DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — An old Bedouin recently emerged from the desert into this cement, glass and neon city on the Persian Gulf coast carrying a favorite falcon, which had fallen ill.
He went straight to David and Cheryl Remple, an American couple who run a hospital in Dubai for the prized hunting birds.
"He'd never been in a hospital before," Cheryl Remple said. "When we tried to explain what we had to do, he said he'd just as soon let the bird loose--for certain death. It was too confusing for him."
The Remples work on the border between the old and the new, their modern hospital catering to birds at the center of a centuries-old Arab passion.
Spartan, Nomadic Life
Falconry is one of the few traditions left from a Spartan, nomadic life that, until a few decades ago, afforded little leisure.
Along with camel racing, it remains an enthusiasm pursued as ardently by the old Bedouins of the desert as by city dwellers made fabulously rich by oil.
"We get guys in here who used to fight in the tribal camel wars and this kind of stuff," said Lindsay Oaks, a Colorado native who works as a part-time veterinarian in the hospital set up by Dubai's ruling Maktoum family.
Much has changed in the desert, and the Bedouins now usually travel by pick-up truck. But the truck will be parked in the sand outside the tent, and matters such as disease and death are still traditionally left in God's hands.
If a falcon dies in the Remples' care, "the Bedouins always say 'It's God's will, don't worry about it,' " David Remple said. "But the flip side is, no matter how hard you work and no matter what a hero you are, when the falcon gets better, it's God's will too."
In the past, falcons were caught during their autumn migration from Russia to Africa and then trained to hunt other desert fowl during the winter months.
Before the fatal heat of summer arrived, they were released for the journey back to cooler climates.
Today, falconry is more of a sport than a means of subsistence. Most falcons are bought rather than caught--for prices ranging up to tens of thousands of dollars.
Air Conditioning Helps
Royal family members buy scores of birds and give or loan them to friends and acquaintances.
Air conditioning allows falconers to keep their prized birds all year round.