I am chatting to Anne-Lise Tropato, an art historian and research fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi, when there is a commotion at the front of the room. One of her students is in a spot of bother and looks terrified. "Are you OK?" shouts Tropato, suddenly concerned. For a moment, the student is caught up in a flurry of feathers and flapping wings. Order is quickly restored, but everyone is momentarily stunned. This, though, is only one of the small hazards of teaching a university course about falconry. Birds are more temperamental than books. It is the second class of a 14-week course called Falconry: Cultural Inheritance and Social Imaginary (a second course has already been scheduled for the spring term) and Tropato has invited Ayesha Al Mansoori, an Emirati falconer, to speak to the students. Al Mansoori has brought along one of her birds, an eight-month-old gyrfalcon called Yas, who only occasionally loses patience with all the attention.
This is not a practical course. The students will not leave with a leather glove, a jess and the skills to catch rodents with a bird of prey. Instead, Tropato, who specialises in the artistic and cultural history of falconry, wants to teach them about conservation, heritage, social hierarchy (is falconry a sporting competition or a social competition?), power (what is the matter of falconry: to see or to be seen?) and diplomacy. The many paintings and statues of falcons that have been given as gifts to the UAE and are on display at Qasr Al Watan, the presidential palace in Abu Dhabi, illustrate the high regard in which these birds are held across the Middle East.
Tropato became interested in the subject of falconry while working on a database of Old Master prints, investigating the notion of artistic property in early modern France. "I had the idea to develop a similar project for falconry," she says. "I wanted to establish a digital collection at NYU Abu Dhabi, drawn from artistic representations of various falconry cultures, and create narrative contexts for them based on artistic and historical research. For me, it was a spark, love at first sight." Now Tropato wants to share this newfound love with her students.
The introduction to the course curriculum states: "[Falconry] is a story of human imagination of self, society and the natural world. Engaging with texts, images and films, students will ask how humans use non-human species to understand and define ourselves, our civilisations and our aspirations across a range of ethnic, religious, historical and geographical differences." As one student explains, this is a chance to look "at the entire world and all of history" through a single lens. "That's really special," he says.
People have been practising falconry in the UAE for 4,000 years, primarily for hunting purposes. But as society has changed, so too has the role of falconry. It is now a heritage sport, included in 2016 in Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, something that persuaded Tropato, who was opposed to all forms of hunting, to reconsider her preconceptions about falconry. "It means a lot to be recognised by Unesco," she says. "Falconers are leading the way for the conservation of a lot of species and ecosystems. The relationships that humans have with these birds of prey really is unique. There is no equivalent in the world."
For many people, though, falconry is not only a window to the past; it also remains the glue that holds families and communities together. "As a piece of heritage, it connects the past, the present and the future," Tropato says.
Al Mansoori, for example, began to learn falconry from her father at the age of 5. She is now passing those skills on to her young daughter. “It was a very positive experience,” she says. “Dealing with falcons has made me quieter and more patient.”
It is worth noting as well that, in the space of one generation, the transfer of skills has altered: male to female has become female to female.
During the course, Tropato, who is also leading the Falconry Research Project at NYU Abu Dhabi, creating a database of falconry imagery across many centuries, will introduce her students to the myriad ideas, concepts and emotions that the falcon represents in culture: peace, youth, power and love. “The bird, as the beloved, will always be free to fly away and disappear,” she says.
They will study paintings and literature, from medieval treatises and Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century observations about falconry to Helen Macdonald's bestselling 2014 memoir H is for Hawk, and watch films such as Kes, Ken Loach's 1969 drama about a troubled British schoolboy who discovers his identity through falconry. "You [often] start to practise falconry in the transitional age between childhood and adulthood," Tropato explains. "It's a part of the allegory of youth." Tropato invited Al Mansoori to speak to her students early in the course because she wants to emphasise the importance of the relationship between gender and falconry. For thousands of years, falconry was a male-dominated world, but this is starting to evolve in step with the wider changes in society. In 2017, Al Mansoori began offering free falconry classes for women at Abu Dhabi Falconers' Club. Within a year, it had more than 50 members. "It's important to promote it as a sport and emphasise the role of women," she says.
Falconry forces us to interrogate traditional gender roles. The female falcon, for example, is bigger and more powerful than the male and yet historically, most falconers were men. What impact did this have on the relationship? Meanwhile, as Tropato points out, there is "the paradox of the capacity for women to nurture and the instinct of the hunter to kill". At one point, Tropato asks Al Mansoori if women make better falconers. "Inshallah," comes the diplomatic reply.
The banner on the poster advertising the course, which Tropato plastered all over campus, reads: “The history of falconry is not a hunting story.” I have only attended one class, but an hour in the company of Tropato and her students confirms the statement. The depth and breadth of the topics discussed is extraordinary. And all the while, a living incarnation of all this symbolism sits, hooded and unaware, right in front of us.
"Students were intrigued [by the posters], and took my class," Tropato says. "Now that they've attended a few lessons, they are starting to understand to what extent that sentence is true. It is much more than a hunting story and always has been."