Shalom Salaam Saluki
For us dog people, peace is symbolized and expressed in our ability to attend dog shows in other countries and expand our bloodlines. So imagine being the first person to represent your country at a canine event in a country that up to now has not had diplomatic relations with yours.
Yours truly had the honor of being the first-ever Israeli to judge in an Arab country, and to top it off I judged the local breed – history in the making!
"An important milestone!” agreed FCI president Tamas Jakkel of Hungary. “A profession must stay as a profession, encouraging quality and common interest to provide it without borders, religion and politics! Then it stays pure, serving the future."
We know dogs can do wonders for people. They are our friends, guardians, assistants, a bridge to reaching human friends. In many countries, dogs are a part of local heritage, and indigenous breeds are valued no less than other national treasures. For Arabs, Salukis are their special breed, symbolizing their existence under extreme desert conditions, helping them survive by hunting local hares and gazelles. Salukis are found in a vast area – from North Africa to Iran – and for locals, they are essential partners, quite different from mere dogs.
There is one non-Arab country in the Middle East that also shares this breed with its neighbors – Israel. However, due to hostile relations, Israelis have had very little contact with Arabs; similarly, Arabs have had a narrow view of Israelis, seeing them as a threat through Palestinian eyes.
Even though Israel has had diplomatic relations and open borders with Egypt and Jordan, Israelis have still not attended dog shows in those countries and were prevented from going to dog shows in other Arab countries.
Last year, peace agreements were signed with several Arab countries, including Morocco, Sudan and the Emirates, allowing mutual visits, among other things.
In September 2020, Keren Mintz, the leading Saluki breeder in Israel, called me to ask if I would like to join her in judging the breed at the Al Dhafra Festival in January in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
After ascertaining it was not April 1st, I took a deep breath and agreed on the spot.
I couldn't sleep that night. For me, this was a dream come true – to be the first-ever Israeli to judge in any Arab country. I couldn't have imagined this would happen to me in my wildest dreams.
The Al Dhafra Festival was organized by Mr. Hamad AlGhanem, who issued us this historic invitation. A Saluki breeder, he is the registrar general of the Saluki of Arabia Club, which he founded and owns. He is also an international show judge for the Saluki breed; chief of the Committee for Arabian Saluki Beauty Contests and Traditional Races, and consultant and committee member of the Department of Culture and Tourism’s Cultural Program and Heritage Festival Committee in Abu Dhabi.
We began corresponding with Mr. AlGhanem on WhatsApp and by email, trying to obtain additional details about the event and organization. The main problem was COVID-19: We couldn't reserve plane tickets because flights could be cancelled at a moment’s notice. Even the exact date was relatively uncertain. However, we could sense the passion and dedication in his voice: He was intent on making history, and we were part of it.
After overcoming various obstacles on both sides, Keren, her partner Ariel and I boarded the plane to Dubai for a two-week visit. In addition to clothes, we packed a large number of gifts for our local hosts as well as rosettes for the winners donated by the Israeli Sighthound Club and Herding Club.
We spent the first few days in Dubai, a totally cosmopolitan city that attracts millions of tourists. Among other things, we went to see a camel-racing facility, although we did not see any races, and a falcon museum.
When we met Mr. AlGhanem — who soon became Hamad to us — he turned out to be a person with immense knowledge of local heritage in general and Salukis in particular. We learned from him that the locals had been breeding and using both Salukis and falcons for hunting, along with the camels and Arabian horses that provided them with transportation. They still go hunting, but also hold falcon competitions – both beauty and racing – with huge prizes going to the winners.
One of the first things Hamad emphasized was that "Salukis are not dogs" in local culture. They are treasured partners, while other local canines are pariah dogs that are not part of the family. We visited several breeders and saw a variety of Salukis. Many of these breeders also keep falcons.
Hamad's goal in life is to ensure this local heritage receives due recognition. He is part of a team, the Cultural Programs and Heritage Festivals Committee, that organizes several festivals a year in the Emirates and is reaching out to other countries, too.
The festivals last several weeks, with races and beauty contests for Arabian horses, falcons and Salukis. Entries are free, but restricted to a limited number of animals. Winners receive huge cash prizes.
The week before the show, we witnessed the finals of the Arabian Saluki Traditional Race Championship. They were preceded by preliminaries held the previous week, with a total entry of almost 100 Salukis. Hamad put an emphasis on two things: having animals that were as close as possible to being purebred, and no doping.
Since their canines are bred for speed and endurance, some Arabs cross their Salukis with Greyhounds, believing this will improve their performance. However, the practice leads to bloodlines that are not clean and dogs that do not look like Salukis. Hamad is doing his best to annihilate this practice by collecting genetic tests from Salukis in many nearby countries and disqualifying dogs that are clearly crossbred from taking part in both racing and beauty contests.
The three winners of each race were awarded trophies to which a huge cash prize was attached. However, they would receive the cash only after the blood test came out clean.
Over the coming days we spent a lot of time with Saluki people, but also managed to do some sightseeing with Hamad.
A couple of days before the show we had another special experience, a hunt with Salukis. The dogs raced among the dunes in pairs, first chasing hares and finally a gazelle. This was a great way of learning more about their excellent instinct and way of working.
