The sun is beating down hard on us when we arrive – a motley group of tourists from across the world – to watch a falconry display in Dubai late one afternoon. We’re on the edge of a vast expanse of open desert, smoothly undulating sand dunes as far as we can see. The setting couldn’t be more perfect.
But I’m feeling rather cynical, jaundiced really, after the camel ride we’d just been fobbed off with. The horsey ride I took on the Marina as a four-year-old was longer and more thrilling, and when (like said four-year-old) I’d tried to wheedle for a longer ride, I’d been denied with a firm ‘Yalla!’ by the Arab in charge.
Still, I wait patiently. After all, falconry in the U.A.E. is supposed to be something special, an ancient tradition that has morphed into a modern sport patronised by the rich and the powerful of the land. The falcons and their falconer arrive in a smart white four-wheel-drive vehicle, and I’m mildly disappointed as they dismount. I’d vaguely assumed that the birds would be bigger (I’d been picturing something more majestic, along the lines of a Bald Eagle), and their falconer would look more fierce.
Instead a slim, unassuming-looking young man in blinding white traditional garb goes about setting up his paraphernalia expressionlessly. The falcons – they’re Peregrines, I later find out – are tethered to a perch in the sand, with a delicately ornamental hood covering their eyes (it seems cruel to me that they’re blinded, until I find out that it’s needed to allow the birds to adjust their powerful vision to the new surroundings).
Still, with no change in expression, the falconer gets one of the birds to perch on his arm (covered with a cushiony cuff), and the tourists promptly erupt in a volley of photo-clicking. The bird is then transferred onto the arms of the more intrepid visitors and there’s even more picture-taking. After about 20 minutes of this, I’m convinced that the gentleman is soon going to pack up and leave, and if I asked for more, I’d get a stern ‘Yalla!’
Boy, am I wrong. Because once the pictures are taken, the real show begins. Out of an old bag comes a hapless pigeon tied to a long rope (the prey, I realise in a dawning mix of horror and awe), and one of the falcons is released from its hold, its hood removed. With a single shout, the falconer swings the pigeon into the air, and the falcon takes to flight. Swooping through the air, gliding and diving, the falcon suddenly doesn’t seem that small. Suddenly, it’s just as majestic as I’d imagined it would be.
Now begins a cat-and-mouse game between the falcon and the falconer, as they recreate the age-old chase of predator and prey, the pigeon swinging just out of the reach of the falcon each time it nears. Centuries ago, the Bedouins captured and trained these falcons to hunt for meat that would supplement their diet of dates and camel milk. Today, the falconer might be merely putting on a show for a group of tourists who ‘ooh’ and ‘ahhh’ with each swoop of the bird; but, I realise, some things are unchanged. Such as the intensity of the falcon’s attack, as it pounces, withdraws, re-assesses the situation and swoops down again in increasingly aggressive motions; and the skill and training of the falconer, as he matches wits with the predatory bird.
It’s like an airborne bull-fight, between the falconer who swings the prey away in increasingly wide loops, and the hungry falcon bearing down upon him. It’s fascinating, a little scary and borderline cruel, especially when the victorious falcon is tethered again after getting just a couple of pecks at the pigeon. Now falcon number two is released, and it becomes clear very early that this one isn’t following the script. It’s bigger, more ornery and less in control, and swerves dangerously close to the watching group of tourists a few times.
Turns out it’s because this one is newer to training although it’s older by six months (they’re both females, I’m told, and the first is just a year old). How long does it take to train them? I ask our laconic falconer later. He shrugs. “It depends on the brain of the falcon,” he says in his heavily-accented English, tapping his head. “Sometimes, a week is enough. Sometimes months.”
When the show is done (the second one brought to heel by our ever-calm falconer), the falcons are cooled down with water, and then, finally, allowed to have at the pigeon. As a group of delighted little kids watch (with gleeful shouts of ‘Ewwww gross!’), they rip into the pigeon in a National Geographic-style moment that’s both impossible to turn away from and faintly nauseating to watch.
The whole thing really is quite an adrenaline rush, and this is just the tame, touristy version of the sport. Definitely better than the camel ride. Yalla!