The Falcon tradition inspires passion at the Qatar World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Qatar has become a hotbed for soccer since winning the right to host the World Cup. But another sport is flying high in the capital’s historic center, Doha, as more than a million foreign fans flock to the tiny emirate: falconry.

In bustling Souq Waqif, a 100-year-old labyrinthine market in Doha, shops selling spices and souvenirs give way to shops — even a state-of-the-art hospital — filled with the famous birds that have long inspired the passion of the Bedouin tribes.

For centuries, Arabs throughout the region used falcons for hunting and recited poems extolling their virtues. Today, the birds of prey serve as powerful reminders of Qatar’s culture and tradition, even as the skyscraper-filled city struggles to prepare for the world’s biggest sporting event.

“Of course, football is the mother of sports. But alongside football there are other, very important sports that we want foreigners to understand about Qatar,” said Khalid al-Kaja, a 45-year-old hawk originally from the Syrian countryside who moved to Doha with his family two years ago decades. I reproduce the bird. “The way we treat hawks says so much about our relationship with the wilderness, with nature. It brings us back to the basics of life.”

Excited fans from around the world flocked to Souq Waqif on Saturday, a day before the World Cup opening ceremony, braving Doha’s piercing autumn sun to wander the perfume and incense stalls and check out the stock of parrots and the birds that scream.

In a dark alley, al-Kaja expressed hope that the World Cup spotlight will boost global appreciation for the ancient pastime to which he has dedicated his life. Rows of hawks, tied to perches, waited to be evaluated on Saturday. For Qatari clients, the raptors serve as beloved pets, status symbols – and ferocious hunters.

“Qatar has this new infrastructure, the buildings, everything,” al-Kaja said, referring to the $200 billion the energy-rich country poured into the soccer tournament, building huge air-conditioned stadiums, luxury hotels and even a subway . system to move fans around the city. Just north of the historic Souq Waqif, the skyscrapers of West Bay gleamed.

“But we don’t forget the past. Falconry is a passion that unites the entire region,” al-Kaja said.

In recent years, the hawk’s popularity has soared, he added, as Qatari citizens and longtime Arab residents see increasing value in cultural assets from a time before the emirate was even a country, let alone a hub of natural gas wealth and international business. .

Falconry, beauty pageants and competitions have sprung up in the Qatari desert and across the Arabian Peninsula, driving up falcon prices, traders say. The best ones at al-Kaja’s shop fetch up to 1 million Qatari riyals ($274,680), he said.

Nowhere is the love for falcons more evident than at Doha’s nearby Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital — an entire medical facility dedicated to the specialist treatment and care of the birds. Surgeons mend the falcon’s broken bones, file its excessively long talons and take X-rays of the birds’ entire bodies.

But even among the hawk-crazed, enthusiasm for the World Cup – the first in the Arab world – seems high. A Qatari falconer, Masnad Ali Al Mohannadi, touts his beloved bird, named Neyar, as a psychic capable of picking World Cup winners.

Earlier this week in Al Khor, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Doha, he tied pigeon meat to the flags of Qatar and Ecuador – the teams that will start the tournament on Sunday. Two drones pulled the flags into the sky. As they flew overhead, Al Mohannadi, in his aviator sunglasses and traditional white robe, asked his falcon to pick the winner.

“Go to Qatar, go to Qatar!” he pleaded as he released his bird into the clear desert air. Neyar rushed towards the Qatari flag. But a moment later, the predator dived in the opposite direction, attacking the meat wrapped in Ecuador’s national colors.

“Choose Ecuador,” said Al Mohannadi. Disappointment flickered across his face. “God, Qatar will win.”

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Associated Press writers Nebi Qena and Srdjan Nedeljkovic contributed to this report.

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