The Daily Star Wed 21 May 2003

Hobby lives on in gardens, rooftops, and coffee shops despite hard times and dwindling numbers

Abu Mohammed paced the street for a quarter of an hour before storming the coffee house demanding the purchase of his pigeons back from Abu Khalil who, an hour ago, had managed to lure them to his rooftop in a war between the two. The whole coffee house was grinning as Abu Khalil handed the pair back to their owner.

Though this story is about the characters of old Beirut, it also captures the passion involved in the pigeon wars that we still witness daily from the privacy of our balconies.

The pigeon war, better known as kash al-hamam, involves having opponents keep their flocks up circling in the sky as they try to lure each other's pigeons into their flocks. To score a victory and lure as many pigeons as possible, a kashash trains his pigeons to fly "in tight formation" and to crash the flight of the opponent's flock. When a kashash becomes aware of having lured any, he calls his flock back to his rooftop and seizes the pigeon(s) of his opponent.

Wafiq Daouq is the last "dedicated" pigeon vendor in Ras Beirut. He said there are a total of six stores left in Beirut, one at Dora, two at Msharrafieh, two in the capital's southern suburbs, and his store near Manara.

Sitting at his shop, the first noticeable thing was not the pigeons but that the place was for all practical reasons a coffee shop. A list stating the beverages he served and their prices dominated the handwritten sign that said "all pigeons have to be bought by the purchasers' expertise and pigeons can only be returned within the first week of their purchase."

"Yes," he said, "people come in, sit down, order their drinks and sometimes take up to two hours to purchase a pigeon

The sight was all but unbelievable here in a Beirut coffee shop grown men were watching pigeons with a fervor that rivals the city's passion for people watching.

They sat there quietly eying the pigeons and sipping away. There was no small talk, it was all pigeon talk. Occasionally someone would get up and walk into the cage to grab a pigeon for closer inspection and then return to his seat.

"I started raising pigeons in the late 50s," Daouq said. "I was 15 years old when I got my first pair and started breeding them.

"Back then more people participated in the pigeon wars. Some have died, others have simply dropped out because of time restraints and their need to secure money for their families or because of their inability to cope with the financial requirements. Raising pigeons costs money, you have to buy feed, medications, pigeons so those who no longer can afford the hobby sell their pigeonsand quit," he said.

Wafiq could not say where the hobby originated from, all he could say was "it was our grandfathers, I asked my father and he said our grandfathers, it goes a long way back," he said.

Then he added, "any area you go to here you will find more pigeons than people. In Beirut there is a lot, in the southern suburbs there is more, you go to Tripoli there is more and more, in the South, Baalbek wherever you go, people raise pigeons. But Syria is the spring of pigeons. We bring all of our pigeons from Syria and if we want pretty pigeons for breeding we get them from Egypt."

A passerby sticks his head in the shop and asks Wafiq: "Did you get me the pair of yahudis (Jews)?"

"Tomorrow they should be in, pass tomorrow," he replies.

One couldn't help but ask "what's with the Jews?" He laughed: "In Lebanon we call a certain type of pigeon yahudi. In Syria, Jordan and Egypt they call them Israelis. Since I was a kid we've always called them that and they are held in high esteem among the pigeon fanciers. A real authentic pair can fetch as much as $500, the regular 'just by name yahudis' go as low as LL30,000.

"In fact I wish you were here yesterday, I sold a msawad for $200. Glory belongs to God, it was beautiful, all black, nine white feathers on each wing, big red eyes to the point that its eyelids nearly touched on the top of its head, a splash of white on the forehead, beak the length of a finger, tall legs it could eat off this table standing on the ground; face, neck head formed like that of a parrot. Glory belongs to God, it was something to see.

"Some people raise them not for war but to appreciate their beauty," Wafiq went on. "If you visit their gardens or roofs they will not allow you in if you are (sick) for fear you might contaminate the pigeons. They build nice big cages for them and use them for breeding only.

"Every afternoon, their owners prepare their narguilehs, coffee, tea, cigarettes whatever they like, and sit to watch them. That is their joy. They appreciate pigeons and they understand their beauty, colors, stripes and body structure."

But the majority of people in Lebanon raise them for their ability to fly and lure other pigeons, in addition to their beauty. Fanciers in this region are also unique because they like to dress their pigeons with beads and bells, "as their beauty is also a point of pride for them." The beads also serve to mark the pigeons, "so everyone knows whose bird has landed on whose roof." Some people will go to great lengths in providing their pigeons with the nicest colored beads.

"The bells, oh its just nice to have them on and have them strut around the roof tinkling. It's just like dressing a soccer team, the colored beads and bells just add to their presence," Wafiq said.

The competition is very strong, but it is all done in a sporting spirit. After the hunt of the day they all meet here at the coffee shop and there are no bad feelings, he said.

"The negativity starts when someone catches a bird of someone he is not involved in war with and doesn't report the bird to its owner. That's what we call theft in this hobby, and these are the people behind the myth that our testimony is not accepted in court.

"Otherwise, people catch from each other and everyone has pigeons belonging to others. Some return them and some don't but as I said, they come here in the evening and talk about it, it's all really a verbal competition, such as I caught your bird that you said cannot be caught, I lured your hungry pigeon with a couple of kernels it's all done over tea, coffee, soda pop no negative feelings, although of course you always have some sore losers but I guess that's what makes it more fun.