Race for respect

Among Beduin communities of the Negev, horse racing is an integral part of the culture.

The pride of the Beduin by Jack Brook
It’s Saturday at the Slaughterhouse.
On a hot and humid morning, an eight-year-old thoroughbred horse, Azam, just won the final race in front of a crowd of about a thousand Beduin at the mysteriously named track located 20 km. south of Beersheba.
Gathering around Azam at the winner’s circle are the owner and his family. In these parts, family means a village, and this village is euphoric, with kids and parents shouting and screaming to anyone who will listen here in the middle of the desert, letting them know that they have just won the most improbable of races, one that was five years in the making.
Yet, the Musallakh (“Slaughterhouse”) would be deserted soon.
Race day at the Slaughterhouse
Ehab Ibrahem Atawanah, an 18-year-old Beduin from Hura, arrives to pick me up in downtown Beersheba. As Shabbat morning stragglers in the capital of the Negev make their way to synagogues, Atawanah blasts the latest Beduin music in his car.
“It’s like American rap music,” he tells me as we start our drive to the Slaughterhouse. Atawanah completes the journey in a heart-racing 20 minutes, with a slam of the pedal and the openness of the streets.
The city – and the country for that matter – are quiet, but for many Beduin, Saturday is the loudest day of the week.
Once a week horse races occur, but once a month a full morning of racing takes place at the Slaughterhouse. Beduin – mostly from unrecognized villages, where they live an agricultural lifestyle and have enough room to raise a horse, or two or three – gather at this track for the makeshift festivities. They congregate for payouts, for pleasure and, of course, for pride in a sport that acts as the people’s pastime.
'The horses are one of the few things they have... they put so much focus on it, so much effort in it.’
'The horses are one of the few things they have... they put so much focus on it, so much effort in it.’
A trophy is presented – and winners normally receive about NIS 3,000 in earnings. The trophy is barely of the grandeur of a Little League championship, let alone the Euro Cup. This is a trophy though, for the owner and the family of the winning horse.
Driving down Route 25, Atawanah tells me we are getting close, pointing at the desert horizon.
“See there – that’s the track.”
I nod my head and we proceed, but I see nothing.
There are no stadium lights visible from the road.
There’s no massive advertisement by the arena’s official sponsor. There are no benches for seating, let alone a grandstand.
The car spins around at a junction and we head to the other side of the road, with concrete bricks scattered along a slope off the side of highway. The standard four-person car stumbles its way down this makeshift entrance, and as we head down a steep, short hill, I see about 100 cars in what looks like a parking lot and a thousand people standing around a 1,000-meter-long dirt track.
A race is finishing as we arrive. I hear it’s a shortened day because of the hot July weather, with no help from any cloud cover. We walk up to the final straightaway, where people are gathered along a 200-meter strip of compacted dirt. Occasionally dust whips up and swirls into our faces, pausing conversation for a moment as we shield our eyes. The horses fly by and the kids cheer them on, all the way to the finish line. Fathers buy their sons chips and sodas at the snack stand located near the finish line; there are no women here.
Atawanah meets up with his friend, whose family has a horse in the race. Fadi Alkhorm, from the village of Alsayed, speaks a little English, but declines my request for an interview until after the race.
“If we win, you can talk to us,” he says with a smile. “The race is very important,” Atawanah says to me, as the two walk in front of me.
I couldn’t have known at the time that I was on the outside looking in on an even more complex race – between current reputations, old narratives and newfound luck.
Aed Alassam, a local patriarch of horse racing out here, can be found reclining against his truck, cigarette in hand, in the center of the track. The small attached horse trailer is empty right now.
“When I was young, I had a horse and loved it. The Beduin here have always had horses,” he says through a translator.
Alassam has been in the horse business for more than 13 years and owns six horses.
Horses can cost as much as NIS 50,000; most good horses can be bought for about NIS 12,000 to NIS 15,000, two different Beduin families inform me.
Those interviewed don’t like to share information about exactly where they buy their horses, although horses that come from abroad are most likely from Dubai or the UK.
“Horses come from England and we have horses from Israel. When this horse born and raised in Israel runs here, it wins. It’s a very fast horse,” says Sameh Abu Seheban. Wearing an athletic shirt, shorts and sandals and hanging out with a lot of his kids, despite his young age of 28, he tells me he watches British horse racing every day online, switching between that and European soccer matches, particularly Real Madrid.
He asks me where I’m from.
“New York?! You come from New York to here?” Our conversation ends as we hear excitement run through the crowd. It’s the final race. There’s no starting gate and no starting gun. The horses are running. Around the penultimate turn, dust kicks up. The noise is at the level of that Beduin rap music in the car, making everything else inaudible. Coming down the stretch, one horse pulls away.
