The Desert Arabian in its Homeland Today
Part II

By Edouard Al Dahdah

This is Part II of Edouard Al Dahdah’s article about the Desert Arabian in its area of origin. Copyright Edouard Al Dahdah and the Institute for the Desert Arabian horse; all rights reserved.

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As we discussed in the initial part of this presentation, the Bedouins, and no other group, are the original custodians of the Desert Arabian horse. Arabia Deserta, the homeland of Desert Arabian horses, is by definition the area of maximum extent of Bedouin nomadic migrations. Wherever these Bedouins sought pastures for their camels and sheep, the horses went with them; where the Bedouin didn’t go, original Desert Arabian horses did not exist. I previously discussed the history and current level of knowledge regarding remaining indigenous Desert Arabian horses in the cradle countries of Arabia Deserta, now defined by political boundaries as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.

In this second part I will describe the historical context and movement of indigenous Bedouin horses into surrounding Arabic lands — specifically Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. I don’t know much about the state of Desert Arabian breeding in Israel, Palestine, and Libya, three areas I have not visited, and so have excluded them from this overview. Taken together, the few remaining indigenous horses in the cradle and surrounding countries present a condition that compels us to act with urgency to preserve the Desert Arabian horse in its area of origin before it is too late. I will conclude with my recommendations on actions needed to save this precious genetic and cultural resource.

Lebanon

 

The combination of a wealthy landed aristocracy, an opulent westernized bourgeoisie, and a proximity to the breeding areas of Arabia Deserta helped turn Lebanon into a main center of Desert Arabian horse breeding and racing in the first half of the 20th century. The current Beirut racetrack, the Hippodrome des Pins, dates back to 1915. In addition to absorbing the national horse production, it attracted horses from all over the Middle East, mostly from Syria and Jordan. The Beirut racetrack enjoyed its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s. It was a focal point of the Beirut social scene and the mirror of its prosperity and assimilation of Western values. The racehorses that epitomized this period best were the Desert Arabians Ghazwan, a Kuhaylan al-Kharas from Hims in Syria, and Mach’al, an Ubayyan Sharrak bred by the Dandashi clans of Tall Kalakh.

The Dandashi landowners of Tall Kalakh, an area in western Syria close to the Lebanon border, were famous horse breeders during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. They gathered some of the best lines of Desert Arabians from the Sb’aah tribes, and bred some of the most famous horses of their era. Their strains of Kuhaylan Nowak, Saglawi Ibn Zubayni, Jilfan Sattam al-Bulad, and Ubayyan Sharrak were especially renowned. The black stallion O’bajan, imported to Babolna, Hungary, by Michael Fadlallah al-Haddad in 1902, was one their horses. Many other smaller breeders flourished, especially in the fertile plains of Akkar in northern Lebanon, and the Biqaa valley in the east.

By the mid-1950s the Beirut racetrack also began to attract Iraqi horses from Bagdad and its vicinity. These horses were taller, stronger, and certainly faster than the small, sturdy Lebanese Desert Arabians who had so far constituted the bulk of racehorses. They also had a sizeable amount of English Thoroughbred blood (at least 25 percent), tracing to the English Thoroughbred Tabib. Tabib himself had raced in Beirut in the 1930s, and was later sent to Iraq where his progeny filled the Bagdad and Basra racetracks. Whether the gentlemen who had imported Tabib’s grandsons to Beirut were aware of this fact remains an open question. Some evidence indicates they were. It is known that the same folks who had kicked Tabib out of Beirut 20 years earlier went back and imported his grandsons, and — much worse — used these stallions on their Lebanese Desert Arabian mares.

By the 1960s, a strong market for Iraqi horses had developed, and the cross-breeding of Iraqi imports with Desert Arabians had become the norm in Lebanon and some areas of Syria, mainly Hims, Damascus, and, to a lesser extent, Hama. In 1974, a rescue effort was attempted and a Lebanese Studbook submitted a draft studbook to WAHO (World Arabian Horse Organization) — which had just been launched two years earlier — with 130 Desert Arabian mares and stallions from Lebanon. The civil war (1975-1991) then nipped this effort in the bud, and many of these horses were lost, sold without papers, or exported to the Gulf countries as riding horses.

In 1992, at the close of the civil war, only 27 old Desert Arabian mares — mostly daughters of Mash’al  or his sons Wazzal, Acchal, Mihrass, and Malak al-Ahmar — and two stallions could be found and registered in the WAHO-approved Lebanese Studbook. Their average age was 22. A last preservation effort was attempted, but too little was done too late. Today, nothing remains of Lebanese Desert Arabian breeding, a once vast and ambitious national venture that could have served as outcross to many inbred Desert Arabian lines.

