From the outside looking in, the region around the Persian Gulf conjures associations of brutal wars, authoritarian despots, absurd luxury – and, of course, oil. Long before the black gold was discovered and became the basis of an industry, another natural resource, also typical for the region, enjoyed center stage: pearls. Archeological finds confirm that humans dived for pearls as early as 5800 to 5600 before the Christian era. Just as with oil, the nacre, more commonly referred to as mother-of-pearl, that grows in certain mollusks was very lucrative financially. The culture that grew up around pearls and their exploitation is accordingly rich, which also applies to its music.
In her essay, Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri remembers her grandfather Issa, whom she never had the chance to meet. He was a talented musician, and in this role he also was a member of a pearl-diving crew. Al Qadiri weaves excerpts from the story of an Australian explorer who once met her grandfather on his travels with her own memories. As a “post-oil person,” to use her own description, Al Qadiri does not only dwell in the past but constructs links with the present as well as with a future without oil. She does this not only on a textual but also a visual level.
The essay is taken from the book Nahma: A Gulf Polyphony published by Flee Project on November 12. Conceived as a comprehensive project, it also includes a compilation of recordings of the songs sung by pearl divers, accompanied by interpretations of these songs by contemporary producers. The images of the divers that frame Al Qadiri’s contribution to V/A stem from this publication as well, which aims to shed light on a forgotten craft and its culture.
“We were rowed ashore in the longboat with the traditional Kuwait style, the twenty stalwart men at the long oars dressed in their best robes, and all chanting lustily. They rowed very well and their chants were better than their songs. When they were not chanting they made a queer kind of low throaty growling sound like the distant rumbling of a squadron of bombing aeroplanes.”
Supposedly, the 1940 book Sons of Sindbad, by Australian explorer Alain Villiers, contains some passages about my grandfather, the resident singer on a Kuwaiti pearl diving boat he boarded from a port in Yemen, and his sea mates who provided the percussion and dancing accompaniments to his music.
“The musician was a large Arab with fierce eyes and a big black moustache, who played a guitar which looked as if it might have come from Europe. (I learned later that it had been bought in Basra.) He probably played very well according to Arab ideas of music, but unfortunately those ideas were not mine, and he made matters worse by singing endlessly in an unnatural, rasping voice. Whatever it was he sang, it seemed excellent to his listeners, but I could have done without it. Ali whispered to me that he was a famous singer from Kuwait, but even this advertisement of his fame did not make his singing any more bearable. I hoped he was not part of the permanent equipment of the vessel. They said his name was Issa. I was glad to see the sailors and a little man who looked like a cook come along with tiny drums, which were made from cylindrical pieces of Basra pottery, across one end of which had been stretched warmed kid’s skin. There were about six of these drums and also some large tambourines. The sailors took turns at beating them, with their thumbs and forefingers, which they used with an excellent sense of rhythm. I liked the drums, for they had a pleasing low note, and they helped to drown Issa’s music.”
I had never met my grandfather, who passed away a few years before I was born. He was a harsh and difficult man according to what I’ve heard, and almost never sang a single phrase after returning home from sea, even though only my grandmother attested he had a beautiful voice that could be heard from miles away. To him, though, the singing was strictly labor music, to help the morale and psyche of his mates: his job for months on end while riding the waves under the hot sun.
“It was heavy, brutal work. They stopped frequently to dance and sing, stamping the deck rhythmically with their great bare feet and clapping their tremendous hands so that the handclaps rang through the harbour, and the serang banged an indian drum. This dancing was good, far better than the formless shuffling of Sunday’s performance, and it seemed to act as a tonic for them, reviving the sailors for their heavy tasks. They did nothing without a preliminary dance, and they kept up a melodic chanting all the time they worked.”
I always fantasized about his life, but I found it mentally impossible to access, as a post-oil person myself, who has had their connections to the pearling past severed by the alien force that is petroleum. Did they really all risk their lives, day and night, for a glimpse of a tiny, shiny ornament? So that someday some faraway monarchs can sport them on their person, never knowing how people had literally lived and died for them to be extracted from the sea? Was it true that they were all slaves to one master – the Pearl?
