The bedouin still hunts in the manner of his ancestors: with the Saluki

Sultan Abu Rekiek with three young salukis

Written by Paula Heikkinen-Lehkonen, photos by Paula

(translated with permission by Micaela Lehtonen)

Previously published in Koiramme 6/2000

Paula Heikkinen-Lehkonen has had dogs since -61 and bred over 200 litters (Wire and Smooth Fox Terriers, English Springer Spaniels and Longhaired Standard Dachshunds), including over 100 national champions, 30 International Champions and several hunting trial and dual champions under the prefix Wolfheart. She began judging in -76 and became an FCI allrounder-judge in -96 and has judged in over 35 countries. She is also a qualified underground hunting trial judge. She has been active in many prestigious clubs and is a widely published translator, editor, writer and photographer for many dog publications worldwide. She has also been awarded top honors from her native Finnish Kennel Club including their Golden Medal and the Vuolasvirta Breeder's Plaque.

The Saluki is one of the oldest dog breeds in existance. The peoples of the East have considered dogs unclean and despicable animals, but the Saluki is a different matter. For thousands of years it has been highly esteemed and remains so today. The world is changing and the enviroment of the Bedouins, noble hunters of the sandy deserts, is diminishing, and today they are often poor and discriminated against. Hunting is no longer legal in many places. But the Saluki is still valued. A Bedouin may be without work and land, but a man's honour still depends on who has the fastest dog.

The Saluki has remained unchanged for millenia. The division of the sighthounds of North Africa and the Near and Middle East into three breeds (Saluki, Sloughi, Azawakh) is in some measure an artificial, Western one. The appearance of the hound is of little consequence to the Bedouin, as long as it is fast and enduring. Some prefer larger and stronger built hounds, others small and light ones. Some find shortcoupled dogs efficient, while others prefer longer bodies. Some of the hounds are smooth, others feathered. Coat variety, eye color and width of skull mean little to the hunter.

The hounds vary slightly from one area to another, but they are obviously the same type of dog. The words "Saluki" and "Sloughi" are the same word in different dialects. The Arabic alphabet does not entirely correspond with ours. Some prefer the term "Saluq".

A blonde saluki in Negev, spring 2000

The fate of the Saluki has political implications

Chairman of the Israeli Sighthound Club and allrounder judge Dr Zafra Sirik has begun charting the Salukis of the Bedouins of Israel. Although the breed has spread worldwide it is genetically narrow and this inevitably leads to problems. Zafra has begun helping Bedouin breeders and admitting their hitherto unregistered hounds into the local registry. She believes that they could be used to widen the gene pool and assist breeding worldwide.

Today the position of the Israeli Bedouins is similar to that of many indigenous peoples, such as the American Indians, the Eskimos and the Lapps. Land ownership and permanent dwellings have not been a part of the nomadic lifestyle. The Bedouins have lived here for hundreds, even thousands of years and considered the land their own, but naturally nothing has been put in black and white. When the state of Israel was founded the populace increased and towns and villages were built. The Bedouins of course had to withdraw. It is easy to dismiss a tentdwelling people that does not own land and the Bedouins have not traditionally been ones to man the barricades for their rights.

It is not a simple matter to assimilate the representatives of the many cultures and religions of Israel. Zafra considers the Bedouin situation one of the East's politically sensitive issues that might blow up at any time. The Bedouin villages are usually situated on the outskirts of towns. As their traditional way of life is disappearing, many of them have not adjusted to the present situation and do not know how to deal with it. So they are unemployed and spend their time by, for example, poaching. Hunting with hounds is illegal in Israel. Zafra feels that this is more of a political than preservational state of affairs, expressly directed at the Bedouins.

Zafra's work has begun at the last minute. Western corruption, television and other media have reached the Bedouins. The grass is always greener on the other side, and so they have thought of breeding Greyhounds and Whippets to their salukis, this for speed. In desert conditions however these crossbreds have proved less useful and enduring, but then the hunters no longer ride for days in the burning sun. They drive their cars at night to where no one can see when they release their hounds after hares or gazelles. The hero is the one with the fastest dog. Racial purity does not necessarily matter to them as they do not function within the organized kennel world.

Zafra Sirik & Farha's doublegrandsire, Pontiac

Trust develops slowly

One of the Bedouin breeders of Salukis is Sultan Abu Rekiek who lives in Tel Sheva. Zafra considers him one of the more sensible breeders, who understands the value of keeping the breed pure and caring properly for the dogs. Sultan has 5 or 6 Salukis and a litter on the ground. His dogs are well cared for by local standards, but would horrify our health inspectors and kennel consultants. On the other hand, the lives of the people are modest as well. There is a tiny run in the yard where pups and young dogs are kept, and across the street in a makeshift shack lives the pups' dam. Outside the run on a short chain is the 12-year old grandsire Pontiac, who represents the Sinai type. His doghouse is part of an old car. The younger dogs are all descended from him, and Sultan proudly tells us that Pontiac is such a famous hunter that bitches are still brought to him for mating, despite his age.