Egypt

 

Egypt has been the focal point of economic, political, military, and cultural power of the Arab world for more than a thousand years. Although not a country of origin for the Desert Arabian horse — Egypt imported its Arabians from the desert, just like Poland, England, or the USA — it has been a center of Arabian horse breeding, with continuous flow of imports from Bedouin tribes of Arabia Deserta, at least since the Mamluk era in the 14th century AD. Egyptian kings, noblemen, pashas and beys, and a few Westerners imported horses from the desert for breeding and racing purposes. Today, Egypt remains one of the main centers of asil breeding in the world. The history and contribution of Egypt to Arabian breeding is well documented, and there is not much that can be added within the parameters of this overview.

Algeria

 

Algeria was a French colony for more than two centuries. The French imported hundreds of Desert Arabian stallions into Algeria from cradle areas, mainly from the desert of Syria, a region that fell under French influence after WWI. Arabian stallions were chiefly used for crossing with Barb mares to produce Arab-Barbs, the French army’s standard cavalry horse of Algeria and its North African auxiliaries. A long war of occupation in Algeria and continuous rebellions justified the French production of large numbers of cavalry horses, fed by a continuous flow of imports from Arabia Deserta. Pure Arabians were also bred separately, albeit on a smaller scale, and were used for cavalry remounts as well as racing. The city of Tiaret in western Algeria was for a long time the chief stud of the Etablissements Hippiques de l’Afrique du Nord and remains the country’s main breeding center.

Some Desert Arabian mares were also imported, and the Desert Arabians of Algerian origin trace to two of them: Cherifa, a Shuwayma Sabbah from the Sb’aah Anazah tribe, and Wadha, a Jilfa Dhawi bred by the Fad’aan Anazah, imported by the French in 1869 and 1875 respectively. Other female lines such as that of Yamouna and Zenab were as valuable, but less prepotent. Of the hundreds of desertbred stallions the French imported to Algeria, a few stood out, of which the most significant were Venture, a Hamdani Simri brought from Lebanon in 1896; Bango, a gray Managhi Sbaili bred by the Shammar but imported from a racetrack in Alexandria in the late 1920s; Safita, a bay Kuhaylan Khdili imported in 1934; Ghalbane, a Hamdani Simri, and Masbout, a Saglawi Jadran, both bought from the Beirut racetrack in the mid-1940s.

The Algerian war of liberation broke out in 1954, claiming one million victims. Upon the country’s independence in 1962, the Etablissements Hippiques de l’Afrique du Nord, like every institution associated with the French colonizers, were dismantled. When Arabian breeding was formally reinstated in the 1980s, it included the admixture of non-Desert Arabian horses from WAHO-accepted European studbooks.

Fortunately, because of historic movement of desert imports and their offspring between Algeria and Tunisia (see below), most of the Desert Arabian horses now bred in Tunisia trace in part to horses bred in Algeria or horses imported there from Arabia Deserta. Three or four of those very precious Tiaret lines were brought back by French settlers returning home from the former colony: the lines of Bassala (by Masbout out of Saponnaire by El Managhi), tracing to Wadha, and that of Iaquouta (by Safita out of Aroua by Sidi Gaber), tracing to Cherifa, are the most well-known. No more than 10 to 15 Desert Arabian horses of Algerian descent survive in France today, most of them aged mares.

Tunisia

 

A French protectorate since 1881, Tunisia followed a pattern similar to Algeria during the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. Many horses, mostly stallions, were imported from Arabia Deserta straight to the main center of the Etablissements Hippiques d’Afrique du Nord in Tunisia, the Stud of Sidi Thabet near Tunis. The most significant imports were the stallions Nasr, Ibech (from the Sb’aah tribe), and Tamerlan (a Dahman) in the 1910s and ’20s; Ibn and Hellal in the ’30s; and Cheykh El Ourbane in the ’40s. There was also one significant import from Egypt in the 1920s: the chestnut Ibn Fayda I (by Ibn Rabdan out of Lady Anne Blunt’s Fayda), a gift from Prince Kemal Eddin Hussein to Sidi Thabet. (Editor’s note: This Ibn Fayda was full brother to the bay Ibn Fayda present in living Egyptian lines as the sire of El Moez, Zaher, and Adham.)