The Salukis ran together after spotting their prey, weaving between the small bushes through which the hare fled. When they caught the hare, they did not try to eat it, letting the hunters take it from them and slaughter it as quickly and mercifully as possible. The same went for the gazelle. After the hunt, we gathered in a local tent to eat the catch of the day. This is one of the conditions when hunting in Abu Dhabi – you hunt for food, not for pleasure.
In preparation for the show, Hamad explained how the event was to be conducted. It is not affiliated to any international organization, and he is the one who determines the rules. The entries were divided into four groups – feathered and short coated, male and female. Only dogs over one year old would be admitted, and they would enter by order of color and height. I was to go over them, give a short critique and then select the first three.
Some entries were made in advance, but people could enter their dogs on the spot. They had to be vaccinated, and Hamad did his best to allow only purebred Salukis to participate and weed out the mixed breeds.
The ring was located on a section of the parking area beside the camel-racing club building, among desert sand and dunes. It was extremely spacious, lined with artificial lawn and surrounded by large canvas sheets bearing the festival logo to protect from wind and sand.
One should note that Salukis in the Emirates are not only the local ones but also imports from Lebanon, Jordan and Iran, giving plenty of types, sizes and colors. One of the key differences stems from the fact that some Salukis are used to hunt hares while others hunt gazelles, leading to the former being smaller than thelatter.
Some of the dogs, particularly those in the race, had cropped ears. This turned out to be a Syrian tradition of marking their dogs. It took a while to get used to this sight. Additionally, I was requested to ignore neutered dogs and judge them in regular fashion. One of the dogs I put up turned out to be a neuter.
Except for two women, all the dogs were handled by men, including a little boy, most of them wearing traditional robes, which made me wonder if they could run properly with their dogs. Many were definitely not professional handlers as we know them, and I took this into consideration when judging.
The first group was the short-coated males, followed by the short-coated females, and then the feathered males and females. Most groups had around ten participants.
After selecting the first three, we did not announce the placements, but continued to the next group. Only after we finished did we summon the winners back and announced which was first, second and third. And, by the way, unlike Western shows, there was no Best of Breed nor Best in Show.
Best in Show Smooth Male (above) and Smooth Female (below).
Along with committee members and Keren, I gave the winners their beautiful trophies. They would also receive a considerable cash prize, but not on the spot.
One of the winners, Rawan Ghunaim, operates a Saluki rescue in Abu Dhabi. Her feathered male won his class and the female she showed placed third in her class, winning a considerable sum of money.
"I can't thank you enough for choosing Taj and my Saluki girl," she said. "The award will help me rent another place and build better kennels for the hounds. This is what I do on a daily basis. Thank you so much, Yossi, you were and are so kind to those wonderful Salukis and animals in general.”
Rawan says Taj was given to her by the royal family in order to find him a good home. “He was born in a kennel in Dubai, and his parents are of European bloodlines,” she explains. “He was four and a half years old, traumatized and frightened of people.” After being returned by a couple of adoptive homes, “he decided this is his home and adopted us.” Consultations with a behaviorist taught Rawan how to help Taj overcome most of his fears.
As for her female, “Samra was rescued at the age of six weeks,” Rawan explains. “She is half Iranian Tazi and half Saudi lines. Her mother was a grizzle feathered Turkish Saluki and her sire a famous smooth red Saudi racer.”
Best in Show Feathered Male (above) and Feathered Female (below).
The whole affair went smoothly with the help of the stewards and organizers. I was more or less floating on air (despite my weight). It was a fantastic experience – not just seeing the lovely Salukis and judging them, but meeting the breeders and other related persons. The warmth I felt was probably as high as their summer weather. The hospitality was unbelievable, and wherever we went we were greeted and welcomed.
For Keren, the trip was the realization of a dream she had never dared to dream – and one she was able to live for a fortnight.
“I had the honor of meeting some of the most respected Arab Saluki breeders – to see, touch, breath and sense their breeding principles and gather maximum knowledge in minimum time even though I would like to add much more,” she reflects. “I experienced a trip in a family atmosphere, hospitality and sharing of information that is indescribable in any language. I experienced hunting and profound comprehension of the principles of the law that allows our hosts to hunt. I gained knowledge of Arab culture through experiences I never imagined to exist and mainly learned how much a sympathetic government can do for its people, with some good will and thought.
"I returned with a small vision of my own to make a great change for my Bedouin brothers in Israel," Keren adds, "something that has resided deep in my heart.”
Preserving traditional Saluki breeding in the Western world has been her life project for more than a dozen years, and “this trip has undoubtedly changed and added a great deal of information to my breeding program and made me a better person,” she says. “And to think all this was initiated by the ancient Middle Eastern sighthound that connected us all and has become rare in the pedigree breeding that carries the same name – Saluki."
A number of friends worldwide commented on his very special judging assignment, from well-known U.K. judge Frank Kane to German agility judge Rene Blanc, who said it reminded her of Neil Armstrong's words – “one small step for man … .”
"Congratulations and fantastic to build bridges through dogs,” enthused judge Dr. Rochelle Ehrlich of South Africa. “May you have peace forever with your neighbors."
"An event of paramount importance for our world of dogs,” concluded the Polish judge Janusz Opara. “A good reason for us all to be proud of our friend Yossi, who has proven there are no limits when real passion rules.”
Our hobby with dogs has always crossed borders, leading to friendships on an international level. This time we broke another boundary, and I hope it will lead to close cooperation between our countries and nations.