The Bedouin lives in his house as he did his tent. The doors are open and there is no furniture. There are mattresses and pillows on the floor to sit on. There is a television. Sultan has many children, ten or more. The eldest daughter is a good student which is a great source of pride. Zafra is surprised that the visitors are invited in this time and Sultan's wife serves fruit, tea and coffee. True to the tradition she does not take part in the conversation but retires and does not wish to be photographed.

Zafra tells me that she has visited Sultan and his dogs several times but has never been invited in before. Apparently trust develops slowly. Zafra has taken a couple of pups from Sultan and sold them to Saluki fanciers and has now brought him money and pictures of the dogs. Sultan has a hard time understanding what kind of conditions the Finnish export lives in when he sees a picture of the dog standing in snow. He has never seen snow and does not have a clear picture of where Finland is. Zafra's work has obviously made an impression and Sultan begins to understand that he has something very special here.

Sultan, Regab, Zafra & Farha's siblings

He shows us how the dogs jump up onto his pick-up truck on command when they go hunting. -We can hunt all night. If the hounds do not tear the gazelle, we can use the meat and eat it, but if the animal is badly torn, we give the meat to the dogs. Sometimes the hounds catch the gazelle but do not kill it. Then we let it go, he explains.

The hunting is done mainly for sport and machismo -competition for who has the best dogs. Guns are not used. Sultan recites many stories of his dogs' prowess and of how they have beaten all the other dogs. He dreams of a day when hunting would be legal. The police have shot many Bedouin dogs caught hunting illegally.

Zafra has inoculated Sultan's dogs, brought them medicine and taught him to use commercial dog food. In addition the dogs are fed whatever the people eat. The Salukis seem healthy and fit. Typically for the breed they are reserved with strangers, and do not come to greet us but are not afraid either. They are not allowed in the house, and Sultan does not touch them. He tells the children to give the hounds food and water, and when we fetch the dam from the run across the street, Zafra is allowed to let her loose.

Jumaa el Abied's bitch

Saluki center in a tent

Further away in Raat lives the Saluki breeder Jumaa el Abied, a very special person who values tradition. He does not want to live in a house, but outside the town in a tent. Around it are several parked cars that belong to his guests. In honour of his guests Jumaa has dressed in the traditional garb. He is dark-skinned, which means that he is lower cast among the Bedouins, since blacks are considered the descendants of slaves. Thanks to his hounds however he is a valued expert.

There is a veritable Saluki conference in the tent. Jumaa has invited friends to show their hounds to Zafra, and his best male has been brought a bitch to mate. The bitch's owner is an American born breeder of Arabian horses, who has been given a Saluki bitch from Egypt in connection with a horse trade. Zafra and her friend at the Sighthound Club have acted as spokespersons and breeding counselors and arranged the mating.

The party sit or lie on mattresses around a low table eating fruit and drinking coffee and soda. Muslim Bedouins do not use alcohol. One man is smoking a hookah. Hounds are discussed. When Jumaa talks about his dogs he alternately uses the words "Saluki" and "Sloughi" and says they are the same thing. He makes no distinction between the two.

Some of the men try to talk Zafra into giving them a Greyhound pup, but Zafra naturally refuses and tries to explain how a purebred Saluki is better in desert conditions, having developed tenacity and endurance over centuries. A racing Greyhound may be fast and strong on short distances, but is not suited for running for hours in the heat. Some of the men present have found this themselves, having tried crossbreds. Even so some of the pups playing around the tent are obviously Greyhound-crosses.

Jumaa's older male

The hounds are allowed in Jumaa's tent. The old stud dog is tethered inside the tent, the others are on short chains outside with motley shelters from the sun. The old stud has broken his rear leg at some point, but it has healed well and the dog looks fit. It, like many of the hounds present could easily be shown in an European show ring. Jumaa segregates bitches on heat and no unplanned litters are born nor any with unknown sires.

The assembled party examines the dogs present and compares their structure. Their views on what type of hound is best and most appropriate differ slightly, as with dog breeders in general. Jumaa tells us about the hunting trip Sultan talked about earlier, in his version however his own dog was the victor!

Zafra has brought vaccines and flea collars for Jumaa's dogs as well, but in the future she hopes that the Bedouin will care for their dogs of their own volition. They understand that a strong, well-fed hound runs better. She also plans to bring Bedouins to see dog shows. Since they are competitive about hunting, perhaps they would enjoy shows, and if they understand that their hounds are valuable breeding material which interests fanciers worldwide, perhaps their breeding would reach new goals.

