This is the second year in which an Israeli delegation attended the Al Dhafra Heritage Festival in Abu Dhabi, an event that involves camels, horses, falcons and Salukis – the local animals that helped humans survive the harsh desert conditions. An Israeli judge, Myrna Shiboleth, judged the Salukis, on January 20, accompanied by two breeders, Keren Mintz and Julia Vozilkin.
On the morning of the Saluki beauty contest, as the show is called there, the desert exhibited its unbelievable forces. Everything was waving around – palm treetops, posts, tents. The harsh winds brought in piles of sand that swept over the roads, piled up in small heaps and infiltrated every possible nook and cranny (including human eyes, noses, ears and mouths). Even though we usually associate the desert with heat, this time it was quite cold, since January is wintertime in the Arabian Peninsula.
The handlers were concerned for their dogs, and attempted to keep them warm during the judging, cuddling and even putting their coats over the dogs. The judge and stewards were encased in thick coats, making things a bit cumbersome.
However, the show had to go on.
Hamad Alghanem, the organizer, has his own concept for the beauty competition. He divides the Salukis into four groups (not classes) – smooth and feathered, male and female. There were around 15 dogs in each group. The judge went over them and wrote a critique. She placed the top three in each group; however, there were no titles. Additionally, the judging ended with the groups – no Best in Show.
Another thing Hamad likes to do is arrange the dogs in the ring by color, from dark to light. It has no real meaning, but does make the ring look good.
The entries do not have to be pedigreed dogs, but one of the goals of the competition is to get local Bedouins to register their dogs, if not in an internationally recognized stud book, at least in Hamad's stud book. He also does his best to weed out mixed breeds since the locals sometimes tend to mix their Salukis with Greyhounds or other Sighthounds such as the Spanish Galgo in an attempt to improve certain qualities.
The dogs were mainly handled by their owners, who were not very adept handlers. Some didn't know on which side they should hold the dogs; others found it difficult to stack. Another thing that does catch the eye is the fact that most local men wear long gowns that inhibit their steps and also swirl around and may disturb the dogs.
On the other hand, there were some handlers wearing Western suits and several experienced ladies who knew what to do.
The following day, the Salukis – not necessarily those who took part in the beauty contest – competed in a race, running their hearts out after a large, lifelike gazelle doll. The race was divided into males and females, with winners pocketing huge cash prizes. The race definitely exhibited the breed's physical and mental qualities. Dogs ran without muzzles and those that tried to bite their competitors were disqualified.
"We had an amazing, freezing and dusty time in Al Dafra Festival in UAE," says Sara Rashdan of Bahrain. Her feathered males, Ra'ad and Hashar, and feathered female Adahri all got short-listed, but did not place. But Sara’s “little flower," Warda, placed first in the smooth female class.
"I grew up loving Salukis, but never was able to own one until I started working in the veterinary clinic, where I came to meet more Salukis and learned to love them even more," says Sara, who is a native Bahraini. In 2012 she received two Salukis as a gift from H.H Shaikh Abdula bin Isa Al Khalifa: Basha Lazeem Al Firdous and Reesha El Bahrain.
"This was the point where my life changed forever,” she says. “I started showing and breeding registered Salukis and started my own kennel, El Dana Bahrain, under the FCI with the Bahrain Kennel Club. We have bred local Bahraini Salukis with imported show bloodlines in order to improve the show standards but still preserve desert bloodline qualities.”
In 2015, Sara imported a new show-line Saluki from Croatia: a handsome 5-month-old male called Morasha Celestian Toulouse – aka Ra'ad – bred by Darko Petreski and Abner Rodrigo. “From then my show career took off,” she says. “Together we raised the Bahrain flag in numerous international competitions in and outside Bahrain, including Turkey, the United Kingdom, Kuwait, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates. I’m hoping soon we will have a successful show career with his offspring under my kennel name.”
As for Ra’ad, he is already seven and still going strong.
Another lady who has been involved in the Saluki scene in the Emirates for quite some time is Britta Tappendorf.
"I moved from Germany to Bahrain in 2008 and fell in love with Salukis," Britta says. "I then started to preserve some desert lines. I do outcross with selected imported bloodlines to avoid inbreeding. I breed Salukis for functionality, beauty and performance.”
