When first exposed to the luxuries available in Qatar, many visitors cannot comprehend how much has changed in the last half-century. Built virtually overnight, the city of Doha pays no homage to its forefathers who risked their lives in the pearling industry for low colonial wages.
The pearl divers of Qatar endured extraordinary hardships in order to access their product. Gone for months at a time, the pearl divers would be forced to forego washing to conserve fresh water while at sea (which can be very uncomfortable when diving in salt water), and they had to survive on a diet solely consisting of fish. If they were lucky enough to survive their pearl campaigns, they would return home, sometimes with few pearls, and often severely malnourished and sick. The pearl divers were then forced to surrender half their product yield to colonial tycoons who would sell the pearls for enormous profits in distant markets.
Being a pearl diver also carried tremendous personal risk. Physically, the job was demanding and dangerous, requiring pearlers to quickly free-dive to extreme depths to retrieve oysters, before being quickly pulled to the surface by ropes, to maximize their time spent underwater. Due to the speed at which they plunged and subsequently resurfaced, many of the divers suffered from the bends (a tortuous condition accompanied by headaches, hallucinations, brain damage, and, in extreme cases, death). There was also always the risk of shark, swordfish, or barracuda attacks.
Qatar often reminisces about the country's pearl diving origins. However, aside from organizing dhow (traditional Arab sailing vessels) races and selling inexpensive cultured pearls from Japan, today's Qatar has little vestiges of its pearling past.
Nevertheless, it is still possible to purchase local pearls. With a little patience and clever research, you can steer clear of cultured foreign pearls to access genuine Qatari pearls. Of course, these genuine pearls can end up costing a fortune and, despite being better quality, will not be the perfectly round pearls society has become accustomed to. In summary, when visiting Qatar, you will not see pearling boats and pearls, but you will see the crystal clear waters they once relentlessly patrolled in search of these precious commodities.
For more information, see: Pearl Diving in Qatar
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