From Impure to Purebred: Dogs Are Becoming a Status Symbol Among Israeli Arabs

Since the religious awakening among Muslims in the '70s, pets - especially pooches - have been seen as unclean. But as the Arab middle class strengthens, man's best friend is making a comeback

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Members of the Abad family and their dog Gucci, Nazareth, December 27, 2017.
Members of the Abad family and their dog Gucci, Nazareth, December 27, 2017. Credit: Rami Shllush
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

In an episode of Sayed Kashua’s sitcom “Arab Labor,” the protagonist Amjad tries to understand why the dogs in his building in a Jewish neighborhood are barking at him.

“Dogs have something with Arabs ... as if they can identify the smell of an Arab,” his Jewish friend Meir uncomfortably explains to him.

“You’re talking nonsense,” retorts Amjad. “What are they, the Border Police?”

Still, in the end he believes that Meir is right. His solution for befriending a dog later in the episode: He wears a kippa.

With or without such a skullcap, more and more Arab families are adopting or buying dogs. The practice seems increasingly accepted, in line with other changes in Arab society.

Hassan Abad and his dog Stella, Nazareth, December 27, 2017.Credit: Rami Shllush

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Rula Bsoul of the Reineh local council in the north says she knows that people think she’s crazy. The family dog Buchi died two months ago. Bsoul is struggling to get over the loss, and the family visits the little grave next to her parents’ home in Zarzir every Sunday.

“My parents have had dogs since I was a child,” she says. “When I got married, my husband’s parents didn’t understand what it was to have a house pet like a dog or a cat. They don’t like them and don’t touch them.”

About four years ago, Bsoul decided to give her daughter Dima a dog as a present for her sixth birthday. “The truth is, it was also for me,” Bsoul says. “She loves animals like me.”

Bsoul did research online and picked a poodle. Her husband Shadi’s objections quickly faded. “He totally fell in love with him,” she says. “He was like our son. We have no boys; I have one girl. At some stage she started telling me, ‘You love him more than me.’”

The neighbors also eventually fell in love with the dog, Bsoul says. “They shouted ‘here’s Buchi, here’s Buchi’ every time I took him for a walk. I felt famous.”

She says that after Buchi died, Shadi realized how much the pooch was a central part of his life.

“He said, I didn’t know how attached I was to him until he was no longer there; now I feel his absence,” Bsoul says. “My sisters also said I’d gone mad. But I wasn’t crazy. I simply loved him. I don’t think there’s a person who can give love like animals.”

So over the past week, Bsoul started looking for a new dog on a Facebook page set up for that purpose.

The dog as shepherd

Nohad Ali, a sociologist at Western Galilee College and the University of Haifa, says “the issue of pets reflects a development among the Arab Palestinian minority in Israel.” In the past, when the community was mainly involved in agriculture, “the dog had a role – as a shepherd,” says Ali, who is also co-chairman of the Arab-Jewish-state unit at the Technion’s Samuel Neaman Institute.

Members of the Abad familywith their dog Gucci at home in Nazareth. Credit: Rami Shllush

“The cat also was part of the scenery, as were the birds. It was accepted and natural and harmonious in Arab society to be among pets. When Arab society stopped being an agricultural society, pets started disappearing.”

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He says there was a religious awakening among Muslims in the 1970s that included the view that pets, dogs in particular, were impure. But as the Arab middle class has strengthened in recent years, pets are coming back. “It proves the process of becoming bourgeois – they look for purebred, expensive dogs as a status symbol,” Ali adds.

Another issue is the dog’s name. Unlike in the United States, for example, “the dog isn’t a part of the family and there’s no way it’ll get an Arabic name, or heaven forbid a religious name or the name of a famous person,” Ali says.

And today, he says, there is still opposition among older and religious people to bringing a pet home, sometimes aggressive opposition.

Hassan Abad, 25, lives on Nazareth’s east side with his mother, Nisrin, and his younger brother. He came up against resistance from his mother before bringing home Stella, a black purebred Chow Chow, which he imported from Ukraine five months ago.

“I didn’t want a dog at first,” Nisrin says. “It means more work at home. It’s dirty. There’s a smell in the house. Some guests don’t like dogs.”

Nisrin says that when she was small there were dogs here and there, but always outdoors. Still, it didn’t take long to convince her.

Hassan, who studied to be a veterinarian in Jordan and is now preparing for his licensing exam in Israel, first gave a dog to his cousin. Nisrin would visit the relative every day and quickly got used to the idea of having a pooch.

Nazareth's eastern neighborhood, December 27, 2017.Credit: Rami Shllush

What convinced her? Stella hardly ever barks, and her special look played a role – Nisrin says there’s no way she’d accept a mutt from the animal protection society.

“It’s forbidden to raise a dog in the house according to our religion, and we were raised that way – that it’s unclean and unacceptable,” says Imas Abad, a relative who lives next door. Still, she says, as with everything, there are different interpretations. She cites a chapter in the Koran that tells of a group of people who slept in a cave for hundreds of years with a dog.

“It’s not written that the dog was forbidden,” she says. “It’s written that it slept with them in that cave. There’s a different explanation there.”

Ways of the big city

All the same, she says, people have probably become less religious, and Hassan says all his friends his age have dogs.

“There are also many students who lived in Haifa and Tel Aviv, picked one up there and brought it back home,” he says. “They learned that what they grew up on is incorrect. At first all the parents objected, but when they bring home a puppy everyone falls in love with it.”

The same thing happened to Intisar Abad, who lives nearby. Her son brought home a small Pomeranian a few months ago but had problems taking care of him. Intisar, who had only raised cats until then, adopted him straight away. “We all fell in love with him,” she says.

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It’s hard to find statistics on the growth of the number of dog owners in Arab society, but you can get an impression by checking data held by the Agriculture Ministry. For example, the number of registered dogs in Sakhnin in the north climbed from 29 in 2012 to 121 in 2016. For Arara in Wadi Ara these numbers were 53 and 62. The city of Umm al-Fahm went from no dogs to 55.

The number in Abu Snan – which contains Christians, Muslims and Druze – jumped from 36 to 108. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 18,680 Arab households reported expenses on dogs like food, vets and grooming.

Still, it will probably take a little time until places like Nazareth’s east side sees couples walking dogs.

The Abad family lets their dogs run loose in the small courtyard between the two family homes, but when the Abads want to go for a real walk, they simply drive to Nazareth Ilit, where there’s a dog park, Hassan says.

Does he think there will be a similar park in Nazareth one day? “First let there be a children’s park,” he says.