x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Is rite of passage right for today?

Local children have grown up around a culture where rifles are respected as tools for hunting and survival, as well as recreation.

Boys handle a Browning rifle at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition. Parents at Adnec said the exhibition gave children a chance to learn about the role of firearms in their heritage. Ravindranath K / The National
Boys handle a Browning rifle at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition. Parents at Adnec said the exhibition gave children a chance to learn about the role of firearms in their heritage. Ravindranath K / The National

ABU DHABI //Alfan Ahmed, 14, gave up shooting when he was 10.

He sleeps in a bedroom with zebra-print wallpaper and a flintlock pistol that hangs on a wall.

But after shooting cans with his brother at the family farm, Alfan decided it was not for him.

"I'm scared but I tell myself, what can I do if I don't try?" he said. "I tried but it's not for me."

Alfan was one of thousands of children at the Abu Dhabi National Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition (Adihex) that ended last weekend.

It included family events but the weapons hall, where visitors could hold unloaded Beretta pistols and look at .408 calibre sniper rifles, was a favourite with children and adults.

The children at Adihex have grown up in a culture in which rifles are respected as tools for hunting, survival and, in some areas, celebration.

Signs said children under 16 had to be accompanied by an adult, but unattended children roamed the hall.

Zayed, 12, came with a driver who left after the boy entered the gates.

"I think it's fine because there's no ammunition in any pistols, so why should it be over-age?" asked Zayed, handling a 9mm pistol.

He said his favourite part of Adihex was the handguns. "They're so small and you can carry them around like nobody knows," Zayed said.

Alfan was looking after his brothers Saeed, 9, and Ahmed, 4. "My father's with the falcons," he said.

Parents said Adihex was a chance for youth to learn about national heritage and modern sporting success.

"We need small kids to learn how to use these weapons. We try to teach these kids these social activities," said Khamis Hamarain, managing director of the military firearms supplier MP3 International who was at Adihex with his children.

"It is in our culture. You cannot say that there is a family here without any weapons."

The strong sense of community and exposure to guns from a young age are believed to teach children about their traditional use, and danger.

"There's a different culture between here and Europe," said Haider Al Ameri, a shooter from Al Ain, who was with his seven-year-old triplets Zayed, Khalifa and Mohammed. "Here you grow up with guns, with camels, with horses and with salukis.

"When you have a good relationship with your kids, each word you tell them is left with them."

But increasingly, a child's first associations with guns is as likely to be TV gangsters as hunting with dad.

"Now that they are used to seeing movies in the cinema it will be challenging for our families," said Abdulla Al Khatri, 40, who examined 9mm Caracals with his sons Theyab, 12, Mohammed, 10, and Ahmed, 5.

"It's one of the dilemmas for the families here. Here people have very strong families. Even when they reach 16, 17, they still live with their families and there's protection in the family."

Child-safety experts said they were not aware of any accidental shootings involving children in the UAE.

"To be honest, in four years I haven't seen a case of unintentional injuries, self-inflicted injuries from kids using guns," said Dr Taisser Atrak, head of paediatrics at Mafraq Hospital.

"The problem is not as common as the western countries, I think. But I'm sure it is happening."

The region is not immune from the problem. This month an 11-year-old boy in Saudi Arabia accidentally killed his sister, 2, and critically wounded his four-year-old brother, Al Riyadh newspaper reported.

In April, a Saudi boy, 4, shot his father dead, Al Riyadh reported. The boy's siblings said he "constantly watched violent animated movies".

"Guns are very dangerous and they should be kept away from children, regardless of how much training they get … from the family," Dr Atrak said. "This is a dangerous, real thing. It's not a toy."

Adihex will have stringent security next year after complaints from exhibitors about unattended children.

"I know it is traditional here but if it is available at home, of course the risk of the kids using this in play is very high," said Dr Michal Grivna, an associate professor at UAE University's department of community medicine who studies the epidemiology of injury prevention.

"Unfortunately we don't have the data to prove this, we have the data only from abroad. I think this issue should be raised. Some safety practices should be enforced."