Originally the only practical tool for nomadic bedouins hunting in the desert, the art of falconry remains a popular pastime in the Gulf States.
By Tareq al-Sheikh
In the centre of the Qatari capital of Doha lies one of the largest falcon markets in the Middle East. The Souq Waqif market has also become an important tourist attraction after it was restored recently and rebuilt in the indigenous architectural style. Inside, traditional Qatari costumes, cafes and restaurants are found alongside other Arab and Asian outlets.
International fast-food chains are excluded to create a traditional style that makes the market a landmark for visitors. It has even encouraged a renaissance in Qatari tableware, a tradition that had all but disappeared with the discovery of oil in the region.
In Qatar, most facilities and institutions are run by foreigners and the fact that the market is run by local people signals how deeply falcon breeding runs in Qatari society. Black and white photographs and paintings of past falcon breeders adorn the walls of the shops, giving the impression of museums, rather than centres of commerce.
Last year even a hospital was built for the falcons. It provides medical examination, laboratory analysis and surgery of all kinds. Treatment costs from 20 to 50 riyals ($5-$13). An emergency care unit is available for falcons after surgery and a week’s stay costs about $60.
Ikdam al-Karkhy, an Iraqi vet, says the hospital gets crowded in the run-up to the shooting season, as people check on their falcons’ health before they go out shooting. “In the past, falcons were treated at only three small private clinics,” says al-Karkhy, adding that two weeks after the hospital opened it treated more than 50 cases a day.
Before the season begins, the Qatari authorities state a number of restrictions and name the kinds of birds that can be shot. The season usually begins on September 1 and runs till May 1 the following year.
Hospital manager Faisal Ali al-Maadheed says the hospital offers a pre-purchase examination service to make sure that the birds are free of disease. “People also go to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan for this sport,” says Yusuf al-Ansari, a bird shop owner, adding that people have started to go to southern Iraq, which is the most important hunting site in the region.
Al-Ansari says that the shahin falcon, one of the most sought-after breeds, is sold for anything between $14,000 and $140,000. He points out that most of his clients are princes and sheikhs who are interested in shooting as part of the authentic Arab tradition.
A chemistry student stands outside the hospital with a shahin falcon suffering from a cold resting on his palm. Falcon breeding is a family tradition, he says, speaking on condition of anonymity. According to him the shahin is one of the fastest and most intelligent of falcons and can take just one day to be trained and ready for shooting trips. He describes how training a wild falcon begins by getting it used to sitting on its owner’s “fist”. Then it gets used to strange noises and its diet, which is mostly fresh pigeon meat.
“Despite the hobby’s high costs, people are buying more and more falcons and falcon-breeding clubs have spread throughout the Arab Gulf states,” he adds.