BEIRUT — Every sunset, the kings of Beirut’s rooftops risk all they have. As the sounds of the city fade, the ‘hamamati’ (pigeon trainers in Arabic) let dozens of their birds reclaim the sky of the Lebanese capital.
Pigeon training is a Mediterranean tradition deeply rooted in Syria, home of the finest birds. For many, it is more than just a hobby.
Bachar Ismail learned the craft from his father, who was trained by Bachar’s grandfather. “I was a baby, I couldn’t walk when my dad took me to the rooftop,” he recalled. Bachar started training pigeons when he was nine years old at their hometown in Idlib province, northwest Syria. He was the only one of seven brothers to care about his dad’s birds.
Today, Bachar lives in Burj Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Beirut that has welcomed many Syrians since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011. The 32-year-old Syrian came to Lebanon twenty years ago and doesn’t plan to go back to Syria. He has three daughters who also “like coming to the rooftop and playing with the pigeons.”
Every day, Bachar finishes his shift at a bakery at 2pm, eats with his family and then goes up to take care of his 60 pigeons. His most valuable pigeon costs $100. The ‘normal’ ones, he said, cost 25,000 Lebanese Pound (LBP), around $16 at the official exchange rate, and $3 at the parallel market.
Each month, Bachar spends approximately 100,000 LBP (around $66 at the official rate and $12 at the parallel market) to cover the costs of caring for his birds. “Their food has become very expensive now.” Pointing to a bag he added: “This bag of 25 kilograms used to cost 13,000 LBP now it is 50,000.” Inflation is skyrocketing in Lebanon as the national currency keeps losing value.
Even though some pigeons in the market can fetch up to $10,000, Bachar and his rooftop colleagues don’t see this craft as a business. “This is a hobby, we don’t make money, we lose money,” he said with a smile.
Bachar is fluent in the whistles and other sounds that pigeon trainers use to make their birds fly far away or come back home. “They have a very good memory. When you go to work you know how to get home, these birds do their thing and come back to their house,” he explained. Later, however, he acknowledged that he has already lost 20 pigeons this year that flew away and never came back.
Bachar and the other trainers let the pigeons fly for one hour in the afternoon. From time to time, Bachar waves a flag so the birds don’t lose their ‘home’ reference. When he wants them to come back, Bachar holds a dove whose wings he has modified so she can’t fly. The sounds of the dove will attract her male colleagues busy circling the skies above. “If she flies, she can go away, we have her as a guarantee for the males to come back,” he added.
Some pigeon trainers throw lemons or onions to the sky to call them back. But Bachar, and the two pigeon trainers that accompanied him during the interview for this report, agree that the traditional way of making sounds with a rope is better.
Beneath the rosy image of flocks of pigeons wondering the Beiruti skyline lie serious inner rules. “Me and Salim are friends, if one of his pigeons comes to my rooftop, I will give it back to him,” explained Bachar.
If they were ‘enemies,’ things would be a bit different. They may negotiate a ‘ransom’ to give back the pigeons or they might just kill the pigeons. Bachar pointed to a building in front of him where another pigeon trainer was flying his birds. “He is my enemy, if my pigeons go there, he slaughters them with a knife. We do the same with his, that’s how we do it.”
The sky is tightly scheduled as well. Bachar flies his pigeons from six to seven in the afternoon. “If they get in my time there is competition. If they don’t respect the schedule, we become enemies”.
The geography of pigeon trainers extends beyond the rooftops, where they wave and whistle at each other. They also meet in ‘pigeon cafés,’ where they negotiate deals, talk about the latest acquisitions and gossip. In Burj Barajneh, there is a ‘pigeon coffee shop’ and several pigeon shops, mostly run by Syrians.
Around 5,700 members populate the Facebook Group ‘Pigeons Lebanon’ where they buy and sell pigeons. Bachar’s friend, Salim, proudly shows off the nine pigeon-related WhatsApp groups on his phone. There is a sense of belonging. Pigeon trainers normally stare at the skies together. “We do this with a couple of friends. Alone, it is very boring,” sums up Bachar.
In the summer days, pigeons tend to renew their feathers naturally. Given the high temperatures, they only fly once per day at sunset. In the winter they fly once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
Bachar has a clear routine. After his work he goes up to the rooftop. He likes this craft because it makes him “forget about the problems”. For Bachar, the key skill to become a pigeon trainer is “patience”.
Historically, pigeon trainers have been considered liars and untrustworthy men. But he says he doesn’t care about that bad reputation. “We are not like this. I finish my work, I do pigeon training, I take care of my home and I don’t get into trouble.”
Pigeon training is a male-dominated space. Bachar and his friends seem surprised when asked why there are not female pigeon trainers. “If they come with their husband and drink coffee, yes. But no woman is learning to train pigeons…not in Lebanon or Syria, it is ‘aib’ (shame in Arabic)”, Bachar said.
While looking at the pigeons drawing circles in the sky and dividing their trainers between friends and foes, Bachar’s friend, Salim, casually points to the ground floor, where the neighbors have started cultivating mulukhiya and other vegetables. “People are hungry,” he says.
When problems abound on the ground, some take a deep breath and spend their afternoons contemplating the skies.