In the undulating sands outside Dubai men practice a tradition that stretches back centuries. In a symbolic mastering of nature, they raise their hands into the air to free a treasured possession perched on their wrist, then watch the falcon wheel in graceful arcs through the sky before it descends at death-defying speed on its helpless prey.
Hunting with falcons is a revered tradition in the UAE and the recently held Fazza Championships for Falconry in the Al Ruwayyah area of Dubai honours the country’s national symbol. The competition, which is organized by Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Center and is part of a wider Fazza Heritage Championship that also includes shooting, and diving, provides the ultimate test in the skill of regional falconers.
Each year, enthusiastic competitors and their falcons travel from countries including Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. This year’s competition drew competitors to a range of speed races designed to honour Bedouin heritage. For Emiratis and other Gulf citizens who trace their love of the falcon back to the falconry traditions of their Bedouin ancestors, the bird is a symbol of chivalry and valour.
These birds – like all other trained falcons across the world from the Steppes of Mongolia to the prairies of the US – have been painstakingly taught through a simple system of work and reward. Known throughout the world as ‘The Sport of Kings’, the practice of falconry has not changed much over centuries or continents, but the culture around participation has.
In Europe, where falconry was a popular royal pastime in medieval times, the sport has enjoyed a revival in recent decades. The art of falconry is proving popular for curious beginners looking for an idiosyncratic hobby. At the British School of Falconry in Gleneagles professional falconers provide instruction to meet differing levels of falconry experience and involvement. Courses include learning how to handle and fly a Harris Hawk and a ‘Hawk Walk’ – walking with a bird in tow.
Throughout the Gulf, falconry is a fiercely competitive sport and ownership of the birds, coming at a cost of thousands of dollars, is a status symbol. Captive breeding programmes for popular avian prey such as the houbara sustains hunting with raptors. Taking the sport seriously means a genuine commitment of both money and time and birds are flown in training on a daily basis.
As the Fazza Championships demonstrate, heritage holds great importance. More than just a hobby or increasingly popular sport, the falcon remains inextricably linked to the UAE’s national identity going forward. Interestingly, while contemporary UAE society becomes increasingly modern, urban and hi-tech, falconry shows that the call of the wild is just a flap of the wings away.