When you visit Doha, you are bound to see the giant pearl (pictured above) along the Corniche. That simple pearl is not random art but rather a reminder of Qatar’s pre-oil history.
Before discovering oil in 1939, the main source of income for many Qataris came from pearl diving. Pearl diving was quite a dangerous endeavour. Divers would venture out to sea for months in crowded ships, which meant that illnesses quickly spread. Malnutrition was common as they had little access to food. The dive itself would be brief, lasting for about two minutes or however long they could hold their breath. The divers would dive down equipped only with a nose clip, a basket and weights. While under the water, sea predators such as barracudas and sharks would become a new threat. It was not necessarily ideal working conditions to say the least.
As the world was introduced with the Japanese cultured pearl, combined with the impact of the Great Depression and the discovery of oil in the region, the tradition of pearl diving for Qataris ended. For history not to be forgotten, Qatar has the giant pearl along the Corniche, a string of artificial islands resembling pearls (cleverly called “The Pearl”), and of course there is a famous pearl shop in the Souq Waqif.
Father Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani presented this shop to perhaps the country’s oldest living pearl diver, Saad Ismail Al Jassim, now 75 years old. Al Jassim began pearl diving at age 15 before the pearl industry took a dive itself. Al Jassim then took up other jobs, including body building in his spare time. Now in his retirement, he sits happily in his store telling stories of pearl diving and tricks that he would do for the Father Emir when he was younger, such as laying on a bed of nails or walking on hot stones.
I had the privilege to meet Al Jassim and had my own string of pearls strung by him. When we do leave Qatar one day, I will be sure to wear my pearls reminding me of my little time in Qatar and its rich past.