THE ARABIAN GULF
“The desert nomad clearly flew his falcons because he wanted to hunt and eat; he did not go hunting because he wanted to see his falcons fly.”
— Mark Allen
Falconry in Arabia
I first became aware of falconry when I flew from Dubai to Cairo for what would prove to be a fairy-tale encounter with Egypt: the Pyramids, the Sphinx, Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel—all by air and in a week.
As I settled into my seat just before take-off, I noticed a tall, middle-aged Arab in dishdasha (a white long-sleeved collarless garment), ghutrah (traditional Arab headdress), and black thob (cloak) coming up the aisle to take his place. There was nothing unusual about that, except that on his arm perched a large, brown hooded falcon.
At first I thought that maybe the bird was stuffed, a toy perhaps for a child—Arabs adore children and lavish them with affection which often translates into material gifts—but no, the creature on his arm was fully alive. Though hooded, it moved its head in the direction of sound and appeared content in the company of its owner.
The man and his falcon took his assigned aisle seat directly across from me where they stayed for the entire flight to Cairo.
Perhaps aware of my covert glances, the man volunteered in perfect British English that he was on his way to Egypt for a falconry hunt, adding that falconry is no longer so much about securing food, as the thrill of the chase.
I asked if the bird might become distraught during the flight—the sounds, the sudden movements of the plane—but the man assured me that a falcon unable to see will sit quietly, that hoods are used whenever a handler wants to have his bird still and at ease, such as in travel or even a visit to the veterinarian.
Indeed, during the entire flight, the bird sat peacefully on its master’s arm—even during the meal service.
Once back in Dubai, I mentioned my falcon encounter to my English friends Nigel and Heather, aficionados of what is often referred to “the sport of kings.” That inspired an invitation to a falconry hunt with them and their Emirati friend, Qadir, an ardent falconer. The outing would take place in the late afternoon, when the heat of the day had abated, in the Dubai desert, beyond the oasis of Al-Aweer, about 35 kilometers west of Dubai proper. “This will give you a taste of the art and practice of Arab hawking,” Nigel gloated.
A prerequisite for falconry is a vast open space which the Dubai desert amply affords.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Qadir and his son, Amir, picked us up at Nigel and Heather’s hotel, arriving with two four-wheel drives. His two hooded falcons rode with us in the forward vehicle. In the support vehicle, driven by Amir, sat a couple of greyhound dogs (saluqis), trained to run down the prey. Dasras, a member of Qadir’s household, and for this outing a much-valued extra hand, rode with Amir.
Jovial and talkative, Qadir was clearly pleased to have three new candidates to interest in his passion, which he said, in the eyes of many, is now considered a refined art form.
With a guttural tilt to his English and schoolboy enthusiasm, Qadir defined falconry (sometimes also called “hawking”) as “the art of training falcons, hawks, or eagles to go after game.” He said that the part of the Arabian Peninsula where falconry thrives extends from the southern part of the Arabian Gulf well into Saudi Arabia.
Falconry reaches back at least 4,000 years—to China where it provided food for its people by letting the bird snare game such as hare and even gazelle.
This activity eventually spread via the Silk Road to the Middle East where it became an important hunting method of Bedouins, supplementing their diet with meat such as houbara or Macqueen’s bustard, stone curlew, or Arabian hare.
Within the last hundred years, the motivation to become a falconer shifted from providing meat for the table to that of a social pastime—one that affords the falconer the exhilaration that can come from watching his bird of prey (sometimes also called raptor) chase quarry.
When we asked Qadir what prompted falconry’s shift from a means of providing food to sport, he said it was the introduction of firearms. But, he noted, the shift had a silver lining:
The world’s addiction to oil brought about an inevitable blending of the outside world with traditional ways. Settlements of coral houses and palm-frond sheltersgave way to space-age cities. With such radical change, one-time desert dwellers felt a need to preserve aspects of their thousands-of-years-old heritage. In the 1990s a movement got underway to preserve, restore, and honor Gulf traditions. Falconry became an enshrined link to the Gulf Arabs’ nomadic past, reminding them of their bond with the desert.
Qadir said that because the sport of falconry now thrives in the Arabian Gulf region, the UAE has established a successful breeding program, guaranteeing that this pastime will not eradicate the houbara species. So honored is the sport of falconry that the UAE even has a falcon hospital, staffed with international specialists.
