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When Horses Fly: the Jericho Equestrian Club

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 20.10.2006:

by Leyla Zuaiter

On May 7 and 8, fifty people headed to the Jericho Equestrian Club for a day and a night of equestrian sports, games and a barbeque under the desert moon. The club is the centrepiece of the Yasser Arafat Martyr Complex for Sport and Culture. This oasis within an oasis on the outskirts of town comprises a hotel, fitness centre, football stadium, cultural centre, botanic garden and a bird watching station. Getting there is like a journey into the source of Arab culture, as layer upon layer of civilization is stripped away, leaving only the desert. Driving past the glitzy Intercontinental Hotel, past the area of homes with red, white, purple and peach bougainvillea spilling over walls, and past banana groves, you might see camels in the scrub or have your path blocked by a herd of goats. Now and then a dust devil swirls up as the desert reclaims abandoned, crumbling mud brick buildings.

But at the club, the scene is lively and contemporary as Palestinians and foreign residents of all ages and walks of life meet and mingle. The illusion of a whole other world has been created with a few props in the outdoor rectangular riding ring. Youngsters carry multicoloured striped poles resembling candy sticks and place them to form jumps. Plastic benches surrounded by plants and numbered signs, informing the spectators in the shaded bleachers of the sequence of the jumps, have been placed attractively next to them. The prize ribbons are attached to the raised judges’ box.

Overseeing the activities are Hassan Bazlamit and Nancy Zeitlin, a study in opposites. Tall, fit, and with regal bearing, Hassan, in his black riding boots and inimitably arranged black and white kefiya, forms a contrast with the camel coloured sand. The children respond with alacrity to the military-like commands of this returned refugee, many of them welcoming the unaccustomed discipline. Others, however, appreciate the calm, patient appeal to reason offered by the petite, American-born Nancy.

After watching the more experienced riders in the show-jumping competition, we move to the indoor ring where the younger or less experienced riders can show their stuff. Zaid Hawwash, aged six, has only been riding three months, but he has won third place in dressage. Khaled Franji and Mu’taz Zakarna, two older, more experienced riders judge the younger ones, thus increasing their own skills. After lunch, there is a lecture on horse care and stable management followed by gymkhana games. With the lengthening shadows, the participants unwind and the dog races begin. The setting sun finds us at a distance from the stables where a campfire has been built in the sand and a tent set up for the lucky youngsters invited to the overnight birthday party of one of the club members. As the children continue their games, the adults sit around the makeshift wooden tables and enjoy the delicious fare consisting of an appetizing array of mezze, stuffed grape leaves, barbequed meat and chicken straight from the grill, and fresh shraq bread being rolled out and baked on the concave tin oven before our eyes by Khaled’s mother.

Those who wish can pitch their tents on the campground, while others prefer the air-conditioned comfort of the adjacent Jericho Moon City Hotel.

For many of the participants it is a reunion of sorts, the first time they have seen each other at the club since September 28, 2000. For me it is like being in a time warp, as though four and a half years have simply disappeared through a crack somehow. Everything had been looking up in those days. The club had trained hundreds of Palestinian boys and girls. Schools in Bethlehem and Ramallah made contracts with the stable to provide weekly instruction for their students. The guarded optimism on the Palestinian street made it possible to recruit Nancy Zeitlin, a winner in show-jumping and dressage championships in the Israeli equestrian circuit, as chief instructor and technical director, in charge of the professional aspect. The club concentrated on building a team through summer camps, trips and social activities. Other parts of the complex were also used. The botanic garden, with its labelled native Jordan valley trees, herbs and medicinal plants, was regularly visited by university students. The last four years have been as difficult for the Jericho Equestrian Club as they have been for its members on the other side of the ditch. “Aside from a few members of the diplomatic corps who were willing to gamble on getting through the checkpoint, all 250 people stopped coming all at once,” Nancy says.

But Hassan and Nancy persevered. They worked on training the horses and riders from Jericho, creating a national team for junior riders. As going abroad was easier than attempting to go to other parts of the West Bank or Gaza, they participated in many international courses as well as competitions in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, where they won second and third place in 2003. They waited. And in a creative, spirit-raising response to the siege, they attached their email address to the bands of birds they caught at the observatory, receiving back messages from their counterparts wherever the birds landed.

The first seed in this oasis was planted in 1994, when the late President Yasser Arafat and his entourage crossed the bridge into the homeland. At this historic and emotional moment, one of his bodyguards, seeing some horses in a field abruptly abandoned the motorcade to talk to their peasant owners. This was Hassan Bazlamit, whom Arafat had taken home and raised as a son when teachers at the Lebanese school he was visiting complained, “Hassan is a very naughty boy. What can we do with him?” Five years later in Tunisia, when Arafat, a former horseman in the Egyptian army, resumed riding to treat back pain, it became obvious that none of his bodyguards knew the first thing about horses. That is when Hassan made up his mind to use every opportunity to learn about horses as he accompanied Arafat around the globe.

Once in Palestine, he started making contacts with all the stables in the West Bank and Gaza, forming a federation. Arafat helped him open a small stable when Hassan felt the time had come for him to go his own way. It is when Dr. Sami Mussallam, then head of the President’s Office, returned from Tunis two years later that the stables were built in their new location. From a stretch of desolate desert, the pair built up the stables, indoor arena and horse track, began landscaping and started thinking of other things to complement them, building the infrastructure to this part of Jericho, and resulting in the current sports and cultural complex.

