National Geographic

Trail Notes: Water Music

Rabigh, Saudi Arabia, 22°48'26" N, 39°01'50" E

In Rabigh the fish auctioneer sits atop a wooden stool in the souk and calls out the bids on the catch of the day. “35 riyals . . . 35 . . . 35 . . . 40 . . . 40 . . . 45 . . .” This antique chant sounds like some monotone prayer. Or the repetitive cry of a shorebird. Bangladeshis and Indians who do the bulk of the fishing in the Kingdom—catches are down, and many Saudi fishermen have given up—drag burlap sacks into the souk. They contain a few mackerel, an armful of barracuda, a bushel of nagel, a prized grouper the color of fire that is now approaching commercial extinction. It’s all over in less than an hour.

In the beach town of Thuwal an underemployed Saudi fisherman named Anwar al-Jahdali sang for me. His repertoire was as old as the teakwood dhows that once chalked the Red Sea with their bow-foam. The lyrics told of the forgotten names of winds, of lost love, of pleas to Allah for better fortune. Anwar couldn’t understand where the fish had gone. The government has closed prime fishing grounds and still the hooks come up slack. The fish have “traveled somewhere else” he said. And I thought of my own years aboard trawlers in the Indian Ocean, in the slate North Atlantic, and how we thought ourselves special, elite and free—the last hunter-gatherers in the post-industrial world. We raked Georges Bank into a desert.

Sixty thousand years ago humans walked out of Africa and gnawed their way across the globe, digesting entire faunal assemblages. The seafood in the Red Sea, like the edible fish everywhere, has vanished down our alimentary canals. Meanwhile, the endangered local fishermen of Saudi Arabia have earned their own anthropologists. The University of Exeter in Britain has begun sending ethnographers to Saudi Arabian towns such as Thuwal and Rabigh. They will record the traditional shanties of the Red Sea. “It is important”—the researchers say—”to capture the last true remnants of the songs of the sea before they become mere pastiches.”

There are 14 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Adam
    September 5, 2013

    Thank you for including the audio features with your narrative posting. Listening to the auctioneer and the sailor’s song added something special.

    • Paul Salopek
      September 11, 2013

      We’re trying to incorporate as much audio as possible, Adam. Keep listening in.

  2. Deb
    September 5, 2013

    I look forward to checking in every time I see a post from you…I am on a vicarious journey to lands I will never see…and your tales of life on foot are a balm to my wanderlust and my love of walking. Thanks Paul…I’d say you are in your life…truly in life….I love that you write and take pictures and shy away from the video camera…in a world so awash with technology we can tend to loose touch with what really matters….and that is our connection to ourselves and each other….thank you for sharing this journey.

  3. Tunie
    September 6, 2013

    The lack of seasonal management by the contemporary global fisheries of this era never fails to amaze me. Was the industry completely unregulated? Because we can’t fool ourselves – it’s the western industrial complex that’s responsible – they’ve had the resources of the world at their disposal, there was no excuse for this. Now they’re going to ruin the genetic stock that remains with farmed fish fed fake “pellets”? This kind of mis-management should be illegal, and should have been stopped in the 50’s, not left to degenerate to this extreme.

    The rest of humanity is going vegan, one way or another! It’s much easier when you choose to do so rather than having it forced upon you, though.

  4. HikerBob
    September 6, 2013

    Such a graphic posting with a knockout photograph, and the endline of earning their own anthropologists. Hold on to your seat, the ride for mankind is speeding up!

  5. Annie Williams
    September 6, 2013

    It appears that everyone in the business of fishing need to have an increase in all things.

  6. Emilio
    September 8, 2013

    Really interesting project you are doing Paul. Keep up the good work!

  7. Grudon
    September 8, 2013

    Very interesting information really like the audio feature, keep it up Paul!

  8. Linda Hoernke
    September 9, 2013

    Thank you again for this post the audio feature. The fish autioneer reminded me of a trip to Mali many years ago. The Dogon would greet each other in a way that it almost sounded like a song~~

  9. Anders
    September 9, 2013

    This is a really interesting project, cool that you included the audio files.

  10. Ali Tarhini
    September 18, 2013

    very impressive project .. i live here in saudi and i see alot of these markets .. and its a nice idea to add some voice notes .. maybe videos can also be great

  11. Dr Dionisius A. Agius, University of Exeter
    January 12, 2014

    It is good to learn about Paul’s trail and thanks for mentioning our project on Sea Songs; it was also good to learn that Paul has been trailing the same footsteps I followed while myself and my doctoral stundent from the Hijazi coast were recording and documenting sea songs last April 2013. It is a dying heritage and we are determined to capture the last moments before all is lost. We are very keen to hear from Saudis who would like to collaborate with our project.

  12. MCdogs
    October 16, 2014

    It is amazing how Paul is walking around the whole world not just that but even sharing his journey with us. This article is very interesting of how they can relate music with fishes.Very interesting project. The Audios helped.

  13. ilya
    November 2, 2014

    Why they seling the fith

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