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Pearl Fishing

Pearl Diving in Qatar

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Pearl Fishing in Qatar

Mohammed slipped his foot into the loop of the rope attached to the stone, adjusted the clip on his nose and took deep breaths, filling his skinny chest with air.

A diver holds onto a rope and his net of pearls, a wooden clip arond his nose.
Art work from Souq Waqif showing a pearl diver coming up for air. The picture is made entirely from different shades of wood.

Then he let the stone pull him down once more to the sea bed, down to the oysters which he would rip up and push into his rope net. This was his last dive of the day, and the last day of the season. After three months on board a crowded boat, with nothing but fish to eat and not enough fresh water to clean the salt from their bodies, he would return home to his family.

But this dive was different. A shark was cruising through the water towards him. As the shark's teeth closed around Mohammed's side he exhaled his remaining air in a scream of shock and pain.

A Personal Story

“After the attack, the scar from the shark bite ran right across his back and around to his stomach.”

A foot is hooked under a rough curve of rope.
An old pearl diver's weight, now on display in Souq Waqif.

It was Mohammed's grandson Abdulla who told me this story, decades later.

"It was a lethal profession. Every year 60 odd men would go out - 50 to 55 would return at the end of the season."

Mohammed was luckier than most. He managed to escape from the shark, although he was left with a mark that would remind him of it for the rest of his life.

“After the attack, the scar from the shark bite ran right across his back and around to his stomach.”

Far more dangerous than the sharks, sea snakes and barracuda than inhabited the Qatar seas were illnesses caused by the depths the divers swam down to.

Each dive could last up to two minutes, and a diver would make 60 to 100 of these dives in a day. With depths of up to 200 feet, divers could suffer from hallucinations, earaches and other illnesses. These afflictions were attributed to evil djinns, and the sailors would treat a suffering diver by covering him with a sail, sitting upon him, reading him verses from the Koran and burning incense under his nose.

Abdullah's uncle, who still alive when Abdullah told me the story several years ago, was stone deaf as a result of the depths.

A Hard Life

Saad, who accompanied one of the last remaining pearl trips as a boy, snorted when we asked him why Qataris no longer dived for pearls.

A nose is squashed flat by an old wooden nose clip.
Saad Ismael demonstrates the use of a nose clip.

"There are still pearls there today but who will go and get them? I still dive but now I use an aqua-lung and a mask. In the old days I just had a weight to tie round my foot to take me to the bottom, a nose-clip and a string bag to put the oysters in. I could stay on the bottom for 2 minutes.

"We lived on fish, and nothing but fish. We would put traps down, not nets, and the fish would swim in and be unable to go out again.

For three months we would have not a drop of fresh water on our bodies.

"We would be two, three months on a boat without touching land. For three months we would have not a drop of fresh water on our bodies. Can you imagine people today doing that? People today can't even go in the sea once without going straight for a shower."

His comments reminded me of a time when an ambassador met a Qatari pearl diver.

"You must miss the good old days before modernisation," said the ambassador to the pearl diver, who looked at him with incredulity.

"The good old days? Every day of pearl diving was hell." Then he looked at the cultured ambassador with disdain. "You wouldn't have lived through one day."

The Pearls

Pearl trips were financed by merchants, who subsequently took half of the proceeds, subtracted costs and any cash advances and distributed the remaining profit among the crew.

In a bad season the result could be debt, which would be carried on to the next season.

Once retrieved, the pearls would be skinned to improve their price.

As the man peeled each skin away and the appearance improved, the bids increased.

Ronald Codrai, in his book The Seven Shaikdoms: Life in the Trucial States Before the Federation of the United Arab Emirates, recalls a man sitting, cross legged at market.

An audience of buyers surrounded him, making bids for the pearl. As the man peeled each skin away and the appearance improved, the bids increased. But the man had to be careful - cut one too many skins and both the value and appearance would be damaged irretrievably.

Pearls Today

Today you can find pearls in the Gold Souq and in Souq Waqif - some in Saeed's shop, "The Old Pearl Diver".

However, these smooth perfect pearls are not the ones Qatari divers risked their lives to retrieve.

After some nagging, one store owner in the Gold Souq retrieved some Qatari pearls from the back of his store. These were uneven and far rougher than the cultured pearls found in the shops today.

Chances are, at least according to Saeed, they were also not real.

"If you are offered Qatari pearls in a souq they are probably fake.

"If you are offered Qatari pearls in a souq they are probably fake. Real Qatari pearls are expensive - they can cost 300,400, 500 riyals or more each. And they would also be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity."

He showed us certificates for some of his pearls, none of which were from Qatar.

"How do they establish their authenticity?"

"With an x-ray to see where they have come from - it's the only way to be sure."

The End of Pearl Diving

An influx of cultured pearls from Japan was to destroy pearl diving in Qatar. Fortunately for the Qataris, at the same the industry was dying a far more valuable commodity was being discovered that would change Qatar from a poverty stricken backwater into a rich country, and provide its citizens with a life of ease.

That commodity was, of course, oil.

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