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ALM Feature

Syrian Kurdish village breeds ancient Saluki dogs amid ravages of war

Wealthy Arabs from the Gulf — sheikhs, emirs and princes included — are some of the top customers of Syria's Saluki breeders.
Hatira, a Saluki who runs “like a bullet,” in Aliyaa, Syria on Nov. 22, 2023.
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ALIYAA, Syria — At the entrance of a small Kurdish village close to Syria’s border with Turkey an imposing villa sits incongruously amid a scattering of mudbrick dwellings. “I built this thanks to my 'Sloughis,'” said Bashar Derbas, a local farmer gesturing toward a pack of svelte sighthounds known in English as “Salukis.”

Before the outbreak of Syria’s civil conflict in 2011, Derbas and fellow villagers ran a small but profitable business breeding and selling Salukis. The dogs would fetch up to $2,000 per head, a fortune by local standards. Aliyaa, which lies 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) west of the town of al-Darbasiyah, soon came to be known as Saluki Village as the canine population grew to meet demand.

Their top customers were wealthy Arabs from the Gulf where for centuries Salukis have been used to hunt desert foxes, gazelles and hares, initially for survival and now for sport. Customers would drive across Iraq or fly into Qamishli or Aleppo airports to collect the dogs. “My customers included emirs from Kuwait and princes from Saudi Arabia,” Derbas boasted, browsing on his mobile phone with soil-stained fingers to produce proof of his claim. “Look. This is Prince Abdullah,” he exclaimed, holding up an image of a bearded Arab dressed in white robes.

Derbas acquired his first Saluki for hunting. It was spotted by a Saudi sheikh who was on a hunting expedition in the Syrian desert. “He wanted to buy it, but in our culture that is out of the question. If a visitor likes something, you give it [to them],” Derbas said. The exchange developed into a friendship and then a thriving commerce as word of the dogs’ prowess spread.

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