The seashore had key cultural and strategic functions in the pearling economy. It was the point of the pearling fleet’s departure for the annual diving season (Ghus al-Kabir), and its return some four months later. These occasions were the most important in Bahrain’s pearling calendar, marked not only by farewells and reunions (or, alternately, by scenes of tragedy when a father or son did not return) among loved ones, but also by large festivals held on the shore.
The seashore was also pivotal to the island society’s relations with the wider world. It was here that visitors arrived and departed outside the pearling season, where international traders unloaded goods shipped from India or other parts of the Arabian Gulf, and where diplomatic visitors were officially received.
A third role was the seashore’s strategic defensive function: it protected the Muharraq settlement largely due to inaccessibility. Most of Muharraq’s seashore was extremely shallow as a result of shallow, offshore coral reefs, most of which have now been converted into land through successive land reclamation programs. Muharraq’s harbour was an open area of deeper water at the very southern tip of the island. From there, passengers and goods would be transferred into rowboats, and landed at the island’s southernmost shore of Bu Mahir.
Bū Māhir Seashore
Bu Mahir Seashore is located at the southernmost tip of Muharraq Island, on what was formerly a tidal island. Largely unchanged since the decline of the pearling economy in the 1930s, it is the only remaining authentic beach where the pearling season’s festivals were celebrated.
A sandy point jutting into Bahrain’s main harbour, Bu Mahir Seashore was the last solid ground many pearl divers stood on before they embarked for the main pearling season (Ghus al-Kabir), and the first they set foot on after several months at sea. These twice-yearly rites of passage, involving crossing from a life on the land to a very different one at sea and back again, made Bu Mahir a very special place.
Festivals marking the departure (al-rakbah) and the return (al-quffal) of the pearling fleet were the most important ceremonies held along the seashore, but by no means the only ones. Boat construction (usually carried out north of Bu Mahir Seashore), the launching of new boats and the re-launching of repaired vessels were all accompanied by beachfront celebrations.
Bu Mahir beach also served as a playground for youngsters, a site of folkloric beliefs and rituals, a place for playing folk music, and an open-air gathering place (majlis) where traditional food was served.
Larger vessels visiting Muharraq anchored in the deeper waters of the harbour basin off Bu Mahir Seashore. Visitors, diplomatic missions and goods alike had to be transferred into smaller rowboats and landed at the seashore.
Departure and Landing of the Fleet
The first day of the pearl diving season, the day of departure (al-rakbah), was one of great excitement in which Muharraq’s entire population gathered along the shore for final farewells and festivities with many of the women and children dressed in special costumes. The head of state (amir) announced the departure about 10 days ahead, to allow the pearling fleet time to finalise preparation of the dhows and ensure provisions for families left behind.
On the departure day, usually in early June, the captain called his crew together to haul the boat from dry land, where it had wintered. They heaved the dhow to the sea, accompanied by the women singing Mrad songs expressing the hope for a safe return. Their voices mixed with the drum beats and diving songs from crew on-board hundreds of pearling dhows as they set sail.
Similar festivities awaited the crews upon the annual return from the main diving season (al-quffal) in mid-September or early October. The quffal was the most important day in Bahrain during the pearling era, a day of both tragedy and celebration. The announcement of the close of the season on the oyster beds was followed by an almost immediate return to the island. Women and children assembled on the shore at the first sight of the fleet, watching in trepidation for the black flags that indicated a death. As the fleet landed, songs of thanks mingled with mourning for those who would not return.
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