Each boat would have up to twenty divers, and twenty helpers to assist them. The divers would gather oysters using a leather glove, the 'khabt', and a 'dayyeen' oyster basket suspended from their neck. Wearing a simple nose clip, and with their feet weighted by heavy stones they could stay down for up to two minutes at a time, holding their breath, before signalling for their assistant to haul them to the surface. In winter it was too cold for the divers to hold their breath, so the summer season was intense. As Al Jassim says: 'if you want a pearl, take many oysters.' He explained that a lot depends on luck - you may open thousands of oysters and find nothing, then open a dozen and find six pearls. Any gems found were kept with the captain of the boat, until the trader visited to buy what had been found.
'God helps those who help themselves,' Al Jassim says. He became a captain in his twenties, and then a 'tawwash' or trader. He is known as the Pahlwan, or strong man, a testament to his years as a champion body builder (that is a photograph of him in his prime, hung behind the till in his store). His years in the pearling industry were followed by twenty eight years with the Qatari police, where he was a major. Al Jassim still likes nothing more than to go to the sea and dive, but now he uses scuba gear.
Natural pearls had their heyday in the nineteenth century as the great jewellery houses of Europe sought the rare gems. As affordable cultured pearls found favour, the industry declined, and Qatari pearls are now rarer and more valuable than ever. Al Jassim showed a delicate bracelet of natural pearls worth thousands of riyals. But perhaps the old pearl diver is as much of a national treasure as the pearls themselves.
A Pearl Museum is planned for Doha, and a recent exhibition curated by Qatar's Museum Authority and the V&A, London, highlighted the finest natural and cultured pearl jewellery. The exhibition toured Japan, London and Brazil, and a beautifully illustrated book 'Pearls' by Hubert Bari and David Lam explores the culture and value of the pearl.