By Edouard Al-Dahdah © copyright 2002. A version of this article was published in the Khamsat magazine in 2002.
This article will discuss horse racing in the Republic of Lebanon and its impact on the breeding of pure-bred Arabian horses in Lebanon and Syria during the past century, especially in the period extendinf from the nineteen forties until the present time. Racing was and is still a popular activity in Middle Eastern countries other than Lebanon, especially in Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia. In more recent times, Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates have taken the lead in promoting this sport, which they claim as part of the ancient Bedouin culture. However, long-distance endurance racing among the Bedouin is radically different from the short-distance races typically managed by a Western-style jockey club, and for this reason it will not be tackled here. I hope to be able to address the development of racing in the previously mentioned countries in subsequent articles.
In 1915, wealthy businessman Alfred Sursock and a few others convened to organize races every Sunday in a small racetrack outside the port city of Beirut, then a city of the Ottoman Empire and not yet the capital of Lebanon. An Arabian horse association seems to have been in existence as early as 1880, but it does not seem to have been very active, or if it was, no recorded activity has come to my attention. It is interesting to note that in both Egypt and Lebanon, Middle Eastern Christians (Greeks and Italians in Egypt such as Michealides and Casdugli and Oriental Christians in Lebanon such as Alfred Sursock and Henri Pharaon) were involved in racing activities. The racing models were inspired by the British (directly through England and indirectly through British horse-racing in India) and the French. This was due to a variety of reasons. Primarily, urban Christians were generally more westernized than their Muslim counterparts and also the association of racing with gambling was an activity prohibited by Islam insofar as money or some other material reward was involved.In the beginning, most of the horses were Bedouin-bred or traced exclusively to Bedouin-bred stock. They were mostly named after their strains (e.g., al-Khdili, al-Nkhayshi) in an indication that a ‘racing’ culture with particular naming patterns had not yet emerged. The number of races was fairly limited and involved only a handful of horses and individuals. However, as racing became increasingly more popular in Lebanon and Syria under the French mandate (1920-1943), the activity turned into a full-fledged industry directly employing hundreds of people, providing an indirect source of income for thousands and entertainment for tens of thousands of others. By 1921, the old racetrack had become too small to accommodate the growing number of horses and spectators, and a new racetrack and stables were built in a public park covered with pine trees, next to the “Residence des Pins”, the site of the French High Commissioner (later the French Embassy). It was to be known later on as the Hippodrome du Parc des Pins. The land belonged to the Municipality of Beirut, which leased it some time in the 1940’s to the “Societe Pour la Protection et l’Amelioration de la Race Chevaline Arabe” (SPARCA), a not for profit jockey-club-like organization tracing to the older Arabian horse society. By the terms of this agreement, SPARCA was to manage the Beirut racetrack and give the municipality a certain percentage of the remittances from gambling activities. This growing popularity of the racing industry was to cause the Arabian breed in Lebanon and neighboring Syria to flourish and develop to levels never witnessed before. Ironically, it was also ultimately responsible for the demise of the breed. Industrialized Horse Breeding
Two main aspects of this industrialization of horse racing bear examination, leaving out other less important features. First, there was the creation of a “national” arabian breed, mainly geared towards racing in the newly created states of Lebanon and (to a lesser extent) Syria. Upon being granted their independence by France in 1943 and 1946 respectively, the two countries found a set of well-functioning institutions left behind by the French. Among these were the French Cavalry Remounts, with their large collections of first and second-generation desert Arabian stallions. The French Remount Center, located in the town of Eblah in the Biqaa Valley of Lebanon, was inherited by the Ministry of Agriculture. The stallions remained there, albeit with a different mission: they were no longer used to regenerate the French cavalry, but to participate in the creation of a new Arabian horse, bred essentially for racing purposes. The centers for this new “national” breed, or what I would call the “Lebanese Arabian” were the two main agricultural regions of Lebanon. These were the fertile plains of the ‘Akkar and the Biqaa, as well as the Buqay’a plain west of Homs in Central Syria. In fact, the rich, landed families and clans of the Akkar, the Biqaa and the Buqay’a plain had owned and bred Asil Arabian horses for a long time, and each family specialized in breeding a particular strain of Arabians. Hence, one branch of the Mir‘arbi landlords of ‘Akkar, those settled in the village of ‘Uyun al-Ghizlan bred Kuhaylan Dunaysan (originally from the Sbaah tribe), while another branch bred Kuhaylan Tamri. In the Biqaa, land ownership was more fractioned and so was the breeding of Arabians. The ‘Arajis of Zahle owned a fine breed of Ma’anaqi Hadraji, the Farah of the same town owned Kuhaylan Musinn, and the Mutrans of Baalbeck owned Shuwayman