In the deserts of northern Qatar, children with a falcon on their left arm show off their game birds in an effort to perpetuate an age-old tradition. These “Little Falconers” have gathered in a tent ahead of the football World Cup in the gas-rich Gulf Emirate, trying to introduce visitors to a practice they inherited from their forefathers. Falconry was added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage in 2010, including in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“This is my first entry into the competition,” says 11-year-old Breik al-Marri, dressed in flowing white robes next to his falcon Gasham, a leather hood that obscures the bird’s view.
“I love and care for Gasham,” Marri said, slipping his left arm into a thick leather glove to protect him from the raptor’s sharp talons.
“Originally a way to get food, falconry … has been integrated into communities as a social and recreational practice and as a way to connect with nature,” the culture office said.
‘Strength of Determination’
“I learned this sport from my grandfathers, father and uncles,” says Marri. “I learned from them the power of determination and how to care for the falcon.”
Marri explains that the hood helps to keep the bird of prey calm. Once the falcon regains sight, he says, its behavior changes.
“One time my brother came with the falcon not wearing the hood and he tried to pet the bird, but the falcon bit him,” he said. “The falcon was scared!”
Marri recently participated with ten others in the competition “Verpromissing Valkeniers” for 11-15 year olds.
During the competition, each young falconer chooses the perfect moment to release their bird to grab their prey, a decoy swung about 200 meters (about 650 feet) away.
The winner of the competition is the falconer whose bird catches the prey the fastest.
Saeed al-Jamila, 15, who named his falcon Hayya, also took part in the competition, after the special fan passes for the FIFA World Cup, which runs from November 20 to December 18.
He expressed his excitement at the more than one million fans expected to descend on his small country for the tournament, and hopes to send a message encouraging them to try falconry for themselves.
“They should try, they’re not losing anything,” he said. “It’s a beautiful sport.”
But while the young falconers in this division got excited, it was undoubtedly the “Little Falconers” aged six to ten who stole the show.
One by one they came out in a row, each with a hunting bag, balancing on their right arms the birds whose talons were larger than the children’s hands.
Eight-year-old Hamad al-Nuaimi stepped forward before the jury, who began asking questions about hunting tools, their uses and properties.
At one point, Nuaimi searched for an answer to one of the questions, but was aided by one of the judges.
The aim of the competition is to “preserve our heritage and that of our ancestors. We are passing this heritage on to this generation,” said panelist Saad al-Muhannadi.
The little falconers are then tested on their ability to properly remove the hoods from the birds and then successfully transfer them from their arm onto a perch, securing their feet with a special knot.
“The hunt teaches a man perseverance and self-reliance,” said Muhannadi, as the strong smell of coffee rises from close by.
He hoped that hosting the World Cup would give Qatar the opportunity to “spread our culture and national identity”.
Falconry “is an ancient sport, whether in Qatar or in other Gulf countries, it is an authentic sport,” he said.
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