In the city: The sport of kings
From the ancient mode of hunting to the royal sport of choice today, falconry has come a long way. City Times speaks to author and falconry expert Dr Javier Ceballos
What has now become an international sport and hobby was once a means of survival for many falconers around the world. Before the age of currency, a desert Bedouin’s wealth was sometimes determined by his bird of prey. But today, falconry has become the sport of choice for members of the upper echelons, including royalty, echoing a return to cultural heritage and tradition.
Dr. Javier Ceballos, a renowned falconry enthusiast, recently released a new book titled Falconry — Celebrating a Living Heritage, featuring explosive images from around the globe. We catch up with the expert to get a closer peek into the sport of kings.
First of all, why did you decide to release a book on falconry?
This is my second book on falconry. The first one, published in 2002, is more focused on its practice in Spain, the country where I was born and where I live. Soon after this, I took part in the footage of the documentary Allies of the air, getting to know the different ways of understanding falconry in cultures from four continents. It was then that I considered developing a book that emphasised the universality of the heritage involved in falconry.
What sort of prominence does falconry have in a place like the UAE?
I remember a conversation with a significant falconer of the UAE in the course of a dinner, which can answer your question in an illustrative way. He asked me:
‘Javier, how do you understand falconry in Spain?’
‘By means of falconry man discovers the vertical dimension. He sees through the eyes of his falcon, which follows him from hundreds of metres of height. At this moment his heart flies among the feathers of his ally in the air. We can discover distant preys that our human sight was unable to see.’
He liked my answer, but he added something else:
‘We, in Arab falconry, manage to feel our falcon’s heart beating in our chest while it flies. Our ally in the air will always try to make the flight that its falconer enjoys the most.’
Why do you think local Emirati nationals continue to preserve this age-old sport and hobby?
It is natural to concentrate on what has made our grandparents and parents bigger and better, to practise it and to try to transmit it to our children and grandchildren. This is the way a tradition is established. In Emirates, the practice of falconry feeds the feeling of belonging to a culture, a way of understanding life. Falconry is much more than a hobby or a sport.
Can you tell us what keeps you passionate about the subject?
I belong to the fourth generation in my family devoted to the scientific knowledge of nature. In my childhood I used to go out to the field with my father, bringing my binoculars and field guide. As a teenager I discovered in falconry a privileged way to know the birds of prey. I learnt that besides what books tell us, we can also learn through the eyes of our bird, interpreting any natural variable according to its needs.
To investigate on a topic that I find so exciting, going so far as to sometimes cross the border of knowledge, is so deep a satisfaction that it justifies the effort.
In addition to the intellectual stimulus, I love rediscovering my hunting instincts and awakening my senses, so asleep in urban life. In the last few years I have enjoyed events in the most varied places. Nevertheless, it is not the same to take part in events directed by other falconers as being the one who has his bird in the air.
What is your personal experience with falconry? Give you some insight into your own prized collection?
I have practised falconry mainly with goshawks. I remember that in my early days I longed so much to hunt my first prey that I made up to 23 tries in one day in order to achieve it. It turned out to be a nice event. When I spotted a distant magpie, I released the jesses. At that moment I learnt that a falconer is a hunter with two legs and two wings. He has to read the field, the wind, the behaviour and reactions of its birds and develop a strategy.
For different reasons there was a point in my life when I had to take a ‘sabbatical period’ as an active falconer. I have made the most of it writing my doctoral thesis, travelling, writing books, developing documentaries, and flying with many different partners. Recently, I have achieved the recognition from the Government of Spain of falconry as Cultural Heritage.
What is the international fascination with Falconry? What have you seen on your travels?
Man can walk or run, dominating the terrestrial space; swim and even dive, knowing the aquatic element. But there is something we have not achieved and has fascinated us ever since we first appeared on Earth, and that is to be able to fly the sky ourselves. To discover, by means of falconry, the solid and at the same time free alliance that we can establish with the princes of the clouds is what has kept this ancient hunting art alive across the centuries.
When a falcon flies, we falconers in the whole world are brothers. It does not matter about our culture, religion, wealth or age. Borders disappear and we rapidly discover that what joins us is much stronger than what separates us.
What does it take to train a falcon?
It means love for the birds of prey, knowledge of their uses and needs, capacity of observation, and determination to take decisions, devotion, perseverance, humility, time and a certain infrastructure — actually it takes highly desirable qualities in a man. It is not a coincidence that the term ‘gentleman’ in medieval English meant ‘the man who keeps peregrine falcons’.
Is there anything you would like to pass on to readers?
I will be in Abu Dhabi in mid-August, as the representative of the Ministry of Culture of Spain, to sign the adherence of our government to the multinational proposal of United Arab Emirates before UNESCO. We claim that falconry is recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humankind in almost a dozen countries.
Personally, it is a double satisfaction. On the one hand we can see that the guarantee that our passion survives in time is closer, preserving the present singularities in every culture. On the other hand, as a Spanish man, I feel grateful to the Arab people for the enormous cultural contribution that they have bequeathed to my country for eight centuries. We have many things in common. For instance, few people in Europe know that the use of the hood came with the Arabs to Spain a long time before Central Europe led crusades to the Holy Land — I consider it important to keep on working for the acknowledgement of the trace of the Arab culture in Spain and in the rest of Europe.
Published by Motivate Publishing with the support and encouragement of Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage, Falconry — Celebrating A Living Heritage is priced at Dhs200. It is available at all leading retail outlets in the Gulf and online at www.booksarabia.com.