Falcon tradition inspires passion in World Cup host Qatar

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

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

For centuries, Arabs across the region have used hawks to hunt and recited poems extolling their virtues. Today, the birds of prey serve as powerful reminders of Qatari culture and tradition even as the skyscraper-studded city prepares for the world’s biggest sporting event.

“Of course, football is the mother of sport. But besides football, there are other very important sports that we want foreigners to understand about Qatar,” said Khalid al-Kaja, a falconer from A 45-year-old from rural Syria who moved to Doha with his family more than two decades ago to raise the bird.“The way we treat falcons says a lot about our relationship with the desert, with nature. This brings us back to the basics of life.

Eager fans from around the world descended on Souq Waqif on Saturday, a day before the World Cup opening ceremony, braving Doha’s piercing autumn sun to wander through the stalls of perfumes and incense and check the stock of parrots and lovebirds.

In a dark alley, al-Kaja expressed hope that the World Cup spotlight would boost global appreciation for the ancient hobby he has devoted his life to. Lines of falcons, tied to perches, were waiting to be appraised on Saturday. For Qatari customers, raptors are beloved pets, status symbols and fierce hunters.

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

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

In recent years, the popularity of falconry has skyrocketed, he added, as Qatari citizens and longtime Arab residents see the growing value of cultural relics from a time even before the emirate. is even a country, let alone a hub of natural gas wealth and international business. .

Falcon clubs, beauty contests and races have sprung up in the Qatari desert and across the Arabian Peninsula, sending falcon prices soaring, traders say. The finest shops in al-Kaja sell for up to 1 million Qatari riyals ($274,680), he said.

Nowhere is the love of falcons more evident than at Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha, a medical facility devoted entirely to the treatment and care of birds. Surgeons repair broken hawk bones, file their excessively long fingernails, and perform full-body X-rays of the birds.

But even among the hawk-crazed, excitement over the World Cup – the first ever in the Arab world – looms large. A Qatari falconer, Masnad Ali Al Mohannadi, presents his beloved bird, named Neyar, as a medium capable of choosing the winners of World Cup matches.

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 kick off the tournament sunday. Two drones shot the flags in the sky. As they floated above their heads, Al Mohannadi, dressed in his aviator sunglasses and traditional white dress, asked his falcon to choose the winner.

“Go for Qatar, go for Qatar!” he begged, releasing his bird into the clear desert air. Neyar rushed to the flag of Qatar. But a moment later, the raptor dove in the opposite direction, attacking meat wrapped in Ecuador’s national colors.

“He chose Ecuador,” Al Mohannadi said. Disappointment passed over his face. “God willing, Qatar will win.”

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

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