Passion for pigeons persists in Arab world

CAIRO (AFP) – Atop his humble wooden dovecote overlooking the majestic Giza pyramids, Abdel-Rahman Gamal released 20 homing pigeons sending them soaring up into the Cairo sky reddened by the setting sun.

“It’s a lovely hobby that keeps you busy while you’re at home and keeps you on the straight and narrow,” said Gamal, 30, who has been raising pigeons since he was six.

He told AFP he inherited his deep love for pigeons from his grandfather and uncle.

Along with his younger brother Omar, 28, they keep about 40 pigeons on the roof of their family building in Nazlet al-Samman, in western Cairo.

Ahmed Khalifa, head of the Egyptian Federation for Homing Pigeons, said the ancient tradition dates back to the time of the pharaohs.

“Pigeons were engraved on the walls of temples,” he said.

Handed down through the generations, the practice of domesticating pigeons stretches across borders from the banks of the Nile across north Africa and beyond, with people not only training birds for competitions, but also serving them up as a dining delicacy.

Neither regional instability nor the Covid-19 pandemic have dampened enthusiasm for keeping the birds and popular pigeon races still draw crowds.

Omar Gamal, a 28-year-old pigeon keeper, releases his pigeon from a coop on a rooftop in the Egyptian capital’s twin city of Giza. PHOTOS: AFP
Gamal tends to pigeons in a coop atop his rooftop

In war-torn Syria, the battered economy has forced some pigeon fanciers to sell their precious birds to make ends meet.

Markets for breeders have sprung up in refugee camps in rebel-held northwestern Idlib, while races still attract ardent fans seeking a respite from the conflict, an AFP reporter said.

In Yemen where a six-year deadly civil war has left the country on the brink of famine, according to the United Nations (UN), pigeon races were still being held last year.

And in Iraq, where breeders were once viewed as immoral or unreliable, the practice has taken flight again in recent years.

At auction, racing pigeons can fetch from tens of dollars to several thousands for the most prized, and one Iraqi feathered friend was sold in recent years for an eye-popping USD180,000.

The pandemic however has forced a temporary pause in competitions in Morocco.

“We hope that they come back this year,” said Deputy Head Salaheddine Khannouss of the kingdom’s national organisation for pigeon racing.

Racing pigeons can reach speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour and can cover distances of hundreds of kilometres, the Egyptian Federation’s Khalifa said.

The body organises two major contests annually, with one race from Cairo to Salloum, near the Libyan border, a distance of about 600 kilometres, and a second from the capital to Aswan deep in Egypt’s south – over 700 kilometres away.

Dotted around the rooftops of Cairo’s greying buildings are colourfully painted dovecotes – known as gheya in Arabic – which provide huge shelters to house pigeon nests.

In daily ad-hoc contests involving thousands of birds launched from the rooftops, fanciers try to poach each other’s pets to add to their own flock in a fierce competition which can net prizes of up to USD160,000.

Gamal’s family mark their pigeons with rings attached to their feet carrying their date of birth, and his name and contact details.

“If a rogue pigeon flies down to me, it’s mine. It’s my hostage,” Gamal said. In the coming days his rival fancier will try either to win back the lost pigeon or fork out a ‘ransom’ for it.

Gamal said he pays between USD1 to USD65 for each of his birds, depending on their breed, their feather colour and their racing stamina. Younger brother Omar prefers to focus on the competitive aspect of keeping birds.

“Pigeons are like football players when they enter the pitch and I’m their coach,” he joked.

Others prefer a more culinary experience when it comes to pigeons, opting for stuffed or grilled choices served up in dishes from Morocco to the Gulf.

In Egypt, rice or freek (a green grain made from wheat) is masterfully stuffed into the birds’ diminutive bodies.

At Farahat, one of the most popular Cairo chains specialising in pigeon fare, diners jostle for seats, with hungry male customers salivating over the tiny delight believed to possess other benefits.

“Since the dawn of time, Egyptians have believed that pigeons give them vigour for performing on their wedding night,” said restaurant manager Khaled Ali mischievously.

But at EGP70 (USD4.50) it’s an expensive treat “for those who do not have the means”.

Regular customer Jordanian medical student Bashar al-Malkawi said, “Eating stuffed pigeon is the best way to embrace Cairo.”

But Omar, the Cairo pigeon fancier, does not have the stomach for such notions. “If you love pigeons, you can’t eat them. They just won’t taste any good,” he declared.