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Arab creatives take back the narrative in The Pearl Diver’s Daughter


At one point in the past, it was one of the things that drove traders to the shores of the Middle East—a traditional practice that has become a major source of economic activity in a place that was desolate and challenged before oil was discovered.

From the Arabian Gulf to the Red Sea, pearl diving was a way of life for different coastal communities, and the pearls they harvested were highly valued for their rarity and beauty.

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But while the Arabian Gulf was the centre of the pearling industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the industry would experience a tremendous decline, and as the region became richer, the culture became but a whisper in the mouths of old men who had seen the better, more triumphant days of the pearling industry.

In The Pearl Diver’s Daughter, Emirati writer Maitha al Khayyat and composer Eman al Hashimi worked together to breathe new life into this fading industry, exploring the dangers of the profession as well as the strong bond that connects a father to his daughter, putting emphasis on the lengths that a parent would go through in order to secure a child’s future.

On March 19, a contemporary performance that mixed dance, poetry, and music had its world debut at the Abu Dhabi Festival, organised by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. Held at the hallowed halls of the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, The Pearl Diver’s Daughter was a unique look not just into a beloved tradition and culture but also a great opportunity to showcase what storytellers from the region and the Gulf, in general, are capable of.

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The performance, which lasted for about an hour, was relentless, switching between the haunting narrative of Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Mayssa Karaa and the explosion of movements rendered by the contemporary repertory dance company Company | E.

The Pearl Diver’s Daughter is the story of a coastal village where the sea always calls on the people with a promise of profound treasures only to drown them when they heed the call. In this story, the sea reveals its secrets to one of the pearl diver’s daughters, and without other sources of livelihood to get by, a father eventually would have to make the most generous of sacrifices.

The story flow was a testament to the relevance and deep cultural connection of Maitha al Khayyat to her culture; she has already published more than 170 publications.

On the sidelines of the global premiere, Eman al Hashimi shared that she is very proud of what they have accomplished, having created something very visually stimulating but at the same time very different from what people have gotten used to watching.

She shared that it was even more celebratory to be able to craft a story of the region and the Gulf, preserve the said story for future generations, and share it with the world.

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The 20th-anniversary edition of the Abu Dhabi Festival celebrates two decades of many firsts. This year’s celebration features ten world premieres, four commissions, and fourteen international co-productions. It has brought Peruvian operatic tenor Juan Diego Florez to the Middle East. It has allowed people in the region access to the critically acclaimed De Scheherezade a Yo, Carmen, among other prominent musical and creative personalities from around the world.

With refinement and fine-tuning, The Pearl Diver’s Daughter is a unique look into a beloved story with the potential to become a classic. The performances were so eager and relentless that, as a viewer, it makes you run out of breath, not being able to process the beauty that was there. With time, its creator will realise the importance of pauses, of a little bit of silence after a whirlwind of emotions. Once the producers realise that silence is just as important as beautiful visuals and performances, they will be able to present a more subtle yet powerful performance worthy of any stage from around the world.

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