In September 2021, Britta relocated to the UAE in order to focus more on Salukis.
"The Salukis I showed at Al Dhafra are part desert lines," she continues. "I like the Al Dhafra Saluki Beauty Contest because it showcases local COO Salukis, while in FCI shows you often only see show lines.”
From among the Salukis Britta showed, her favorite, Damaar, was unfortunately lame after hurting himself when he jumped out of the car. He’s OK now, she reports.
This year's judge was Myrna Shiboleth, a very experienced Israeli all-round judge. Myrna is globally renowned for her work in preserving the Israeli Canaan Dog and is very familiar with the Saluki, too.
"It was very exciting and a great honor to have been invited to judge Salukis at the Al Dhafra Festival in Abu Dhabi," Myrna notes. "This yearly festival is a celebration of the tradition and culture of this part of the Middle East, and is an encouragement for people to continue with the time-honored traditions,” which include the exhibition and judging of camels, falcons, Arabian horses and of course Salukis, as well as in the marketplace traditional arts and crafts, food and dancing.
“The Saluki is the breed honored by this culture – they are superb hunters that can catch meat for the pot, loyal and beautiful companions as well,” Myrna explains. "The Saluki breeders there are very interested in increasing the interest of the population in these magnificent dogs while at the same time preserving the very particular type that is considered desirable – dogs that are beautiful and typical of the origin of the breed, and still totally functional, able to run at high speed for long distances and bring down their prey.”
Myrna says she was thrilled to have had almost 100 Salukis participating in the show she judged. “There was a very recognizable type, dogs of good size, elegant but strong, with easy, flowing movement, that were obviously capable of function,” she says. “It was not easy to make a selection, as many of the dogs were of high quality.”
One thing Myrna found very noticeable was the great affection the owners have for their dogs.
“It was a very cold and extremely windy day, and the owners took care to wrap their dogs in coats and blankets when they were not in the ring,” she remembers. “The dogs were talked to and stroked to encourage them, and there was no rough behavior. There were several children showing their own dogs, and it was obvious how much they loved them. It was a pleasure to see! All were very proud of their dogs, not only those that were placed.”
The following day Myrna attended the Saluki races, in which the dogs run after a lure for a distance of 2.5 kilometers. She noted with satisfaction that at the end of the run, most looked perfectly capable of doing it again.
“There were a number of crossbreds in the race, crossed with Galgos and possibly Greyhounds, to create dogs that could run faster, but the Salukis kept up with them,” she notes, adding that the Saluki breeders are very interested in encouraging race people to concentrate more on using pure Salukis that can easily run this distance.
"The whole experience was really fascinating. People were very kind and helpful, and I found this an opportunity to learn a lot about this culture and their relationship with their dogs. I thank the organizers for the invitation and wonderful hospitality," Myrna concludes.
Keren Mintz is the Israeli Saluki breeder through whom the liaison with Hamad Al Ghanem was formed. They had seen one another on Facebook, but could not communicate due to the difficulties between the countries. She was on the first delegation last year and returned for the 2022 festival, where she found “an impressive and diverse entry of local types.”
"Since they did not have to come with pedigrees, there were some mixed breeds who got a lower score in order not to insult their owners,” Keren explains. “Judging was carried out in a mixed Western and Arabian fashion with a degree of tolerance for local customs such as not touching testicles, since shaking the hand of a Moslem after touching the dog's intimate parts is considered disrespectful.
"Unlike most Western shows, entries were made until the judging began. There is no catalog, only names of the winners and their owners. However, they did receive huge prizes in order to encourage future pure breeding of Salukis and participation in future events. Two leading breeders donated their prize money to local rescue organizations – heartwarming.”
Keren was pleased to see the supper that was served at the end of the event, with local dishes, including camel meat and local desserts.
“The atmosphere was wonderful despite the severe weather conditions,” she says. “Love for the breed was apparent everywhere. The will to meet the Israeli guests and make contact with them. Hospitality was very generous, true to local culture."
Keren, who deals with various objects for Salukis – collars, coats and muzzles, among other things – brought specially made bags for the winners, which she awarded during the prize ceremony.
The Al Dhafra Heritage Festival continues to be a wonderful event that brings dog people together.