Reasha drapes herself gracefully on the thick Persian carpet laid on the sand, her slim legs crossed and her long black eyelashes batting. Her feathered ears are almost dipping into a cup of mint tea.
"Reasha," a deep voice echoes from across the playground. "Here!" Instantly, the slender saluki rises and gallops to her master, Hamad al Ghanem, founder and director of the Arabian Saluki Centre in Abu Dhabi. "Many people think the greyhound is the fastest dog on the planet, with 70 kph, but the saluki is faster," he says, smiling with evident pride at the swiftness of his beloved puppy. Testing his claim is difficult, he says, "because salukis are too intelligent to chase after an electric hare on a racetrack. But since their original use is to hunt desert gazelles, with top speeds of up to 80 kph, there is no question, really."
Mr al Ghanem is a fifth-generation saluki breeder who has spent his life alongside with the animals, a man who evokes the Arab proverb that says: "He is a gentleman. He grew up with the saluki." He has made it his mission to educate the public about this desert hound, bred for hunting, and to preserve what he calls "the pure Arabian line". He has diligently researched the breed and has even published a children's book about growing up with the dogs.
"It is important to show what an important role the saluki has played in the traditional Arab past and still does today," he says. The tradition of breeding salukis and hunting with them is deeply rooted among the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Widely admired for its beauty, speed and endurance, the saluki historically roamed throughout the Middle East with nomadic tribes over an area stretching from the Sahara to the Caspian Sea.
In Islamic culture, dogs are generally seen as unclean, but salukis are exempt. Men of the desert held them in such high esteem that they honoured the animal as al hurr, "the noble one". There is even a legend that the Prophet Mohammed himself owned a saluki that he used for hunting. This would perhaps explain the animal's mention in the holy Quran, in which the training of hounds for hunting is encouraged, as long as it is done so in a manner directed by Allah.
The practice of keeping hunting dogs is also mentioned in the hadith: "Hunting for the purpose of earning, profitability or eating is allowed. But the same is undesirable if done merely as a recreation or pastime. It is permissible to use either a dog or other animals of prey in hunting." Bedouin families trekking through the vast, empty desert depended on their camels for milk and transport and could not afford to slaughter them for meat. Instead, they counted on the skills of their canine companions to provide an occasional hare as an addition to the cooking pot.
The importance of the animals was reflected in the manner in which they were treated - as a part of the family, a friend that might live to the age of 18, even 21. "The saluki was allowed to enter the home of its master freely, tent and palace alike," wrote the authors of Some Notes on Hunting Techniques and Practices in the Arabian Peninsula, a paper published in the journal Arabian Studies in 1975. "It slept on rugs and cushions, even with members of the household."
Because the animal was viewed essentially as a member of the family, careful thought was given to the name of each saluki. Sometimes it took months to find an apt reflection of each dog's character and merits. Nimran (panther), Saqar (falcon) and Khataf (snatcher) were common names. Others included Lateef (friendly), Sougha (the gift), Sharrek (partner), Shihaab (shooting star), Shadeed (strong) and Reasha (feathered).
As prized hunting partners, the dogs generally ate the same food as their masters but were also given a supplementary diet of milk, rice, dates, olives and meat. The desert salukis were fussy eaters, refusing dirty water and stale food or milk. Their water was kept in a clay pot to ensure it stayed fresh and cool in the heat. Often, a few drops of rose water or leqah - water flavoured with palm blossoms - would be added for taste.
Special care was also taken in the selection of mates; it was regarded as important not to pair first-generation cousins. A bitch would breed only three or four times in her lifetime and after whelping was given "maternity leave". A male had to be between two and three years old and a proven hunter before becoming a father. Young dogs were given time to mature and were allowed to observe the adults before being taken on a hunt. Before moving on to game such as rabbit, hare, deer and sage hen, salukis were trained to hunt jerboas, long-legged desert rats.
While they have a fair nose, the hounds hunt primarily by sight. Their long and powerful jaws, known to enthusiasts as "laughing jaws", give them a good grip on prey. A good hound will have a flexible back, legs that are thin and long but strong, a lean body and a large, deep chest with strong lungs - features that help it to run fast. There are two types of saluki: the smooth and the feathered. In the feathered variety, the ears, tail and legs are hairy. Both varieties have "hare feet", springy pads between the toes that allow them to run in deep sand.
To prevent injuries while hunting in the harsh desert, the Bedouin applied henna or nut oil to harden the dogs' feet. During the heat of the day, a saluki would curl up in a quiet, shaded corner of the tent, but in the early mornings or late at night, it would go out with its master. It often hunted in tandem with falcons, which located and attacked the prey from above, disorientating the quarry and giving the dog a chance to catch up and bring it down. The hunters, following on horses or camels, would then move in.
Great importance was placed on the obedience of the dog, which was trained to drop the prey immediately after the kill and keep its distance. On occasion, good salukis were able to catch gazelles. The Bedouin would de-bone the kill, then wash the flesh and dry it on clean sand, repeating the process several times until the meat was as crisp as potato chips. This way, the family could store the protein for several weeks.
No one knows exactly when the saluki originated, but it is one of the oldest domesticated dog breeds. According to DNA research published in Science magazine in 2004, the lineage of the pure breed can be traced back approximately 7,000 years, meaning the saluki was one of the earliest breeds to evolve from the wolf. The oldest known records of a dog that resembles a saluki include a mosaic at Mount Nebo in Jordan, an image on a gold staff from the tomb of Tutankhamen and carved seals from the region of Tepe Gawra, an ancient Mesopotamian site in what is now northern Iraq.
The history of Arabia before the rise of Islam in the seventh century is not known in great detail, but the people of the region have hunted as far back as records go. Pre-Islamic poetry recorded vivid descriptions of hounds hunting oryx. According to The Noble Art of the Chase in the Arab world, an article by Sir Terence Clark, a former British ambassador to Iraq and a saluki aficionado, published in Asian Affairs in 2004, the word saluki entered the Arabic language through poetry.
The precise origin of the word is disputed, but it may derive from "Saluqiyyah", the Arabic form of Seleucia, a town in what is now Iraq. Another possible source of the name is the Bani Saluk, a Yemeni tribe famed for breeding the dogs. Salukis were first taken to Europe in the 19th century, as gifts from rulers in the Middle East. According to Brian Patrick Duggan's book Saluki: The Desert Hound and the English Travelers Who Brought It to the West, the first saluki was imported into the UK by Florence Amherst, the daughter of an English member of parliament.
Several dogs went home with British army officers returning from Arabia after the First World War, and when the fashionable set began to adopt the saluki, its future was sealed. The author Vita Sackville-West declared the saluki to be "a marvel of elegance" and, in 1923, the breed was recognised by the British Kennel Club. The British explorer and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger encountered the saluki while crossing the Empty Quarter in the late 1940s. Sheikh Zayed, at that time the ruler's representative in Al Ain, kept a saluki, which he lent to the Englishman. It was, Thesiger noted in his 1959 book Arabian Sands, "still too young to catch a full-grown hare, although he managed to catch an occasional leveret".
Thesiger's Arab travelling companions "said disgustedly that [the dog] was not worth his keep. They had expected great things of him." Nevertheless, "they played with him, and allowed him to lie on their blankets and drink from our dishes, for, although dogs are unclean to Muslims, the Bedu do not count a saluki as a dog." "Salukis are part of our heritage," says Mr al Ghanem, petting Salaam, his favourite white saluki. "But just like the Arabian horse, salukis have become more popular in the West than in their eastern homeland."
Mr al Ghanem aims to counter this through the Arabian Saluki Centre and is involved with a plan to create the Desert Village and Hunting Park, a theme park outside the capital that is intended to showcase Arabian hunting traditions and feature a saluki racetrack with live chases. The traditional values and ethics of the Bedouin, he fears, are being forgotten: "With modern life, the need for hunting has reduced, but it is our duty to preserve and celebrate them for future generations."