Magdy Eshak, one of the most famous pigeon breeders throughout Cairo, has been climbing his pigeon loft to show love to his birds for 20 years.
“Without pigeons, I would have married years ago,” says 28-year-old Eshak, known locally as Koka. “The pigeons are my wife; the pigeons are my children.” Koka is one of many in this district of the city, who escapes the harsh realities of life through his love for his birds.
Koka lives in ‘Garbage City,’ North Cairo, in a typical tenement for this impoverished part of town. Garbage City is where all of Cairo’s waste ends up. In some way or another, everyone who lives here is involved in the recycling business. The garbage is brought up through the streets, and into the houses to be sorted. Here, they live amongst the garbage, and the smell is overpowering. Adding to the aroma, residents keep a menagerie of animals, which live alongside people.
Koka’s tenement is no different. The first floor is reserved for cows, kept for their milk and meat. On the floors above, live people who share their space with goats and sheeps, squashed into upstairs rooms caked in mud. The roof is given over to ducks, geese and chickens. The badly lit staircase is covered in mud and faeces; living conditions in Garbage City are among the lowest in Cairo.
Koka is typical for Garbage City. He works recycling the plastic they find in the garbage, to be sold to Chinese buyers. Life here is hard. The work is physical, the hours are long, and the workers get few day off. For this dirty work, which can often be dangerous a worker is lucky to receive 1500LE ($196) a month.
Koka’s escape is to climb his pigeon tower, which stands an extra 10 metres above his four storey tenement. From up there, the city looks very different.
Koka treats his pigeons with considerably more reverence than his other animals. He keeps them in rows of neatly kept cages which line the rim of his loft. He has raised most of his birds from when they were born, and knows them like his children.
Everyday, he climbs up to the loft. He looks over the city and judges the weather conditions. The cool weather is best for flying, and it means the birds won’t go too far; they do not take to the cold. He opens the cages, and the birds flutter up, sit on the ledge, until suddenly, they take off together. Koka watches as the birds wheel around the ancient city, peacefully fluttering against the old buildings. He waits and watches, until it is time for them to eat. He picks up an old Juventus F.C. flag, and calls for them to come back.
Koka's hobby is not unusual in Egypt. From his pigeon loft – a spindly wooden column which resembles a medieval siege tower – he can see a dozen similar structures, that teeter above nearby tenements in east Cairo. There are thousands more across the country, most of which add 10 or 15 metres to the buildings they stand on, and house upwards of 100 pigeons each.
Other breeders inherit their loft, but Koka built his by hand. Every year he adds to it, building it a bit higher each time. The height of the towers makes it harder for other breeders to steal his pigeons; and easy for him to steal theirs.
“I took up this hobby when I was eight,” says Koka. “My uncle gave me two chicks to care for. I liked them for their loyalty,” a characteristic that pigeon breeders often cite. “I began to buy more and more birds at pigeon markets across the capital.”
There are many pigeon breeders in Cairo, especially in Garbage city. Koka, however, is unique. His success comes from his ability to teach his pigeons discipline, and how to fly and maneuver during competitions. “I first teach young pigeons to live apart from their parents,” he says, “then they learn the layout of the loft. Finally, they are allowed to fly with some of the older pigeons which soar across the rooftops in the early evening for two or three hours.”
Koka wants his birds to be fit and disciplined so they can compete against other flocks in competitions in Cairo.
One of these competitions, known as Rahan el Ramia, is organised between Garbage city and Darassa pigeon flocks. Each team releases the birds from their opponent's loft. With their remaining pigeons, each breeder then tries to entrap members of their opponent's flock. The flock that returns home with the most pigeons wins the competition.
Koka always does well in this competition. “I have never been beaten by any of rival breeders yet, simply because I love my pigeons and my pigeons love me too. They can never betray me.” Koka sometimes often sells his pigeons, in fact he has pigeons which he has sold more than 10 times. They always come back.
However, breeding pigeons is not a cheap hobby. They cost Koka 1200LE a month, an extraordinary expense for somebody in his position. Even with the occasional money he makes from competitions, this is a costly hobby for Koka. With food and fuel prices rising in the country, this figure is likely to creep further upwards. Pigeon breeding, a past-time so important to many, is becoming harder to sustain.
But Koka says he won't stop spending. "What can I do? I love my pigeons," he says. "A pigeon doesn't know how to betray, doesn't know how to betray his friend, so how can I betray them?"
Makarios Nassar is a fixer, journalist, and a native to Garbage City.
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