Context & Culture

Autumn Pastimes, or the Other Fighting Grounds of Afghanistan


Bird fighting has an ancient history as a common autumn pastime among Afghans. As soon as the weather gets colder, various tournaments take place among bird enthusiasts, either in the open air or in a warm arena, depending on what sort of birds are fighting. In Kabul, the favourite birds to take the field are quails, partridges, cocks and canaries. This may be only entertainment for some in the audience, but for bird owners and the regular gamblers, bird fighting means handfuls of money won or lost. Obaid Ali has been exploring this underworld in order to explain to AAN readers where and when to attend such events, how fighting birds are trained and the rules of procedure employed by the major bird fighting rings.

Bring Your Own Quail for Admission

The outline of the game is simple: two aggressive male quails are thrown face to face into the fighting ring and, cheered on by gamblers, are forced to battle each other. It is a strange sight: the birds appear very fragile with tiny beaks, soft legs and chubby bodies. They are so small that they are each easily held in one hand. The fight may continue for just two or three minutes to entertain the audience, but for the gamblers, the challenge is to win, and not lose, significant amounts of money.

Keeping quails is a tradition said to be thousands of years old and traditionally considered part of Pashtun culture. In fact, it is a favourite for the people of Kandahar, where it is called Karak bazi. Quail fighting was banned in Afghanistan under the Taleban regime, but since 2001, the pastime has been revived.

In Kabul, there are several places where Bodana jangi (quail fighting) takes place. The most popular location for Bodana jangi is Salor Khan’s Hotel (a Kandahari hotel located in the centre of town). Every Thursday morning, surprisingly, hundreds of bodana baz, as the quail players are called, gather there. The quails are kept in the players’ left hands, covered by cloths. This is to keep the birds quiet and calm until their fights.

The atmosphere in Salor Khan’s Hotel early on Thursday mornings reminds one of a wedding party – the sort of party where all the tables are packed and the waiters are running up and down to warmly welcome the guests. The hotel has quite a unique rule; the guests need to keep the hotel entertained. There are no tables for those who show up empty-handed, without quails.

The quail fighting starts early in the morning with 10 to 15 battles in a span of two hours. Quail fighting is largely embraced by older men who are proud to be part of what they see as a vanishing part of their culture. “I have kept birds since before school-age,” said Haji Rahim, a man of about 60. He recalled learning how to train a fighting quail from his father, who, he said, was one of the most famous quail players of Kandahar province.

Haji Rahim said there are rules for the sport, even if one considers the fights as just gambling. Quails most frequently fight for two or three minutes. Very rarely a fight lasts as long as 10 to 15 minutes. The enthusiasts challenge each other, betting their money in advance on the quail they think will win. Both sides have their supporters, who also lay down their bets ahead of time. Once the day of the battle comes, more money is bet, depending on which bird is performing better during the fight on that Thursday morning. Bets start from 1,000 Afghanis and can reach up to 100,000 Afghanis ($20USD up to $2,000USD).

Duels at Dawn

The sun has barely risen, and already two men are watering the arena to keep the dust down. Dozens of the other Afghan men are swapping handfuls of bank notes, frantically betting in another of the country’s acrobatic pastimes, Kabk jangi (see this video from the author). In partridge fighting, one of the opponents tries to fly on top of the other to kick. It is Friday morning and in a shady patch under a cluster of trees in the Park-e Khair Khana (in a northern neighbourhood of Kabul), hundreds of partridge owners are gathering to entertain the audience.

Abdul Faqir, a bird trainer, said it may be a few hours of entertainment for the audience, but it costs him a whole year of hard work to raise a bird that will fight only 10 to 20 times in its life. Appropriate food and regular exercise is needed to prepare a bird to fight. “You have to take your bird into the mountains to run. This develops its lung capacity,” he said. Additionally, partridges are usually given damp soil to play in twice a week.

Before the fight, owners sharpen their birds’ beaks with knives and trim their claws with nail-cutters so they don’t split. In the fight, the partridges peck each other with vigour, and as soon as the fight heats up, bets rise. At the beginning, bets among gamblers start from 1,000 Afghanis ($20USD). Then, during the performance, two gamblers stand up shouting, “One for ten (1,000 Afs for 10,000 Afs)!” Gradually, the bet rises to 50,000 Afs.

Some matches are over in minutes, when one bird takes fright and runs away, refusing to fight. Some continue for hours. Partridge fighting can be much more violent than quail fighting, but the owners are always careful to avoid excessive damages to their birds, as fighting partridges can be incredibly expensive, from an average of 20,000 Afs ($400 USD) up to 200,000 Afs ($4,000 USD).

Partridges are so valuable, in fact, that after each fight, they receive a massage (tokor in Dari). The birds are taken to a warm room, where experienced trainers have prepared a special liquid to help the birds to recover from any injuries. They drop the mixture over the birds, from top to bottom. The concoction is made of pomegranate skin, salt and ground bones. Then they roll each bird tightly in a piece of cloth, covering everything except its head. When it is gasping and about to suffocate, they take the cloth away and dry the bird’s feathers. This treatment continues for one to three nights. In the meantime, the bird is only fed soft food made of flour, nuts, pistachios and water. Then, after two or three weeks, the partridge can resume fighting practice and get ready to hit the battleground again.

Kabul’s Great Divide

As a resident of Kabul for three decades of my life, I had never noticed that my city was divided in two sections. This separation is not due to any ethnic or sectarian fault line: it is, as I have just discovered, divided into teams of enthusiasts of yet another form of bird fighting: cockfighting.

