Asil as a cultural notion

By Edouard Aldahdah

Posted on March 12th, 2010 in General

This is an excerpt from Christa Salamandra’s book “A New Old Damascus: Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria”, which I am about to finish reading. It has nothing to do with horses nor with Bedouins, but I thought you’d find her characterization of ‘asala’, authenticity, (from which ‘asil’, “he who is authentic”) interesting:

“In Syria, as elsewhere in the Middle East, modernist notions of authenticity operate alongside and sometimes merge with indegenous understandings. The concept of authenticity, asala, has long been an important component of notions of the self and society in Arabic-speaking regions. Derived from the Arabic root, A-S-L, asala, “authenticity”, is related to asl, which translates as “origin”, “source”, “root”, and “descent”. Asl refers to a person’s social, genealogical, or geographic origins, or to the place from which his or her roots extend.”

Then follows a discussion of the Western roots of this notion of asala and asil, which the authors traces to Romanticism in Europe, and the longing for everything pristine and unspoilt, and that’s when things becomes extrememly interesting, if applied to Arabian horses. It might (just might, because this is a complex issue, which needs more research) mean that Bedouins did not primarily refer to their horses as “asil”, at least not when interacting with each other.

What is sure, in any case, is that the notion of asil as identified above is a cultural one, and not a zoological one.


20 Responses to “Asil as a cultural notion”

  1. Thanks Edouard for pointing this out. It is so true. I do think Asil is a concept that has to be given breathing room to adapt to the various tribal and regional related cultures that rely on it. It also has to be free to evolve in a cultural way and not be constrained to the exacting bits of data that try to define species boundaries. After all, most domesticated species are the product of cultural decisions and needs.

    I have said before that it is first the culture that determines the Arabian horse and then the western world has to understand it and make its own decisions as to what degree it wishes to remain in that context.

    The challenge of this approach today for some is that as parts of the modern Middle East have drawn upon the full palette of all Eastern and Western thinking about what constitutes an Arabian horse, a choice has to be made between those horses who entire ancestry seem to stem from originating cultures and those that contain fragments of broader cultural infusion. A line is not easily drawn and each is left to make their own study and then their own choices.

  2. Wonderful food for thought, both of you! This is the sort of thing that could fill a good evening with conversation!

  3. I don’t remember the Blunts or Homer Davenport using the word “asil” to describe horses. The Blunts used “mazbut” and Davenport talked about “chubby” horses.

  4. Interesting point RJ. No doubt the idiomatic expressions would vary from tribe to tribe but still with the same intent. W.R. Brown in his writings discusses also the terms Kochlani and Hadud as well, terms signifying Bedouin accepted purity. These terms are probably also from Raswan’s writings as well.

  5. I would like to add one other thing to my first statement above where I said: “…. that it is first the culture that determines the Arabian horse and then the western world has to understand it and make its own decisions as to what degree it wishes to remain in that context.”

    Actually my saying this was inspired long ago by the small advertisements and writings in the early 1970s by Charles Craver on the theme of how to fit the original type Arabian into our western way of life. Reading this was a great inspiration to me fueled by (in 1970) the very first picture of an Arabian I saw in a book: the photo of the Bedouin bidding goodbye to the stallion Haleb before his being shipped to the U.S. by Homer Davenport in 1906.

  6. Edouard’s article, “What is Asil” explains that “chubby”–or shubuw, is a different concept than asil.

    I don’t believe he has yet talked about mazbut in any great depth, save to say that it means well ascertained and well authenticated.

  7. The more I think about the term asil as applied to the Arabian horse, the more it downs to me that it is a term applied by non-Bedouin Arabs to speak of the Bedouin Arab horse. I have never seen it in Bedouin-written hujjah, either. The point RJ makes is very well taken, and will send me on a search to look it up in the writings of other travelers.

  8. the term “Asil” means a horse that all his parents are known to the breeder
    ,i.e a Quarter horse is “Asil”,a thouroughbred is “Asil” a Polish Arabian ,called by some as part-bred, is under this definition also “Asil”

  9. Edouard, your posting started me wondering who introduced the word “asil” into English language discussions of Arabian horses. The word is very commonly used nowadays, but I can’t remember seeing it in the writings of the Blunts or Homer Davenport. The Blunts wanted their foundation horses to be “mazbut,” and Homer Davenport wanted his to be “chubby,” which as Jenny points out are slightly different concepts. Maybe it was Carl Raswan or W.R. Brown who first used it? I just haven’t had time to research this.

