DOHA, Qatar (AP) — At first glance, the Souk Waqif Clinic in Doha’s historic center might be any other state-of-the-art hospital.
Nurses in blue-hued bushes swiftly circled, circling, bright wards. Radiology and operating rooms beep and monitors ring with blinking. X-rays and masked doctors make incisions with all the high-tech equipment of modern surgery at hand.
There’s only one thing: the rooms are full of hawks.
In the tiny wealthy emirate of Qatar, desert birds are among the country’s most pampered residents.
Long respected in the Arabian Peninsula for their ferocity and hunting prowess, falcons today serve as shekhli status symbols recalling the Bedouin past. The bond between hawks and their falcons has been an inspiration from the Palaeolithic period, when drawings of creatures first appeared on cave walls.
Although less fashionable now than in the olden days, the art of the falcon is still passed down from one generation to the next in Qatar and other oil-rich sheikhs of the Persian Gulf. With increasing demand in recent years, clubs teaching sports have emerged across the region. Falcons compete in an increasing number of races and beauty pageants.
The best falcons bring in at least a few thousand dollars and the Qatari people do not spend any money to maintain their good health.
“The hospital was established to support the hobby and legacy of raising falcons. …It is a pastime that stretches its nerves over many generations,” said Dr. Iqdam Al Karkhi recently told the Associated Press. “Keeping them alive and healthy is an essential duty.”
Public hospitals such as Souk Waqif provide specialist care to sick and injured falcons, about 30,000 per year. The marbled reception area brings together owners and operators to bring their birds for check-ups, medical tests, feather changes, orthopedic surgery – and even mani-pedis for something alike.
Falcon nail filing is very serious business, as birds transplanted into grand homes from the desert wild in skyscraper-dominated Doha or birds bred in captivity simply cannot find a sharp surface on which to trim their brilliance.
Falcon hunting may be a long-honored tradition, but it is also terrifying work. The fanged prey will sometimes fight a fight, catching an attacking falcon and flapping its wings. Each wing of a falcon is vital to its flight, requiring careful wing replacement after a melee attack.
Doctors pulled from one edge of the shed’s feathers to find one that perfectly matched the breed of the injured bird—feathers of similar pattern, length, and color.
“If these damaged feathers persist, it can cause damage or loss of fitness to the bird,” Al Karkhi said. “They should be treated.”
Hospital surgeons also treat other casualties of the victim. Falcons’ beaks and claws are damaged by swooping and falling and snapping.
In the waiting room of the clinic, hawks routinely perch on the gloved wrists of their owners. Qatari men treat prized birds like children in their flowing white robes, caressing their feathers and covering their beaks with water.
“If someone is neglecting their bird, that’s a huge problem,” said Hamad Al Mehshadi, a Falcon festival manager taking his raptor for routine medical checkups. “When one holds his bird, it is something else. The love of the bird is extraordinary.”
Oil wealth and global trade have turned Doha into the capital of the future, boasting a spectacular array of skyscrapers and megaprojects, including stadiums huge enough to host millions of football fans for the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup.
But Souk Waqif still sees a steady stream of 150 falcons a day – a sign that the echoes of Qatar’s ancient past are not lost.
“Even the look of a falcon and its owner, it’s different from any other look,” said Al Karkhi. Falcons “feel the loyalty of this bird – a fierce warrior in the wild and yet a pet in my hand.”
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