Pearl Diver's Daughter: Fanciful play to have premiere at Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation

This Sunday, the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi will host the world premiere of the immersive show Pearl Diver’s Daughter as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival.

The production is the result of a collaboration between two Emirati women, author Maitha Al Khayat and composer Eman Al Hashimi. Together, with the American contemporary dance group Company E and Lebanese singer-songwriter Mayssa Karaa, they have created a fantastical story, told through music, movement and magic.

A historic source of livelihood in the Arabian Gulf for generations, pearl diving has played a significant part in the history of the UAE. While many have paid tribute to the tradition, Pearl Diver’s Daughter casts it in a new light, with unexpected elements of fantasy and magic.

“When I write stories, whether for children or for young adults, I always love to spark curiosity,” Al Khayat tells The National.

“I like the idea of the audience leaving and asking themselves questions and want to find out more about what they have seen.”

Al Khayat is an author and illustrator who has published more than 100 children’s books, some of which have been translated into English and Turkish and used in curriculums at schools in the UAE. Her book, My Father’s Date Palm Trees was nominated for best picture book illustrations at the Zayed Book Award in 2020.

When Al Khayat was first approached by the American Embassy in Abu Dhabi to write a story about the adventures of a pearl diver, she was introduced to Paul Emerson — founder of dance troupe, Company E.

The initial concept she was presented with was an adventure of a pearl diver and his daughter who wants to carry on the family tradition. However, Al Khayat, whose family in previous generations were pearl divers and traders, didn’t connect with that story and chose something she felt was more authentic.

“It’s not about women empowerment as much as it’s more about family relations and connections and sacrifices,” she says.

“I really wanted to highlight that because in the UAE, since the past, and even right now, the things that tie families together are our sacrifices, how they help each other, and the communication and connection between them.”

Al Khayat’s show is the tale of a diver who comes across a legendary pearl. As the embodiment of a spirit, the pearl gives the diver a choice. He can capture it and return to land, becoming wealthy at the cost of his daughter one-day drowning at sea. Or he can stay at sea in the form of a dolphin and remain there to save her.

pearl diver's daughter: fanciful play to have premiere at abu dhabi cultural foundation

Children’s author and illustrator Maitha Al Khayat created Pearl Diver’s Daughter to shine a spotlight on the heritage and sacrifice of many UAE families. Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National

“We wanted it to have an aspect from the UAE in terms of the pearl diving element,” adds Al Khayat. “We also wanted something to merge cultures together so that it could it could mean something to the UAE or to the Middle East but also it could mean something else to another country internationally.”

Music and dance play crucial roles in the performance and Al Hashemi says creating the score was challenging and fulfilling. .

“You really have to live the story itself in order to imagine it and be able to compose it,” Al Hashemi says. “Sometimes I imagined myself as the daughter, sometimes I imagined I am the sea itself, or the father or the pier. I had a lot of imaginations during the composing and this is what I came up with.”

Al Hashimi has composed and written lyrics for several operettas and films and has performed across the Gulf as a pianist. She also represented the UAE at the World Expo in Milan in 2015. The Emirati composer used some traditional musical elements from the UAE when creating the score, but wanted to leave room to evoke a sense of fantasy and magic, too.

“We are not doing any documentaries here, we’re doing fantasy,” she says, adding that every audience member will interpret the performance in their own unique ways.

pearl diver's daughter: fanciful play to have premiere at abu dhabi cultural foundation

Emirati composer Eman Al Hashimi delved deep into the script for the production to create the musical score. Photo: Alliance Francaise Abu Dhabi

Al Hashimi explains that scoring a production with several acts was more complex than her previous work composing and arranging socres for film.

“To make a full (production), with different (music) and for each act, where there should be specific type of music, rhythm — that was a challenge, I cried a lot,” she laughs.

“It was a big challenge but I succeeded. This is the good part.”

Al Hashimi hopes that the story and her music will lift audiences on a jounrey that lasts well beyond the on-stage experience.

“What I really want is for the audience to share with us their own fantasy,” she says.

“I’m curious. I want to know what they felt. I want to ask each person who would ever watch the show — where did you go? Because when it comes to imagination, the sky’s the limit. And they might inspire me to do something else in the future with their own imaginations.”

Pearl Diver’s Daughter will be performed on Sunday at The Cultural Foundation, Abu Dhabi. More information is at

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