DOHA, Qatar — As soon as the clinic opens, the patients and their guardians begin streaming in.

In the waiting room, the mood is a mix of anxiety and ennui. Some visitors pace the marble floors. Others sit on couches, absent-mindedly leafing through magazines. The most frustrated press forward to harass the overworked receptionists, demanding to be seen at once.

The dozen or so falcons? Don’t worry. They are supposed to be here.

This morning is like most others at the clinic, the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital, which, as its name does little to hide, is an entire facility dedicated to treating one member of the raptor family. Tucked in one corner of the main square in Doha’s old city, the historic center where thousands of soccer fans have gathered for FIFA’s Club World Cup, it is a medical facility like few others.

Inside its walls — across the tiny bird tracks marking the entry, through the shiny glass doors holding back the air conditioning, beyond the waiting room with the couches and the chrome perches and the man who collects bird excrement off the floor in case it needs testing — no expense has been spared to treat falcons in a country that reveres them like no other member of the animal kingdom.

In Qatar, as in several other countries in the Gulf, the falcon fulfills a variety of roles, from family pet to status symbol to racing competitor. But falcons also provide an important and valued link to the region’s ancient Bedouin culture.


Today, the most sought-after birds can change hands for a few thousand dollars. The best, though, are worth a few million to the men — and it is always men who handle the falcons — who plow fortunes into a centuries-old pastime in the world’s richest country.

But sometimes those birds are injured or fall ill. And that is how those responsible for them wind up at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital, waiting their turn.

Trained Hands

Three medics huddled around the patient. Bright LED lamps above their heads bathed the operating table in light. A full-body X-ray glowed on a screen in one corner of the room, while a device monitoring vital signs supplied a soundtrack of steady beeps.

The patient’s immediate problem — an acute case of tilting head — was quickly identified. The issue now was working out the cause. Injury? Influenza? Something worse? The falcon could not have been in a better place to find out.

Prasoon Ibrahim, 38, has worked at the hospital for eight years, but he continues to be surprised whenever he stops to think of the resources at his disposal. Sitting in a busy waiting room, which could pass for any busy emergency room in the world were it not for all the people sitting quietly with a bird of prey attached to their gloved hand, Ibrahim lists in rapid-fire staccato all the treatment options and special equipment offered by the hospital: blood and kidney tests; feather replacements; endoscopies. Speaking faster and faster, he eventually stops to draw a breath and say, “We have everything.”

A South Indian like the majority of the hospital’s staff members, Ibrahim, who has a doctorate in molecular biology, worked in a regular hospital before taking up his current post. And like most of his colleagues, he said, he had never worked anywhere with the breadth of state-of-the-art technology he now has at his disposal.


“In my lab, I saw a gene sequencer for the first time,” he said, his eyes widening.

Set over multiple floors, the facility, subsidized by Qatar’s ruler, treats about 150 falcons a day. Most of the birds come for checkups after being bought in the many shops selling falcons nearby or to have what staff members nonchalantly describe as a mani-pedi, the falcon equivalent of a manicure in which its beak and talons are sharpened while under general anesthesia. Others arrive to have radio transmitters and GPS devices fitted so their owners can keep track of the expensive birds when they take them out to hunt. The devices are typically attached to tail feathers, though some require invasive implantation surgery.

The most serious work — orthopedic surgery to mend broken bones that in the wild would mean certain death — takes place in an inpatient unit housed on another floor.

In the general treatment area, which is off-limits to anyone but staff members and their patients, technicians are split into specialized sections with the central space reserved for a group of workers manning a bank of computers. They analyze blood and fecal samples as well as throat swabs under high-powered microscopes that display images on giant screens. Anything untoward is marked for the attention of a handful of senior medics who patrol the area in green scrubs.

At the far end, another group is busy trying to replace a missing tail feather on an expensive-looking peregrine. “For each species the pattern is different, and for each feather the pattern is different,” said technician Abdul Nasser Parolil. He reached to open a set of drawers, revealing a surprisingly broad selection of feathers of varying lengths, colors and patterns.

“We have to find the right pattern,” he said.

While Parolil’s section is silent — his patient is under sedation — loud squawks emanate from another of the glass-walled rooms. In one, a technician is injecting fluids under the wings of a falcon suffering from dehydration, a common problem for a species not always suited to the Gulf’s extreme heat, which limits the falconry season to about four months in winter.


Many of the staff members acknowledge that they have learned their craft on the job; none had trained to work with falcons before taking up posts at this hospital or at similar facilities in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Some, like Prasoon, have a background in health care. For others, the work they do bears little relation to what they did in their homelands before being lured to the Gulf by the promise of higher pay.

As bits of dust fly off the gyrfalcon’s beak he is trimming with a tool that resembles an electric sander, Jahangir Mohamed explained that he was a martial arts instructor in his home state of Kerala in India. A third-dan black belt in karate, he has now spent more than 10 years in Qatar.

“Before, I didn’t understand anything,” he said, pointing at Parolil, who was busy focusing on the peregrine’s feather. “I came here and practiced by watching.”

One of the oldest and most respected men at the hospital is Wilson Joseph, 54, who is now in his 20th year working with falcons. He started as a cashier at a smaller medical facility in Saudi Arabia. Joseph was a criminal lawyer in India, he said. He had never seen a falcon, let alone treated one, before he came to the Gulf. “But I wanted to take care of my family, get better earnings,” he said.

House Rules

As with many institutions in Qatar, there is a strict hierarchy when it comes to the falcon hospital’s waiting room. While there is a numbered ticketing system, there are ways to cut the line: Qatari royals bearing falcons are treated as a priority, then Qatari nationals and finally foreigners, usually South Asian domestic staff members sent on behalf of their employers.

The vagaries of the system mean that waits can be long. The delays offer a chance to exchange gossip, make jokes and generally let off steam.


Leaning against the window of the in-house pharmacy, Shagul Hameed, 27, who has spent five years working inside the home of a member of the al-Thani Qatari royal family, explained how after some initial difficulties, he has bonded with the falcon in his charge. “See, it doesn’t bite me anymore,” he said, taking the tiny hood off his bird’s head and giving its beak a quick squeeze.

One of his acquaintances joined the conversation to express amazement at the amount of money and time owners were willing to spend on their falcons. But what Hameed said he found most surprising was the affection some owners gave their falcons: the care by millionaires, and perhaps even billionaires, who rose at dawn to accompany their sick falcons to the hospital.

“The way they look after their kids, they look after their falcons,” Hameed said, before correcting himself. “Actually, if their child was ill, they would send the driver, the maid or the wife to the doctor.

“But if the falcon is sick, the man of the house will go himself.”