When most of us think of Kuwait, we might think of oil and deserts. But did you know that Kuwait used to boast of a thriving pearl diving business? Kuwait is situated on the Persian Golf, and for thousands of years, pearl divers have descended deep into the crystal blue waters, on a single breath, in the hopes of retrieving valuable pearls.
The box in the photo above belonged to Idris Ismael who died in Kuwait around 1922. As a young man, he was a pearl diver, but later became a Koran teacher. He must have died young, because when the box was collected around 1962, his wife, who had inherited the box, was still alive. I like that the box contains seven iridescent oyster shells – maybe Idris, though he had put his pearl diving days behind him, kept them as a souvenir? And perhaps to remind him that he was one of the lucky ones. With the dangers of drowning, decompression sickness, animal attacks, and so on, pearl diving is not a risk free career path. Kuwaiti ethnomusicologist Ghazi Al-Mulaifi describes how his grandfather, who was a pearl diver in the 1930s and 40s, would never tell stories of his life on the pearl boat. All he would say is that “All the men died at sea”.
What happened to Idris Ismael we will never know. But a little part of his history is preserved in the ethnographic collections at Moesgaard Museum. I like to think that a little bit of him rests in this beautiful wooden chest, along with a salty whiff of the Persian Gulf.