The Saluki is not considered an Israeli breed as such, but Israel seems to be the only country in the area with a Kennel Club and kennel activities. These hounds have been here long before the conception of modern states. In old books the Saluki is called a Persian Greyhound, but even Persia no longer exists. From an Israeli point of view this is an indigenous breed, and so it is reasonable for the organized kennel world that dogs registered there would be accepted in other registries. It is the same sort of natural population as in our Nordic breeds.

It is only a matter of time before the traditional way of life disappears from the Near and Middle East. With it a breed that has lived in the area for millenia will lose its use and meaning. These really are the last moments for preservation, before a cultural treasure is destroyed by the bullets of police chasing poachers, shortsighted crossbreedings, disease or political unrest and war.

Farha al-Faifa & Micaela Lehtonen in April 2000


Finnish breeders are usually enterprising and unprejudiced. Finns have made ground-breaking decisions in many breeds. The revolutionary idea of crossing a Pinscher and Schnauzer has been made reality here. Tibetan Mastiffs have been imported from the Himalayas and been shown and bred from. Nordic breeds are routinely registered from the natural populace. Therefore it is no wonder that genuine desert bred Salukis have been imported here from Israel. The bitch Farha al-Faifa lives in Hauho with Micaela Lehtonen, and the male Zafran Asli with Seija Kotti-Rantala in Kyröskoski. The pups arrived last winter with the help of Zafra Sirik.

-This idea has been in the works for many years, Micaela Lehtonen explains. -As a child I read about the Salukis of the Arabs and decided that one day I would have such a dog. Micaela has two "ordinary" Salukis and two Dachshunds, and her sister's Parson Jack Russell bounces along in daycare. As a Saluki fancier Micaela naturally gathered together all available breed literature. In the book of American breed authority Gail Goodman there are stories about people who have lived in the Near and Middle East and brought back authentic Bedouin Salukis. Goodman has also been to Israel herself.

-That's how I realized that it really is possible to import dogs from there. I contacted Gail Goodman and through her made many valuable contacts. The chain led to Zafra Sirik, and she got things moving, Micaela says. -The idea was to bring in new blood, the Saluki is an old breed that has been bred pure for a long time. Though it generally speaking is a healthy breed, there are some problems.

Saluki people network globally through the internet and Micaela has made important contacts that way. The attitudes of breed fanciers and kennel organizations toward desert bred Salukis vary, in the USA for example there is some antagonism toward desert dogs of unknown origins, and they cannot be registered. In Finland registration was easy, as the new arrivals had two generations registered in Israel. -Registration was painless, the dogs went straight into our special registry, Micaela says. -The climate here is open-minded. Both the Kennel Club and the breed club were helpful.

Micaela is very pleased with Farha, her beauty even exceeded expectations. Micaela had been prepared to settle for less as long as she could find the needed new blood. Naturally she had thought that hounds bred in harsh conditions would have to develop health and tenacity and that to be able to run consistently in desert conditions they would have to be soundly built. At the same time she had prepared for initial problems arising from the awesome change in enviroment from the heat of the desert to the Finnish winter, and that the flight and the completely different lifestyle would be a shock to the pups and they might be timid or at least take a long time to be acclimatized. To the contrary, the immigrants proved to be levelheaded, calm, adaptable and friendly. As soon as they were let out of their boxes at the airport they ate the food they were offered without any fuss. Not even the new diet affected them in the least.

Other Saluki fanciers have had mixed feelings about Micaela's and Seija's project. Some have been genuinely excited, while others have felt that the desert dogs' strong hunting instincts might make them difficult and that they could not be trusted with other dogs, certainly not smaller ones. This fear has proved unfounded. The Saluki threesome frolic amicably with the Dachshunds and Parson Jack Russell in Micaela's large fenced yard.

Micaela feels that the Saluki's hunting instinct is an intrinsic part of the breed's make-up. -Some people here think that the hunting instinct makes the breed difficult, but so much of what makes the Saluki so appealling is connected with that instinct. It should not be bred away from, she emphasizes. Farha has already shown a keen interest in the moles her Dachsie friends dig up. Mostly when a Saluki catches something it's likely to run off with it, but Farha brought her catch straight to Micaela. Such is her misstress' fine hunting hound! Farha has not yet encountered larger prey, but Micaela has heard that gazelle hounds have chased elk in lieu of gazelle.

Some have also considered it a huge risk to import dogs from completely unknown lines. Micaela is secure in her decision, so far things have worked out well. You can't achieve anything if you don't dare dream. These imports are from different breeders and combinations, and the plan is to make further imports from different areas and different lines. Micaela plans to breed Farha and hopes the offspring will make a valuable addition to the existing gene pool. It is also her dream to one day be able to visit Middle Eastern breeders herself.