The line in Kabul has been drawn by two famous and prominent trendsetters in cockfighting: Corner (Colonel) Azim from Bibi Mahru and Pahlawan (Champion) Feroz from Char Dehi(1). Both have been at the head of cockfighting (murgh kolangi in Dari) teams in Kabul for decades. From Paghman to Charasyab (that is, most of West Kabul) is considered Pahlawan Feroz’s territory, while the rest of the city is Corner Azim’s turf.

Amateurs in cockfighting (murgh baz in Dari) fully understand which side of the wall they belong to. Traditionally, none of them would be allowed to cross the invisible line without the permission from both sides’ team leaders. Today, both teams still exist but in a less competitive manner. Now the two sides often hold joint cockfighting matches, and the trainers are free to take part in either side’s territory.

There are many breeds of fighting cocks in Afghanistan. The most famous of them are the Kabuli fighting cocks and those from Andkhoy, a district in northern Faryab province. Pahlawan Nader, the organizer of a cockfighting ring, told AAN that the most popular kind of cock has white or green eyes and green legs. A cock of this stock stays in the battle ground until it dies.

As a cock’s way of fighting shows the skill of its owner as well as the bird’s own capacities, Pahlawan Nader also discussed at length the methodology of training cocks to make them fight. We share the information here, in case some of our readers feel ready to join the fray and – depending on where they live in Kabul – one of the two main divisions of cockfighters.

A fighting cock starts its regular exercises at the age of nine months and continues for at least six months. The exercises include early morning running and test fighting twice a week. In the first day of exercise, a cock is forced to run for only five minutes. At the end of the six-month training period, the cock can run for up to 60 minutes. This develops the lung capacity of the bird, meaning that a cock will be able to fight longer without fear of tiring. In the same way, test fighting improves a bird’s fighting skills. “This is to improve the physical capacity of the cock, like a boxer,” said Pahlawan Nadar.

However, the mental preparation of a fighting cock requires more than experience. A cock owner has to spend thousands of Afghanis to ensure the quality of the food that his bird receives is top-notch. According to Pahlawan Nader, “Chopped corn, wheat, oats, boiled eggs and multi-vitamins enhance the bird’s muscles, while nuts, almonds, pistachios and saffron plus some more seeds help its mental ability in the battle ground.”

The organizers of both rings of cockfighting told AAN that there are precise rules for the fights. “We discuss the manner of the cockfights and then draw rules of procedure, then have it approved by the birds’ owners and other experts from both sides a few days before we get to the battle ground,” they reported. These rules are implemented when the sportsmen from the two sides (Char Dehi and Bibi Mahru) hold joint matches. The rules of procedure may contain 20 or 24 articles to instruct the birds’ owners about the rules on the battleground.

During the fight, the owners are allowed only two breaks to refresh the birds. After a five-minute round, they have a two-minute break, but no one is allowed to take the birds outside of the arena. Following the agreement between the cockfighting syndicates, advance stakes of 30,000 to 50,000 Afs ($200 to $1000 USD) are played. If one of the birds is injured before the fight or is ill, the owner either makes it fight anyway or loses the money staked by his side.

And finally, the venue is chosen. Surprisingly, the ground for the particular cockfight that AAN attended was located at a swimming pool in western Kabul where I use to go swimming (see video here). An old man with a grey moustache stood where I use to jump into the water, only he’s betting hard on cockfighting instead. The crowd broke into whoops and cheers as one cock display his higher fighting skills, kicking into the other bird’s neck.

The bets gradually increase, as the fighting cocks get more aggressive. Abdul Manan, appriximately 45 years old and a regular gambler, shouts, “One for five! 1,000 Afs for 5,000 Afs!” That is, if the red cock is defeated. At the opposite side of the pool, other supporters of the white cock are clapping their hands and shouting, “Beat him, take him by the scruff!” The tense atmosphere of the cockfighting ground can be frightening for those who come to watch for the first time. Finally, one of the birds runs away, and money flies from one hand to another.

It’s not Over until a Bird doesn’t Sing

Until this point, we have looked at several different types of bird fights, with a progressive increase in the creatures’ sizes. Nevertheless, there are other entertainments among bird enthusiasts as well (for pigeon aerial fights see AAN’s previous dispatch here). In some parts of Kabul, Canary bazi (canary game) is considered a great pastime. Here, no physical clash between birds is involved; a singing competition takes its place instead. The environment and atmosphere of canary playing grounds is in fact very peaceful. Kaka Zelkai, one of the most renowned enthusiasts of Canary bazi, said he has the best canaries in the world. “My canary can sing for a few hours without breaks,” he boasted.

The rules of the canary game are very simple: Two canaries’ cages are brought to a quiet room, where enthusiasts and judges are seated side by side. The volume and type of the canaries’ singing is compared. The winner is the one with the loudest volume and longest duration of singing. Any canary that stops singing is declared the loser.

This brief digression on canaries may serve to free Afghans from possible charges of cruelty to animals. The countless Afghan pastimes involving animals (mostly in pairs, fighting each other) come from a taste for competition and not for violence per se. Afghans simply seek to exploit in animals those talents that nature has endowed in them. As a matter of fact, has anybody ever heard of a barking competition arranged between two dogs? That would be cruel for both animal and human ears.

 

(1) Bibi Mahru, also known as Bimaru, is a hill located between the Kabul Airport and Wazir Akbar Khan. The titles of the two main leaders of cockfighting in Kabul deserve a short explanation. Corner is a corruption of colonel, indicating a (former) military rank. Pahlawan (champion) is a name usually given to wrestlers or former wrestlers (the traditional Afghan wrestling is called koshti and is similar to Greco-Roman wrestling). It is sometimes also applied to famous riders of Buzkashi (otherwise known as chapandaz ) and can be used colloquially to refer to burly men when addressing them.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture