How does a nice Emirati like Abdullah al Ali get involved in a business like taxidermy? Just lucky, he'd say. Mr al Ali owns a taxidermy shop, the only one in the UAE, where he turns dead animals into trophies and conversation pieces for homes and businesses. Fancy a mounting of a lioness ripping out the throat of a gazelle for your majlis? He's your man.
"A lot of people are surprised I'm doing this, and ask why I chose this type of business," he said. "But this was my hobby and now it's my job. I enjoy it." He got hooked on hunting trophies after killing a leopard, a cheetah and a rhino in South Africa and having them mounted. The head and shoulders of the rhino still hang on the wall of his majlis. This weekend, his company's wares were on display at the Abu Dhabi Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition, alongside the work of taxidermists from around the world.
Among the trophies in his stall at the National Exhibition Centre was the aforementioned frank exchange of views between the lioness and gazelle. It was offered for sale at Dh55,000 (US$15,000). "I've had it for a long time," he said. "But we'd like to sell it, just to make something new." Almost all his company's work ends up in majlises across the UAE, to be admired when men meet to discuss the world's affairs. He has a small number of female customers, too, he said.
"Mostly they go for small animals or birds. They tend to like small things, especially with colour, for the house for decoration," he said. Near his space at the exhibition, another stall featured a polar bear, a grizzly and a black bear, the last one sporting an incongruous coonskin cap. They belonged to Fadi Nejmeh, a taxidermist from Lebanon. He attended the exhibition because so many of his customers are from the Gulf, he said.
His stall was like a United Nations of stuffed megafauna: a lioness, giraffe, deer, moose, wolf, fox, gazelle, cougar and bison, plus the three bears. "Our clients are all over the Middle East, but the animals are from all around the world," Mr Nejmeh said. "The most popular are the North American deer with the antlers. People mostly buy them for decoration." Mr al Ali said gazelles were the biggest seller at his shop, Al Maha Taxidermy, located in Musaffah, which has been in business since 2005.
He said he became interested in taxidermy after seeing stuffed animals in his friends' majlises. In time, he became a hunter and moved to South Africa for three years, where he ran hunting tours. It was having his trophies mounted that spawned the idea for creating a taxidermy factory in the UAE. He doesn't do the mounting himself, relying instead on two South African brothers, Ephraim Phila and Moses Zamani Tolom, he brought in to do the hands-on work.
"Taxidermy is art, 100 per cent," he said. "Even with different taxidermists. You'll see the difference in the details." Ayad Obeidallah of London, who was the only taxidermist at the Abu Dhabi exhibition last year, said he came here to meet his Middle Eastern customers on their own turf. His company, Al Sayad UK, also arranges hunting trips and sells gear for hunting and falconry. "We have many customers in the Middle East who come to us for hunting in Britain and in Africa," he said. "We arrange for them to go hunting and they like to buy the skins.
"The skins are for the majlis or the car or to sit on when they're outside in the wild." He, too. said the most popular species on sale here were gazelles in all their variations, including springboks. "One difference between Arab and European people is that Arab people like to hunt for meat and European people like to hunt for trophies," he said. "Arab people don't like the big five," he said, referring to lions, elephants, buffalos, leopards and rhinoceros, the top species sought by trophy shooters, "so they like to shoot gazelles and birds like ducks, geese, pigeons, pheasant and partridge."
At another stall a short stroll away, an Abu Dhabi businessman, Abdulrahman al Jabri, was smiling broadly with a newly purchased bag of pelts for his majlis. "I came here especially because I like to collect leathers for my majlis in my home," he said. "I'm a hunter, too. These are like memories." firstname.lastname@example.org