by Yazan al-Yaseen

Coming from a suburban area near Damascus, what I remember most of my childhood are the football games on the streets with my peers. Each street had its own band of football players. These bands competed against one another which of course caused all sorts of rivalries . However, this is not a story about rivalry; it’s not even about football. This is a story about pigeon whisperers. One day after a football match a member of a band from around the corner, invited us to the rooftop of his house. What we found there was more than surprising: His brother was a pigeon whisperer and hold a flock of pigeons on the rooftop. 

The Pigeons, old city of Damascus
A flock of pigeons flies over the old City | Issam Hajjar (CC-BY-NC-ND)

In the Levant and parts of Egypt, pigeon whispering is a hobby. In the long summer, one can occasionally see one or two flocks of pigeons flying in circles or in other patterns, going up and down, left and right in the open sky. Someone who doesn’t know the place may think that this is just a wild flock of pigeons flying. It is in a way… but that’s not the whole story. Behind this peculiar dance there is usually a hidden choreographer in the background, or, judging from the way he does it, one can call him a conductor, or maestro.

After we had climbed up the stairs and arrived on the rooftop we found two big open cages. The whole football team could fit in them. And pigeons were literally everywhere. Some were walking around, some were resting or caring for chicks in the cages, some were sleeping. They didn’t mind us much. They didn’t come too close to us as strangers, but they were not startled or afraid. We were endurable guests in their home… The feeling was magical though! A while later, the older brother came. He was the king of that place. After welcoming us briefly and went to check his pigeons. He soflty touched some, kissed others and had a little chat with some.Then he turned to a corner on the rooftop and picked up a long thin stick with a piece of black sash wrapped to its end. Pap pap pap, he knocked with the stick on the floor, pap pap pap… pap pap pap. The pigeons were all in motion, it’s play time now and nothing else is more important. We stood watching in awe … still. 

As the pigeons gathered on the floor and were ready to fly, the pigeon whisperer started slowly waving his stick forming a small circle with the black sash. Suddenly, he began to whistley. The first whistle was loud and very long and it managed to get all the pigeons off the floor. The birds flew and kept going up in a circle in a perfect synchrony with the circle he was drawing with his sash. Soon after they were in the air, the circle started getting bigger and the whistles became shorter, with more tones. Not once did the pigeons miss his movement. Every time he moved his circle up or down or interrupted the movement in anyway, the pigeons responded to him.

Every now and then, he would grab a piece of wood, a shoe or any object from the floor and throw it upwards. I learned afterwards that this was a way to bring birds that are lagging behind or going astray back to the flock. A while later, he calmed down his movement and his whistles signalled to the birds, that play time is over. The flock circled circled closer and closer until it landed on the rooftop. With some food, the Maestro welcomed his flock and the session was over. It was magical.

Damascus,umayyad Mosque, pigeons in the courtyard
A flock of pigeons in the courtyard of the Ummayyad Mosque | Dr. Eva Haustein-Bartsch (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Later on in life, I found out that pigeon whisperers are an underclass in society. People in general don’t like them and make jokes about them. What is more surprising is that their testimony was not accepted in a court of law for a long time. As early as in the Hadith, the prophet Mohammad expressed his discontent to a man named “Abu Omair” because of his habit of flying birds. There is no direct ban on pigeon whisperers in the Quran which was the legal code under which Islamic societies have lived for centuries. However, as these people openly steal each other’s birds by louring them in the air to join their own flock. The ability to do that is a sign of mastery in the art and a source of pride. This is probably the reason behind the ban. However, birds are not considered property, because they are wild animals. This is why they are thieves that actually cannot be sent to prison for their theft. This, and the fact that for centuries the objects they threw upwards have fallen on people’s heads and their home gardens, have made them a hated group of people that are systematically discriminated against. Throughout the ages, Muslim judges varied in their attitude towards pigeon whisperers. Some would accept their testimony and some decided to reject it altogether. Although the modern state constitutions lifted the ban completely, a mild social contempt for pigeon whisperers lives on in the form of a proverb. When an Arab says to another person, “You’re like a pigeon whisperer”, it means that the other person is not trustworthy, or a liar.

This is sad in a way, but it does not seem to disturb their joy playing with the birds. I personally believe that they’re right. Who cares about other people when one can speak to birds!

Feature Image: Issam Hajjar (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Published by Syrian Heritage Archive Project

Joint project for the digitisation of Syrian cultural heritage from Germany (Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin and German Archaeological Institute) in the period 2013-2019

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