Free as a bird: How pigeons have become a source of solace for Jordanians in lockdown​​​​​​​

Pigeon-keeper Zaid Al Moghrabi tells us how his birds bring him comfort in trying times

Zaid Al-Otayat, 26, holds up the family's most valuable bird, worth 1,000 JD. Picture by Charlie Faulkner
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It’s early evening in Jordan’s capital Amman and the sun is melting into the horizon. The sound of flapping wings, the gentle tinkle of tiny bells and the whoosh of movement through the sky can be heard overhead as colourful groups of pigeons fly in circles above.

One of these flocks belongs to Zaid Al Moghrabi, 26, who is waving around a long wooden pole to keep a group of 30 or so birds airborne, while attempting to feed the other several hundred pigeons housed on the building's rooftop.

Without his pigeons to look after, Al Moghrabi says he is not sure how he would have coped with Jordan's coronavirus lockdown, which is now in its third month. Tending to the birds and spending time on the terrace has provided him with an escape from the stress of the crisis.

Zaid Al-Otayat family's rooftop in Amman which houses almost 400 pigeons of varying colours and markings. Picture by Charlie Faulkner
Zaid Al Moghrabi family's rooftop in Amman, which houses almost 400 pigeons of varying colours and markings. Charlie Faulkner for The National

"I would feel depressed," he tells The National. "It's a fun space – you watch the pigeons mocking one another, falling in love and fighting."

A tight and narrow concrete staircase winds its way from the street up to the top of the building and into a small, warmly decorated room. Although untidy, with empty water bottles and bird feed strewn about the place, the sofas, spotlighting and shisha pipes indicate a much-used and appreciated space.

Framed photographs of Al Moghrabi's brother, Fadi, who died from a stroke a few years ago, hang on the wall. Across the room, sliding glass doors open out onto a terrace, which boasts a spectacular view of the east of the city, and is filled with pigeons in an array of colours and sizes.

"We are a few brothers and Fadi taught us how to take care of the pigeons, but most now are busy with their families and work, so it is just me and my brother Ahmad who spend time here," says Al Moghrabi. "It's also a place for me and my friends to hang out."

Before the country's population was required to stay at home, Al Moghrabi and his brother would go up to the roof before and after work to feed the birds and let them fly. On Fridays, they would spend all day there.

Over the past two months, however, Al Moghrabi says he has spent several hours there, most days. That is despite the fact that flying season usually runs from the months of December to April.

Al Moghrabi is a quiet-mannered man, but he speaks passionately about his birds, smiling as he recounts anecdotes and points out his favourites. He pulls a small, tan-coloured pigeon out from a cage and, handling her affectionately, tells why he likes her: because she is small, unusually coloured and has what is deemed to be a good head shape.

She wears bells on her ankles for aesthetic purposes.

Zaid Al Otayat shwoing the rings of bells are given to birds with higher values.
Picture by Charlie Faulkner
Al Moghrabi shows the rings of bells, which are given to birds with higher values. Charlie Faulkner for The National

Al Moghrabi, father to a 2-year-old daughter, is a roof tiler and building labourer who, prior to the pandemic, worked on a day-to-day basis, which led to considerable financial instability. Since the country shut down in March, the little work he did have has completely vanished, forcing him to rely on a small amount of savings he had set aside, plus help from few relatives.

“I’m worried about the lack of money. I have rent to pay, life necessities and furniture repayments,” he says.

Children in the neighbourhood come and visit the rooftops with the pigeons and they want to have their own

Despite the low cost of bird feed, his love of keeping pigeons has proved to be another financial burden, but giving them up is not an option, he says.

The brothers are now responsible for almost 400 birds. “We have hatched some of these pigeons and we’ve watched them grow. We cannot just abandon them overnight,” he says.

A few years ago, there was money to be made in pigeon flying, but, with a growth in the sport’s popularity, it’s become a hobby instead, he says.

“Now everyone’s into it, so it’s no longer a lucrative sport. Children in the neighbourhood come and visit the rooftops with the pigeons and they want to have their own.”

Al Moghrabi then disappears off to one of the coops and returns with the family's most treasured pigeon, which previously belonged to his brother Fadi. It is 11 years old – Al Moghrabi says he does not know of birds living beyond age 12 – and is big and black, with colouring on its neck feathers that turn purple or green depending on the light. It's worth 1,000 Jordanian dinars (Dh5,179).

Zaid Al-Otayat, 26, stetches out a pigeon's wing to demonstrate the bird's markings. 
Picture by Charlie Faulkner
Al Moghrabi, 26, stretches out a pigeon's wing to demonstrate the bird's markings. Charlie Faulkner for The National

“If you told Ahmad to sell all of the pigeons he would say, OK, except for this pigeon. It’s an old-school pigeon. Back in the day, people liked the big pigeons. It stands proud.” It is one of the only birds that survived a burglary a number of years ago, when almost the entire pigeon collection was stolen.

"It was a grudge between us and another pigeon flyer," Al Moghrabi says. "We were all at a wedding one day, so they took the opportunity to break in and take the birds. They killed them all."

There are some people who you have peace with. If you have a pigeon of theirs you give it back

Etiquette between pigeon flyers is a tricky business. Al Moghrabi says if someone else's pigeon lands on your rooftop, you should return it – but that does not always happen. Sometimes, to counter this, owners put tags on the pigeons' ankles with their contact information. Al Moghrabi marks pigeons that land on his rooftop if he does not know where they have come from. If it's a good quality bird, he will breed it before returning it.

In the case of the robbery, Al Moghrabi had borrowed a very special bird from a friend, which then ended up on someone else's rooftop. When he went over to the retrieve the bird, the person denied any knowledge of it. A huge battle to steal one another's birds from the sky ensued, ending with the Al Moghrabis being burgled.

The incident was understandably upsetting for the family. Beyond the financial implications of such a loss, they had spent years creating and nurturing their collection, breeding specific traits and colourings. Replacing the stolen pigeons was not as simple as buying new ones.

“There are some people who you have peace with,” he says. “If you have a pigeon of theirs you give it back. But then there are the people you have grudges with. Then you remove a few feathers from the bird so they can’t fly away and they become yours.”

Groups of pigeons fly around Zaid Al-Otayat family's rooftop in Amman.
Picture by Charlie Faulkner
Groups of pigeons fly around Al Moghrabi family's rooftop in Amman. Charlie Faulkner for The National

Friendly conversations shouted across the rooftops with one of his neighbouring pigeon flyers are a frequent occurrence for Al Moghrabi, but they deliberately keep their friendship free of pigeon politics. "We're friends but we do not talk about pigeons in the street," he says with a laugh.

A few nights ago, however, Al Moghrabi and his family ended up in an argument with the neighbours. "The argument was not about the birds, but eventually it turned to pigeons."

Considering the fallout of the global health crisis, it is no wonder tensions are running high. But for now, the pigeons that fill Amman’s sky symbolise the freedom people in Jordan are craving for.

Additional reporting by Alex Salliti