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Volume 22, Number 3May/June 1971

In This Issue

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The Birdman of Rafah

Written by Brainerd S. Bates
Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

For the migratory birds that fly the north-south circuit in Arabia each spring and fall the skies above the Trans-Arabian Pipeline have long been a favorite transit route. Amid the vast stretches of rolling desert and flat gravel plains of northern Arabia the islands of green surrounding the pump stations mean food and rest amid often lush vegetation.

It was not, unfortunately, the safest of routes. In the days before conservationists of the world sounded the alarm, hunters in and around the pump stations often brought down what some observers considered to be an excessive number of birds—observers like Reda Abdul-Samad.

For many years Reda Abdul-Samad, a Lebanese diesel/gas turbine technician, has been assigned to the Tapline station called Rafah. He was also, for a time, an avid hunter—until the day he began to notice that some of his favorite species aloft were thinning out. From that point on he turned to the serious study of the appearance and habits of all local and migrating types, first by photography, then, after chancing on an advertisement in Outdoor Life, by ornithological taxidermy.

The advertisement said that the Northwestern School of Taxidermy of Omaha, Nebraska, could teach anyone how to stuff and mount animals and birds by mail. Abdul-Samad clipped out the coupon and sent for instructions and some special instruments. When they arrived he settled down to master taxidermy. He thought too that if he succeeded he might also encourage a wider interest in natural history among friends and students.

The practice of taxidermy requires artistic as well as mechanical skill to give the lifeless model a completely natural appearance. Abdul-Samad practically rebuilds a bird's sinewy base structure with wire. He also molds manikins for his mountings out of tightly bound excelsior. To match eyes—there are as many sizes and colors as there are species of birds—he had to resort to glass beads from costume jewelry.

From his long experience as hunter and bird watcher. Abdul-Samad was able, quite early, to achieve the realism he insists on in stance and posture. He could correctly label most of his models from his own knowledge but to be certain he regularly consults such standard references as Migratory Birds. In these days, when stuffed animals and birds are usually displayed only in museums and rarely as the parlor decorations which were once so popular, a truly skilled amateur taxidermist, which Abdul-Samad has now become, is a rare specimen indeed—in the Arab world or anywhere else.

So far, Reda Abdul-Samad has mounted more than 120 different kinds of birds. These have included sparrows, hawks, hoopoes, the golden oriole, white, blue and night herons, kestrels, five or six kinds of shrikes, and many species of warblers. The Arabian Natural History Association of Dhahran has on display 75 examples of Abdul-Samad's art. Through such permanent showings, plus the occasional lectures he gives, Reda Abdul-Samad is introducing an ever-increasing number of people in the Middle East to the birds which frequent this region. Closehand looks at species normally appearing as distant objects in the sky inspire fresh appreciation of this form of nature which could easily lead to renewed efforts to conserve the kind.

Brainerd S. Bates contributes regularly to Aramco World from Dhahran.

This article appeared on pages 10-13 of the May/June 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1971 images.