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Earlier than Qatar first struck “black gold” in 1939, life within the Gulf revolved round pearls. These iridescent gems of the deep formed the tradition, politics, regional relations and fortunes of its inhabitants over greater than 7,000 years – not least Qatar’s ruling Al Thani household, who have been the dominant pressure within the native pearling business at its peak across the flip of the twentieth century.
Revered for his or her sensible luster and luminosity, Gulf pearls have been a selected hit with the aristocratic and rising center lessons of Europe and the US. Together with its neighbors and fierce rivals Bahrain and a few elements of the Trucial States (which embody right now’s UAE), Qatar rose to the growing international demand, with 48% of its 27,000-strong inhabitants in 1907 (or practically all males) employed in pearling.
Half a century later, nevertheless, it was throughout, with the political resident (the chief British consultant within the Gulf) writing in 1958: “For the primary time in very a few years no pearling boat left Doha harbor, and the hulks of what was a substantial fleet lie rotting on the coast.”
The arrival of oil was simply considered one of a number of components that led to the swift and crushing demise of the Gulf pearling business. However whereas many bodily remnants of Qatar’s pearling previous have since succumbed to the bulldozers, this wealthy heritage stays woven into the material of the nation.
Scratch the floor of Qatar right now, and references to its pearling previous are ever-present, from public artwork – notably the Pearl Monument on the entrance to Doha’s Dhow Harbour depicting a large, pearl-bearing oyster – to trendy structure together with The Pearl-Qatar, a glitzy residential and life-style improvement constructed on a former pearling mattress.
Eager-eyed commuters can even word the pearlescent tiles featured all through Doha’s metro stations.
Guests can nonetheless store for uncommon (and eye-wateringly costly) Gulf pearls at The Outdated Pearl Diver boutique in Doha’s Souq Waqif run by octogenarian Saad Ismail Al Jassem, who claims to be considered one of Qatar’s final industrial pearl divers.
And whereas industrial pearl diving has but to enter a renaissance in Qatar because it has in Bahrain and the UAE, the nation continues to revive its pearling heritage at annual festivals together with the Senyar Pageant, which features a pearl diving contest, and the Katara Conventional Dhow Pageant, marked by a program of maritime shows and conventional actions.
Providing equally evocative insights all year long are Qatar’s museums together with Doha’s Nationwide Museum of Qatar, the place the immersive movie “Nafas” (Breathe) by Mira Nair brings the hardships of pearling to life.
Within the nation’s northwest, a small pearling show at Al Zubarah Fort, which sits astride the ruins of a former pearling port (now publicly accessible through a boardwalk opened in November 2022) gives one other intriguing style of life in Qatar’s coastal pearling communities.
Whereas the tujar (richest pearl retailers) and sheiks who managed the pearling fleets amassed nice wealth from the commerce, life for ghasa (pearl divers), who would spend greater than 4 months of every summer season at sea, was “fairly grim”, says Robert Carter, senior archaeology Specialist at Qatar Museums and creator of “Sea of Pearls: Arabia, Persia, and the Trade That Formed the Gulf.”
“They didn’t have a lot to eat besides rice, fish and possibly a little bit of bread, so scurvy was an issue,” Carter explains. “Water was strictly rationed, in order that they must wash within the sea; they usually have been damp on a regular basis, in order that they obtained horrible fungal ailments.”
Carter additionally notes accounts of divers, who sometimes made 50-60 dives per day,getting stung by rays and eaten by sharks.
When divers – weighed down by a rock – had collected round 20 oysters, they might tug on a rope to be pulled again as much as the floor by a siyub (rope hauler). Any pearls discovered within the mollusks have been graded and saved beneath lock and key on the dhow (pearling boat), with the opened shells both tossed again into the ocean or saved to promote as mother-of-pearl. A member of the crew caught making an attempt to hide a pearl, in response to the late Australian mariner and author Alan Villiers, would threat being crushed to dying.
“The earnings have been shared among the many crew, so stealing a pearl would imply breaking an infinite bond of belief,” explains Carter. A good payday was by no means assured anyway, with lackluster seasons typically leaving divers, haulers, and even dhow captains with out the means to help their households by way of to the following season. Slaves, in the meantime, have been required at hand over their share to their masters.
The pearling business traditionally had complicated labor practices. At its peak it’s estimated that a good portion of pearl divers have been enslaved. Regardless of the 1807 abolition of slavery within the British Empire, slavery was permitted to proceed in Qatar for practically 4 a long time after the area turned a British Protectorate in 1916.
A part of central Doha’s Msheireb Museums, Bin Jelmood Home – the previous residence of a slave dealer – paperwork Qatar’s slavery historical past, with shows referring to the position of slavery within the pearling business.
Among the many extra mysterious hyperlinks to Qatar’s pearling previous are some bodily etched into its desert panorama. Close to the dreamy turquoise seashores of Fuwairit, considered one of many deserted pearling settlements in distant northern Qatar, the publicly accessible rock carvings of Al Jassasiya – regarded as as much as 250 years outdated – clearly depict, amongst different issues, pearling dhows with oars protruding from mandorla-shaped hulls like legs on an insect.
The shifting sands of the Qatari desert proceed to disclose clues about Qatar’s pearling historical past, together with the 2022 discovery of a Neolithic pearl bead by Qatar Museums’ head of excavation and website administration, Ferhan Sakal – regarded as the oldest pearl uncovered in Qatar.
There are possible many extra treasures ready to be uncovered, but the proof already tells us, Carter says, that the pearling business performed a way more pivotal position in Qatar’s story than it’s typically given credit score for.
“There would possible be no person right here apart from the Bedouin if it wasn’t for the pearl fishery,” Carter says.
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