Battered Syrian town defies ISIS legacy with horse racing festival

Thousands flocked from across the country to watch event in area famous for pure-bred Arabian horses

Faisal, 14, after winning one of the races
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Amid cheering crowds and fine Arabian stallions, Syrian horse breeder Muhammad Zedan, 34, stood ecstatic on the sandy banks of a makeshift racetrack in the Arab town of Barri-Sharqi in eastern Hama.

“This area was a deadly front line known as the Triangle of Death, we endured harsh circumstances for over five long and bloody years when ISIS was here, we never thought we would live to see this day,” Mr Zedan told The National.

Thousands of horse lovers flocked from all over the country to witness a full day of racing, bazaars and celebrations on the outskirts of Salamiyeh, a city famous for its traditional pure-bred Arabian horses, in the Syrian desert.

“In 2019 we returned to a semblance of security [after ISIS was expelled] and I knew we just had to return to our horse-riding culture that embodies us. I created a large stable for those who cannot afford to ride and we started holding the annual festival,” he said.

The idyllic countryside was a spectacular setting for the festival last week, as children lined the stalls to eagerly catch three rounds of racing, with Arab tribes congregated and elders dressed in abayas watching on as activities commenced.

People gathered around jockey Mansour Zaytoun, 28, to celebrate his win.

Despite living with the shelling and the war, today takes away the dark mist in our lives
Mansour Zaytoun, horse race winner

“Despite living with the shelling and the war, today takes away the dark mist in our lives. I am a jockey who participates competitively and I was truly moved by racing today,” Mr Zaytoun told The National.

Horse breeding has been part of the culture in eastern Hama for centuries. Homes seldom operate without a horse for use in agricultural work or for racing.

Some are revered Tamarid or Arab horses with lineage going back 4,000 years.

They are some of the oldest and most popular horse breeds in the world. Their origins can be traced back to the Bedouin.

“This is who we are, in the desert, racing. It doesn’t matter who wins here, we are all winners, as the Syrian desert is home of the traditional Arabic horse.” Mr Zaytoun added.

Under a slogan “Awareness against the dangers of mines”, the festival connected with the Syrian Red Crescent to highlight the perils of the remnants of war in the area.

At the stalls an elderly resident Abu Ashraf talked about ISIS militants overrunning Syrian forces in 2017, and coming into the many undefended villages in the area.

Now we are at peace and happy ... but just a few years ago, this whole countryside was swept with pain and despair
Abu Ashraf, Barri-Sharqi resident

“Now we are at peace and happy, we are amongst men and horses, but just a few years ago, this whole countryside was swept with pain and despair and black flags of Satan [in reference to the ISIS banner],” he told The National.

“On any given morning you could wake up to hear your neighbour or your family member was gone, sometimes we woke up not knowing who controlled our villages. In nearby areas such as Aqareb and Maboujeh, they were piling up the bodies with tractors."

He looks on as the jockeys ride past.

“When I see the generation of today, I hope they will learn that life is about passion and desire to do good. We have seen so much misery, this festival here, it means the world to us,” he said.

But none of this would have been possible without Mr Zedan, whose horse-breeding prowess goes back to 2004 when he established a farm in the area with 35 horses.

“We will now hold the festival yearly and to see over four or five thousand attendees come for the spectacle left me speechless, as it’s a private enterprise.”

“In the worsening economic situation, we felt the need to do something to bring life back to people and horse lovers. Our children slept to the sound of artillery and now we need to get out of that.”

Mr Zedan has now seen his dream realised. “I have around 20 horses, it’s a truly Arabic setting and we will continue this for the future, Arabic horses that are here are not just for racing, they are pure breeds and endurance horses.”

Updated: September 29, 2023, 3:33 AM