Preserving the majesticness of falcons at Qatar’s Marmi Festival
The yearly Marmi Festival seeks to promote and preserve the sport of falconry, while shedding light on Qatari heritage
Text by AP Muhammed Afsal
A half an hour journey from the capital Doha through an expressway to Mesaieed, and an almost nine kilometres’ bumpy ride on a desert road, you are there. In an arena larger than a golf course, at least one percent of Qatari male citizens are busy playing and watching a game far more ancient than golf. Welcome to the Marmi Festival, one of the world’s largest falconry and hunting festivals, now in its 12th edition.
The yearly festival seeks to promote the preservation and protection of these significant birds of prey, while celebrating the sport of falconry in Qatar.
Initially, hunting for falcons helped the Bedouin nomads find food, but over time it became a status hobby for modern Qatari people and one that requires serious investment. A good skilled bird that can catch prey faster than others does not come cheap and can fall anywhere between £2,000 to £200,000 or even more. In addition to this, equipment such as GPS chips, radio monitors and other gadgets that help track the movement of the birds, makes falconry a very expensive pastime.
The birds themselves are also treated with great respect in Qatar. There are special hospitals for them with advanced medical equipment and the birds are not only treated for injuries such as dislocations of the joints of the wings and muscle sprains, but are also given ‘spa style’ treatments to care for their feathers and claws.
Falcons have remained a cherished part of Qatari society, and the Bedouin tradition has helped set the basis for the modern version of the sport practiced in the country today. The ancient tradition of the inhabitants of Qatar continues to be sung in verse and folk tales while thematic festivals, like the Marmi Festival, are dedicated to it. Having attracted more than 1,500 local and international participants and hundreds of visitors, the previous edition of the Marmi Festival was the biggest and most exciting one, covered by local and international media outlets. And this year was no different. Coming back with a bang after a year’s break due to the pandemic, the January event was a spectacular affair. We sent a QRM journalist for a first hand experience of the extraordinary event.
A Bedouin past with a modern touch…
People in white robes and headgear relax in plum cushions arranged on the gallery; their eyes fixed on the giant screens that live stream the actions miles afar. The broadcast vans feed to local sports TV networks for fans who couldn’t make it to the event.
This year there are additional restrictions, namely the mandatory ‘green’ on the Ehteraz Covid-19 app, which means you are only allowed entry to the festival if you are ‘healthy’ and of course, the obligatory wearing of the face mask.
Writings on falconry in the Persian Gulf are often laden with phrases like “Bedouin past” and “pre-oil days”. However everything in Sabkat Marmi, where the festival takes place is modern, apart from the birds of prey, of course. But nevertheless, the venue still attempts to pay homage to the prestigious cultural past by creating a Bedouin style atmosphere.
Once you enter the makeshift threshold, a semi-circle plaza, you are welcomed by shops selling camp beddings, coal, grills, Arabic jugs, coffee cups, traps and gloves. There is also a small exhibition of artefacts such as paintings, figurines, hunting tools and the rare books on falconry.
A ‘crash’ course in falconry
Our first day in Sabkat Marmi drew a blank but our next attempt was better and we were lucky to rope in Mohammed Al Sulaiti, who we had been trying to contact for more than a week. A veteran of the Qatari Navy, Sulaiti has had a passion for the birds of prey since his childhood. We later found out that he had gone to Iraq to get a few falcons, so as soon as we got his text message, we left at once. He had arranged a driver, Aamir Khan, from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, to pick us up from the main road. One of us got into his four-wheeler, while our own car followed. The two falcons that had arrived from Iraq, sat in the rear seat, their legs tethered by a string to an arrangement to restrict their movement. The hoods covering their eyes further calmed the birds.
Our destination was a winter camp that Sulaiti had set up in the desert. Over a spread of Majboos — a mixed rice dish, served on a communal platter — he reminisced, telling us about his falconry journey since childhood. We then headed to his majlis — another tent but with a view of the desert, where he sent in for the newly brought falcons from Iraq. He carefully took each of them, poured warm water over the tape that bundled their wings into a bunch as it makes it easier for the adhesive tape to come off. “The falcons are not healthy at the moment,” he told us. “I can tell by their faeces,” he said pointing to the droppings on the green rug.
Sulaiti reveals how he has travelled to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates to look for falcons. “For the past two weeks I had been in Iraq. I’ll go back again,” he said.
He tells us how he specifically searches for Shaheen falcons, “because they are experienced hunters while in the wild.” Each one can cost up to QAR 400,0000 (£80,000) and by the time they reach Qatar, they have usually become powerful hunters, he adds.
An average falcon lives up to 22, while they can actively hunt until the ages of 15-16. “But they are only used in competition for four years,” Sulaiti explains and they are not friendly, he adds. “It depends on how you deal with them. They’ll bite you, and they’ll scratch you. But you must respect them. If they start to like you, then you have nothing to fear,” he says as he shows us the scratch marks at the back of his palm and hands.
Every year, the falcon season begins in October and runs until April. Qatar’s hot climate is not good for falcons, Sulaiti tells us, so in April, after checkups with doctors, the falcons get all their feathers changed.
“We feed them pigeons, eggs, mice in an air-conditioned room in the summer,” he says, adding that falcons are like children. “When they are sick, you know it by looking at their eyes.”
At present, he keeps nine falcons, including the two new arrivals. During the summer, he is mostly into fishing, another ancient pastime of the Qataris.
The approx cost of each falcon
The festival’s prize winning amount
The life of an average falcon
A return to the arena
By the time we have returned to the arena, we see hundreds of children holding falcons with their gloved hands. An event called the Youth Falconry Championship was taking place for young falconers aged between 11 and 15, showcasing their talent in setting up a lure.
There are other events taking place too. In the Hadad Al-Tahaddi Championship, a young Peregrine falcon will be adjudged a winner if it is able to catch a pigeon released at the start of the game and slam it to the ground in the same place. The winning falcon owner gets QAR 100,000 (£20,000) as prize money and is nominated for the finals to win a Lexus car.
Another event, the Al-Tal’ Championship evaluates the falcon’s eyesight and sharpness in observing the prey, whereas the Al-Da’u Championship assesses the speed of a falcon from start to finish over a 400 metre flight.
Overall, the event does not fail to amaze. The amalgamation of a past tribal necessity and a modern cultural pastime, beautifully exemplifies Qatar’s pride for its heritage, wildlife and landscape as well as its vision for the future.