  10. Hmm.. this is worth dedicating some time to research where and how the word asil first came about, as applied to Arabian horses.

    “chubby” simply means “can be mated” or “worthy to be mated”. It means that such horses either (1) belong to a line, family, genealogy that is so well-respected, treasured and precious that they are worthy to be selected for purposes of perpetuating the breed, or (2) have the necessary individual qualities that make them worthy to perpetute the breed, or (3) both. Of course this implies that any horse who is “yushabby” (Davenport’s “chubby”) is de facto asil. But the reverse is not true: not all asil horses are “yushabby”.

    “mazbut” is an altogether different concept, to which I will come back to at a later point, including to discuss its etymology. It is the concept which Bedouins made and still make most use of.

  11. I just did find it in Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates, pp202-3, quoting Smeyr on the possibility of a “Nejd Breed.” “All Bedouins have the same breeds of horses. There are none other asil.”

  12. A reminder: who was Smeyr? Their guide? A Bedouin or a town guy?

  13. Tweedie comments in some length: The Arabian Horse, p247, “The tree of a-sa-lat is known by its fruits. The Bedouin Arabs hold that a mare which is not a-sil cannot take care of her rider in al ghaz-u. It may be assumed that they are right in this belief. If they had not discovered that purity of blood was an essential qualification, they would not have been so careful to produce it and maintain it….”

  14. Tweedie again, p249-250: “When in foray or otherwise he obtains possession of a mare which is only ‘the daughter of’ an a-sil one—i.e., ‘half-bred’—he does not continue her line….”

  15. Raswan uses asil in his early writings, defining it as implying purity in related strains as well as in blood generally.

  16. Thanks Jeanne, it is good to have those references. I do remember the “there are none other asil” comment now you mention it. Still, my recollection is that, regarding Lady Anne’s own horses, she spoke of wanting stock that was “mazbut.”

  17. Another interesting post.
    I realise that my observations are a bit superfluous as there are knowledgable Arab people posting on here but… when we rode to Jordan we daily encountered people who would comment on Sealeah my husband’s beautiful Arab mare, the first time was as we were riding along a river in northern Syria, a Bedouin herding his sheep ran across pointing at Sealeah smiling and waving and shouting that she was Arabi, Asil. More often we would be talking to people who would ask if she was Asil ( We always said yes, I understood Asil to mean purebred and I understood our mare to be purebred, which she is in terms of WAHO I realise this is blasphemy to many of you but I said it in all innocence/ignorance!) This was always followed by expressions of joy which on several occasions resulted in a pied piper like effect with crowds of children following and admiring Sealeah as the royalty that she considers herself to be. On other occasions people would TELL us that she was Asil pointing out features that revealed this.
    All the above was a mix of Bedouin who we met or shared camp with and town people.
    A use which has always confused me is that on one occasion we were sleeping in the desert with some Bedouin friends, they had tethered a sparrow (poor thing) as bait to try to catch a Saghor (bird of prey), which they hoped to sell in Saudi. I am glad, though they were friends of ours, to report that they failed in their quest. Harry, my husband asked Swelem how much they could sell the bird for, he quoted a price but said that that would only be if the bird was Asil. We checked carefully that we hadn’t misheard and that the word was Asil… so how does the concept of Asil apply to a wild bird???

  18. If the bird shows physical characteristics that are not specific to the breed, then he is not asil. Like any Bedouin or any person for that matter, when tell you that a paint horse is definitely not an asil arabian.. just by looking at it.

    But the bird (or the horse) may not display any of these features illustrative of foreign blood, and still not be asil (e..g, your Skowronek mare).