Most dam lines trace back to the 19th century: that of Samaria, a Kuhaylah Ajuz, and that of Dolma Batche, a Jilfa Sattam al-Bulad, are the most predominant today, with the addition of the line of Emtayra, imported in the 1940s. Many Desert Arabians bred in Algeria (see above) eventually found their way to Tunisia and were incorporated into the breeding there. In consequence, Tunisia became the second French-influenced center of Desert Arabian horse breeding in North Africa, with the Sidi Thabet as its hub.

Some private studs (e.g., the stud of Sidi Bou Hadid of French Admiral Anatole Cordonnier) also bred excellent horses, many from Algerian Desert Arabian bloodlines. Mr. Cordonnier bred the most influential Tunisian sire of all times, Esmet Ali (by Hazil out of Arabelle by Beyrouth), a gray stallion tracing to Cherifa, a desertbred imported to Algeria. Esmet Ali is the sire of the prepotent race winner and sire Dynamite III. Mr. Cordonnier also bred several of the Tunisian horses that found their way to France in the 1950s: the stallions Iricho (by David out of Chanaan by Souci) and Irmak (by Aissaoui out of Leila by Duc II), and the mares Izarra (by David out of Arabelle by Beyrouth) and Hallouma (by Aissaoui out of Cilicie by Titan) are but a few. Conversely, some horses bred in France had been imported to Tunisia in the 1930s and ’40s. Some were authentic Arabians, like Duc II (by Djebel Mousa out of Djerba), or Mossoul; others were not, like Kriss II. Fortunately, upon the independence of the country in 1956, the management of Sidi Thabet decided to cull all the French horses from its breeding program, and only kept the Tunisian and Algerian lines. Until very recently the only imports were from Egypt, the stallions Ragheb (by Tuhotmos out of Rakia) and Ibn Ikhnatoon being the most influential. The result of this wise policy is that today as much as 70 percent of the Tunisian national herd is composed of Desert Arabian horses.

I have had the good fortune to make a recent trip to Sidi Thabet in Tunisia and conclude that it may be home to the largest pool of Desert Arabian horses in a state stud after the stud of El Zahraa in Egypt. Today Sidi Thabet is the center of a dynamic horse breeding industry that caters mostly to the local racetracks, and is home to some 60 mares and 10 stallions (not counting colts and fillies). The most influential are the grand Akermi (a legend, 40 wins in 46 races) and Halim (38 wins), both sons of Dynamite III, and Samir, a son of Daoues II. Over the past few years, unfortunate importations of stallions from France cater to the expanding racing market. Their get have not been used for breeding as of yet. Still, this puts a question over the future of the Desert Arabian breeding in Tunisia.

Morocco

 

Yet another French protectorate as of 1912, the Kingdom of Morocco obtained all its Desert Arabians from three sources: France, Tunisia, and Algeria. The majority of imports came from France or from Tunisia via France: while some were authentic Arabians of desert lines, like the beautiful Minos (by Dahman out of Melisse by Benikaled), most traced to doubtful horses, and influence of the latter greatly surpassed that of the former. The impact of Agres, a son of Abel (by Denoute out of Alicante), and of Ras, a son of Kriss II (by Denouste out of Kenia), on Moroccan breeding was especially pernicious. Egyptian Desert Arabian horses were added later on: Burhan (by Morafic out of Mona by Sid Abouhom) and El Sud El Aaly (by Nazeer out of Lateefa by Gamil III) were most prepotent, but were lost forever, and today there is not one Desert Arabian horse of Moroccan stock.

A Sorry Situation

 

To summarize my brief survey: Four nations — Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia — concentrate what is left of Desert Arabian horses in Arab countries, and are the remaining outcrossing hope for heavily inbred Desert Arabian lines in the rest of the world. There is absolutely nothing left in Lebanon, Algeria, and Morocco. Jordan and the Gulf countries (other than Bahrain) each harbor no more than two dozen.

The situation in Iraq and Saudi Arabia is extremely complex to sort out, and it is difficult to know how to identify the remaining Desert Arabian horses there, most of which are not registered in the WAHO-accepted studbooks. Yemen and Libya are great unknowns to me. They may turn out to be treasure troves, or there may be nothing left there.

All this leads, finally, to the crucial question: What should we do with this sorry situation? How do we keep the situation from deteriorating further? Of 20 Arabic countries that are either the cradle origins of the horse or countries that received large numbers of Desert Arabians over historic periods, only four have any significant number of such horses. Where few remain in other countries, the Desert Arabian horses will be lost without urgent action.

