By Edouard Aldahdah
I came back from Bahrain with my head swirling with images of desert-bred Arabians, which still look like the way Arabians ought to look like (read: not like China dolls or sea horses or “living art”). One of the strains that survive over there — and nowhere else — is that of Kuhaylah Umm Zorayr, with a precious few mares left at the Royal Stud (below, a yearling from that strain in 1998, second photo credit Kina Murray).
In her “pearls of great price” article series, Judi Forbis mentions the strain in passing among the many strains Bahrain had preserved by the early 1970s, but without elaborating further. There is a bit more information on the website of the Royal Stud, which relates the wonderful story of an old black mare of that strain that was first believed to be way past breeding age, but when put back in training in 1969, produced a daughter that carried the line forward. I thought this was all there was.
Then, while flipping through the Abbas Pasha Manuscript — that bottomless treasure — I came across “the History of Kuhayla om Sareer”, and Her Name is Dahma”, on pages 580 and 581, and it occurred to me that this was the same strain, despite the slightly different spelling. From the testimony of Haizam ibn Hathleen, the leader of the ‘Ajman Bedouins, in the Manuscript:
“And the reason for her being called this is that her milk stopped flowing and her foal could not suckle. And they called her Kuhayla om Sareer, because her teats dried up. But otherwise she is Kuhayla ‘Ajuz of the horses of Beni Khaled.”
Some Arabic etymology is in order here. According to the Lesan al-Arab, the reference Arabic dictionary from the XIVth century, the Arabic verb “sarra” as applied to a she-camel, a mare, a goat, etc, means “to fasten its udder”; and a “sirar” is the string used to fasten the udder so that foals, calves, kids, etc, do not suckle. In the same dictionary, XIIth century Arab historian and linguist Ibn al-Athir is quoted as writing that [translation mine] “one Arab custom is to tie up the udder of milk-producing animals [with a string] when sending them to graze, and to undo the string and milk them upon their return in the evening“.
The word “surayyir”, a diminutive, is a small “sirar”, a small string to faster an udder. I believe its use for the strain name of Kuhaylah Umm Surayyir is metaphorical; the mare’s teats had dried up, the milk had stopped flowing, and the foal could not suckle, as if the mare’s udder had been fastened with a small “sirar”, a “surayyir”; hence the strain name, as it should be written and pronounced: Kuhaylah Umm Surayyir, or “Kuhaylah of the small string that ties the udder”.
Accordingly, the spelling “om Sareer” in the English translation of the Abbas Pasha Manuscript is incorrect. The editors seem to have vocalized the word as if it was not a diminutive, “sareer” and its diminutive “surayyir” being written in the same way in the absence of vocalization. The spelling “Umm Zorayr”, as adopted in Bahrain, is closer to the original “surayyir”, and seems to be a local variant, unless it was so transcribed by Dana al-Khalifah, the source of much of the English language materials about Bahraini horses.
Another reason other than etymology for the equivalence of the two strains of “om sareer” and “umm zorayr” has to do with color. The Kuhaylah “om sareer” in the Abbas Pasha Manuscript “was called al Dahma […] because she is sawdah [black]“, and all the horses from the strain were also known as Dahm, according to the Manuscript [Note: not the same as the Dahman strain]. The old matriarch of the Bahraini offshoot of the strain and subject of the story cited above, Kuhaylat Umm Zorayr 186, was also black, as so was her handsome grandson Kuhaylan Umm Zorayr Al-Dheleem 407 (photo below, photo credit Kina Murray in 1998), in a breeding program where black horses are rare.
By the way, and as an aside, the male version of the strain name poses something of a conundrum. One should not write “Umm” (mother) after the male noun Kuhaylan, but rather “Abu”, as in Kuhaylan Abu ‘Arqub, Abu Janub, or Ubayyan Abu Jreyss, etc, but in this specific case, the problem is that male horses obviously don’t have udders to fasten. The right reference to the strain name should therefore be: “Kuhaylan Ibn Umm Surayyir/Zorayr”, or “Kuhaylan son of the mare with the fastened udder”, rather than “Kuhaylan with the fastened udder”. Footnote: There is a similar case with another strain, no doubt for the same reason: [Kuhaylan] Ibn Umm Soura, also in the Abbas Pasha Manuscript. We don’t say Kuhaylan Abu Soura.
A third reason is the mention on the Bahrain Royal Studs website that “the stallions of this strain were much used for stud in the Najd in the mid 19th century”. Indeed, the Abbas Pasha Manuscript section on the Kuhaylah Om Sareer mentions at least two specific instances of using stallions of that strain as breeding stallions, one of these instances by Faysal Ibn Turki for his stud in Najd. Oh, the fascinating stories behind these desert Arabians.