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UAE author delves deep into lost world of pearl diving

Emirati writer uses wealth of personal and documented knowledge

Deep insights from the epic pearl-diving past of the Emirati people have been brought to the surface in a revealing new book by a UAE national.

‘The Dive of Seven Livelihoods’ by Ahmad Mohammad Bin Thani, whose own past is steeped in the coastal life of what is now the UAE, narrates how pearl-diving served for thousands of years as the cornerstone of income and wealth, from the individual level to the regional sphere of the Arabian Gulf.

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The rapid decline of this oceanic way of life under the transformational weight of modernity has left behind both tangible and cultural relics – a legacy valued as a national treasure by Emiratis.

‘The Dive of Seven Livelihoods’ book cover

The new book uncovers both these aspects, from the odes of fearless peal divers to the craftsmanship of the trade.

Early memories

Here the book’s author Bin Thani, who is a helicopter pilot with Dubai Police, explains how his childhood inspired and influenced his writings.

The author Ahmad Mohammad Al Thani with Jumaa Al Majed

As a 10-year-old, Bin Thani was assistant to his father, a highly-regarded shipbuilder, and used to hear first-hand the poems and fables of seafarers, now documented in his book, which was recently published by Juma Al Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage in Dubai.

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The author was born in Al Manara, Umm Suqeim, one of the coastal settlements of Dubai, and so grew up in a marine environment shaped by pearl-diving, ships and fishing.

Churning the economy

Responding to Noori’s question on why he chose the title of the book, Bin Thani said, “As you know, pearl-diving was a source of livelihood and the national economy in the UAE and the Gulf countries for thousands of years. We must also not lose sight of the contribution of the seasonal diving voyages on stimulating the economic movements in the coastal cities of the Arabian Gulf.”

A glaring example is the rise of Dubai Creek as an economic nerve centre.

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“In addition to supplying foodstuffs, such as rice, dates, and water, as well as the need for firewood that the people of desert brought with them to sell in the Dubai market – all these gatherings made Dubai Creek an important area for buying and selling, especially after the pearl diving ships returned at the end of the season. The activation of the market by the sale and purchase of pearls in commercial exchanges are of most importance.”

Search for sources

In addition to his own wealth of first-hand knowledge and familiarity with the once-thriving world of pearl-diving, Bin Thani researched some of the best preserved and well documented sources in the UAE.

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“I cannot forget one of the sources of documentation, which is the Juma Al Majid Centre, which contains manuscripts and hundreds of audio recordings, and it is a huge heritage that I have consulted. I got these recordings which were of great benefit in my writing of the book.

Perhaps the most important source was my father, a well-known shipbuilder in the Emirates, which motivated me to be able to compose this book and present new information, mixing both public and private sources,” Bin Thani said.

“Also, Mr Juma Al Majid was the most powerful motivator for the completion of the book, as he always asked me, ‘has this or that information been included in your book?’; he is a long-standing expert in the pearling profession.”

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Lost world

When asked by Noori about the placement of such a work in today’s contemporary world, Bin Thani said his book also serves as a preserve of such a central pillar of Emirati and Arab heritage.

“The book chronicles this craft, diving for pearls, so that young generations do not forget how we lived in the past, especially as I mentioned earlier, the economy of entire countries was based on this craft.”

Bin Thani illustrates his point by mentioning how, for example, some of the terms, especially in the Emirati dialect, have been lost as pearl diving ebbed away.