In Jordan, the gentle art of keeping pigeons is seen as dangerously sexy

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The Independent Online

In late afternoon here, cars fight for space as famished Muslims rush to get home to break the long day's Ramadan fast. High above their heads, another competition goes on, part of a tradition that may be as ancient as Islam itself. Across the sky, flocks of pigeons swoop and circle in tight arcs, etching evanescent silhouettes against the pink and purple sunset.

In late afternoon here, cars fight for space as famished Muslims rush to get home to break the long day's Ramadan fast. High above their heads, another competition goes on, part of a tradition that may be as ancient as Islam itself. Across the sky, flocks of pigeons swoop and circle in tight arcs, etching evanescent silhouettes against the pink and purple sunset.

This is the only sign most people see of the venerable and mysterious art of Arabian pigeon keeping, which dates back at least to 1150, when the Sultan of Baghdad established a pigeon-post system. The sport is practised in many cities besides the Jordanian capital, like Beirut, Damascus and Cairo. But, as in Britain, it is a working-class pastime.

The difference is that when Arabs keep pigeons, the aim is not to race them. The idea is simply to acquire more, by fair means or foul.

Each day, after returning from his job with a car-hire firm, Fuad races up the four flights of stairs of his family's sand-brown home to his prized collection on the flat roof. As the sun starts to sink, he releases his birds. Brown, blue, white and black, they sit on the rooftop, awaiting his whistle that sends them up into the air to start a hypnotic rotation above his head. Rival flocks also circle nearby, with other groups of men standing on nearby rooftops, watching intently.

Fuad says his all-male flock are trained to return to his rooftop, whatever the attractions of other bands of birds. If all else fails, he has taught them to respond to the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer, which sends them straight home. Other birds are not so well-trained.

Fuad calls his flock home, by holding up a female up and grasping her carefully so that she flaps her wings. The airborne pack see the movement and gently circle more and more tightly till they land with a startling suddenness.

From the first bird landing to the last takes perhaps only a second. Fuad denies that the reason the males come home so readily has anything to do with sex. The real attraction is the motion of the female's wings. Skilfully waving a few rags on a pole will do just as well.

Fuad says he does not find it difficult to add a couple of pigeons to his pack, which now numbers 20. This acquisitiveness gives pigeon-keepers a questionable reputation in Arab society. Their world is surrounded by rumour and gossip, much of it malicious.

Some say that pigeon keeping is little better than theft, which means that practitioners can not be trusted as witnesses in court. Others claim the real reason people pursue the sport so passionately is so they can eat the birds, which are considered a delicacy. Yet the strangest theory about why pigeon keepers are considered dubious characters is all about sex.

A group of men standing together on a roof could be aroused by seeing two pigeons mating and might be encouraged - horror of horrors - to do the same themselves.

All this was vehemently denied by Fuad as he sent his birds off on a final evening flight. The streets had become utterly silent: the people of the city had all gone home, where they were preparing to tuck into a post-fast feast. Fuad said he would never even consider eating one of his pigeons, which he regarded with great affection. He pooh-poohed the idea that acquiring pigeons was a form of larceny, describing it rather as a game between fellow enthusiasts. If a rival did become upset about losing a particularly prized specimen, he would simply give the bird back.

Asked about another rumour - that pigeon keeping was losing its popularity and young Jordanians were more interested in internet cafes, which are prime pick-up spots in Amman, than in cleaning out dovecotes - Fuad was aghast. If anything, he claimed, the sport was more popular than ever. "It will continue," he said, "as long as time itself."

The deafening call to prayer sounded from the nearest minaret. Then from another, then another. Twenty pigeons landed and cooed contentedly as dusk fell over Amman.

 

'Crossing Continents' reports on pigeon-keeping in Amman at 11 am on Thursday 21 December on BBC Radio 4.

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