text: Adriane de Souza
text: Adriane de Souza
While the pearl industry is no longer a thriving one in Qatar, the country’s ties to its history runs deep. We speak to one of the oldest pearl divers in Qatar about his experiences.
For years, I have walked past the shop of Qatar’s ‘old pearl diver’, Saad Ismail al-Jassim, thinking of the day when I would finally have the courage to go in and listen to his stories. Located on the busiest street of Souq Waqif, his shop was gifted to him by the Father Emir HH Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani.
Sharing details of his life, al-Jassim recounts stories of him laying on nails and broken glass, how people broke stones on his chest and how he clipped his nose before diving.
Not only a pearl diver, as al-Jassim pulls up images of him posing as a bodybuilder, he tells me that he was also part of Qatar’s civil defence for many years. On the walls are pictures of him demonstrating his love for bodybuilding, and he is quick to correct me that he wasn’t a bodybuilder — he still is, and can perform any of those acts today still.
The pearl diving industry is an old one in Qatar, and historically it was the backbone of the country’s economy. With its abundant freshwater springs, Qatar’s waters provided the ideal environment for the much treasured shiny pearls, and for thousands of years, that remained the main industry for the country.
During those years without the modern equipment we have today, divers only had a nose clip, a net and a weight tied around their feet to stop them from floating. Narrating his story slowly, al-Jassim explained how he would hold his breath underwater and calmly start collecting the oysters.
“If there are 20 divers, there needs to be 20 helpers to pull them out”
As he retales his experience, al-Jassim demonstrates in front of me. He calmly clipped his nose, hung the net around his neck and indicated he would dive. Oyster by oyster, he would pick them up and place them into the net. When he was done, he would signal to the helper, typically by tugging on the rope, and he would be pulled up. Once the oysters were on the boat, the diver would dive back in, repeating the process again and again, for hours on end, every day for months.
“When we reached the oyster ground we would throw a weight in the water to bring up a sample to know ahead of diving if there were oysters there, ” he adds.
While sailing dates were not specific, the main expedition season started in early summer, lasting for three to four months at sea. To keep morale up during the harsh work, they would sing in sync with the rowing. Diving from sunrise to sunset, the boat was their home for the next coming months, and for many, it was their primary source of income.
Close to the sea was the Souq, where traders from different parts of the world would come in search of pearls. The value of the pearl depended on its size, “starting from an ant’s eye up to the marble they use,”
“It takes time and chance, but you can tell when your hand comes to the oyster if it will be a good pearl”
Today, the pearl industry is no longer a thriving one, but it is part of the country’s history, and al-Jassim continues to dive and search for pearls — this time, using diving equipment however.
The day I visited he shared with me a video of himself a week ago, diving with a group of friends, adding laughingly that his friend was luckier than him, finding pearls while he didn’t.
“When I was about fifteen years old, I went to learn what they (pearl divers) are doing, what they are eating and drinking, learn their ways, ” shares al-Jassim as I ask him about his past and how he started his diving career. While his father had been a diver, he decided to go to sea with other divers and learn from them, working until he was able to afford his own boat and become captain.
During the conversation, al-Jassim showed me a bag full of oysters collected recently. Standing outside his shop, their smell was quite strong. Smilingly, he opened the plastic bag, taking them closer to his face and breathing them in.
From his pearl-diving to bodybuilding, Al-Jassim lives and collects stories and experiences, inspiring adventurers and those who don’t wish to be defined as a person with a single passion.
PHOTO: Adriane de Souza, Wikimedia Commons