Kabootarbazi -- Pakistani Pigeon Keeping
Grey speckled pigeons floating easily under the brutal sun. Such an image hardly comes to mind when thinking of Pakistan.
And still the animals, cared for by their owners — the Kabootarbazi — that built them castles upon rooftops, are a common sight of the cities of Pakistan.
„We care for them more than we care for ourselves,“ is a sentence I will continue to hear from the many pigeon keepers that invite me to their rooftops and gardens to proudly display their animals to me. Somehow no one seems able to properly explain the fascination the Kabootarbazi have for their birds. It is hard to comprehend. They hold races, where the pigeons that remain airborne the longest before returning home win. Prizes ranging from small electronics to motorbikes are given out, but nothing that would equal the effort that each keeper invests day in and day out to care for these creatures.
Mustaffa, a well known Kabootarbazi in his neighborhood of suburban Lahore, squats in the shade of a small wall and his eyes sparkle as he shows me his favorite birds. He points at a small, hardly recognizable swarm of pigeons at the horizon: „Those are mine! I recognize them without a doubt.“
Higher and higher the swarm spirals towards the sun, further and further escaping the dust, the heat, the chaos of the city. It is as if the birds glide effortlessly away towards another world, while their caretakers stay behind, observing them while sinking into their own thoughts.
While the birds are away, a Kabootarbazi grinds almonds and cardamom into a paste and adds it to their feed for extra energy. He changes their water and sweeps the cage, regularly pausing to search the horizon — they can be gone for hours at a time — but not a one is yet to be seen. I ask him if he ever worries that they won’t come back. „They always come back. This is their home.“
Often the Kabootarbazi gather together on the rooftops sipping chai, half in conversation and half staring dreamily into the distance. Here on the roof they are closer to their pigeons and further away from the noise, the dirt and the hectic city sounds. They can’t escape daily life beyond that point. Maybe that’s why they keep their birds, though — the birds escape for them.