“Many people think that riding is an elitist sport,” laments Mussallam, now head of the Jericho and Jordan Valley Governorate. “They forget that Arabian horses, brought to Europe during the Crusades, have formed the backbone of equestrian sport throughout history. Raising, riding and caring for horses are part of the Arab tradition.” It is not hard to find support for this assertion. Pre-Islamic Arab poets were already singing the praises of Arabian horses, and horses are accorded respect in the Koran and the Hadith. Various legends account for the origin of the Khamsah, or the five mares who originated the strains or families of the ancient horses of the Bedouin. Bedouin culture made horses, especially mares, essential in their frequent wars or raids. Whether a mare changed ownership through sale, gift, raid or theft, the Bedouin code of honour demanded that the new owner be given her pedigree information-otherwise how could one be sure that a horse he captured in a raid, say, was the real thing? The horse as a symbol also resonates in Palestinian culture. St. George or Al-Khader on his white horse is honoured by Christians and Muslims alike, and the white horse has been used as a symbol for Palestinian liberation. What more potent symbol of freedom is there than riding in the desert?

At breakfast the next morning, Nancy gives us a mini-lecture on equestrian socio-economics. Appearances can be deceiving, she informs us. Anyone seeing the attractive, orderly grounds would think that the stable was host to 10 or 15 private horses and a few hundred students, serving as a base for competitions for the whole region. She echoes Mussallam’s plaint of the elitist image of equestrian activities. Neither she nor Mussallam deny that money plays a key role in some areas. “Even now I can lose a competition to a kid with a $100,000 horse,” she explains. “Growing up it was hard to see wealthier kids who could get ahead by having better horses and equipment. But I made up my mind to succeed by hard work. Those who have a passion find a way.”

But competitive riding is only one way to enjoy horses. Riding is a sport which can be enjoyed whatever one’s level or ability. There are several older riders among the participants, some of them beginners. Even people who will never be great riders can enjoy the chance to get out in nature, commune with horses, and socialize with other “horse people,” for the sport promotes interaction of people from different levels of society.

Furthermore, the equestrian world offers a range of occupations or career paths, including stable manager, blacksmith, competition judge, riding therapist for the disabled, veterinarian, horse trainer, horse breeder, or horse broker. A thriving stable needs a large base of students of different abilities and financial means. Those with greater abilities and means directly and immediately benefit those with fewer means. The better riders will want to compete, and if their families are well off they will start to buy horses. The stable will then take a brokerage fee for arranging the purchase, and a fee for boarding them at the stables. The owner rides only a couple times a week. So he pays to board the horse at the stable, providing work for a stable boy and a trainer. Maybe the kids of the horse’s owner aren’t good enough to be in a competition, but another kid at the stable who has aspirations but not enough money to buy his own horse will exercise the horse for a fee or the right to ride it in a competition, getting experience he might otherwise not get.

Khaled is a case in point. A Jericho resident, he sought work as a stable boy just after the closure. Seeing his genuine interest in horses, Nancy and Hassan groomed him, so to speak, offering him training in riding and all aspects of horse care and stable management. He has already participated in several regional competitions. Now, his interest in horses will take him and Mu’taz to Algeria for a year-long training course. On their return, they will serve as trainers in the club. Abdullah Erekat is another kid to watch. Thirteen years old, he walks around the stable with a confident air, taking care of the horses, and offering advice to others. He is a man with a mission. His family owns horses and he hopes to help it set up its own stable one day.

Not all of the kids arrive at the club with Abdullah’s sense of responsibility, but if they want to stay in it they develop it-fast. Nancy says that at first, some kids don’t show up the day after a competition because they are tired. But they soon come to understand that their job isn’t done until the next day: they must think of the horse, which is also tired and needs care. The importance of horse care is exemplified in the following Palestinian proverb: “Your tongue is your horse, if you take care of it it’ll take care of you, and if you offend it it’ll offend you.”

The club serves a wide geographic area. One couple regularly takes the long route from Bethlehem through Wadi Nar to get here. And the wide range of socio-economic background of club members is no accident. Participants include members of the international community as well as children from refugee camps. “We adopted a policy of keeping prices low so as to enable the largest possible segment of Palestinians and foreign residents to be able to practise this sport,” says Mussallam. But no one with a burning passion for horses who can demonstrate the required sense of commitment and responsibility is turned away if he cannot afford even the low rate. He can work in the stable in exchange for lessons. In fact, kids of whatever socio-economic background can be seen working in the stables, considering the knowledge of horse care and stable management and the camaraderie with their fellow riders a fair exchange for the hard work.

Until recently the club was able to offer its low rates and survive the tough times with the help of donor agencies and the Ministry of Sports and Youth. Now the club is on its own, receiving no funding from any source. Survival depends on the self sufficiency that comes with a wide membership. Now that the Jericho checkpoint has been eased, why not find out about upcoming summer camps and social activities? Perhaps it is here that the white horse in a refugee boy’s daydream will turn into a dove, as depicted in the 1978 poster by the Danish artist Thomas Kruse. What place offers a better combination of ingredients?

For more information call the club at 02-232 5007 or send an email to:

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