Falcon Souq in Doha is a living testament to Qatar’s Bedouin heritage. The ancient tradition of falconry thrives on in the shadows of Doha’s modern skyline in the ornate building of Falcon Souq and its many labyrinths, and in young Qataris’ desire to cherish their nomadic past. Row upon row of hooded falcons sits eerily still, afraid of flying sightless. The falcon’s eyes are covered by a leather hood, leaving it in pitch darkness. The hood calms the falcon by withdrawing visual stimuli and suppressing falcon’s hunting instincts. Hoods are designed to not harm the falcons in any way. The sight of so many birds of prey not making the slightest sound or movement is unnerving. Watching young Qatari boys serenely carry falcons on their cuffed hands is fascinating; their confidence could only be attributed to generations over generations of bonding between the Arab and his falcon.
For the ordinary tourist, the world of falconry is an enigmatic one. One might be easily forgiven for associating it only with rich emirs, wealthy elder Arabs and archaic times. Falconry is the ancient tradition of hunting with hawks or falcons. Popularly known in Europe as the sport of kings, falconry served a very different purpose in the Arab world. It was adopted by the early Bedouins to supplement their meager desert sustenance, hares and smaller birds being the primary quarry of falcons. Though the nomadic way of life is now almost over falconry is still widely practiced both as a sport and passion by Qatari men of all ages.
The Falcon Souq has a majestic entrance with a big gilded plaque on which sit three life-size falcons. The Souq’s narrow alleys are lined up with benches for falconers to relax while shopping. The shops are filled with falcons of all sizes, skill levels and prices tethered to their perches in a pit to be examined and bought by falconers. The falcons come with passports to prove their origin, deter illegal trading and to take them hunting in other countries. The shops have a myriad of falconry accessories for sale. Falconry paraphernalia includes leather hoods, cuffs, gloves, feathered lures, leg restraints and perches among other things. The Souq also has open sand pits between shops; falconers can leave their falcons on perches in the pits while they have lunch or shop around. The hooded birds just sit there, waiting for their owners. On Friday evenings the Souq is usually full of falconers buying birds or supplies.
Falconry is an expensive sport. The birds cost thousands of dollars; in the Falcon Souq they sell between 5000 USD to 20000 USD. Other expenses are required in the form of permits and fees, food, housing, equipment, veterinary costs and travel. The life of a falconer is not easy. The birds need rigorous training before they can be used for hunting. They also need to be taken excellent care of, housed well and exercised on regular basis. Still falconry continues to be an indispensable part of the Arab culture and falcons are slowly becoming status symbols.
The ancient sport has only gained from technological advances. Falcons are now tagged with GPS to track them if they get lost. The Souq also has its specialist Souq Waqif Falcon hospital where falconers bring their expensive birds. The hospital is an air-conditioned building with state-of-art equipment, incubators, wards and surgery units to treat injured falcons. The birds get examined and assessed, and x-rayed and operated upon if necessary. Birds are also often brought in to trim nails, examine feathers and for routine checkups. The facility might seem frivolous and extravagant to an outsider but in Qatar it’s perfectly normal. Falconers revere falcons and take excellent care of their cherished birds. Falconry has a compelling place in Qatari society. To the nomadic Bedouins, falcons have been essential to their desert survival. Today falconry lives on as a symbol of the lost way of life, to be cherished and honored in generations to come.
I visited Falcon Souq and Doha, Qatar in January 2017.
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