  19. I see how that could be for domestic breeds of birds but most wild species are pretty fixed phenotypically aren’t they??
    A bird can be identified by its phenotype definitively to be of a certain species, even closely related, similar species can be distinguished by reliable markers. Wild hybrid raptors must be a very rare occurence indeed, surely so rare that it would not be a situation that Swelem would be considering? In as much as one definition of species is that it will only breed with it’s own kind (though water birds etc do occasionally hybridise) I would say that all wild birds of prey are by definition ‘Asil’ in that they are pure not crossbred.
    I have wondered since if Swelem was just trying to explain to us that he needed a hawk of a certain species, using terms that he thought we would understand? Anyway, just a side issue really….sorry!
    At least a good example of how easy it is for these terms to be misunderstood by foreigners when there is (even a partial) language barrier, and in this case certainly no intention to mislead…
    As for Sealeah, I did not mean to imply that the fact that people thought her Asil by her physical features means that it is so, just that that was our experience!

  20. a little bit more:
    Chapter III – The Horse (“The Pure-Bred Arabian Horse” Carlo Guarmani (edited by Angelo Pesce; Translated by Philip Ward) 1984 from the 1864 original – El Kamsa: il Cavallo Arabo Puro deserti dell’Arabia. The first edition, translated from the original French Manuscript by Dr Ansaldo Feletti of Bologna. First paragraph reads: “Horses are divided into three groups: the ‘asl’, ‘shalat’, and ‘kadisha’. The ‘asl’ is the pure-blooded, pure-bred, the ‘known race’. The ‘shalat’ is the half-bred, of doubtful breed, a word still used of the young produced by crossing an ‘asl’ with a ‘kadisha’. The ‘kadisha’ is the ordinary, average horse.” The author continues in Chapter IV – Conclusion: “ However, this seeming perfection will not endure, since only a true ‘asl’ will bear offspring of a like perfection. Degenerate blood must have recourse to ‘asl’ stock if it is to avoid gradual deterioration.”

    To continue with Tweedie’s manuscript (Page 94 Book 2 Chap2 ‘Where did the Arabs come from?’ ”The Arab Horse: His Country and People” 1894) : “This comes out in the word a-sîl-having for primary idea established on a sure foundation-which in Arabia forms the equivalent of our ” old,” as applied to birth. What the arch is in masonry, a-sa-lat, or a deeply laid foundation, is in the Arab’s view of breeding.” This to me has more reality to in a cultural sense as notioned by Christa Salamandra.

    The interesting is the non use of the term asl/asil by the Russian travellers… they followed the Blunts into the Arabian Peninsula using the Blunts notes, terms and travel notes. However, they do use the term ‘kadisha’ but I haven’t found them referring to ‘asl/asil’ as yet. They do refer to Kehailan as the base group for the strains. As per RD Upton’s thoughts below and with reflection, with the Bedouin being the ‘creators’ so-to-speak, why would they have a need to actually refer to something as asl/asil? They know what they are on about and use the terms which they are ‘up to speed with’ ie their current (as of the day) strain protocol. Hence the time that it took Lady Blunt to succumb to accepting that they were all of the one breed as Mutlak kept reminding her (as per her diaries in ‘Journal and Correspondence’).

    Similarly, within Major RD Upton’s “Gleaning from the Desert of Arabia” (1881) Part 3 – ‘They contented themselves with mules or Kidishes or Gadishes (geldings or horses of a common kind), not Arabians.’ He doesn’t specifically use the term asl/asil but does use ‘kidish’! This suggests there there should be contrary/antonym? Although, like the Russians, he refers to the “Kuhl race” and “Keheilan is the generic name of Kuhl or Arabian breed of horses.”

    Major RD Upton also continues in his “Newmarket and Arabia” 1873 – ‘His Habitat’ Part 2, Chapter 3 : “A man possessing an Arab horse says he is of such and such a breed, instead of saying, of such a family of the Arabian breed…” he further continues (page 160 (2001 edition)) and refers to “…three classes, according to the nice discrimination of the Bedouin (although of the same blood) would explain the statement that there are three distinct breeds; which statement, made in good faith, has nevertheless misled many, and caused much confusion; but only required a little futher investigation to get at the bottom of it.” In this segment, in summary, he states the first is pure, the second is mixed and the third hold no claim to the first two! He himself tends to refer to the original source desert-bred horse as a ‘Nejdee’.

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