Long earlier than the World Cup, falconry was Qatar’s nationwide sport

The Souq Waqif, Doha’s historical market, unspools from the close by bay like a roll of treasured cloth. A medieval maze of slender alleyways linked to a large most important plaza, the Souq has lengthy served as a buying and selling submit for Bedouin arriving by camel and vacationers in small boats.

However right this moment, as one of many metropolis’s final surviving historic city areas, the Souq additionally serves the quickly modernizing emirate as a hyperlink to a historical past and a tradition that’s fading. Nowhere is that conflict of previous and current extra obvious than on the market’s falcon hospital, a state-of-the-art medical facility devoted to caring for animals which have been revered right here for hundreds of years.

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

Greater than 1.2 million persons are anticipated to flood Qatar between Nov. 20 and Christmas for soccer’s World Cup, the worldwide championship of a sport that was little appreciated within the nation only a era in the past. Falconry, nevertheless, has been the nationwide sport since lengthy earlier than Qatar turned a nation.

And it’s a cultural touchstone Qataris are desirous to share with guests.

Khodr Allah, a Pakistani resident of Qatar, poses for {a photograph} along with his gyrfalcon on the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar.

(Lujain Jo / Related Press)

Falconry within the Center East goes again greater than 5,000 years and was launched to the sandy Arabian peninsula that turned Qatar by humble Bedouin tribes. Nomadic folks used the birds to hunt prey such because the Houbara bustard, a big, quick hen that has been hunted so aggressively it’s now an endangered species in Qatar.

The talents the Bedouin discovered whereas searching ultimately turned the premise for the game nonetheless practiced in Qatar. But when that sport hasn’t modified over the centuries, nearly every thing else about falconry has.

It’s now not a pursuit for humble tribal folks, for instance, however somewhat a interest for the wealthy — which, in Qatar, is nearly everybody because the nation’s residents have the very best per-capita earnings on this planet and pay nothing for electrical energy, land, water or healthcare.

Falcons are the quickest members of the animal kingdom, able to reaching speeds of greater than 240 mph throughout dives. And prized birds, a lot of that are imported to Qatar, are bought in markets or by personal sellers for tens of hundreds of {dollars}.

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

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

(Lujain Jo / Related Press)

“The preference depends on the genes,” Alkarkhi mentioned. “One cannot judge the preference of one over the other, so the owners of farms that crossbreed must choose the distinctive characteristics of the bird before proceeding to breed it. Qatari falconers have very good knowledge about falcons and their diseases.”

The gear used within the sport, similar to four-wheel-drive automobiles and radio displays, can value a whole lot of hundreds extra, which is why falconry has gone from one thing Bedouins did to place meals on the desk to a standing image, with princes and emirs competing to purchase or increase the perfect birds, a few of that are valued within the tens of millions.

It has additionally triggered the occasional diplomatic rift. Members of Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani household had been arrested three years in the past and charged with stalking treasured birds throughout a falcon-hunting journey to Pakistan in 2019. 4 years earlier than that, 26 Qataris, together with members of the ruling household, had been kidnapped at gunpoint and held for 16 months earlier than being launched in Iraq following complicated negotiations that additionally included the evacuation of civilians from war-torn Syria.

A peregrine falcon waits for a procedure at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital.

A peregrine falcon waits for a process on the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar.

(Lujain Jo / Related Press)

Defending the investments of royals and commoners explains why hospitals similar to Alkarkhi’s deal with as many as 150 falcons a day. In the course of the peak season, from September to February, the falcon perch within the hospital’s ready room ceaselessly turns into so crowded it wants a ready room of its personal.

“They are part of the family. If anything happens to [them], they take it to the hospital for a check-up and necessary services,” Alkarkhi, who has a grasp’s diploma in avian pathology from the College of Baghdad, mentioned of his purchasers.

The hospital, which opened in 2008, may maintain its personal in opposition to any fashionable medical facility for people, boasting X-ray and gene-sequencing machines and gear for performing endoscopies and processing blood, fecal and kidney samples. The workers of almost two dozen, most of whom are foreign-born, can deal with greater than 200 providers from beauty procedures similar to beak changes and feather replacements to as invasive surgical procedure, Alkarkhi mentioned.

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

Drawers of feathers on the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, Qatar.

(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Occasions)

On a latest summer season morning, veterinarians and technicians in white lab coats, or inexperienced and blue medical scrubs with the round emblem of the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital on the left breast, bustled between spacious examination rooms and counters topped with computer systems and high-powered microscopes. One man, carrying a yellow leather-based glove as safety in opposition to razor-sharp talons, carried a falcon down one of many large hallways.

As a result of the three-floor facility is sponsored by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatari’s ruler, Alkarkhi mentioned hospital visits can value as little as $5.

However the royal remedy doesn’t cease with healthcare. A Saudi prince as soon as purchased particular person seats on a business flight for 80 of his falcons. At the very least 4 Center Jap airways — Qatar, Emirates, Etihad and Royal Jordanian airways — permit falcons to fly in the primary cabin of their planes, offered they’ve a ticket and a passport to show they aren’t being stolen.

UCLA historical past professor James Gelvin, creator of “The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know,” mentioned the eye and funding Qatar has made in falconry is necessary for a younger nation looking for an id and a spot on the world stage.

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

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

(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Occasions)

It’s why a 7½-ton, 40-foot metal and aluminum statue of a fearsome-looking — if kitschy — falcon was put in final 12 months outdoors the departures terminal of Doha’s worldwide airport. And it’s why town’s fashionable Katara Cultural Village has staged an annual falcon exhibition every September since 2017, drawing greater than 180 firms from 20 international locations to advertise the game and the tradition that surrounds it.

“You have falconry, you have dates, you have pearls,” Gelvin mentioned, ticking off three historical pillars of regional tradition that predate the institution of any Arab Gulf international locations. “All these states, they’re brand new. So what they have to do is invent some sort of past.

“It’s called in the historical profession the invention of tradition. You pick a tradition and you say: ‘Hey, we’re Scottish, so therefore we’re going to wear kilts. And that’s really going to be important for us because that’s what our national identity is.’ [Or] ‘we’re Qataris, therefore falconry is important for us.’ It’s actually part and parcel of the state-building process that’s going on.”

Which is one other manner of claiming it’s not only for the birds.