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.”