Falcon tradition inspires passion in World Cup host Qatar

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Qatar has become a soccer powerhouse after winning the right to host the World Cup. But another sport is flying high in the historic heart of the capital, Doha, as more than a million foreign fans flock to the tiny emirate: Falconry.

In the bustling Souq Waqif, a 100-year-old labyrinthine bazaar in Doha, stalls selling spices and souvenirs give way to shops – and even a modern hospital. – full of famous birds that have long inspired interest among Bedouin tribes.

For centuries, Arabs throughout the region used falcons for hunting and recited poems about their virtues. Today, the birds of prey serve as powerful reminders of Qatar’s culture and traditions, even as the city’s skyscrapers race to prepare for the world’s biggest sporting event.

“Of course, football is the mother of sports. But along with football, there are other very important sports that we want foreigners to understand about Qatar,” said Khalid al-Khoja, a 45-year-old fortune teller from a Syrian village who moved to Doha with his family more than two decades ago. . raise birds. “The way we treat falcons says a lot about our relationship with the wilderness, with nature. It brings us back to the basics of life.”

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Excited fans from around the world flocked to Souq Waqif on Saturday, the day before the World Cup’s opening ceremony, and braved the scorching Doha autumn sun to browse the perfume and incense shops and check out the stock of parrots and lovebirds.

In Dark Avenue, al-Kajah expressed his hope that the World Cup spotlight will increase global appreciation for the ancient pastime to which he has devoted his life. Rows of falcons, strapped to boards, waited to be evaluated on Saturday. For Qatari clients, raptors serve as pet dogs, status symbols and wild game hunters.

“Qatar has new infrastructure, buildings and everything,” al-Qaja said, referring to the $200 billion the energy-rich nation has poured into the soccer tournament, building huge airy stadiums, fancy hotels and even a subway. system to move fans across the city. Just north of the historic Souq Waqif, the skyscrapers of West Bay shine.

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“But we will not forget the past. Falconry is a passion that brings the whole region together,” said al-Kajah.

He added that fortune telling has grown in popularity in recent years as Qatari citizens and long-time Arab residents see the growing value of cultural heritage from a time when the emirate was not even a country, let alone a center of natural gas wealth and international trade. .

Falcon clubs, beauty pageants and competitions in the desert of Qatar and across the Arabian Peninsula are on the rise, driving up falcon prices, traders say. According to him, the best al-Qaja store costs 1 million Qatari riyals ($274,680).

Nowhere is the love for falcons more evident than at Doha’s nearby Souq Waqif Hospital – a medical facility dedicated to the treatment and care of the birds. Surgeons repair the falcon’s broken bones, trim its overlong nails and perform full-body x-rays of the bird.

But even among the frenzied crowd, excitement about the World Cup – the first in the Arab world – is great. Masnad Ali Al-Muhannadi, a Qatari footballer, advertises his beloved bird, Neyar, as a psychic capable of choosing the winners of the World Cup.

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Earlier this week in Al Khor, about 50 kilometers north of Doha, he tied the pigeon to the flags of Qatar and Ecuador – the teams that will start on Sunday. Two drones flew the flags into the sky. As they flew overhead, Al Mohannadi, wearing his aviator sunglasses and traditional white shirt, asked his falconer to pick the winner.

“Go to Qatar, go to Qatar!” – he pleaded, letting his chicken out into the clear air of the desert. Neyar rushed towards the Qatari flag. But a moment later, the predator dived in the opposite direction and attacked the meat wrapped in Ecuador’s national colors.

“He chose Ecuador,” Al Mohannadi said. Disappointment appeared on 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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