Next steps

 

The Institute may be best positioned to create and disseminate new knowledge about this situation and to provide international leadership to save this precious genetic and cultural resource from extinction. If I may allow myself to make a number of suggestions to its Board, these would be the top priorities:

Commission country-by-country scoping studies about the status and prospects of Desert Arabian horse breeding in all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

A critical prerequisite for the success of this effort is the identification of the right person or persons to draft these projects: individuals with inside knowledge of the country and the Desert Arabian horses remaining there. The studies can be written initially in Arabic or French and translated later. The results should be reviewed by a peer committee and put online to increase international awareness.

Undertake a comprehensive effort to identify individuals and associations likely to contribute to the preservation of Desert Arabian horse breeding in the region.

Not everyone in the Middle East and North Africa is an expert on the original Desert Arabian horse and its asil descendents. Just as not every rancher wearing a cowboy hat is a mustang or an Appaloosa expert, Desert Arabian horse experts cannot be identified by the clothes they wear, the language they speak, or the positions they hold as registering studbook authorities.

Often the real expert is not Western educated and does not speak English; still one should go through the extra effort to identify these resource persons at any cost. The few knowledgeable people remaining may be spread out over large territories; they may not be on good terms with each other. They certainly don’t hold symposia and seminars, and don’t communicate by email. The implicit knowledge these people hold is not written — after all, this is a region where oral tradition is predominant, making the codification of this knowledge all the more urgent.

• Share existing knowledge.

 

We should provide incentives to individuals to share information with each other instead of holding on to it. The United States has a tradition of exchange that can serve as a global model. Publishing existing and new information as it is acquired on Web sites and in hardcopy is one option. Encouraging experts in the Middle East to contribute knowledge and opening the flow of information between East and West is vital to this effort. In the Middle East today, preservation is not a systematic effort. It is done informally, with two people meeting by chance and deciding to exchange horses, some of which happen to be Desert Arabian horses.

• Rethink old notions in light of new findings.

 

We are all on a quest for learning. No one holds the absolute truth. When new information shows up, we need to acknowledge both the information and its impact on the existing state of knowledge. We also need to release our hold on myths and traditions that have grown up in the West but that will not withstand examination in the Middle East and will be counterproductive to discuss with experts there.

Why Western Leadership?

 

It may seem odd that I, an Arab man of the Middle East, advocate that such a comprehensive preservation action originate from the United States. We Arabs do recognize that American breeders of Desert Arabian horses have acquired over the last century the credibility to reach out to Arab breeders and engage them in a global preservation effort. Why? Simply because Americans have bred the best and biggest numbers of Desert Arabian horses over the past century. Americans got horses from Arabia Deserta — this year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Davenport importation — bred them, and kept them pure. Huntington, Davenport, Bradley, Harris, Borden, Babson, Brown, and Hearst started it and many others followed. American breeders imported a little and did a lot.

This is why, as a home to the largest pool of Desert Arabian horses in the world, the United States has a responsibility to take the lead in this effort. It not only can, it SHOULD. Otherwise, there will be nothing left in the next century except the heavily inbred Desert Arabian horses produced in North America. There will always be Desert Arabians here in the States. True, the large breeders and great visionaries of past years are gone. Today there are smaller and smaller scale breeders, but the breeding continues and commitment to the Desert Arabian horse continues.

Cautionary Notes

 

To succeed, you will need to approach Arab breeders in a different way. If you happen to go to the Middle East and North Africa, you’d need to do so with an open mind, a willingness to challenge existing beliefs, and a readiness to accept difficult truths. Looking for confirmation of some theories now prevailing in the United States is a pointless exercise. Rather, ask the Arab breeders what THEY think — and ask as many of them as possible. Don’t hold on to old information from Western travelers such as Carl Raswan.

Finally, if you are to succeed, you must remember that, in the desert there is no “straight” anything. “Straight so and so” is no more then a brand name to cluster bunches of horses brought out from the same desert areas, from the same pool of Desert Arabian horses into artificial silos just because they happened to be bred by different breeders over here. Terms such as “straight” Davenport, “straight” Babson, and “straight” Blunt are Western creations. Accept that strain names and historic bloodline names are created names. When you trace the historic horses back 200 years they have the same roots. They were imported at different times, bred as closed groups, and they might not look alike anymore. So what? All are “straight” Desert Arabian horses, and their very few relatives remaining in the Middle East and parts of North Africa and will soon be lost if nothing is done.

 

A responsibility falls on your shoulders to act now.

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