The Art of the Pilgrim of Death

DOHA – I confess that I don’t know if Portugal has any animal considered national. If you have it, I guess it’s either cod or sardines, sold in china at every Nepali shop. I know, this much I know, that Qatar has a national animal and that animal is the falcon. And the falcon in its most diverse versions, which exist here: the amur falcon, the lancer falcon, the peregrine falcon, the barbarian falcon, the matraz falcon and the gray falcon. A ror of hawks, then. Doha is not a bird friendly city. Rare are the ones that we can see in this pointed sky of gigantic buildings designed by architects who seem to have had complete freedom to invent the shapes they wanted. Perhaps its mirrored surfaces, which from time to time blind us with sun glare, keep the most curious birds away. There are no sparrows. You can see seagulls and terns along the waters of the Persian Gulf, circling the sand and the typical boats of the region called dhows. But in the streets, in the wastelands, in the vicinity of the buildings, only beige, gray, almost discolored doves.
Close to where I live this month, a large room with bathroom in an apartment where I share the kitchen (which I don’t use) with three other guys, one of whom is the son of my old friend Daffrallah Mouadhen, whom I met in Tunisia during a Cup of Africa and I recruited, at the time, to be a correspondent for A Bola in the Persian Gulf, is Souq Wakif, a privileged place for those who want to see falcons. And buy them. Souq means market. Souq Wakif is old, very old, it has existed for over a hundred years. It was a trading center frequented by the Bedouin tribes of the region, it fell into decay but, in 2004, it was reborn thanks to the will of the governors of the city of Doha who felt (and rightly so!) that they could transform it into a modern space, pleasant to walk around leisurely, observing everything that is for sale (and this is practically everything), or to sit on a terrace ordering a Turkish coffee or a water pipe and enjoy moments of rest while, all around, people get busy in their inevitable haggling.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that what brings us here is an irrepressible desire to buy a falcon, just as two weeks ago we supposed we had an irresistible desire to buy a camel, remember? Well, maybe not. It does not matter. They want camels, they go to Al-Shahanyia, towards the desert. They want falcons to come to Souq Wakif, walk through its labyrinths, go to the area where the stalls of animal sellers are erected and ask for prices. Business is conducted with a careful, polite slowness. The tent is air-conditioned, a cloying tea mixed with milk is served, there is conversation about the most diverse subjects, the falcons are there, exposed in a square of sand, with hoods covering their heads. It is very natural that they have a surprise. And if the will is so difficult to resist, the surprise may turn out to be not very pleasant. The cheapest ones can go for around 100,000 Rials (a Rial is worth about a quarter of a euro); the good ones, candidates to be exposed in the palace of some sheikh, go up to 300 or 350 thousand Rials. That is, the most expensive hawks are equivalent to the camels on sale.
The Art of Falconry
There is always a question that we must ask ourselves when acquiring a falcon: «What am I going to do with this animal?». Is that falconry is an art and not exactly for everyone. So, once, at the animal market in Djodjakarta, on the island of Jva, Indonesia, a stubborn seller insisted on me for the entire hour and a half that I walked around the corner to buy him a pangolin. The little animal was even nice, calm, a bit scaly, but anyway, you can’t compare a pangolin to a Persian cat. But what the hell was I going to do with a pangolin? What no and what no and what no. The man gladly accepted the no, at a certain point he disappeared from my sight, I thought he would have foisted the pangolin on another unfortunate man than me, what was my surprise when, the next morning, I found the two mammals, the human and the pangolin, at the door of my hotel, both smiling and fresh, if a pangolin is able to smile, they are generally pretty self-conscious animals. It’s clear that despite the two-legged tick’s insistence, I didn’t buy any pangolin, even if they offered it to me, I ended up gaining some tenderness for the little animal because, believe it or not, I saw him again, more of his annoying merchant in the days that followed.
Well, this time I didn’t even hesitate to buy a falcon, not even the most sought-after ones, such as the lancer falcon, one of the largest of the entire falconidae family, or peregrine falcon, that Formula 1 type of falcons that, lo and behold, it reaches a top speed of 389 kilometers per hour. It’s no wonder that rats, rabbits, snakes and lizards live in fear every time they decide to get out of their lures and peek out at the desert sun that surrounds the city of Doha and all its neighbours, north and south, basically together in one big city. that no longer has borders or places where you can see when you leave one to enter the other.
The falcon is not, for us Portuguese, a strange animal like camels and dromedaries, despite Portugal being one of the countries with the highest number of camels per square kilometer, although the vast majority disguise the humps through a suit and tie. It is not as majestic as the eagle (it would be better to say eagles because there are species to hit with a stick), but its balanced flight, its hovering in the currents of the wind and its sudden descents in search of something worth a meal, for small as it may be, must be admired as one of the most elegant wonders that nature offers us. In Qatar, the art of falconry is as old as the darkest night, or at least as old since the first nomadic tribes willing to become sedentary settled here. As with camels and dromedaries, the competition season starts in October and we are therefore in the middle of it. And, I’ll tell you right away, it’s a real obsession for Qataris. What’s more, it’s been a veritable obsession throughout the Middle East for centuries. It is watched with such attention by the rest of the world that falconry has entered the UNESCO list of Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
a world apart
Anyone who walks through Souq Wakif in search of the hawks’ quarter enters a world of its own. Contrary to what happens out there at the edge of the desert, and, Al-Shahanyia, with the camel competitions, here there are no uproars, no ta-ta-ta, nor shouts of encouragement. But there are stakes. These people don’t live without betting.
