Falcons and their owners took part in a colourful parade as part of the Second International Festival of Falconry in Al Ain.
Majestic falcons spread their wings in Al Ain
AL AIN // The men came into the arena from across the world, wearing fur hats, berets, fedoras with feathers, red cylindrical Arabian tarabesh and Moroccan fezzes.
On their gloved arms, they escorted the true stars of this fashion show of colourful friendships - the majestic falcons.
Except for one eagle brought by the Mongolian delegation that continued to spread its wings during the parade, looking as though it was about to flee the group of falcons, the hunting birds remained calm, as if posing for the flashing rows of cameras.
"Never underestimate the intelligence of a falcon," said an 85-year-old falconer from Turkmenistan, dressed in a huge, shaggy wool hat and long coat.
The falcon was even more colourful with its hood woven in the hues of the country's flag, which is quite detailed: green with a white crescent moon, five stars and a red strip containing five small intricate carpet designs.
Known as Annaaman among the falconing community, he is proud of his lineage, in which falconry goes back 350 years.
"Falconry is more than just a job, it is a friendship bond between man and his pet," he said.
Almost on cue, the falcon turned towards him and started pecking at his hat. "But sometimes it is not clear who is the pet and who is the man," Anaamaan said, laughing.
Turkmenistan was one of 80 countries participating in the grand parade of nations at the second International Festival of Falconry, which ends tomorrow in Al Ain.
"This festival is an occasion that represents one of the most important opportunities to support and encourage cultural dialogue, and boost efforts to preserve and maintain part of our living human heritage," Mohammed Ahmed Al Bawardi, a member of Abu Dhabi's Executive Council, said in an opening speech for the festival's forum of experts.
At the Al Ain Rotana hotel, falcon experts discussed issues that the hunters face around the world, including raptor conservation, management of quarry and legal controls on the sport.
They also discussed raptor health, pest control, first aid, rehabilitation, heritage and the image of the falcon.
"Not only does this beautiful hobby mean the practice of hunting, but it also represents a set of inherited traditions and social values and rich stock of cultural heritage, which dates back thousands of years," said Mr Al Bawardi. "This hobby has been shared by nations, groups and individuals and is their pride."
At the opening, a moment of silence was held in tribute to local figures who helped to shape the UAE, and the preservation of the country's heritage such as falconry through the ages.
A video displayed a list of names including the founding fathers of the UAE, the late President Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, the late Ruler of Dubai.
"This kind of festival is important for it highlights the intangible kind of heritage that is more easily lost with time if not protected," said Katalin Bogyay, the president of the general conference at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
Last year, the UAE and 11 other countries succeeded in having falconry recognised by Unesco as an intangible "living human heritage".
On the sidelines of the conference, Mrs Bogyay said: "Falconry is very, very romantic. Look at the relationship between the falconer and the falcon, how they dress, how they stand and how they have influenced each other through the centuries."
She noted more women were trying their hand at this traditionally male sport.
"It is a raw, wild kind of relationship that you can't imagine unless you have experienced it," said Elizabeth Schoultz, a US doctor of traditional Oriental medicine who became a falconer 10 years ago.
Dr Schoultz, in her 40s, said her passion for falcons began when she was just seven, during a show-and-tell session at school when an Arab classmate brought in his falcon.
"I am a newcomer on to this scene but if I can do it, anyone can," she said, adding she caught her Peregrine falcon Katara in North Carolina. "You can't imagine the love and connection you form with a falcon."
In the tent city up along the Al Jahili Fort, children wearing falcon masks took every opportunity to pet one of the birds, which made a real impression.
"My cat at home is lonely, I want to bring her a falcon friend," said Lara Ahmed, 7.
When told by a falconer that the cat and the bird may not get along, Lara simply shook her head and said: "No. They will love each other because I will love them both."