“After the feast we had coffee, then sleep; after the sleep, the midday prayer followed, and after that Issa, our musician, would play on his damned guitar. Then all peace was ended. In six months I never came to like that music. So far as I could see, there was not a thing to like about it. One can be accustomed to Scots pipes and Siamese reeds, to Balinese and Javanese gongs. Even the Swahili, banging on their drums, produce some kind of rhythmic noise, and the Beduin’s reeds were not wholly unpleasant. But Issa and his guitar was and remained an affront to the ear of mortal man. Given the slightest encouragement, he also sang, which was worse. His songs were interminable, plaintive, and most repellent, sung horribly in an unnatural and dreadfully unattractive voice. Yet everybody insisted that Issa was a musician of note in Kuwait and ranked among the supreme attractions of the vessel.”
All of these stories feel like a form of fiction to me, despite having heard very animated familial recollections of his life for years. Perhaps I was so obsessed with him, now after having lived in Japan for so long, and found myself participating in the cult of ancestor worship so commonly seen in the east Asian cultural sphere. Who was this ancestor? Did he feel cynical, angry, vengeful towards the world that had forsaken him, as many of the sea songs’ lyrics described? Or was that only the plight of his pearl diver mates, while he only sat there singing and wailing on the sidelines as they jumped into the ocean time and time again, for he was the conductor of their work-life rhythm.
“They too shuffled barefoot over the carpet, ranging fore and aft, keeping time with the moustachioed ruffian’s music. They walked backwards and forwards hand in hand along the carpet, while Issa’s black fingers tortured the strings and his cracked voice wailed. Each time they approached the musician they stopped a second or so before him and cracked their fingers. Sometimes they agitated their bellies and whole bodies up to the shoulders, somewhat in the manner of a Moroccan dancing girl. It was a curious business.
Sometimes the singing sailors, unable to contain themselves at some particularly moving stanza from the moaning singer, would leap up and form in formation behind the two nakhodas while they cracked their fingers and trembled violently.”
Perhaps I am just interested in his machismo and his artistry, imagining that this past life inhabits my body still. But no matter how hard I try to envision it, there is this dissonance that overcomes my mental space very quickly and without mercy. The curse of the black pearl – oil – blinds me from my own historic imagination. I have become a mutant with no past, no history, no recollection. My body and mind are misshapen, distorted, never to be the same again.
“Issa must have had something to put into those songs to hold his hearers, for the melody was always atrocious and the delivery was abominable.
It was, I suppose, inconsiderate of me to want him to stop when everybody else so enjoyed him, but he used to go on far into the night. Sometimes we had drums with the guitar, and this was better, for they helped drown the music.
Often there was dancing, but it was always the same dull shuffling, agitating, finger cracking, hopping and jumping I had first seen in Ma’alla bay. We never had any dancing girls: they were kept ashore.”
I own some pearls, and I touch and look at them often in order to try and find some invisible connection to him. Some are misshapen and deformed, undesirable by the market that only covets the perfectly round ones. Perhaps he encountered many of these along his travels in the sea. What if I carved these unwanted globules of nacreous lustre into the shape of oil drills? Maybe their distortions can merge with my own, to create a new mutated form, one that is closer to the fossilized version of my unnatural self.
The oil drills themselves have also been a subject of fascination of mine for some time, as they bore endlessly into the earth’s crust covered in gold and diamonds, resembling octopuses and sea creatures and extraterrestrial beings. Because my personal narrative has been so shunned by the pearl, I found some solace in these machines, as they embody something more in line with my freak generation.
“Sometimes Issa went off with the guitar to be a public nuisance somewhere, and on such occasions I was glad.”
Maybe I can free myself from ancestral delusions by creating new delusions of my own, like the pearl-drill that is the only remnant of the past, as well as being an indicator of an oil-less future.
Source of images
Cover image & image 3: Paul Mattar, 1979
Image 1 & 2: Georges Luneau, 1981
Image 4 & 5: Olivier Duport, 2020
Image 6: Monira Al Qadiri, 2021