Bahrain Pearling

Sieve & Pearls <I>Photo by Kari</I>

Sieve & Pearls Photo by Kari

Bahrain pearling

Back in Manama we take a tour of the souq, the bazaar. Between Pizza Hut and Hardees and some ultra-modern air-conditioned malls there are relics of a life before petro-dollars, such as the shop belonging to Hassan M. Al-Arrayed, a gap-toothed pearl merchant. His father, blind from birth, was one of Bahrain's premiere pearl merchants, and this father's father used to don tortoise-shell nose clips and tie stones to his feet in order to dive to depths of 80 feet without air tanks, wet suit or goggles, to fetch the "fisheyes of Dilmun." Sumerian legend has it that a king named Gilgamesh, the hero of the world's first epic odyssey, learned that a sort of fountain of youth existed on Dilmun. Once he sailed to Dilmun, he was told to dive for the flower of immortality at the bottom of the sea. Attaching stones to his feet he dove, and brought back the flower -- a fantastic pearl -- to the surface. But while Gilgamesh took a bath a serpent swallowed the pearl, whereupon it shed its skin and emerged new and shining and youthful. The possibility of eternal youth for mankind was lost.

From an old safe behind his desk Al-Arrayed retrieves a ragged, red felt handkerchief and pours out over $100,000 worth of brilliant natural pearls. The oyster beds around Bahrain were justly famous for thousands of years for the unique pearls they produced, pearls with a strange, lustrous sheen, attributed to the rinsing received from fresh water that jets from the ocean bottom. The Kanoo family, one of the richest in the world, rose to prominence as pearl traders over 100 years ago.

I pick out a single, grape-size pearl the color of hand cream, with a light pink emanating from its center, and ask Al-Arrayed the price. I picked a good one, he sells for $15,000. The pearl industry ground to a near-halt in the 1930s, the result of competition from the newly established Japanese cultured pearl industry, and decline in the yield of the Bahrain pearl banks, fished out after 5,000 years. Where once there were more than 500 traders in the souq al lulu (pearl market), now just a few survive. And their shops are replenished with less than 25 pounds of new pearls each year.

More about Bahrain pearling.

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