Qatar has become a football flashpoint since it won the right to host the World Cup. But another sport is flying high in the historic center of the capital, Doha, as over a million foreign fans flock to the tiny emirate: falconry.
In the bustling Souq Waqif, a 100-year-old labyrinthine marketplace 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 intrigued Bedouin tribes.
For centuries, Arabs across the region used falcons to hunt 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-studded city prepares for the world’s greatest sporting event.
“Football is of course the mother of sport. But besides football, there are other very important sports that we want to teach foreigners in Qatar,” said Khalid al-Kaja, a falconer originally from the Syrian country who moved to Doha with his family over two decades ago to breed the bird. “The way we interact with hawks says so much about our relationship with the desert, with nature. It brings us back to the basics of life.”
Delighted fans from around the world flocked to Souq Waqif on Saturday, a day before the World Cup opening ceremony, braving Doha’s scorching autumn sun to browse the stalls of perfume and incense and check out the population of screeching parrots and lovebirds .
In a dark alley, Mr. Kaja expressed hope that the World Cup spotlight would boost global appreciation for the ancient pastime to which he has dedicated his life. Rows of falcons tied to poles waited to be inspected on Saturday. For Qatari customers, the raptors serve as beloved pets, status symbols – and fierce hunters.
“Qatar has this new infrastructure, the buildings, everything,” Mr Kaja said, referring to the $200 billion the energy-rich country has poured into the football tournament by building huge air-conditioned stadiums, swanky hotels and even a subway -System to bring fans around the city. North of the historic Souq Waqif, the skyscrapers of West Bay glittered.
“But we don’t forget the past. Falconry is a passion that brings the whole region together,” said Mr. Kaja.
Falconry’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, he added, as Qatari citizens and longtime Arab residents see increasing value in cultural relics from before the emirate was even a country, let alone a center of natural gas wealth and economic activity international business .
Falcon clubs, beauty pageants and races have sprung up in the Qatar desert and Arabian Peninsula, driving up falcon prices, traders say. The best in Mr. Kaja’s shop fetch up to 1 million Qatari riyals ($274,680), he said.
Nowhere is the love for falcons more evident than at the nearby Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital in Doha – an entire medical facility dedicated to the expert treatment and care of the birds. Surgeons mend broken hawk bones, file their excessively long nails, and perform full-body X-rays of birds.
But even among falconry enthusiasts, excitement about the World Cup – the first ever in the Arab world – is high. A Qatari falconer, Masnad Ali Al Mohannadi, is touting his beloved bird, Neyar, as a psychic capable of predicting the winners of World Cup matches.
Last week in Al Khor, some 50 kilometers north of Doha, he tied pigeon meat to the flags of Qatar and Ecuador – the teams that opened the tournament on Sunday. Two drones raised the flags in the sky. As they fluttered overhead, Mr. Al Mohannadi, in his aviator goggles and traditional white robe, asked his falcon to choose the winner.
“Go for Qatar, go for Qatar!” he pleaded as he unleashed his bird into the clear desert air. Neyar rushed towards the Qatar flag. But a moment later, the raptor swooped in the opposite direction and attacked the flesh wrapped in Ecuador’s national colors.
“He chose Ecuador,” said Mr. Al Mohannadi. Disappointment flickered across his face. “God willing, Qatar will win.”
Ecuador won 2-0 on Sunday.
This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP contributors Nebi Qena and Srdjan Nedeljkovic contributed to this report.