Trail Notes: Water Music

Trail Notes: Water Music

Paul Salopek watches a fish auction in Rabigh, Saudi Arabia and listens to Saudi fishermen sing traditional sailor anthems. They are trying to preserve the cultural tradition of shanties of the Red Sea.


5 - 12


Social Studies, English Language Arts, Storytelling, Anthropology, Geography

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek


In the Saudi Arabian city of Rabigh, the fish auctioneer sits on a wooden stool in the market and calls out the bids, or offers, on the catch of the day. “35 riyals … 35 … 35 … 40 … 40 … 45 …” Riyals are the currency of Saudi Arabia.

The chant sounds like a prayer or the repeated cry of a shorebird. Bangladeshis and Indians do most of the fishing in Saudi Arabia. (Many Saudi fishermen have given up because there aren’t a lot of fish to catch.) The fishermen drag burlap sacks into the market. The sacks contain many different kinds of fish, including the nagel. It is a grouper the color of fire, and it is overfished. The auction is over in less than an hour.

In the beach town of Thuwal, a Saudi fisherman named Anwar al-Jahdali sang for me. The songs he sang were as old as the boats that once sailed through the Red Sea. The words told of the forgotten names of winds, lost love, and pleas to Allah for better fortune. Anwar couldn’t understand where the fish had gone. The government has closed popular fishing grounds, and still the fishhooks come up empty. He said the fish have “traveled somewhere else.” I thought of my own time spent on fishing boats in the Indian Ocean and the North Atlantic. We thought we were special and free. We saw ourselves as the last hunter-gatherers in the post-industrial world. We fished along the Georges Bank until we turned it into a desert.

Sixty thousand years ago, humans walked out of Africa. They ate their way across the globe, eating entire groups of animals. The seafood in the Red Sea, like food fish everywhere, has vanished down our throats. Meanwhile, the local fishermen of Saudi Arabia are at risk of disappearing. The University of Exeter in Britain has started sending ethnographers, people who study cultures, to Saudi Arabian towns like Thuwal and Rabigh. They will record the traditional songs of the Red Sea. The researchers say it’s important to record the last true songs of the sea before they become nothing but imitations.

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Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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