Long before the World Cup, falconry was Qatar’s national sport

The Souq Waqif, Doha’s ancient marketplace, unwinds like a roll of rich fabric from the nearby bay. A medieval maze of narrow streets connected to a broad main square, the souq has long served as a trading post for Bedouins arriving on camels and travelers in small boats.

But today, as one of the last in town In addition to the surviving historic urban spaces, the souq also serves as a link in the rapidly modernizing emirate to a history and a culture that is on the wane. Nowhere is this clash of past and present more evident than at the Market’s Falcon Hospital, a state-of-the-art medical facility dedicated to the care of animals that have been worshiped here for centuries.

“In Qatar, falcons are a symbol of dignity, bravery and pride,” said Dr. Ikdam M. Alkarkhi, the hospital’s Iraqi-trained director and veterinary consultant. “For the Arabs, falconry was a way of life where every household, regardless of social or tribal status, enjoyed the presence of falcons around them. Falcons would be considered part of the family.”

More than 1.2 million people are expected to flood Qatar between November 20 and Christmas for the World Cup, the global championship of a sport little appreciated in the country a generation ago. However, falconry was the national sport long before Qatar became a nation.

And it’s a cultural touchstone that Qataris are happy to share with visitors.

Khodr Allah, a Pakistani living in Qatar, poses for a photo with his gyrfalcon.

Khodr Allah, a Pakistani living in Qatar, poses for a photo with his gyrfalcon at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar.

(Lujain Jo/Associated Press)

Dating back more than 5,000 years, falconry in the Middle East was introduced by humble Bedouin tribes to the sandy Arabian Peninsula that became Qatar. Nomads used the birds to hunt prey such as the Houbara bustard, a large, swift bird that was hunted so aggressively that it is now an endangered species in Qatar.

The skills the Bedouins learned while hunting eventually became the basis for the sport, which is still practiced in Qatar. But if this sport hasn’t changed over the centuries, pretty much everything else about falconry has changed.

It’s no longer a hobby for humble tribesmen, for example, but a hobby for the wealthy – which almost everyone in Qatar has, as the country’s citizens have the highest per capita income in the world and pay nothing for electricity. land, water or healthcare.

Hawks are the fastest members of the animal kingdom, being able to reach speeds in excess of 240 miles per hour during dives. And valuable birds, many of which are imported into Qatar, sell for tens of thousands of dollars in markets or through private traders.

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

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

(Lujain Jo/Associated Press)

“The preference depends on the genes,” Alkarkhi said. “One cannot judge the preference of one over the other, so owners of farms that cross breed must select the distinctive traits of the bird before proceeding with breeding. Falconers from Qatar have a very good knowledge of falcons and their diseases.”

The equipment used in sports, such as four-wheel drive vehicles and radio monitors, can cost hundreds of thousands more, which is why falconry has evolved from something Bedouins did to put food on the table to a status symbol, with princes and emirs competing to bring the to buy or breed the best birds, some of which are worth millions.

It has also led to occasional diplomatic disputes. Members of Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family were arrested three years ago and accused of tracking valuable birds during a 2019 falconry trip to Pakistan. Four years earlier, 26 Qataris, including members of the ruling family, had been kidnapped at gunpoint and 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 awaits surgery at Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital.

A peregrine falcon awaits surgery at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar.

(Lujain Jo/Associated Press)

Protecting the investments of kings and commoners explains why hospitals like Alkarkhi’s treat up to 150 hawks a day. In the high season from September to February, the hawk seat in the hospital waiting room often becomes so crowded that a dedicated waiting room is required.

“You’re part of the family. In case something happens [them]They take it to the hospital for an examination and necessary services,” said Alkarkhi, who has a master’s degree in avian pathology from Baghdad University, of his clients.

Opened in 2008, the hospital has held its own against any modern medical facility for humans, as it has X-ray and gene sequencing equipment, as well as equipment for performing endoscopy and processing blood, stool and kidney samples. The staff of nearly two dozen, most of whom are foreign-born, can perform more than 200 services from cosmetic procedures like beak adjustments and feather replacements to invasive surgeries, Alkarkhi said.

Feather drawers at a falcon hospital in Doha, Qatar, in September 2022.

Pen drawers in 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 doctor’s coats with the circular logo of the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital on the left breast rushed between spacious exam rooms and counters with computers and high-powered microscopes. A man wearing a yellow leather glove to protect himself from razor-sharp claws carried a hawk down one of the wide corridors.

Since the three-story facility is subsidized by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, ruler of Qatar, hospital visits can cost as little as $5, according to Alkarkhi.

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

UCLA history professor James Gelvin, author of The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, said the attention and investment Qatar has put into falconry is important for a young country that needs an identity and a place seeks on the world stage.

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

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

(Kevin Baxter/Los Angeles Times)

That’s why a 7½-ton, 40-foot-tall steel and aluminum statue of a fearsome-looking – albeit kitschy – falcon was erected outside the departures terminal of Doha International Airport last year. That’s why, since 2017, the city’s trendy Katara Cultural Village has hosted a falconry exhibition every September, 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, listing three ancient pillars of regional culture that predated the founding of all of the Arab Gulf States. “All these conditions, they are brand new. So they have to invent some kind of past.

“In the history industry, that’s what they call the invention of tradition. You pick a tradition and you say, “Hey, we’re Scottish, so we wear kilts. And that’s going to be really important to us, because that’s our national identity.” [Or] “We’re Qatari, so falconry is important to us.” It’s actually an integral part of the state-building process that’s going on.”

That’s another way of saying it’s not just for the birds.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/soccer/story/2022-11-16/qatar-falconry-world-cup-hospital Long before the World Cup, falconry was Qatar’s national sport

Alley Einstein

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