When Ayesha Al Mansoori was four years old, she told her father she would be a falconer. Falcons are heavy for toddlers, so he bought her a small desert owl and taught her to earn the bird’s trust so it would eat from her hand.
“Sometimes I didn’t go to school and I’d go out to the desert with my father instead,” says Ms Al Mansoori. “If they would tell me they were going hunting, I’d tell them I would join them.”
As Al Mansoori grew older, her brother told her it was time to leave falconry behind. But her father insisted she still had a lot to learn. Now, when her father buys a falcon, he turns to her for advice.
Popular with sheikhs and young men who eulogise their falcons on Instagram, falconry is a multi-million-dirham industry in the Gulf. It's also a man's world. Like camel racing, women are almost completely absent from this heritage sport.
Ms Al Mansoori wants to change this. Last year, she paired up with South African falconer Angelique Engels to teach women introductory courses in bedouin and western falconry. Next month, they will begin women’s courses at the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club, near the Abu Dhabi airport.
Ms Al Mansoori had the idea years ago and twice applied for government funding to start a business. “They told me no woman in the UAE has a falcon,” says Ms Al Mansoori, who owns two garmooshas, two sakers and a gyrfalcon named Agab who is regularly perched in her office.
This dream was realised at the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club, who offer free classes for Emirati and expatriate women.
Ms Al Mansoori reached out to Ms Engels, who she had met at a Dubai hotel doing falconry demonstrations for guests. Ms Engels had come to Dubai via Bostwana, where she had used falconry in pest control.
The course provides women with all equipment, the use of the club’s falcons and more than 12 hours of introductory classes with Ms Al Mansoori and Ms Engels.
Classes launched last year at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition. There were 60 active members during the first season. About half of the students were Emirati, many of whom were already familiar with falconry but had not had the chance to practice it themselves.
Fifty women have enrolled for the 2017-2018 season.
Ms Al Mansoori and Ms Engels will teach in English and Arabic, providing a theoretical and practical introduction that includes history, hygiene, health, feeding and weight management, training and handling. Students will learn how to fix broken feathers, what to do if falcon gets too long in the beak or how to handle a falcon when it jumps.
Students will train with 11 trained falcons, as well as Ms Al Mansoori’s Agab, an eight-year-old gyr will flies to her at sight. “When I walk, she knows it’s me,” says Ms Al Mansoori, looking at Agab with affection. “She’s my friend, khalas.”
Agab’s calm nature makes her a popular falcon for hooding practice. To prove this point, Ms Al Mansoori plays an old video of her daughter Osha, seated in in a pram and patting Agab’s hood.
Two weeks ago, Ms Engels was watching videos of her own “babies”, five nearly featherless chicks travelling from Europe to Abu Dhabi who will be with the women’s section. “It’s very hard with falcons, you know, because they don’t have facial expressions,” said Ms Engels. “But they do have distinct personalities and even siblings are so different from one another that you can’t believe they have the same parent.”
Students can choose how much to interact with the falcons. Many progress from being wary of touching the bird to handling it with confidence.
Once the course is complete, students become club members and can train with the club’s falcons on a daily basis. For beginners, this is valuable encouragement. An inexpensive ‘starter’ falcon costs at least Dh5,000.
Classes are available for all ages. The youngest student is Ms Al Mansoori’s four-year-old daughter Osha who is already adept at hooding a falcon.
Ms Al Mansoori has raised her daughter with falcons since infancy. She shows one video of Osha, age one and a half, wandering towards her with a falconer’s glove in one hand and a hood in the other. Their desert trips inspired her to write a children’s book, Osha and Grandpa Matar.
Courses will begin in October. Lessons run for five consecutive days, Sunday to Thursday, or over two consecutive weekends. They are offered throughout the winter.
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