The jockey, in nearly the same full gear you would see on TV, minus the goggles, lifts his whip in the air, stands up on the horse and takes in the cheers of the children soon surrounding him and the horse.
“It’s your horse?” I manage to get out above the roar of the crowd to Alkhorm.
He smiles and sprints to join his family.
Atawanah confirms with a nod of his head. He pauses and adds, “This is very important!” A family – a village – soon surrounds the champion at the winner’s circle, cheering with joy. They are presented with their modest-sized trophy and their winnings, minus the giant check.
Horse jockey by day, horse trainer by night
The speedometer says 10 kph, and a lunch of chicken schnitzel, hummus, Beduin-style bread, Pepsi, grapes and cactus fruit is being tossed around in my stomach on the bumpy desert road. We are headed to see one of best trainers in all of the villages.
Fadi doesn’t know him well, but they are neighbors and on good terms. We arrive at a place where there are four horses in a relatively large stable with a big open field to gallop around.
The Beduin – particularly those from unrecognized villages surrounded by open desert space – love to race horses.
They do not love soccer. I am out in the Negev to understand how horse racing became the sport of what some like to call the “authentic Beduin” of Israel.
My videographer and I travel to visit a well-known jockey in these parts. One Beduin describes him as something of a legend of the area, racing since he was young. Muneer Alassam, 20, is not only a jockey, but he is also his village’s horse trainer and teacher. Our interaction feels similar to when a kid wants to show a new toy to friends who come over. Muneer showed us his four horses for hours.
They all come from the same father, who was Italian.
The mother’s side of the horse, Kolmbe, who was in the back, in the most spacious of stables, was from Dubai – but Kolmbe was born in Israel. His hair curls unusually for a racehorse, more like that of an Arabian show horse.
“Kolmbe is the best horse of all time,” Muneer says.
I look at him and ask, “Of all time?” He nods.
“He always comes from behind,” he adds, a sign of a great horse.
He tells us we will get to see one of the other horses in action later today. He has practice out at the Slaughterhouse, closer to sunset.
As the heat is letting up a bit, we sit on a couple of chairs and on top of loose hay on the ground; hot tea is brought out in a chinaware teapot.
“Drink. It will make you relax,” Muneer says. It’s sweet and a little minty. Others roll their own cigarettes and chat between puffs.
I ask him if there was gambling going on at the racetrack this morning.
“Betting?” I nod my head and he nods back. I ask him who, and he says mostly Jews and some Arabs.
“Jews bet even on Shabbat?” I ask him.
He nods his head and adds: “The horses bring us together.” A Chevy Silverado pickup pulls into the open backyard and they get ready to load the horse onto the small trailer and head back to the track.
‘We call him Azam because he keeps trying, even after losing’
“Azam” translates loosely to “great” in Arabic. The Beduin give it a somewhat different definition.
When I approach the family following the race, as the track starts to empty out, I am greeted by an owner and father whose toothy smile could not be stopped; he shakes everyone’s hand and thanks everyone; everyone wants to congratulate him.
Azam, the horse, was injured as a three-year-old, when he was bought from another horse owner in the village, Aed Al Assam.
Alkhorm’s friends always questioned him. “Why do you keep this horse? This horse can’t ever win. You picked a losing horse.”
Today, Azam is eight years old, an Israeli horse with a beautiful brown coat and a dark brown mane with a slight reddish tint. In this race, he won by at least three or four lengths, not that there was an official scorecard to inform me.
In the past four years, Alkhorm and his family had not won a race, though they always believed in the horse.
“We call him Azam because he keeps trying even after losing,” the family tells me, echoing each other, proud of their horse. The Israeli horse is the family’s crown jewel, and they wanted to show him off now. The family – among others – invited us back to their village.
The city sits upon a hill. That’s where Atawanah comes from – a recognized village, with everything one would assume, from paved roads to schools and clinics.
The home of Beduin horse racing is to the right. That’s where Alkhorm’s family and Azam live.
Those who live in recognized villages tend to be slightly less religious than those in the unrecognized villages who live on the land in a more agricultural lifestyle, similar to Beduin of the 1960s and 1970s.
Slowly we roll by some sporadically placed houses and keep going. We make a turn onto a rocky road, keeping our speed to about 25 kph, as the car shakes but never stalls in the Negev desert (the dream is to drive a Jeep Wrangler).
When we pull up we see a couple of metal shacks in the forefront and more shacks in the distance. We’re greeted by a few members of the family.
“Do you want to see Azam?” We nod and walk over to the closest shack. Corrugated metal sheets form the walls and most of the roof, aided by rocks and some plastic garbage bags.
