An old Arab proverb goes: 'He is a gentleman. He grew up with the saluki.' It seems to have been coined for Hamad Ganem Shaheen Al Ganem, director, breeder and registrar general of the Arabian Saluki Center; board member, Emirates Falconers' Club; and consultant to the Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi.
Arab Bedouins have been breeding salukis for thousands of years, Al Ganem tells me. These desert hounds, known for their exceptional stamina, intelligence and loyalty, are highly prized by the Bedouins. The Bedouins even allow them to share their tents. Al Ganem follows their example: his favourite salukis have a free run of the office. They are encouraged to sit on the sofas and spoken to as beloved family members.
Al Ganem possibly knows more about the Arabian tradition of breeding salukis than anyone in these parts. He comes from a well-known and respected Arab family famous in the region for breeding salukis. Al Ganem's family has been breeding the Aseel salukis the purest breed of Arabian hounds for about eight decades. The family tradition of saluki breeding has been passed on from fathers to sons for many generations, and to own one of the exceptional salukis bred by the family is said to be a privilege. "I am the fifth-generation breeder in my family," he says, "and the only one looking after our salukis."
With changing times and lifestyles, however, Al Ganem is finding it increasingly more important to see that the traditions of the land vested in hunting which include breeding and training salukis, Arabian horses and falconry is not lost. "The saluki may be lost to our future generations unless steps are taken to preserve it now," says Al Ganem. "That's why I want to write it all down, the history and the heritage [of the saluki and the falcon and their role in hunting]."
In fact, the one condition he insists on when we meet him is that we should be prepared to listen to him in full. No half measures with him. He sits on the sofa surrounded by his favourite symbols of Arabian heritage: salukis and falcons. There are three hooded falcons perched at various vantage points, one close enough to be stroked every now and then. Salaam, his favourite white saluki, is on hand to be petted and tossed a ball whenever he gets restless.
According to him, the history of the saluki is closely tied to the history of early man. "Salukis can be traced back to around 5000 BC. It all began with the domestication of the local wolf," he says. "This stemmed from man's necessity to catch game. It is said that the first domesticated dog, the saluki, evolved thus, by selective breeding."
Al Ganem tends to wax lyrical while talking about the Arabian desert, and its two famous breeds of animals the Arabian horse and the saluki hound. "The saluki was bred to assist man in catching prey in the harsh desert climate. Salukis ate what their masters ate, shared their tents and their food."
Later on, he takes us behind the office where a large pen houses a host of salukis waiting to be bred. He takes us into the kitchen where a qualified chef prepares food for the salukis: rice and meat, mildly flavoured and fit enough for man to eat. In fact, he tastes it and offers us some. It's like mildly spiced biryani.
"It is in fact based on the biryani," he says. "But not spicy, and very healthy. This is the kind of food we eat. In fact, the saluki used to eat from the same pot as the master in the past when possessions were few: first the master would eat, and then the saluki."
He declares, "We don't call our salukis 'dogs'. They are much more to us."
His love for the animals is evident in his every look. He's even devised a dessert for his salukis: a muffin made of wheat, honey and dates. We taste that too, and pronounce it fit for human consumption. According to Al Ganem, Bedouins still hunt with the salukis. The period from October to March is said to be ideal, and the Empty Quarter in the Arabian desert is their favourite hunting ground. "Young hounds are kept at home until about a year old to run with an older experienced saluki in the field," he says. "The youngsters pick up the idea fairly quickly and are trained to chase desert rats before moving onto other games such as rabbits, hares, foxes, gazelles, and so on."
Salukis are generally taken on hunts along with falcons. "The falcons spot and hover over their prey pointing out their position from the air, while the saluki dashes to the prey leading the hunters to it. The targets are often many kilometres away, but that is child's play for a saluki."
Where the saluki scores over the falcon, he says, is in its ability to hunt on the ground. "The saluki hunts the rabbit, and we send the falcon to get him. But when the rabbit goes into a bush or hole, the falcon can't catch him. Only the saluki can."
Little wonder then that Al Ganem calls salukis God's gift to man. "They are intelligent and friendly, though perhaps reserved with strangers," he says. "Though they are hunters by instinct, they are very calm and sweet-tempered, which also makes them great pets. They have a great sense of humour and are very curious." His dogs are a case in point. They take to us very easily, hovering around to be petted, but not so effusive as to put you off.
Al Ganem says salukis are so respected that even their names are chosen with special care. "They are a gift to us and we treat them as such by giving them titles," he says.
It's apparent he has researched extensively on salukis. "There is a saying that many Bedouins will not touch a dog, but they will touch a saluki. They believe salukis are the only breed of dog permitted to live in the home of a true believer."
His diligence in recording information about the saluki led him to collaborate in the production of a National Geographic documentary, 'Running with the wind', in 2002.
He's even written a children's book on the saluki, and welcomes students from schools in the UAE to the Arabian Saluki Center to give them an insight into Arabian heritage and tradition.
A consultant to the Emirates Falconers' Club, Al Ganem is also involved in the planning of the Desert Village and Hunting Park, a theme park that will showcase the Arab tradition of hunting with salukis, falcons, camels and horses. "It will include everything to do with our culture, including the Bedouins, and will be located outside Abu Dhabi city," he says. "We may even include pearl diving and dhows as part of our culture. We plan it as an education centre too, and will have heritage racing tracks that will hold displays of hunting, saluki racing. It will be spread over an area of four kilometres."
Al Ganem believes it is his calling to carry on the tradition of saluki breeding, and pass it on to his heirs. "When I met the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan he held my hand and told me: 'The saluki has different uses; not only hunting for you, but also feeding you and protecting you and your camels and sheep. They are an important part of our hospitality as they guide your guests to you.' It was then that it dawned on me that in the olden days people were lonely and used to welcome guests to their tents. Travellers came upon a saluki and knew there would be a house nearby, so they would follow them home. That to me is the ultimate story about the saluki."