The Pigeon Men Of Damascus

One of my enduring memories of living in Damascus will always be the early morning ritual of my neighbor’s pigeon’s swoop and circle above my house. While I sip coffee on my rooftop he would wave and whistle at his birds, even when the war started they continued to fly, they still do. The formation they rarely strayed from their flight path, much like the fighter jets that also became a morning ritual and one I wish would not endure.

Syrians know the men as Kashash al Hamam, almost every working class neighborhood has one, men of dubious character, so dubious in fact their testimony is not accepted in court, although they’re hardly pushers or pimps. I am sure most Syrians in exile reading this will feel a peck at their heart strings; looking down from Qasyun as the sun is setting and among a thousand minarets are a thousand flocks that swirl and eddy over the city.

Innocuous it may seem but their reputation as fly-by-nights has been earned through guile; kidnapping and extortion are all part of the sport – when a neighbor’s bird is lured by a feathered temptress onto the roof of the pigeon loft, a net is waiting, and then begins the harangue and haggle. Mostly it’s a game and all the contestants know the unwritten rules but from time to time blood is spilled.

Morally too there is dispute; Kashash al Hamam are deemed un-Islamic, spending too much time and money on their birds and not enough with their family, and of course the fact that the sport is carried out on rooftops that afford a voyeuristic vantage point, open courtyards where modesty can be disregarded.

In my time exploring this fascinating world I found less of the darker side, constantly being warned to stay away from the edge of the roof so as not to annoy the neighbors, for the most part the men I met just wanted a distraction from the usual stresses of everyday life, a cigarette and a cup of tea.

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Now as Syria is being ripped apart by a brutal war and the Daesh virus spreads unchecked across the country, the self-styled Mullahs of the so called Islamic State have issued a Fatwa outlawing the keeping of pigeons, the reason farcical in the extreme; the sight of the birds genitals as they fly overhead being offensive to Islam. It would be funny if it were not so desperately sad.

The fabric of Syrian society is being torn to shreds, once tolerant and accepting it’s now divided and bleeding, the bearded firebrands are not welcome in Syria, perhaps it’s not the keeping of pigeons that is the problem but that the dove is a symbol of peace.

Sabah relaxes while his pigeons fly around the rooftops of Damascus Syria

I lived in Syria for ten years including the first two and half years of the war, I ran foul of the security services and was placed under investigation, follow my Damascus Diaries for the unfolding drama.

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33 thoughts on “The Pigeon Men Of Damascus

  1. Poignant story and photograph – I am writing about Picasso’s Guernica, but I keep returning to this conflict and earlier colonial interventions in the region … the culpability of the British and Americans is beyond words really.

  2. I can hardly believe what I just read – pigeon’s genitals are offending someone. How big are they??? I lived in Cairo for two years and often noticed the doves and rabbits on the roofs. They were intended for dinner, however, and tasted delicious. I don’t say that very often in Texas – wusses!!! More seriously, I am so disappointed by the global response to Syria and Daesh.

    1. Kerry am sure the pigeons have enough to worry about without the size of their genitalia being an issue 🙂
      Cairo is an amazing city and one I love going back to whenever I can, didn’t really enjoy Hamam Mashwi personally but Abu Tarek could serve me all day with bowls of Koshary.
      And yes global response to Syria has only prolonged the suffering and created a mess that will stir for many years-
      Keep up the blarney 🙂

    1. Thank you Craig
      I am currently working on a project to help make that connection, the ordinary is a harder sell than the exotic so its been difficult but hopefully next year an exhibition in the UK.
      I love your landscape photography, its a genre I have had little experience with but am just beginning to explore so I will dropping by for more inspiration.
      Thanks again
      John

  3. the one word I have for this post is ‘Wow’. i love the picture in the post and ofcourse the cover photo. great work. Thank you for enjoying my post too. Have a lovely week ahead. Cheers !

  4. Loved this post. I can picture the birds flying…genitals and all, lol!
    I can only imagine life there. A friend I worked with at a relief camp in Pakistan went on to volunteer for a medical stint in Syria. Oh, the horrors he has seen… and you, as well.

    1. Thank you Rita
      Sorry for the genitalia image 🙂
      Thank you for reading-yes a grim state of affairs. I do try and focus on something positive and endearing if at all possible though.
      I love your Their Shoes project-brilliant-keep up the good work.
      Good luck with your book too
      John

  5. Something sad and wrong with finding fault or offense in the world’s beautiful life forms.
    One would think that this act itself would be an insult- or more a heartache, to the forces of creation, regardless of the name you give it.
    In this Great Cosmos, all things are equal and beautiful, even in their imperfections.

    Seek peace,

    Paz

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