For Palestinians, Raising Arabian Horses Is ‘the Hobby of the Poor’
JERUSALEM — In the violent East Jerusalem slum of Issawiya, trash burned next to an open bin, filling the air with an acrid stench. Arabic graffiti covered a stone wall on one side of a steep lane scattered with stones left from clashes between Palestinian residents and Israeli soldiers. A knot of children stopped and eyed two strangers with suspicion.
Then a gray metal gate rumbled open near the top of the street. A pair of exquisitely groomed Arabian horses emerged, their hooves clacking on the dusty pavement. The horses pranced toward the center of town with their riders, Alaa Mustafa, 24, and his cousin Oday Muheisan, 19. Behind them, the open gate revealed a tiny, five-sided lot for exercising horses and a stable with a dozen stalls amid a jumble of apartment buildings.
The two gleaming black horses, certified purebreds named Rawnaq and Furys, provided a glimpse of a Palestinian passion — some call it an obsession — for raising show horses, racehorses and more modest steeds in what might seem like impossible conditions. The horses are bred and to some extent trained in gritty East Jerusalem neighborhoods like Issawiya, Tur and Jabal al-Mukaber, often by families who struggle to share tiny, cramped homes.
“In America, they call raising horses the hobby of the rich,” said Muhamed Hamdan, 25, a Palestinian trainer who studied in the United States. “Here, it’s the hobby of the poor.”
Although the stables are usually tight and dingy, their surroundings can be breathtaking. One recent evening, darkness fell on a tumbledown stable hidden among olive trees on a hill above the Garden of Gethsemane. Fares Salim, 22, led a white mare out of her stall and held the bridle high. Behind them were the minarets and steeples of Jerusalem’s Old City and the golden Dome of the Rock.
Larger stables dot villages and towns of every size in the occupied West Bank, and many families raise their own horses. Trainers like Mr. Hamdan, who runs a stable with two dozen horses in Turmusaya, about a 90-minute drive north of Jerusalem, also are paid to get the horses ready to compete in shows and races — or simply look good as they canter through the area’s streets, valleys, olive groves and stony hills.
Alaa Mustafa, 24, trains an Arabian horse named Rawnaq at a stable in the neighborhood of Issawiya. Credit Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
Some wealthy Palestinians share the same passion, operating ranches surrounded by little more than Bedouin shanty towns and scrubland reminiscent of the American West, and trainers race through the landscape with the abandon of extras in a cowboy movie.
“If you don’t love horses, you’re not living,” said Shadi Abu Obeid, a businessman who owns a ranch with 28 horses.
Many Palestinians say that affection helps them endure life under Israeli occupation. Palestinians and Israelis in the business, as well as foreign trainers and judges who know the region, say that Arabian horses have another effect that is almost magical: They coax Israelis and Palestinians into the same arenas, where the conflict briefly melts away and everyone admires the horses as they strut, dance, gallop and compete for trophies.
“The Arabian horse makes the world so small and puts people together,” said Renata Schibler, a Swiss official with the European Conference of Arab Horse Organizations, who volunteers as a judge in horse shows — essentially, beauty contests — in Israel, where both Israeli and Palestinian horses compete. “The Israelis, Palestinians, sitting together, enjoying the horses. It’s difficult to describe.”
Tareq al-Sheikh, the general manager of a youth sports club in Jericho that has a full-size racetrack, training fields and stalls for 97 horses, said that enthusiasm has soared in the past 10 to 15 years. He estimated that nearly 1,000 families now keep horses in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Other enthusiasts and trainers put the number in the tens of thousands, but no one seems to have an official count.
That day in Issawiya, Ali Attiyah, 13, stood with a group of friends watching as the cousins wound through the neighborhood’s crowded main market on their mounts. “We know these guys — they’re from the Mustafa family,” Mr. Attiyah said. “They have the best horses!”
Riding sparks the same dreams as sports in any city. On another day, Rasha Abdeen explained why she brought her son, Zain, 10, for lessons at a training area with wooden barriers and brightly painted tires in Tur. “First of all, my son loves animals,” she said. “The second reason is, one day I anticipate my son will be a professional horseman.”
Mohammad al-Eisawi, 39, and his son Majd, 5, atop an Arabian horse named Furys near Issawiya. Credit Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
The Palestinian brand of horse expert is short on pastoral niceties and long on urban brashness. “When you bring a kid from a refugee camp, he’s street-smart, savvy,” said Nadar al-Demary, a trainer from Jabal al-Mukaber who works and teaches at the stable and riding school in Tur, with a view all the way to the Dead Sea.
An echo of American urban culture is hard to miss. Amir Kartom, 38, who was born and raised in Chicago but recently moved to the West Bank to join family, said he was stabling his first horse with Mr. Hamdan, in Turmusaya. “I love horses, man, since the day I was born,” Mr. Kartom said in English.
As a boy, Mr. Hamdan studied with Michael Byatt, a well-known trainer and breeder based in Houston. Reached by telephone, Mr. Byatt called Mr. Hamdan “a brilliant little kid,” recalling that he had corralled a runaway horse at a show in Kentucky before Mr. Byatt’s staff could react.
Palestinian horses have begun turning heads at shows in Israel, said Eli Kahaloon, who with his wife, Chen Kedar, owns a well-known Israeli stable called Ariela Arabians.
Mr. Kahaloon estimated that of the 165 or so horses at a show he attended in northern Israel in May, 60 percent to 70 percent were owned by Palestinian citizens of Israel. He said that 10 to 20 horses had arrived from the West Bank, despite the complexity of obtaining permits and bringing them through military checkpoints.
Mr. Kahaloon said that in the past decade or more, Palestinians had greatly improved the quality of their stock by purchasing better horses for breeding. In the V.I.P. section of the stands at the show, groups of Israeli and Palestinian breeders amiably mingled and cheered for their respective horses.