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A bird in hand

The Qatari capital city of Doha is home to a medieval falcon souk that keeps the age-old tradition of falconry alive

A shop in Souq Waqif. Photo: Neeta Lal
A shop in Souq Waqif. Photo: Neeta Lal

I feel like I’ve stepped back a few centuries. In front of me are a dozen falcons of various hues and sizes perched on 2ft-high wooden pedestals stuck into a sand pit. The birds are all motionless, a small leather hood called burqa covering their eyes.

The cover, I’m told, doesn’t hurt the falcons’ eyes but withdraws all visual stimuli so that they don’t attack people. Even so, the sight of so many birds of prey all eerily still and silent in a room makes me a tad uneasy.

I’m at one of the biggest attractions of the Qatari capital Doha—the Falcon Souq. Located within the labyrinthine lanes of Souq Waqif, an ornate Middle Eastern bazaar, it keeps alive the ancient tradition of falconry through some 30-odd shops which sell or auction these majestic birds. The outfits are mostly owned and run by second or third generation falconers.

The shops attract some buyers, but mostly curious onlookers. Before I step in, I’m advised that I can admire the birds, even photograph them, but “no touching please". “Falconry is an expensive sport earlier practised by the rich Qatari emirs. But today, these birds have become status symbols due to the high costs involved in breeding them," explains Aahed Ali, who has been selling at the souq for over three decades.

The 58-year-old elaborates that not only do the feathered beauties cost a small fortune—between $3000-100,000 (around 2-70lakh) each—they’re expensive to maintain as well. “As professional falconers, we have to take very good care of our stock. This involves organizing permits for them, special food, housing as well as equipment. The birds’ medical and travel costs are high too," explains Ali who is grooming his two young sons to take over his enterprise.

High expenses notwithstanding, falconry still remains an intrinsic part of Arab culture—especially across Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Known as the “sport of kings", Unesco even added falconry to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List for Middle Eastern culture.

Falconry in Qatar has an interesting provenance. Though the country of three million people is today modernized and one of the world’s richest nations, it was a barren desert not long ago. It was home to the Bedouins who trained falcons/hawks to hunt for prey and supplement their meagre desert incomes. The itinerant tribes’ targets were usually smaller animals like hares or houbaras, a bird known for its succulent meat.

Falcons cost between $3000-100,000 each Photo: Neeta Lal

Though the Bedouin population has whittled away due to migration and rehabilitation by the authorities, falconry continues to be a passion for Qatari men. They feel the sport embodies values of chivalry, diligence and patience which the new generation would do well to imbibe.

This sentiment manifests itself strongly at Ali’s shop. Its beige walls flaunt framed photos of VIP Arab leaders and celebrities holding his birds in their white gloved hands. One corner is lined with wooden racks showcasing falconry equipment for sale—hoods, harnesses, training materials, perches. Thick leather gloves called mangala (worn by falconers to protect themselves from sharp talons) hang from pegs. Next to them are leather straps (jesses) and fake preys (telwah or falcon dummies) used to lure birds during training.

What do the birds eat? Ali says their diet is usually pigeon meat, and they’re fed twice daily. “As they grow older, the birds’ appetite wanes and it also becomes difficult to train them due to their failing vision," he elaborates.

The shop next to Ali’s is bustling with customers. As the group departs, I approach Salim Waqib, the owner. A third generation falconer, Waqib says he stocks birds imported from Mongolia, Russia, Iran and Iraq. The falconer explains that different species/sub-species of falcons are distinguished by their size, claws, beaks and feather patterns. Interestingly, female falcons are larger in size than males and are considered better at hunting.

“Falcons are known for their piercing vision and agility," explains the entrepreneur whose clients include local Qataris as well as people from Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. “Shaheen is the smallest and the fastest bird we have. It can fly at over 322 kmph while chasing preys. The Peregrine Falcon can also zip through air at very high speeds."

Other common Qatari species, adds Waqib, include Saqr or the White Falcon and the Gyrfalcon, which comes mainly from Siberia in shades of grey, silver, black and white. “Saqr is the costliest among all prized for its exceptionally high speed. It is imported from Russia, Mongolia and Iran," he adds.

Waqib’s eyes light up as he talks of the glamorous falconry races held in the UAE. The major championships in Dubai and Abu Dhabi especially, he says, are big draws for falcon lovers from across the Arab world. The sport is covered by international media equipped with 3D falcon flight tracking systems, websites, mobile apps and data-feed services during championships and individual races. The birds are tagged with GPS to track them.

I ask Waqib if he has been to the races. “I’d like to," he smiles, “but it’s too much work. Falcons need passports to travel from country to country and only a few airlines are equipped to handle the birds."

Between 2002-13, the UAE issued over 28,000 falcon passports which also help in minimizing illegal trade. Such is the passion for the sport that some Middle Eastern airlines even have designated cabin space for falcons. Occasionally, the birds have been spotted flying over passengers’ heads inside the aircraft.

Last year, a Qatari emir flew 15 falcons in first class on a Gulf airline, my escort Abdullah, a local Qatari, informs me. On another flight, an American flying onboard a Middle Eastern aircraft sat nervously next to an emir casually holding aloft a gigantic bird of prey throughout the 90-minute flight!

The Falcon Souq also hosts public falcon auctions regularly. There’s also a state-of-the-art government-funded falcon hospital. As I enter the gleaming premises of the hospital, a signpost that reads: “Waiting Area", catches my eye. It is punctuated with wooden pedestals fixed into a mud pit where falcons can rest as their owners wait to consult a vet.

As I move around the hospital, its walls plastered with photographs of different falcon breeds as well as incubators, wards and surgery units come into view. According to a resident doctor, the birds get examined and assessed, and X-rayed and operated upon if necessary.

“On an average we treat about 20-30 birds every day. Apart from routine checkups, we also do lab tests, DNA pathogen detection and gene sequencing. For falcons with muscle wear and tear, we recommend physiotherapy," the vet adds.

Despite the love and care the Qataris shower upon their winged wonders, however, there’s concern that some falcon species are dwindling due to overhunting, loss of habitats and hunting grounds.

As Ali sums it up: “I cannot predict what the fate of our business will be 10 or 15 years from now. But I do hope that future generations will continue with this remarkable tradition that makes our culture so unique."

Let’s say Amen to that!

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