Even though pearling is no longer a thriving industry, it remains a beloved part of Qatari culture.
Saad Ismail al-Jassim is unlike any other shopkeeper at Souq Waqif. As one of Qatar’s last living pearl divers, 84-year-old Saad has dazzling anecdotes to share with customers and visitors at the shop where he is surrounded by pearls and the items used for pearl diving always reminding him of the olden times.
Saad, as a young bodybuilder, is seen in this photo at his shop
Pearl diving was risky and physically taxing. The lack of oxygen, the fast change in water pressure, and different marine predators made pearl diving a very dangerous profession. Nonetheless, the high value of the pearls made diving a profitable profession.
“We had to do the diving as we had scarce means of income those days. It was the most profitable profession among the few available options during old times,” said Saad while talking to Gulf Times.
Saad who went on to become a bodybuilder, entertainer, and poet got first taste of pearl diving when he was only 15. “At the age of 15, I accompanied the pearl divers on their boat to get myself familiarised with the trade and acclimatised with the sea and the environment. The boat contained a captain, his helper, divers and their helpers. If there are 20 divers on a boat, there must be 20 helpers for them.”
The pearl diver is also known as ‘Pehlwan’ – strongman. There are many portraits of Saad as a bodybuilder hung in his shop. “I am a bodybuilder. I have lain down on a bed of nails and then on broken glasses. They used to break bricks on my chest as I lay down on broken glasses.”
Saad, however, cherished more talking about his experiences of pearl diving. Explaining how the divers used to collect the pearls, he said: “A diver dives with weight in his feet and cannot come back on his own. He needs a helper to pull him up. The diver uses three things for the dives – weight, a net basket, and a nose clip. Weight helps to take the diver down quickly. He ties the weight with his foot and sets his foot free once he reaches the seabed. He can remain under water for two minutes without breathing. On his signal, the helper in the boat will pull him up. The diver carries the basket around his neck to collect the oysters. Third one is the clip to put on the nose to avoid water getting into it.”
Saad said that expert divers used to know what area in the sea was good for the dive and where they could get oysters. “The divers also know the depth of the area. Usually, the divers will plunge as deep as 15 metres. In the boat, they will open oysters with a knife by seeking blessings of Allah for His bounty. Finally, the pearls are sold to ‘Tawash’ – pearl trader.”
The divers had to take care of their food to stay healthy and active while in the boat. “Their food is often dates and coffee in the morning. They also take rice cooked with date syrup and fish. Dates will keep them energetic and they will not feel much thirst.
“They will go out in the sea during summer times. In winter, they cannot stay in the open for a long time. During the winter, we will go to the desert to cut wood and grass.”
When Saad grew up, he bought a boat and became the captain. “I would go in the sea and dive in shallow waters and not in deep waters. Now, I am a pearl trader but I can dive anytime. I keep myself busy to be active and healthy. Original not cultured pearls are still a precious commodity but now there are no people who would go out in the sea to collect them.”