Celebrating a Cultural Heritage: Doha’s Traditional Dhow Festival

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Daylight was precious. Shrouded in darkness, men shuffled onto their respective dhows, ready to embark upon another day of fishing. If pearl diving, they would be absent for months.

Hundreds of years ago, this scene played out from Africa to India and points in between where fishermen, pearl divers and traders relied on the dhow as the main sailing vessel for their livelihoods. Now thirteen centuries later, Qatari residents are celebrating one of their heritage’s most striking symbols and traditions.  Katara’s Second Traditional Dhow Festival – held over three days in mid-November – is bringing together young and old, Arab and expat – at Katara Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar to share and learn about the brave men of the past, their secrets of the sea, and the important role dhows played in Gulf history.

Visitors discovered the story of the dhow, saw vessels showcased with 13 different types of dhows from across the Gulf, visited exhibitions and museum displays, had the opportunity to attend a series of lectures on the dhow trade, watched traditional performers, witnessed the building of a dhow, and toured the mighty vessels docked in the bay.

“The festival pays homage to our ancestors who worked effortlessly to build a future,” explained festival committee manager Ahmed al Hitmi. “This event provides a platform for cultural exchange, promoting Qatari history, educating and promoting our legacy with Qatari youth. We also thank the honorable men who dedicated their lives to diving in the seas in search of pearls.”

At the start of the 20th century, statistics indicate almost 13,000 men worked from over 800 dhows. Expat visitors and young people had an excellent opportunity to hear about a real slice of this life during the region’s pre-oil era and learn about a difficult and hardworking lifestyle; an integral part of a man’s life that was linked with the sea. The dhow has become one of the Gulf Regions’ most striking symbols.

Military exercises and bands delighted the more than 1,000 spectators as part of the opening ceremonies. Crowded sail masts punctured the late afternoon sky as hundreds of men, women and children carefully boarded various sized dhows to see them firsthand, take photos, and to learn more about the important role these boats played in the Gulf countries’ livelihoods.

Many Gulf families can trace their history to the coastal dwellers. Life on the sea was harsh – thousands were dependent on the weather, knowing where to find fish, the captain’s skills in locating the best oyster beds, and the divers for their skills and courage in the face of ever-present danger. Storms could sometimes sink boats and the crew drown – a catastrophe for entire communities. No one doubted the value and significance of the water.

The Pearling Sea Culture
For thousands of years, natural pearls were valued for their beauty and scarcity.

Pearling was an important backbone of the economies for Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Once the Japanese discovered and perfected cultured pearls in the 1930s, the pearl industry began to vanish. Ironically, one source of sea sustenance gave way to another. Now it’s the exploitation of rich undersea hydrocarbon deposits – and in other cases crude oil – that has brought wealth and prosperity, particularly to Qatar.

Spending up to six months on the sea, most men were forced to take loans for provisions for families at home to live on while the breadwinner was gone. And there were no guarantees a diver or crewmember could make enough to pay off his loan.

Under the captain, each dhow had a complex division of labor; pearl divers, men to pull the divers up; extra crew to help; and apprentices who did the chores. Each boat also had a lead singer, as music was an important component. There were two shifts; one group constantly singing and playing percussion instruments to encourage the others.

Divers made anywhere from 10 to 50 dives per day depending on their skill level – from 1 to 1 ½ minutes each – breaking only for midday prayers.

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They wore shirts and inserted wax earplugs. What little equipment they needed consisted of tortoise shell nose clips and finger stalls to protect their fingers from sharp coral, rough shells and the occasional poisonous dragon fish encountered. In some areas, they greased their bodies to conserve heat.

To reach the sweet water seabed quickly, divers placed one foot into a looped rope with a lead weight while a second rope was fastened around the waist. A tug on the rope alerted the man on board that the diver wanted to return to the surface. Most divers worked at a depth of 8-10 fathoms (48-60 feet) – only the most skilled could manage 14 fathoms (84 feet) – all of these depths life-threatening.

They clinched a small bag or wire basket around their neck, in which they placed the oysters. The oysters were then emptied onto the deck after each dive until the diving ended just prior to sunset. After dawn prayers, the unopened oysters, left untouched overnight, were pried apart.

Crew used small knives with curved blades to work open the shell, always under the captain’s watchful eye, as divers resumed their search. It was not unusual to open more than a ton of oysters just to find three or four quality pearls. The captain kept the pearls in safekeeping for the merchants until they returned to the village. Meticulous logs were kept, and merchants paid out based upon pearl size, weight and quality.

The captain and crew divided up the money the merchants had paid according to a strict format. Sometimes the men barely earned enough to cover their loans. The merchants, however, often became wealthy.

Dhow Construction
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Dhow shipbuilding is an ancient trade. There were many different types of dhows, as spectators saw at the Dhow Festival; however, almost all of them had a triangular sail. A second distinctive feature was its sail construction. A fully stitched construction was unique to African, Indian and Middle East dhows. Sewing the plank boards together with fibers, cords or thongs made stitched boats. The lumber used mainly came from Africa in the form of mahogany and teak.

As the sun sets over the calm water, the majestic dhows spontaneously lit up the evening sky in gorgeous shades of red and blue. Regional musicians entertained throngs of spectators with traditional music while children played in the soft sand and parents rested on benches chatting with one another.  Expats lingered within the cultural village stalls learning more about dhow construction, pearls and the pearling trade, traditional handicrafts and oral storytelling.

What a difference a few centuries can make.

1 Comment

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One response to “Celebrating a Cultural Heritage: Doha’s Traditional Dhow Festival

  1. Martha Amy Rose Newman

    Hi there, fascinating article, and these black and white images are really beautiful! I would love to use them with your permission, and was wondering if you knew the original source of them? Thanks, Martha

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