An old pas­time thrives in a Pales­tinian en­clave

‘The pi­geons make me feel free,’ one young man says. ‘Through their eyes I go ev­ery­where, I see ev­ery­thing.’

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY WIL­LIAM BOOTH wil­liam.booth@wash­post.com Su­fian Taha con­trib­uted to this re­port.

As the af­ter­noon heat re­treats and the light be­comes a lit­tle rosy in the Pales­tinian towns across the West Bank and Gaza, you can hear some­thing cu­ri­ous above your head if you lis­ten closely.

Up on the roofs of the con­crete-block build­ings of the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, there’s the sound of fast clap­ping. Bap, bap, bap! Down the war­ren of streets, high above, sharp whis­tles. Above the bak­ery, some­one is slap­ping a metal bar. Above the car­wash, an un­seen hand cracks a horse­whip.

Th­ese are the Pales­tinian pi­geon fanciers — and they are fly­ing their flocks. The sounds the men are mak­ing — in­di­vid­ual, unique whis­tles and snaps — urge their birds to fly far­ther and higher, or to come home.

Breed­ing, show­ing, trad­ing, sell­ing, fly­ing and rac­ing pi­geons is an old pas­time in the Mid­dle East, pur­sued by Arabs and Jews alike.

Ten years ago, a con­struc­tion con­trac­tor named Mo­hammed Qin­abi brought a flock to his rooftop in Shuafat. He had learned the art in neigh­bor­ing Jor­dan, where he lived for a time and where keep­ing pi­geons is al­most a na­tional sport.

His neigh­bors liked what they saw, how Qin­abi could com­mand a flock of 30 or 40 birds to wheel and dive over his head — and then come back to his hand­made cages and coops when he called them.

“Now, many have be­come ad­dicted,” Qin­abi said.

He was only half-kid­ding. “Once you start with the pi­geons,” he said, “it’s hard for some to stop.”

Th­ese days, more than two dozen men fly pi­geons in the camp, he said. Feed is cheap. Cages and coops are just a bit of castoff wood and wire. But a healthy ath­letic male, with beau­ti­ful plumage? A leader? Those can eas­ily cost a few hun­dred dol­lars. A pair of fancy show birds can go for sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars.

The 40-year-old la­borer stood on his roof, watch­ing a mob of birds cir­cle above. “A bird in the sky is not your bird,” he said. “It’s only yours when it lands.”

Qin­abi has 82 birds. When a neigh­bor asks how many chil­dren he has, he jok­ingly re­sponds, “Eighty-two.” He knows each one by sight. His birds wear col­ored bands on their feet, and some have lit­tle bells.

Shuafat is a tough neigh­bor­hood of nar­row streets and chaotic build­ing. It is no­to­ri­ous for drug sales, crim­i­nal clans, blood feuds. Of­fi­cially part of the Jerusalem mu­nic­i­pal­ity, the camp is to­day a city of 24,000, though no­body knows its true size. It lies on the other side of the check­point through Is­rael’s sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier, which here is an ugly con­crete wall. Is­rael doesn’t re­ally pro­vide much in the way of ser­vices — the garbage of­ten piles up un­til some­one burns it.

“We’re a kind of no man’s land,” Qin­abi said.

He said pi­geon fanciers tra­di­tion­ally had a rough rep­u­ta­tion, that it was a sport for out­laws. “But here,” he said, “all the fanciers are nice guys.”

He ex­plained that part of the al­lure of fly­ing pi­geons is the mas­tery over the birds — the fancier raises them, feeds them, trains them. And the birds de­velop a pow­er­ful at­tach­ment to home and owner.

“You have to be a mas­ter to con­trol a bird in the sky,” Qin­abi said.

Like fly­ing a kite? He shook his head. No, noth­ing like fly­ing a kite. “A kite has a string,” he said. “The mas­ter of the game is the one who brings all his birds back. Each one is very valu­able to me. If I lose one pi­geon, I can­not sleep.”

Yazen al-Qum, 20, runs a car-wash­ing busi­ness across the street. Qin­abi in­tro­duced him to “this ob­ses­sion” two years ago, he said.

He said he spends all his free time car­ing for his birds, fly­ing them or think­ing about them.

“Fly­ing pi­geons is a state of mind. I am up on my roof. I am high. I feel like a king of my world,” Qum said. He let out a high­pitched whis­tle, his per­sonal call.

He watched as his flock cir­cled Shuafat, crossed the dry val­ley be­low, flew above the sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier, and soared over Pis­gat Zeev, a neigh­bor­ing Jewish set­tle­ment.

“The pi­geons make me feel free,” he said. “Through their eyes I go ev­ery­where, I see ev­ery­thing. You know the walls, the places I can­not go? There’s no wall for the birds. They’re above all this.”

PHO­TOS BY LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Yazen al-Qum trains pi­geons from his fam­ily’s rooftop at the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. ABOVE: Some of the birds in Qum’s flock. The op­er­a­tor of a car-wash­ing busi­ness, Qum says he spends all his free time fo­cused on his birds.

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