As for the region’s preferred species of hawking birds, our host said that in the UAE it’s safe to say that the saker and peregrine are generally the raptors of choice.
According to Qadir, “Some consider the gyr x saker cross to be the master of the desert. Traditionally, it was what the Bedouins liked best.” His favorite falcon is the peregrine-gyrfalcon hybrid. It’s a flying machine that can dive for prey at 320 kilometers per hour.
Because the region’s extreme summer heat precludes much local breeding, raptors come mainly as migrants from the more moderate climates of eastern Europe and central Asia, while traveling to and from their winter habitats in Africa. In the fall and spring, the migratory seasons, the Gulf overflows with raptor life.
Historically Bedouins had intricate ways to catch raptors, but Qadir personally secures his hawking birds through professional suppliers. (During my recent trip to the UAE, I learned that a top peregrine can now cost more than $250,000!)
Qadir did share one traditional way of capturing a bird of prey:
Imagine a man buried in sand with only his head and arm above the surface. A bush serves as camouflage for the arm, to which a live pigeon is tied. Attracted to the movements of the pigeon, a falcon swoops down only to have the man throw a cloth over its head, effectively rendering it immobile.
Then comes the taming and training process, but there are professionals who help with that too. “Quite naturally, we have purists who like to do this kind of work themselves, but it requires lots of time,” Qadir told us. The falcons are often released in the spring, when the migratory season ends. The process begins anew in theautumn with the capture of more falcons.
When we neared our desert destination, Qadir and Amir strapped bags around their shoulders. When I asked what they contained, they replied, “Fresh pieces of meat to reward our falcons after a kill.”
“What’s the actual incentive for these birds to kill?” Heather asked.
“Food,” said Qadir. “A falcon only kills when it’s hungry.” He paused for a moment, then added, “By the way, whatever we kill, we eat for dinner that evening. Nothing is wasted.”
As we approached Al-Aweer, Qadir slowed his four-wheel drive to just a crawl as if looking for a safe place to park a car. The sand around this oasis is deep.
It’s easy to get stuck, even with a four-wheel vehicle. He found a sandy, but recently traveled, lane. Amir parked behind us, promptly releasing the two impatient saluki dogs who were only too eager to explore the terrain.
Then Qadir, Amir, and Dasras gathered together their elaborate paraphernalia––the gloves, the bags, the safety leashes, the list went on and on. Father and son each took a hooded falcon. Both falcons had bells attached to their feet—a method that lets falconers track them while they fly freely. Dasras carried a bag in which to store the game. The saluqis scampered under foot. And Heather and I followed behind.
As we marched across crusted sand, often dotted by scrub, I was struck by the serene expanse of desert landscape that the setting sun had bathed to a golden glow. An afternoon breeze caressed us gently. It was an exceptional moment, except we were on a hunt that might well take a life. But again, Qadir reminded us that whatever quarry he captured late that afternoon would be prepared in his kitchen that night.
As we walked along silently, Qadir suddenly paused, sensing prey. Without a word, he signaled Amir that he should let his peregrine fly first. With a few deft hand gestures that included removing the falcon’s hood, Amir released the bird from his leathered arm. It soared high above us, reveling in its freedom. The falcon circled for some time as if to orient itself and then plunged into a breathtaking dive. Spotting its prey, it went after it with authority.
Without prompting from their masters, the saluqis mobilized and raced after the quarry, reaching it long before we did. When we came upon the peregrine, it had caught a hare. Amir rewarded his bird with a piece of fresh meat from his falconry bag. Dasras gathered up the kill, wrapping it carefully for delivery to the family kitchen that evening.
Qadir and Amir let both their falcons fly two times that afternoon. Each time they secured their prey. Each time the falcons were rewarded with fresh meat. And each time Dasras preserved the falcon’s bounty.
I asked Qadir how many runs a falcon can make in a successful day. He replied that typically four kills is considered good, but because of our late start that afternoon, two was all he wanted his birds to attempt. Qadir knew of some birds that killed seven to ten times in one day. “But then they’re exhausted,” he added, explaining that a traditional Gulf remedy for exhausted falcons is a touch of aspirin dissolved in water. “That tends to revive them.”
It was now nearly dark and time to head back into Dubai.