But let’s first give it to its owner, as our people like to say, from Santa Cruz do Bispo to Avelãs de Caminho: falconry emerged around 5000 years ago in Persia. Afterwards, of course, with that never-ending back-and-forth of nomadic peoples, he traveled the roads of the world. It was the Bedouins who brought addiction to Qatar and there are still many people around here who are recognized for the excellence of the idea. They then began to make falcons an excellent hunting instrument. After all, it was a very reasonable saving of bullets: not all Bedouins had effective aim and shooting down pigeons from afar was not an infallible task. Well, the hawks, with their accelerations of up to 300 km per hour, called turtle doves a fig. It would not take long for some more kingdoms to decide to turn the activity into a sport. It was really visible!
There were times when falconry spread equally across central Europe. But it didn’t last long. There is the theory – a theory with a wide margin of practice, if you want my opinion, well, if you don’t want it, here it is – that the European is a being very given to shooting down animals, flying or not, just for the simple pleasure of the watching them struggle and being able to brag about it to their friends. More connected to nature, the Qataris are not very adept at this idea of ​​killing just for the sake of killing. Therefore, it is to see him treat his falcons with remarkable refinement and affection, covering their heads with those leather hoods in order to guarantee certain hours of rest and to keep them calm there beside them, like little animals of pets, while they gather in the courtyards smoking water pipes.
Let’s suppose, then, that instead of repeating the resounding no with which I freed myself from the pangolin man back in Djodjakarta, I now let myself be tricked by one of those falcon sellers at Souq Wakif and lost love for 300,000 Rials in exchange of a peregrine falcon. Here I am, owner of an avezita that promotes me socially. And that is an example of will, patience and perseverance, after all all the principles that Qataris want to see in their children. If I’ve already spent a lot, I’m prepared to spend double or triple just to hire a trainer who will make me work properly without embarrassing myself in front of my falcon owner partners. One of the first things the trainer will demand of me is that I become attached to the animal. And that will only happen if you spend three or four hours a day with your arm outstretched and with it resting relaxedly on the part where the bone called radius is located. So not only do I have to dedicate myself to bodybuilding in all the necessary areas, but I also need to have a job that allows me a lot of freedom of movement. Like being an emir or a sheik, for example. It is also useful to know half a dozen things about ornithology to take my falcon towards areas where it will find its favorite victims, such as the great bustard, a typical bird of the arid areas of North Africa and Arabia. , which has completely disappeared from the European continent and is already considered an endangered animal. No one said that owning a falcon was free from hassles and, much less, problems of zoological conscience. On the other hand, I don’t have to worry too much about my falcon’s health: there is a state-sponsored hospital just for falcons that can handle over ten thousand patients a day.
The hawk I just bought is a voracious predator and needs a lot of food, so please add a few more Rials to the animal’s monthly expense. Then, and since we are in the expenses phase, don’t think that the Qatari princes are going all out like that, in dishdasha, turbans and chanatos into the middle of the desert with the falcons hanging from their arms as if they were the linen cloths of an old man’s servant. Leão Douro, there on the 1st of December. Don’t even think about it! Are some thought or what?! They are transported in gigantic jeeps, which swallow dunes as if they were lupines, the most modern communication instruments that exist, antennas the height of the Empire State Building and a sect of servants that allow them not to have to deal with the inconvenience of grains of sand through the opening of the sandals.
Having arrived here, I warn you of a rule that is obligatorily respected in this sport, which is, in fact, hunting by means of an animal. The birds or small mammals that are within what is understood as the objectives of the test for each falcon must be presented to the jury still alive and only after confirming that the heart is still beating can they be placed on the shelves of the hunters, waiting for the count. final that decides the big winner. Now, as the falcon is an animal that has an appetite worthy of Pantagruel and Gargantua together, and as it needs to be fasting and salivating in order to hurl itself at its victim like a missile with feathers, its masters are obliged to follow them up close, so close up that, when the prey is already at the mercy of the falcon’s claws and beak, it still has a little bit of life left to be considered a trophy. And, in this way, every time a race starts, we are not limited to seeing these small and elegant birds crossing the skies as if they wanted to exceed the speed of sound. We also see their owners chasing them, jumping and tumbling on the sand in their crazy vehicles, determined not to allow a meal from the animals to jeopardize any record.
In fact, between football, camel racing and falconry, there is plenty of entertainment here in Qatar. They are pranksters!

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