Sabbah. However, the Hindis of Zahle and Hawsh Hala, who owned a good breed of Saadan Tugan, and their neighbors the Khamees of Rayak, who bred the Shaykhan, ran the biggest horse-breeding ventures in that area. Finally, in the Syrian Buqay’a plain, the numerous families and sections of the Dandashis of Tall Kalakh possessed a multitude of different strains that would be too long to list. I will restrict myself to citing the Kuhaylan Nuwwag of Dabbah Agha al-Dandashi, the Saglawi of Abd al-Karim al-Dandashi and the Jilfan Sattam al-Bulad of Abdallah Agha al-Umar al-Dandashi, as well as the centuries-old breed of Hazqan Masrabi, which were present among the family as a whole. In general, it is not an exaggeration to state that the Asil horses of the Dandashis constituted the core of the Lebanese Arabian breed. Of course, other regions and landowning families of Central and Southern Syria also had their share in the building blocks of the Lebanese Arabian, and one could close this list with a mention of the Hadban al-Fawa’ira and the Saglawi Jedrans bred by the Suwaydan of Jusiah, as well as the Kuhaylan al-Kharas and Kuhaylan Krush owned by a number of families from the Syrian towns of Homs and Hama respectively. All these families maintained mostly producing broodmares and were not involved in breeding systematically for racing purposes until the forties. With their integration into the horse racing economy, hundreds of purebred Arabian mares joined the pool of the Lebanese Arabian, and were sent to the stallions of the Ministry of Agriculture (then Kuhaylan al-A’ama “the blind”, a Kuhaylan al-Kharas; Kuhaylan of the French, another Kuhaylan al-Kharas, and Nuwayran) to produce the first generation of properly Lebanese race horses. The best from this first generation returned to its stud duties after having performed well on the racetrack, and with continuous additions from the desert and from the offspring of the mares from the families mentioned above, the Asil Arabian horse of Lebanon was born. Those horses were handsome, well built, resilient and fast at the same time. By the 1940’s, they already traced to Bedouin horses of the Anazeh in the third or fourth generation, yet they had succeeded, with the help of constant infusion of desert blood, to retain their ancestral characteristics. In any case, they competed on the grass of the Hippodrome du Parc des Pins with horses coming directly from the desert, where another horse-based economy was in operation, different yet related to the horse economy of the fertile plains that we just overviewed. The second feature of the industrialization of horse racing was the development of a network of intermediaries. These were mainly horse-merchants but also local informants and veterinary doctors, linking the suppliers of horses (mainly from the horse-breeding Bedouin tribes but also from the landowning families of the Syrian and Lebanese plains) to the demanders (the owners of racehorses in Beirut).
The Horse Merchants
From the perspective of those living in the cities of the Middle East, these networks of horse merchants were the most knowledgeable (but not always the most trustworthy, depending on their interests), ready sources of information on the Bedouin tribes, their politics and their horses. Each spring, the horse merchants would roam the steppes of the Jazirah (Upper Mesopotamia, the region between the two rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates) and the Shamiyah (or Badiat al-Sham, the Syrian steppe between Damascus and Baghdad) in search of young colts to satisfy the appetite of Beirut’s wealthy horse-racers for prestige and money. The colts would be taken in caravans to the nearest city, where they waited for their papers to be completed, before they were sent to Beirut. Their final destination was Horsh Beirut, the pine forest adjacent to the racetrack, where potential buyers and their trainers came to gauge them, and where the bulk of the transactions were concluded. Sometimes, horse-merchants went on their journeys with special instructions from the Beirut horse owners, looking for the younger brother of a horse that had made it big on the racetrack, or for the progeny of a stallion that had raced in Beirut and was returned to the desert for breeding. Such instances must have been fairly uncommon however, given that horse merchants tended to keep the rare find for themselves and sell it in the Horsh at inflated prices. In any case, most of the serious owners who could afford it would go on buying trips on their own, sometimes spending weeks in the desert in search for the would-be champion. Such was the case of Maroun Misk, a Lebanese gentleman with a passion for Asil horses and an insatiable curiosity about the correctness of their breeding. Each major horse merchant had his preferred addresses and contacts; some even had ‘territories’ of their own, where they had priority over other horse merchants. Khudr Michuu (among a variety of other spellings) was the uncontested leader of the guild based in Beirut. He was a fixture of the racing scene for several decades. While he specialized in dealings between Beirut and Cairo, his activities extended well beyond Egypt and Lebanon to reach the entire Middle East. Abdul-Hafiz al-Zayn (ez-Zein, Ezzin, etc.) focused on the Anazeh confederation, the Fedaan and the Sbaa tribes in particular; Shaheen ‘Iqab dealt exclusively with horses coming from Iraq; Abdul-Qadir Hammami had his main ‘portfolio’ among the Jazirah tribes (mainly the Shammar, but also the Jboor, the Tayy and other smaller tribes). There were many more, operating on a smaller scale, but what these four put together accounted for most of the transactions