Falcon tradition inspires passion in World Cup host Qatar

Nov 18, 2022, 6:42 PM | Updated: Nov 19, 2022, 8:46 am

A falcon sits for sale in a shop in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Qatar has become synonymo...

A falcon sits for sale in a shop in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Qatar has become synonymous with soccer since winning the rights to host the FIFA World Cup that opens on Sunday. But another sport is flying high in the historic center of Doha as over a million foreign fans flock to the tiny emirate: Falconry. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

(AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Qatar has become a focal point for soccer since winning 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.

At the bustling Souq Waqif, a 100-year-old labyrinth marketplace in Doha, shops selling spices and souvenirs give way to stores — and even a state-of-the-art hospital — filled with the famed birds that have long inspired passion among Bedouin tribes.

For centuries, Arabs across the region have used falcons to hunt and recited poems extolling their virtues. Today, the birds of prey serve as potent reminders of Qatari culture and tradition even as the skyscraper-studded city races to ready itself for the world’s biggest sporting event.

“Of course, football is the mother of sports. But alongside football there are other, very important sports that we want foreigners to understand about Qatar,” said Khalid al-Kaja, a 45-year-old falconer originally from the Syrian countryside who moved to Doha with his family over two decades ago to breed the bird. “The way that we deal with falcons says so much about our relationship with the desert, with nature. It brings us back to the basics of life.”

Excited fans from around the world trickled into Souq Waqif on Saturday, a day before the World Cup opening ceremony, braving Doha’s piercing autumn sun to wander through the stalls of perfume and incense and check the stock of squawking parrots and lovebirds.

In a dark alley, al-Kaja expressed hope that the spotlight of the World Cup would boost global appreciation for the ancient pastime to which he has dedicated his life. Lines of falcons, tethered to perches, waited to be appraised on Saturday. For Qatari customers, the raptors serve as beloved pets, status symbols — and ferocious hunters.

“Qatar has this new infrastructure, the buildings, everything,” al-Kaja said, referring to the $200 billion that the energy-rich country has poured into the soccer tournament, building up vast air-conditioned stadiums, swanky hotels and even a metro system to whisk fans around the city. Just 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,” al-Kaja said.

In recent years the popularity of falconry has soared, he added, as Qatari citizens and long-time Arab residents see rising value in cultural holdovers from a time before the emirate was even a country, let alone a hub of natural gas wealth and international business.

Falcon clubs, beauty contests and races have sprouted up in the desert of Qatar and across the Arabian Peninsula, causing falcon prices to surge, traders say. The finest in al-Kaja’s store fetch as much as 1 million Qatari riyal ($274,680), he said.

Nowhere is the love of falcons more evident than Doha’s nearby Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital — an entire medical facility devoted to the expert treatment and care of the birds. Surgeons mend broken falcon bones, file their excessively long nails and conduct full-body bird X-rays.

But even among the falcon-crazed, excitement about the World Cup — the first ever in the Arab world — looms large. One Qatari falconer, Masnad Ali Al Mohannadi, advertises his beloved bird, named Neyar, as a psychic capable of choosing World Cup match winners.

Earlier this week in Al Khor, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Doha, he tied pigeon meat to the flags of Qatar and Ecuador — the teams that will kick off the tournament on Sunday. Two drones pulled the flags into the sky. As they fluttered overhead, Al Mohannadi, in his aviator sunglasses 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 limpid desert air. Neyar rushed toward Qatar’s flag. But a moment later, the raptor plunged in the opposite direction, attacking the meat wrapped in Ecuador’s national colors.

“He chose Ecuador,” said Al Mohannadi. Disappointment flickered across his face. “God willing, Qatar will win.”


Associated Press writers Nebi Qena and Srdjan Nedeljkovic contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Ex-Packer Guion gets 1 year for domestic violence assault

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Letroy Guion was sentenced to one year in jail after pleading no contest in a domestic violence assault at his home last fall. Brown County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Walsh also ordered Guion on Tuesday to serve three years’ probation and complete a domestic […]

1 year ago

Joe Jarzynka...

Associated Press

Durant eager for Suns debut vs. Hornets after knee injury

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kevin Durant has been through quite a bit during his 15-year NBA career — but joining a new team midway through the season is a new one for the 13-time All-Star. The 34-year-old Durant doesn’t seem all that worried. Durant makes his highly anticipated Phoenix Suns debut on Wednesday night against […]

1 year ago

FILE - Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores stands on the sideline during the second half of an N...

Associated Press

Judge: NFL coach can press discrimination claims in court

NEW YORK (AP) — NFL Coach Brian Flores can pursue some of his discrimination claims against the league and its teams in court rather than through arbitration, a judge ruled Wednesday. The written decision by Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan was issued months after lawyers for the league tried to get the lawsuit moved to […]

1 year ago

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Alex Stalock cools off in the first period during an NHL hockey game ...

Associated Press

Kane trade reinforces hard reality of Blackhawks rebuild

CHICAGO (AP) — After days of speculation, the harsh reality of the Chicago Blackhawks’ situation was reinforced by one move in a flurry of transactions ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Showtime is over, at least in Chicago, and a seemingly bright future is, well, way off in the distance. The reverberations of Chicago’s decision […]

1 year ago

FILE -  Yves Jean-Bart, president of the Haitian Football Federation, wearing a protective face mas...

Associated Press

Disgraced ex-Haitian soccer president announces he’s back

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti’s former soccer federation president whose lifetime ban from sport over sexual abuse allegations was overturned last month announced Wednesday that he is reclaiming his position. Yves Jean-Bart’s defiant announcement could lead to a standoff with FIFA, which already has appointed an emergency management committee to lead the Haitian Football Association […]

1 year ago

FILE - Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers walks off the field after an NFL football game against the ...

Associated Press

Rodgers says decision on future will come ‘soon enough’

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Aaron Rodgers says he will make a decision on his future “soon enough” as the four-time MVP quarterback ponders whether to play next season and if his future remains with the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers, 39, discussed his future while speaking on an episode of the “Aubrey Marcus Podcast” that […]

1 year ago

Falcon tradition inspires passion in World Cup host Qatar