There aren’t many like him left. In fact, Saad Ismail Al Jassem believes he may be the last remaining pearl diver in Qatar, a tiny nation that sprouts like a turned-out thumb into the Arabian Gulf. Currently the wealthiest country in the world thanks to its reserves of oil and natural gas, Qatar was once almost entirely fiscally dependent on the pearling industry. Pearls in the Gulf had been harvested for an eternity, but in the mid-19th century the activity became the economic engine that drove Qatar. Men like the Old Pearl Diver, as Al Jassem is known throughout the country, braved formidable conditions to glean the sea’s gleaming gemstones.
“Divers wore three things,” Al Jassem says from behind the counter of his pearl shop in Souq Waqif, a traditional market in Doha, Qatar’s shining, modern capital. “We wore a weight on our feet to pull us down, a net we used to collect the oysters, and a clip on our nose to keep the water out.”
The work was dangerous. Sharks and other undersea predators sometimes killed divers, as did pressure-related illnesses like the bends. Drownings weren’t uncommon. But Al Jassem, who began diving at eighteen and at eighty still stands ramrod straight, often longs for the time when he would go to sea for months at a spell, spending his days diving like a sleek porpoise down deep into the bathtub-warm waters of the Gulf. Some hundred or two hundred feet he would free dive, in search of the one oyster in 10,000 that would offer up an Arabian Gulf pearl, which, like a mermaid’s tail, is fabulously luminescent, thanks to the high salinity of the water.
The advent of cheap(er) Japanese cultured pearls in the first decades of the 20th century killed Qatari pearling—that and the Great Depression. By the 1950s, the industry would disappear for good. The country still remembers its heritage, however, in ways big and small. Doha’s recently completed $15 billion artificial island, an opulent melange of apartment buildings, shops, restaurants, hotels, and homes, is not only named The Pearl in honor of its location on a former pearl-diving site; its shape also echoes a string of the gemstones.
Meanwhile, the annual Senyar Marine Festival, usually held in April, pays tribute to the traditions, customs, and values of pearling and Qatari sea culture with activities like pearl diving demonstrations and tournaments. Even the St. Regis hotel’s Remède Spa, Doha’s largest, tips its hat to pearling with its Pearl Facial, which uses crushed pearl extracts for its anti-inflammatory properties. And Msheireb Museums in Doha offers a fine pearling exhibit.
Or simply take a stroll through Souq Waqif to Al Jassem’s shop. He may take the clip out of his pocket that he once used to keep his nostrils closed as he dove for pearls, or he might point out the stone weight in the room’s corner—so heavy it’s difficult to lift—that carried him down, down into Neptune’s realm. He’ll do so with pride but also a trace of sadness for those days, forever lost, when he pulled treasures from the deep and was made more of sea than land.
For more information about Qatar, visit visitqatar.qa.