The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (adach.ae) published some very interesting leaflets about Emirati customs and culture, so I thought it would be interesting to share them on the blog. All the data below has been taken from these pamphlets.
The first one is about Maritime Life.
In the barren desert areas of Southern Arabia, there was little opportunity for people to establish any real agriculture: they cultivated date palms in the oases, and in the shade of the trees they grew vegetables and grain crops, but for the most part their diet was restricted to meat and many different types of bread and porridge.
Potable water was scarce, and life was very hard.
They had no opportunity to establish any kind of formal industry and the only means of trading was through bartering.
Many families, therefore, spent the winter near the waters of the Gulf, and then returned to the oases in summer, to harvest the dates and escape the high humidity of the coast.
For nearly a thousand years the waters of the Gulf provided a source of food, work and wealth to many generations, through pearl diving, fishing, boat-building and trading.
There is archaeological evidence that as early as 7.000 years ago, the inhabitants of the region had discovered pearls.
Then, in the 18th and 19th century, India became very prosperous, creating a substantial growth in demand for pearls.
At the height of the pearl trade, over 1.200 pearling boats, each with an average crew of 18 men, operated out of the coastal towns and villages of what is now the United Arab Emirates.
As a result, men who might otherwise have achieved only a meagre income from the family farm, were able to earn relatively good money, but it also meant that they were parted from their families for the four-month season of the pearl harvesting.
A pearl diver’s work was difficult and dangerous. During the pearling season he generally made up to 50 deep dives every day.
Each dive could last up to 2 minutes, with the only help of a nose clip, leather finger protectors, a basket made of rope and a stone weighing about 5 Kg, to ease the descent into the seabed.
He was attached to a rope, which he tugged as soon as he was ready to return to the boat, and his safe return depended only on the prompt response (and strong arms!) of the puller on board.
Still, after all these efforts, only a small percentage of the oyster shells collected actually contained a pearl.
The UAE traditional pearling industry gradually declined, due to a global economic depression in the 1930s, accompanied by the development of the Japanese cultured pearl industry. Thousand of people were affected in the region, and unemployment and financial hardship were widespread, until the expansion of oil exploration created a new era of wealth.
Fishing is another traditional activity for the people living in the Gulf region.
More than 500 species of fish, as well as sharks, turtles and dugong, live in the Arabian Gulf, and archaeological research has documented the use of various fishing equipments, from nets and hooks to line sinkers and harpoons.
Today, for those that are not protected species, the preferred fishing methods are basket traps, as well as the occasional use of hook and line.
Amongst the fish commonly caught here are groupers, seabreams, rabbitfish, sharks, parrotfish and many more, a wide variety clearly visible in the fish souqs around the region.
Boat-building in the UAE started with the use of date palms: the shasha, an Arabian bundle boat, was first made by palm fronds, as it was quick to construct and light to carry from and to the water. The building techniques and materials then advanced along the growing ambition to cover greater distances.
This craft became one of the most important activities in the southern Gulf, especially as the pearl industry expanded, creating other ancillary industries, such as rope manufacture and sail making.
Today, boat-builders still construct several types of traditional boats:
– The shahuf is a small, light, wooden-planked surf boat which is double ended and from 18 to 22 feet long.
– The amla is similar but larger, 6 feet in beam and up to 30 feet long.
– Dhows, generally referred to as lanches, can be from 50 to 80 feet in length, and are usually decked.
Constructions is still today done by hand, using simple and traditional tools, and the skills are handed down through families.
No plans are needed because the calculations are made by the trained eye and experience of the master craftsman.
Few countries in the world maintain the art of boat-building to such a high standard and without the aid of power tools: this traditional art can still be admired in the Al Bateen area of Abu Dhabi.