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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Pearl Fishing

Visit the Gold Souk and ask to look at pearls and a shop owner will show you a huge range of perfect, identical shiny Japanese cultured pearls. However, if you nag him, he will eventually bring out some original Qatari ones. These are not the same size, nor do they have the same perfect identical shape – but these are the remains of a once huge industry that provided the backbone of the Gulf economy.

It was not an easy industry. Men would leave their homes for months, although financial reward was far from certain. The process was dangerous, for the waters were shared with jellyfish, barracuda, sword fish and sharks.

Men would close their noses with clips made out of bone and wood, and grasp a stone to take them to the bottom of the sea. Once there, they would grasp the oysters, cutting them from rocks if necessary, and put them into bags attached to the line. When their bags were full, or they were exhausted, they would jerk the line sharply and their handler would pull them to the surface.

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 the bends. These afflictions were attributed to evil djinns, and the sailors would treat the suffering diver by covering him with a sail, sitting upon him, reading him verses from the Koran and burning incense under his nose.

The retrieved pearls were sometimes skinned to improve their quality and appearance. A delicate balance had to be struck between improving the shape and removing too much of the skin. Ronald Codrai, in his book The Seven Sheikhdoms, recalls this being done during an auction. As more skins were removed and the appearance improved the bids went up.

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. It’s not surprising, then, that with the combination of cultivated pearls from Japan and easy oil money coming in the industry died.

Nowadays memories of the pearl industry shape Qatar’s image and are exploited for tourist and business reasons. Statues of oysters and pearls are common and close to Doha is the massive Pearl Lagoon development. Or you could go and nag that shop owner to pull out some old Qatari pearls...

More on pearl diving

Pearl diving: A personal perspective

Buy pearls

The rise of the Qatari ruling family