conducted with the tribes. Had any of these ‘Big Four’ been alive today, or had they left any written accounts of their journeys and their encounters, or even lists of the horses they bought and sold over the years, we would have been much better off today in our quest for the roots of the Arabian horses now living in the United States, for their names are associated with many of the horses we yearn to know more about. However, all of them died and with nobody to perpetuate their legacy, entire chapters of the modern history of the Arabian horse in the Middle East accompanied them to their graves. I was lucky to have known Hammami in his last years. I was sixteen, he was eighty-four. He told me that he had started his career of horse-merchant at my age. He had retired to Aleppo, where he oversaw the breeding of purebred Arabians at some of the big farms in the outskirts of the city. He was not the most amicable of men to say the least, and was quick to lose his temper if one happened to disagree with him on virtually anything that had to do with horses. Therefore talking to Hammami was by no means an easy job, let alone listening to him talk. Regardless of the subject one had in mind when coming to see him, and following a fleeting mention of the word ‘race’ in the conversation, Hammami would engage in a long recollection of his Beirut memories (something in which I was not especially interested at the time) with special emphasis on the horses connected to him and their racing performances, before finally saying something like: “so, what did you say you wanted to know about these Shuwaymat?” How I wish I had paid more attention to Hammami’s sidetrack stories!His last deal involved the purchase of three mares and a stallion, all smuggled in from Iraq with help from what remained of his connections, and their subsequent sale to an the ice-cream seller in the old town of Aleppo. Among these was a wonderful black Kuhayla Krush mare of the Shammar and her colt, originally owned by the sons of Atallah al-Nassar of Shammar, and from the strain that belonged to ‘Ali al-Basha, son of Basha al-‘Awasi, (great-grandson of Farhan Pasha al-Jarba). She was one of the few mares left that was known for certain to trace back to the famed ‘white Krush’ of the Mutayr tribe (Many owners of Krush mares in Syria claim that their particular strain goes back to the original Mutayr root but few can substantiate this claim with evidence. As far as I know, the only other Krush horses in Syria known to trace back to the Mutayr horses are those of Ayadah Khalaf al-Qartah and those going back to Mayzar Abd al-Muhsin al-Jarba, both from the Shammar. All the other Krush horses trace back to the Fedaan root of the strain rather than to the Mutayr one). I tried a few times to get him to tell me how he brought these horses across the border, and all I would get would be a wink from his lone eye and a laugh.
The Golden Days
Hammami’s heydays were the 40’s and the 50’s. They coincided with the most glorious phase of the Hipprodome de Beyrouth which, under the direction of Henri Pharaon (then the director of the Port of Beirut and the president of its banker’s association and by far the most eccentric and grandiose figure of his time) had become the place where the Beirut multi-confessional and cosmopolitan banking and commercial elite gathered on Sundays to discuss politics and horses, strike business deals and plan receptions, but also to see and be seen. No head of state, no royalty, from the Shah of Iran to the King of Greece and the President of France, would come to Lebanon without paying a visit to the Beirut racetrack. By doing so they were implicitly paying tribute to Pharaon and his colleagues in the SPARCA. On the horse side of the story, those were the days of al-Sabr Tayyib, Ataba, Aziza, Qabil, al-Nasr (the last four were sons and daughters of Saglawi Ebbo, the horse of Dari al-Mahmud of Shammar), Didane, Safizzamane, Mawj al-Atheer, Ghaddar, Ghuzayyil, Mirmirane, Shaykh al-Arab, al-Jazzar, Wahid al-Arab and others stars. All of these horses were desert bred, and most could boast of the purest of Asil origins. Ghaddar was a Hamdani al-Efri, al-Nasr and Didane were both Kuhaylan Dajani from the Jeheish tribe, Ghuzayyil and Mawj al-Atheer were Saglawi Marzakani from the Shammar, al-Jazzar and al-Sabr Tayyib were Kuhaylan Nuwag (the first from Sbaa and the second from the Naqashbandi Sufi ascetics of Deir el-Zor, if my recollection is correct). Mirmirane was an Abu Arqub from the region of Hama and Shaykh al-Arab, an Ubayyan Sharrak, came from the Shaykh of the Sbaa-Bteinat tribe, Rakan ibn Mirshid. Hammami was behind the acquisition of some of these horses, and he was justifiably proud of them.
The New Race Horses Arrive
However, this situation did not last, and by the mid fifties, the Horsh of Beirut began to witness the arrival of horses of another kind. Taller (often 16.0 hands and more), heavier, faster horses were flocking to Beirut in large convoys coming from Jordan and Iraq, especially from the vicinity of Bagdad. The new horses had several of the more flashy features of the desert Arabians: pronounced dishes, prominent jabhahs (jibbahs), arched necks, high tail carriage, yet they were not Arabians, but part-bred Arabs and some even contained high percentages of Thoroughbred blood. People did not know what to make of these horses. Looking back, there seems to have been a feeling that these horses were different from whatever had been known before, but there was apparently no awareness among the general public that these horses were less Asil than the Shamiyah and Jazirah desert-breds. People just thought of them as bigger and faster Arabs.