Every Saturday, a crowd gathers spontaneously in Baghdad’s Abu Nawas park. But they are not protestors. No, they are fans with one thing in common – a love of man’s best friend. Some of the visitors bring their own dogs with them and compete in races and other contests, others come to buy a dog, and many come just to see the animals in actions.
Keeping dogs as pets is not seen the same way in the Middle East as it is in European countries. In Islamic religion, dogs are considered unclean – one piece of scripture says that angels won’t enter a house where a dog is kept - and although a staunch Muslim would not treat canines unkindly, they would not keep a dog as a pet either; there is however some dispensation that allows dogs to be kept if they are working animals. However, as the crowds in Abu Nawas park might suggest, this attitude is changing somewhat.
There is usually always an auction here on Saturdays. The dog owners or breeders explain to potential buyers the characteristics of the breeds – including weight, length of tail and so forth - and extol the animals’ virtues, such as their strength, ability to protect the owner and loyalty. You can see the pain on the faces of those who are selling their beloved beasts.
Certain breeds are prized for their qualities: German Shepherds, because they are fierce and smart, and huskies, because they are beautiful.
Prices for dogs are not as low as one might expect. Some canines are sold for around US$2,000 and prices can go as high as US$12,000, NIQASH is told.
Haider Abbas boasts about his dogs’ black, shiny coats and strength. He bought his dogs for US$400 each but he’s planning to sell them all; he finds that if he has too many dogs, the feeding and the cleaning and the exercising all take too much time and are too expensive.
Certain dogs are known for certain qualities in Iraq – German shepherds are prized for their intelligence and strength whereas huskies and terrier breeds are considered beautiful.
“German Shepherds won’t go for less than US$7000,” Abbas explains. “And huskies that are under three are worth around US$2,000.”
The races held here also have an impact on the buying and selling.
“At the end of the race, the dog trainers meet with prospective buyers and talk about how to train dogs,” Abbas continues. “They will discuss possible problems as well as new methods of training and animal health.”
Bakr Ahmad comes to the park every Saturday because he is a big fan of the German Shepherd breed. He also makes a living breeding these dogs now. However he stresses that he doesn’t make a lot of money from this business – it’s more about his love of dogs, and the fact that his dogs are loving and loyal.
The first dog he bought was a two-month-old puppy for US$500; now he doesn’t sell his German Shepherds for less than US$3,000. He says his dogs have won in the dog races held here every Saturday too.
Today Ahmad has four German Shepherds with him and he is busy working out how to tame and train the dogs and how to understand canine psychology. “They are all obedient, they have fierce faces and beautiful eyes,” he says, noting that he’s trying to sell all four. “They are all imported from Poland, Ukraine or Belgium.”
Meanwhile Fadel Thaer is here for the racing. “A campaign to start the dog races was begun on Facebook by the Union of Animal Lovers in Iraq,” Thaer explains. “They started this to draw attention to the sport and to bring together as many dog lovers, breeders and fans as possible.”
Thaer is a member of this club and he says that he and the others decided that Abu Nawas park would be the best place to meet each Saturday at noon.
“We don’t even have a committee organizing our work,” Thaer says. “This is just a very spontaneous gathering that is getting bigger every week. Now we even have people coming from as far away as Basra, Amiriyah and Nasiriyah. Dog lovers in western Iraq have not been able to come because of bad security conditions.”
One of the best-known dog trainers here, Kathem Khalaf, tells NIQASH that he believes these gatherings are very special. He really likes the fact that the gatherings in the park are more or less spontaneous and that the fans don’t want to make anything too official.
“These kinds of events give Iraqis a chance to relax and to stop thinking about all the problems this country faces,” says Haider Abdul-Wahab, one of the dog breeders who has started coming to the park regularly and who plans to travel outside Iraq to buy more interesting breeds of dogs and bring them back to Iraq to sell.
Abdul-Wahab points out that when it comes to canine fandom, it doesn’t matter what your religion or ethnic group is; all kinds of locals come to Abu Nawas park and develop friendships based on their shared interest in man’s best friend. “This group has had a lot of success in breaking ethnic and sectarian boundaries – in ways that are far more effective than the government’s methods,” he confirms.