Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World

Falconry and Fashion
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 8 2007 6:07 PM

Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World

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Before diving into the plate-glass heart of modern Dubai, I decided it might be wise to establish some context. I wanted to learn more about the Bedouin culture that once existed here before the construction cranes and money-chasing expats arrived. Thus I found myself, on a weekday afternoon, catching a taxi to the Falcon Center.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

The guidebook says the Falcon Center is a complex devoted entirely to the noble sport of falconry. (Falconry was a staple of the ancient Bedouin desert lifestyle and remains a hobby for some Emiratis.) In my head, I'd pictured a giant aviary bustling with high-intensity falcon training. Falcon obstacle courses. Mid-air targets, with falcons violently attacking from every angle. A miasma of shrieking and clawing. As it turned out, the Falcon Center (located on the sandy outskirts of town) was just a large building with some retail stores inside. These stores sold falcons (and falcon accessories).

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When I wandered into one, I found several live falcons perched on stands, their heads covered by tiny leather hoods. The birds were silent, occasionally grooming a loose feather with a talon. As I leaned in closer for a better look—emboldened because the falcons couldn't see me, and thus were unlikely to shred my face to ribbons—a shopkeeper quietly entered from a backroom.

"Would you like some tea?" he asked. I was not expecting this, but tea sounded lovely. So, he returned to the backroom and emerged with a teapot and some elegant little glasses, which he filled. I thanked him, took a sip or two, and then began to pepper him with questions. What were the specs on these falcons? What exactly were they capable of?

By way of response, he pulled out his cell phone, punched some buttons, and held the screen in front of my face. On the small display, I could make out a film of a falcon flying in the desert, its wings pumping up and down. A few seconds in, the bird swooped and totally blitzkrieged a helpless animal that appeared to be—I swear to God—some sort of small antelope.

At this point, I realized: I must have a falcon. I inquired as to the cost. The shopkeeper explained that this depends on the size of the falcon and its skill. But in general, they'll run you about five grand apiece.

Which is clearly worth it, when you think about it. I had my eye on the fierce-looking bird in the corner. I planned to name him Shrieky. I'd haul him out on my balcony in D.C., turn him loose, and wait for the freshly killed game to pile up. Perhaps a neighbor's Shih Tzu. Or infant.

Of course, I couldn't really justify purchasing a falcon. (Nor did I relish the thought of getting it through customs. Or keeping it fed—the shopkeeper had now begun to place raw chicken drumsticks in the falcons' talons, and they were munching away with wet, flesh-ripping sounds.) So, instead, I opted for perhaps the oddest souvenir I've ever bought: a falcon hood.

It's leather, with little rawhide straps to tighten it over the bird's eyes. I'm not sure what I'll use it for, though it might come in handy if I had a pet guinea pig that was really into bondage sex games. But I felt I had to buy something after this shopkeeper was so kind and hospitable.

Hospitality—along with falconry—is one of the proud pillars of Bedouin society. (It's the Bedouin people who roamed these deserts for centuries and who are the root source of Gulf Arab traditions. I'm talking here about the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar. They have a history and mood distinct from other parts of the Arab world.) In fact, based on my reading and my visits to Dubai's museums, I'd argue that Bedouin culture boils down to the following elements: hospitality; falconry; camels (and camel racing); fancy, engraved daggers; deserts (and desert wandering); and covering up your women.

And that's about it. When you're a nomad on a constant hunt for water, there's not so much time for dabbling in the delicate, nonfunctional arts. It's all about weapons and animals.

As for the Bedouins' manner of dress, it's fascinating to me that Emirati men still wear their traditional long, white robes. (They're called dishdashas—and wow is that a fun word to say.) Nearly all U.A.E. nationals—even the ruling heads of state—continue to resist trousers and other Western clothes. It's a little bit bad-ass, and it speaks to serious cultural pride. I suppose if your people survive in the harsh desert for millenniums, you don't let some pansy foreigner tell you what to wear.

You do, however, tell your women what to wear. And I have a few raw chicken bones to pick on that score:

1) It seems horribly unfair that the men's dishdashas are white, while the women's long cloaks (called abayas) are black. I ask you: Which would you rather wear beneath a blazing desert sun? If Arab culture weren't otherwise so progressive on gender issues, I might say this was a clever means of discouraging women from leaving the house.

2) The unfairness becomes crystal clear when you go to the beach here. The Emirati women keep their abayas on. Meanwhile, their husbands strip down to tight, short bathing suits—exposing their flabby stomachs and hairy backs.

3) I'm fine with the headscarf that covers the hair. (This seems not unlike wearing a yarmulke.) But the face veil is fundamentally different and, in my view, not OK. One cannot happily contribute to society when one has no face. The veil transforms women into a pair of downcast eyes. And again, it seems, more than anything else, like an enticement to stay at home.

I realize some Muslim women will talk about the face veil as an empowering, female-driven choice. This seems like the same kind of empowering, female-driven choice that sorority sisters make when they choose to become bulimic together.

All of which brings me back to falconry. At one of the museums, I saw an old photo of a sheik with his prized falcon. The caption read, "The key to falconry is the relationship between the falcon and the falconer," which seems reasonable enough. The text also observed that the falcon was wearing one of those little leather hoods, and in parentheses it noted the Arabic word for these masks: burqa.

Suddenly, the thought of those birds, forcibly hooded, tied by the ankle to their master's wrists, gave me a small chill.