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Long before the World Cup, falconry was the national sport of Qatar

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The Souq WaqifDoha’s old souk, unraveling from the nearby bay like a roll of precious cloth. A medieval labyrinth of narrow alleys linked by a wide main square, the souk has long served as a trading center for Bedouins arriving by camel and travelers in small boats.

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But today, as one of the last city Survived by historic urban spaces, the market serves the rapidly modernizing emirate as a link to a fading history and culture. Nowhere is this clash of past and present more evident than in the Souk Falcon Hospital, a state-of-the-art medical facility dedicated to the care of animals revered here for centuries.

“Falcons in Qatar are a symbol of dignity, valor and pride,” she said. Dr. Karkhi feet, Director of the Iraqi Hospital Educated and Veterinary Consultant. “For the Arabs, falconry was a way of life where every family, regardless of their social or tribal status, would enjoy having falcons around them. Falcons would be considered part of the family.”

More than 1.2 million people Qatar is expected to flood Between November 20 and Christmas to world Cup of football, the world championship of a sport that was not held in high esteem in the country only a generation ago. However, falconry has been the national sport since long before Qatar became a country.

It is a cultural landmark that Qataris are eager to share with visitors.

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Khadrullah, a Pakistani resident of Qatar, poses for a photo with his falcon at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar.

(Lajin Guo/The Associated Press)

The history of falconry in the Middle East goes back more than 5,000 years and was introduced to the sandy Arabian peninsula that became Qatar by the humble Bedouin tribes. Bedouins used the birds to hunt prey such as the Houbara bustard, a large and fast bird that was hunted aggressively and is now an endangered species in Qatar.

The skills the Bedouins learned while hunting became the basis for the sport that is still practiced in Qatar. But if the sport hasn’t changed over the centuries, almost everything about falconry has changed.

It is no longer a pursuit of lowly tribes, for example, but rather a pastime of the rich – which in Qatar, is just about everyone’s since the country’s citizens have the world’s highest per capita income and pay nothing for electricity, land, water or health care.

Falcons are the fastest members of the animal kingdom, capable of reaching speeds of over 240 miles per hour while diving. The precious birds, many of which are imported to Qatar, are sold in markets or through private traders for tens of thousands of dollars.

Veterinarians at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar, work on building a falcon.

Veterinarians at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar, work on building a falcon.

(Lajin Guo/The Associated Press)

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Al-Karkhi said, “Preference depends on genes.” “One cannot judge the preference of one over the other, so the owners of farms that crossbreed must choose the distinctive characteristics of the birds before proceeding with their breeding. Qatari falconers have a very good knowledge about falcons and their diseases.”

Equipment used in sport, such as four-wheel-drive cars and radio monitors, can cost hundreds of thousands more, which is why falconry has gone from something Bedouins did to put food on the table into a status symbol, with princes and princes competing to buy or breed the best birds that are most valued. Some are in the millions.

It also caused an occasional diplomatic rift. Members of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family were arrested three years ago and accused of hunting down the prized birds during a falconry trip to Pakistan in 2019. Four years earlier, 26 Qataris, including members of the ruling family, were kidnapped at gunpoint. They were held for 16 months before being released in Iraq after complex negotiations that also included the evacuation of civilians from war-torn Syria.

A peregrine falcon is waiting for the operation at Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital.

A peregrine falcon waits for the operation at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar.

(Lajin Guo/The Associated Press)

Protecting the investments of members of the royal family and the public explains why hospitals, such as Al-Karkhi Hospital, deal with up to 150 falcons a day. During high season, from September to February, the perch in the hospital waiting room often becomes so crowded that it needs its own waiting room.

They are part of the family. If anything happens [them]Al-Karkhi, who holds a master’s degree in avian diseases from the University of Baghdad, said of his clients that they take her to the hospital for examination and necessary services.

The hospital, which opened in 2008, can hold its own against any modern medical facility for humans, boasting X-ray machines, genetic sequencing, and equipment to perform endoscopy and process blood, stool, and kidney samples. Al-Karkhi said the staff of about 24 people, most of whom were born abroad, can handle more than 200 services from cosmetic procedures such as beak modification and feather replacement to invasive surgery.

Drawers of feathers at a falcon hospital in Doha, Qatar, in September 2022.

Feather drawers at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar.

(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

On a recent summer morning, veterinarians and technicians in white lab coats, or green-and-blue medical scrubs with the circular logo of the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital on the left breast, moved between spacious examination rooms and counters topped with computers and high-powered microscopes. A man, wearing a yellow leather glove as protection from the sharp talons, carried a falcon through one of the wide corridors.

Because the three-story facility is supported by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the ruler of Qatar, Al-Karkhi said a visit to the hospital could cost as little as $5.

But the royal treatment doesn’t stop at healthcare. A Saudi prince once bought individual seats on a commercial flight for 80 of his falcons. At least four Middle Eastern airlines – Qatar, Emirates, Etihad and Royal Jordanian – allow falcons to fly in the main cabin of their planes, provided they have a ticket and passport to prove they haven’t been stolen.

History professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, James Galvin, author of the book “The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know,” said that the interest and investment that Qatar has made in the field of falconry is important for a young country looking for an identity and a place on the world stage.

A doctor at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar, examines a falcon on his arm.

A doctor at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar, examines a falcon on his arm.

(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

That’s why a 7-ton, 40-foot steel and aluminum statue of a fearsome-looking – if kitschy – falcon was installed last year outside the departures hall of Doha International Airport. It is for this reason that the city’s trendy Katara Cultural Village has held an annual falcon exhibition every September since 2017, attracting more than 180 companies from 20 countries to promote the sport and the culture that surrounds it.

“You have falconry, you have dates, you have pearls,” Gelvin said, referring to three ancient pillars of regional culture that predate the creation of any Gulf Arab state. “All of these countries, they are so new. So what they have to do is kind of invent the past.

In the historical profession it is called the invention of tradition. You pick a tradition and say, “Hey, we’re Scottish, so we’re going to wear kilts. And that’s really going to be important to us because that’s our national identity.” [Or] “We are Qatari, so falconry is important to us.” It’s actually an integral part of the nation-building process that’s going on.”

Which is another way of saying it’s not just for birds.

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