Saad Ismail Al Jassim, 73, is widely recognized as “the old pearl diver” in Qatar. His store attracts a steady stream of intrigued patrons at Souq Waqif, a newly renovated shopping establishment that models ancient Islamic architecture. Surrounding structures resemble a fort constructed of sharp geometric shapes covered in creamy gypsum. Mazes of merchants stockpile handicrafts, fabrics, perfumes, spices and fresh foods. Known for its art and culture, the mall complex is appropriately anchored by Jassim’s shop.
The aging merchant reveals remnants from a lifetime spent conquering the salty waters of the Arabian Gulf. An old stone and rope rest near his doorway. Many years ago, they helped submerge him into the depths of the sea. A crudely created nose clip always sits in his pocket, where its significance in early diving adventures is ready to share. A note of appreciation for his pearl diving stories is hung from a far wall, signed by students at the American School of Doha, Qatar.Written on his storefront sign is “Pahlwan,” an Arabic word referring to the pearl diver’s admiration for public performances. Bodybuilding photographs in various poses prove a long-term commitment to fitness. They are printed on a canvas banner, propped up and illuminated near the front door. In 1958, he won a bodybuilding contest sponsored by Shell Company of Qatar. To this day, Jassim is confident of his physique.
While some men his age research retirement homes, Jassim reassures disbelievers of his continued ability to rest on nails. Pasted inside an album near his cash register, a newspaper clipping flaunts the headline “Eats Glass Since 1957.” A photograph shows him lying on a bed of glass, holding a board with stacked boulders, as another man whacks at them with a sledgehammer.
The Qatari’s fluorescent-lit sales area resembles a walk-in aquarium. Mirrors and glass reflect countless pearls – polished and raw, light and dark. Camouflaged as a common shopkeeper, Jassim sits comfortably in a traditional white thobe that covers him from head to toe. He awaits the next passerby, nestled behind his counter, surrounded by shells, clams, corals and beads.
When provoked, he enthusiastically breeds fascination in Qatar’s traditions. His buoyant posture remains proud and capable after more than 50 years of pearl diving. Make no mistake about his current physical readiness; the self-proclaimed “old man” is anything but frail. He no longer schedules three-month pearl dives, but claims to still hold his breath for two-minute intervals. Jassim’s fame is based on diving, more than pearls.
Arab and Western customers wander curiously into his shop. He often imparts hand gestures and an occasional smile during discussions. He speaks fluent Arabic and English, while effortlessly transitioning back and forth. Prices aren’t displayed but he hardly pushes to up sell products. He pitches reasonable figures and expects the same sensible bargaining in return. Requests for ridiculously low prices are reeled in with sarcastic laughter.Jassim has adopted an educational approach to pearl sales – seemingly more interested in sharing stories than making money. The pearl diver doesn’t lure his clients with flashy salesman tactics. He refrains from strategically placing his best-selling items upfront. Instead of shameless marketing, the shopkeeper is more focused on presenting an interesting glance into a boisterous past.
The old man isn’t stuck in times gone by. He easily navigates his up-to-date laptop, which streams a signal to an outdoor LCD television. Videos of scuba diving and clam collecting are offered unconditionally; potential patrons watch without being lured inside. Jassim, privately cracking a calm smirk behind his desk, seems pleased to know people enjoy his productions.
Jassim’s store supplies detailed explanations of pearl procurements and characteristics, coupled with a revival of Qatar’s past that’s enhanced by a pleasing old man.