From his Gheya – a spindly wooden column that looks like a medieval siege tower – Kouka can see a dozen similar structures above east Cairo. There are thousands more across the country, many of which add 10 or 15 metres to the buildings they stand on. Other animals in Kouka’s neighbourhood are kept for their milk and meat, but no animals are treated with so much reverence as Kouka’s pigeons. In their orderly loft, each has its own booth in what looks like a oversized chest of drawers. Kouka feeds, cleans and medicates them at regular times each day. He trains them meticulously. Each young pigeon is first taught to live apart from its parents. Then it learns the layout of the loft. Finally, it is allowed to fly with some of the older pigeons which soar across the rooftops in the early evening for two or three hours. Kouka teaches them to follow his whistles and signals – and his king pigeon, which leads the pack. Kouka wants his birds to be fit and disciplined so they can compete against other flocks in a local competition known as a nash. In one version of this competition, a pair of rival breeders release some of their 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 nash – and often some prize money. But for Kouka, it is the kudos, not the cash, that spurs him to compete. He comes from a family of bird keepers, and he grew up with the birds as his best friends.
© Copyright Janus Engel