x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Falcons

The image of the falcon is stamped indelibly on the UAE's identity. The bird has become a potent symbol of the nation.

Falconry is so close to the heart of Emirati culture that one would be hard-pressed to pass a few hours, let alone a day, without seeing an image of the bird of prey. The UAE's national symbol can be found everywhere: the coat of arms for the army and police forces, ministry logos, on every page of Emirati passports, on each paper dirham, often twice, sometimes three times; on driving licences, official stationery, gracing the tail of Etihad Airways' planes, on hundreds of postage stamps, and on many, many company logos.

Born among the Bedouins of generations past, falconry is a living tradition, but there are some elements of it that are intangible. The falcon, said Dr Sleiman Najm Khalaf, a heritage expert at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, stands for valour and chivalry; a bird that fights for itself, that hunts for its food with elegance and ferocity. "It is an important political and cultural symbol," said Dr Khalaf.

"It is important because it is very much related to the desert, the open desert, which brings people to their historical roots; they were nomadic communities. It also relates to many noble or important cultural aspects, ones that usually the Bedouins liked to hold strongly to: freedom, mobility, facing hardship and accommodating to their desert environment." Ghanem al Mazrouei, 24, remembers his first time hunting with a falcon. He was just eight years old, living in Beda'a Zayed, when his father showed him how to feed the birds, train them and take care of them. His younger siblings tagging along, he would go with other the other men of the family, young and old, to the desert. Eventually, he took over responsibility for making sure the birds were healthy and taking them to a veterinarian if they were sick.

"I'm still responsible for them," he said. "I consider it a hobby, but at the same time, it's a tradition. It's the connection we have with our forefathers, our past generations. I love them the way I love my country." Falcons are the fastest birds, able to reach speeds of more than 320kph when diving, withstanding g-forces that would kill a human, said Dr Helen Macdonald, author of The Falcon, keeper of a blog on falconry and a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge in England.

Dr Macdonald, who has had a passion for falcons since she was about six, spent several years in the 1990s working for the National Avian Research Centre of the Environmental Research and Wildlife Protection Agency in Abu Dhabi. There she helped with a research programme on species that had been used or affected by Arab falconry, and helped breed birds in captivity for falconers. She finds the raptors beautiful and compelling, accounting for some of her fascination with falconry.

"It is the kind of beauty that you see in a fighter jet, beautifully engineered and hinting at raw power beneath the surface," she said. "There is something about the falcon's eye that holds people bewitched. You can see why throughout history many people have worshipped falcons, or seen them as the souls of the dead." Due to the nomadic nature of the Bedu, there is little in the way of recorded history about falconry within the UAE and beyond. Falconry is believed to date back to the 13th century BC and is thought to have originated somewhere in the Far East before it spread to the Middle East, according to Falconry and Birds of Prey in the Gulf, a 1993 book by David Remple and Christian Gross.

There is little support for the notion that Egyptian, Greek or Roman civilisations practised it, according to the book, although all three appeared to have revered the birds for what they represent. As Islam spread, so did falconry. When the Hadith refers to the conversion to Islam of the Prophet Mohammed's uncle, it mentions he had returned from a falconry expedition; there is also evidence for falconry among the Umayyad of Damascus and in Jordan, where the isolated Bedu subsisted on the meat their falcons caught.

It appears the East and the West's falconry practices began mixing between 1094 and 1204, when Arabs introduced tools including the hood and lure to Europeans. That the actual practice of falconry has not changed much in thousands of years is a humbling thought, said Dr Macdonald. Today falcons are used in less noble pursuits as well, such as keeping some of the Emirates' swankiest hotels free of other, messy birds. Modernity - in the form of cars and tracking technology - has helped, not hindered, the tradition to endure.

There has also been a move by Arab countries to ensure Unesco world heritage status for the tradition, led by the UAE. And although falconry is more popular than ever in the UK - prompting the launch of an annual International Festival of Falconry in Berkshire each summer - the Government in the UAE has worked to preserve it through conservation of falcons and their prey, as well as education. One of the more recent measures has been the emergence of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, established in 1999, the first facility of its kind in the world dedicated to caring for the birds, as well as conducting research and educating the community on them.

As the hospital has expanded, it has also become an international tourist destination. "It is a way for [Emiratis] to go back to their own roots - a much more important place than just a hobby or a sport, it's part of their lifestyle," said Dr Margit Muller, director and chief veterinarian at the falcon hospital. "It's part of their position and it's part of their past, and that's how they can go back and reconnect to their culture and heritage."

Because the men who gather for a hunting expedition need to rely on each other, the experience is referred to as "brotherhood". "After, they compose poetry describing the experience out in the desert with their cherished birds," said Dr Khalaf. "They are like boy scouts. They come back to the majlis and they get together. They often sit and compare notes, narrate their stories to each other, recite their poems that were inspired during their hunting trips."

Mr al Mazrouei counts the lifestyle that goes along with falconry, usually conducted in the cooler winter months, as among the biggest benefits. There is the escape from the city into the quiet of the desert, the mix of old and young. The group rise before sunrise, they pray, they go hunting - a team of animal and man. "The teamwork continues even in camp," he said. "That's when someone starts making tea, someone starts preparing the prey we caught that day. It's both teamwork and independence."

amcqueen@thenational.ae