A door is made of pieces of tan and red plywood nailed together and placed on a thick wooden post clinging to these sheets. An opening leads to a small pen where the horse can roam for a few meters, fenced in by concrete bricks on one side and chicken wire on the other. This is the home of Azam, the only horse of the family. Opposite Azam is a packed pen of sheep. Some chickens roam about. A few stray dogs hang around the village.
As word gets out that we have arrived to film Azam, the family trickles in to watch the makeshift photoshoot. At one point more than 15 boys and men, spanning at least two, if not three generations, join us.
Yosef has changed into a more comfortable shirt. Another family member switches into a crisp pink polo. Another now wears a Washington T-shirt with a big ‘W’ on it. The clothes have changed, but the faces are familiar. They were the family in the winner’s circle a couple of hours ago.
One family member comes up to me, assuming I’m a horse expert.
“Is he the top-top?”
“Yes, the top,” I humor him.
“No, he’s in the middle.”
“Top,” I answer back, knowing there are only so many words I have to chose from to engage in this sports debate.
“Dubai is top-top.”
His brothers push him around and laugh with him. Dubai horses and British horses are known as the top-top, partially because they are just more expensive to buy; Azam is Israeli-born.
One brother comes out with the trophy. It’s presented to the owner, who holds it up and poses for the camera.
Azam’s owner rides the horse and holds up their winning trophy.
Azam’s owner rides the horse and holds up their winning trophy.
He passes it on and eventually it reaches the hands of one of the kids. It’s not too heavy for him, but it is just big enough that he can hold it up and hide his face behind it before the camera.
The trophy is eventually handed back to the owner, forestalling the probability of the kid sleeping with it for the night. Some brothers head back to their daily routines, while for others, it’s lunchtime.
“Come, come. Would you like to eat?”
The Slaughterhouse before sunset
“The horses are one of the few things they have,” Ali Ibrahim, the person who put me in contact with Atawanah, says to me come the end of the day.
“Since it’s one of the few things, they put so much focus on it, so much effort in it. You can see. The horses you saw today were not funded by any company or any association whatsoever, just a couple of people who knew each other and developed a habit out of it.”
Out in the Negev, Beduin race horses.
In the north of Israel they race horses, too. There are nationally recognized annual competitions.
Driving up to the Slaughterhouse again, I notice the one distinguishable mark from the highway – a concrete lookout on top of a small hill.
“It’s something from history. When you look around, there are many things from history,” Atawanah says.
It could be from a war in the recent past. A better known anecdote though is the origin of the “Slaughterhouse.”
In the late 19th century, the Beduin of the Negev were at war with the Beduin of the Sinai. The story goes that the Sinai Beduin encroached on the territory in the Negev, going as far north as the Beersheba region. At one point the Negev Beduin decided to reverse their constant retreat with a sneak attack. On the land that is now the home of weekly horse racing, the Negev Beduin slaughtered the Sinai Beduin. Since then, the land has been known as the “Slaughterhouse.”
We returned to the track to see water bottles, coffee cups and soda cans scattered alongside cigarette butts. Earlier it was tough to notice all the trash. Now the track is full of litter.
Getting dressed in jockey gear, Muneer slips on white satin baggy pants appropriate for a boxer, and changes into a thin, near see-through red tank top. When he finishes putting on the gear he flexes to his friend, like Floyd Money Mayweather – except maybe best fitted for the lightweight competition.
The coach tells him the workout for the day, a race against another horse in the village, but from a different owner.
It’s a 1,000-meter race.
Earlier in the day I watched from the field, viewing the horses fly by me nearly face-to-face. This time, I go to the hilltop with the concrete lookout.
Watching from the top of the hill you can see the whole track.
The race starts and the few kids, brothers and owners who are around watch intently. Less like a regular workout and more like Olympic trials, the race seems to mean something to the onlookers.
With the wind whipping in the evening, despite the still clear but dimming blue skies, the horses leave a trail of dust a hundred meters long, coming down the stretch, neck-and-neck. The crowd of less than a dozen grows louder.
Muneer’s horse pulls away. The owner, also watching from the hilltop and recording the race on his phone, thrusts his arm in the air and heads down the slope and to the track to meet his horse.
Following the race photos are taken and handshakes are exchanged.
The shadows grow longer and the sun sets, but the training continues. Atawanah turns to me and looks at the horses ahead of us, the two jockeys and the families around them.
“These people you see here – they are the most interesting people in horse.”
My videographer is up ahead with the horses. He’s trying to get the last hour or so of filming in. No longer are there a thousand onlookers like in the morning.
No, now there are just a few family members and the first person to ever film these horses and jockeys in this manner.
So as the sun stays up, they are like superstars, taking in their Hollywood moment for these minutes on the side of the road at a track called the Slaughterhouse, somewhere out in the desert’s summer heat.