The nowakhtha, as merchant shipmasters in Kuwait were called in the end of the 19th century, held positions of high status in society. The government maintained accurate records of boats sailing in Kuwaiti territorial waters, along with the details of their owners, the merchandise carried and the times it was loaded, as well as details of all the import-export activities undertaken. Taxes paid by shipmaster traders served as the most important source of income for the country.
As children, Kuwaitis often camped near the southern shores of the country, where the water was clear and swimming was pleasant. In contrast with the north of the country, the offshore islets Qaru, Kubbar and Umm Al-Maradim as well as the coasts south of Ahmadi provided sandy shores and clear views of the seabed: a living aquarium of exotic sea life available for enjoyment and relief from the scorching heat; ideal for the sport of spear fishing. Barbecues were set ablaze at night and families enjoyed the fragrant pleasures of food and sang old songs. Inspired by the crackling fire and the magic of the nocturnal reflections of the sea under the stars, stories were told and eventually sleep overcame every party, and everyone was later awakened by the sweet light of dawn.
Living an existence defined by the desert but also the sea, the people of old Kuwait had to look beyond the sea’s horizon in order to meet their needs. They built ships and sailed them to resource richer countries such as India, Iraq and what today is Iran. Kuwait became a small maritime nation of traders and sailors and soon was well known to the whole region for its capable mariners. Every year the sailing booms left the City port bound for southern Arabia, the west coast of India and the east coast of Africa. They carried cargoes of dates and returned with cargoes of rice, timber and spices. Many Kuwaitis went pearling in the Gulf waters during the harsh summer months, enduring hardship and maintained local trade among the ports of Arabia, Persia and beyond.
This strong bond with the sea characterized the people of Kuwait and filled them with hope and courage.
How shipmasters shaped Kuwait
The nowakhtha, as merchant shipmasters in Kuwait were called in the end of the 19th Century, held positions of high status in society. After the royal family, the social class with the most influence were wealthy businessmen nowakhtha, who were organizing the Kuwaiti economy by developing business relationships with the international maritime industry, including sea freight transporters as well as pearl divers and traders. There was undoubtable trust between the government and the nowakhtha, who were paying taxes calculating the amount appropriate on their own and paying them to the government without any prompting to do so.
The government maintained accurate records of boats sailing in Kuwaiti territorial waters, along with the details of their owners, the merchandise carried and the times it was loaded, as well as details of all the import-export activities undertaken. Taxes paid by shipmaster traders served as the most important source of income for the country.
Kuwaitis exported their ships and dhows and imported sugar, coffee, spices, rice and other goods from India and Yemen. They were then re-exporting the merchandise to Saudi Arabia, Baghdad, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. This put Kuwait in an enviable position to participate and take the lead in the shipping trade in the region.
To each their own port
Before petroleum, the sea was an economic fountain of wealth for Kuwait. Some Kuwaiti families owned dhow jetties or small ports in front of their residences. Such a jetty was called nig’ah. Others would occupy space by the seaside to repair their boats or build others. In these privately owned jetties, shipping was given the chance to flourish in Ku-wait, as the boats were protected from strong winds and rough seas. Before the beginning of the 20th century, very important hardware stores at junctions of boat jetties were built to cater to the needs of the sea merchants. These shops were the amayer and they were crucial to the maritime economy as they provided ships with everything needed. Many nig’ahs existed until the end of the 1960s. Today, only one nig’ah exists, Shamlan’s Nig’ah, located on Seif street and some dhows can still be seen in it.
Kuwait dhows sailing the region
The ancient overseas merchandise dhow, clearly distinguished from dhows made for pearl diving, was referred to as the Boom Saffar by Kuwaitis. The boom was meant for traveling in the open sea beyond territorial waters. Their shape was distinct and it influ-enced other countries in the region as well, such as Iran and Oman. In India, the boom’s unique shape came to be known as “the Kuwaiti style”. The sails were usually very large, reaching from the front part of the boat up to the tail end. Unlike other boats, the boom had two sails as opposed to the one-sail dhows used by other sailing nations in the region, and this characteristic made them clearly recognizable in provenance even from a great distance.
The deadly dardour
Sailing crew, feared a lot in the largely unknown seas of the old times, and pearl divers especially feared sharks and sea snakes. The greatest danger to them, however, was the fury of the sea, especially as it presented itself in the form of the dardour. The dardouris tidal water pulling the swimmer/diver away and downwards. Dardours were encountered anywhere in Kuwaiti seas, even as close as Kuwait City, and many lives were lost upon encounters of them. Today we know that these rapid tidal currents are still present, but scuba divers are well informed and always prepared using tide tables and modern technology.
The Al-Ahaimer star
It is common knowledge, until this day, that the state of Kuwaiti seas may change very suddenly, even in the midst of summer. As a result, crewmembers on dhows attempted to understand astronomy for the sake of predicting the changing nature of the sea. In due time, every sailor became an expert in the study of stars and their positions and even coined interesting names for the stars they regularly sighted.
Standing out from others, the Al-Ahaimer star was important to the sailors, as when they sighted it a sudden change of the weather was certain to occur. Huge ocean waves hit the coastal areas of India, causing tremendous damage to the cities and villages, often claiming human lives and properties. Such weather also hit the southern coast of the Arabian Gulf region and ultimately damage dhows and ships, injuring or even killing sailors.
The Tab’aahs that haunt forever
When dhows were wrecked at sea, killing their crew, the tragedy was referred to as Tab’aah. Many Kuwaiti sailors were lost during the pearl diving and seafaring days and some major incidents can never be erased from the memories of the Kuwaiti people.
One such tragic occurrence was the Bahman family’s boom Tab’aah, in 1940, on which nine men from that family sailed to India carrying a cargo of dates from Iraq. Their boom went under in strong winds and rough seas, along with 25 crew members. Other such renowned incidents involved the Abo Taiban family boom Tab’aah, the Ghaith boom Tab’aah and Abdulwahab Abdulaziz Al-Othman boom Tab’aah.
Legendary Tab’aahs were recorded on film, such as the 1971 Kuwaiti film “Cruel Sea”, which became one of the bestselling films in the country.
Thus has the sea has marked historical times of this blessed country. Until today, endless stories are told, stories that formed consciences and family roots, bonds between tribe members and the imagination of future generations. The sea continues, in our times of modernity, speed and technology, its unstoppable course through Kuwaiti life.
By Nancy Papathanasopoulou
Co-author of Coral Reefs of Kuwait