhile, the proliferation of perfect, Japanese cultured pearls, which are substantially cheaper than the natural variety, crushed the gulf pearling industry.

Abdel Razzak Mahmoud, one of the few pearl dealers left in Bahrain, noted that less than 25 pounds of new pearls are found each year in the gulf. These days, the merchants get their pearls from amateur divers, who swim in waters only 10 feet deep.

Necklace Can Cost $50,000

Kuwait has a type of pearl lottery, in which a dinar, about $2.50, entitles a customer to open 10 oysters in hopes of finding a pearl.

A new market for pearls has sprung up among the newly rich Arab families of the gulf, based in part on the old gulf superstition that a woman who wears pearls will have amicable relations in her family. A choice necklace of gulf pearls can easily cost $50,000.

Pearl merchant Arrayed learned his craft from his father, who was one of Bahrain’s premier pearl merchants despite being blind from birth. In the days of Arrayed’s grandfather, the souk al lulu, or pearl market, in Bahrain had more than 500 merchants.

Despite the shabbiness of his shop, Arrayed reckons that the pearls in his felt square are worth $100,000. In an aging safe next to the desk, he has dozens of felt squares, shoved haphazardly into plastic shopping bags.

Aesthetically, the gulf pearl is far different from the pearls familiar in the West. They seem creamier and less perfectly round than the cultured pearls made in Japan and China.

“The business is almost gone,” said Arrayed. “The divers have died out. The merchants have died out. And who will buy the pearls? This is not for the ordinary people--some of my pearls cost $30,000 each. The pearl is a thing of the past.”


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