Letter from Afghanistan — From the December 2012 issue

Caliph of the Tricksters

Cockfighting in the ruins of Kabul

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On a visit several years ago to Afghanistan, in a Kabul restaurant of the better kind, I met a policeman named Hossein Fakhri. A laconic, handsome, tense sort of man, Fakhri had been introduced to me as a police officer whose loves were literature and the city of his birth. Speaking in Persian, Afghanistan’s literary language, we discussed Kabul and the writers and poets who live there. So much had happened to the city in its recent history, I said, that it wasn’t easy for an outsider like me, visiting at some arbitrary point in events, to arrive at a settled view of the place. My opinion seemed unduly contingent on the latest suicide bombing, or land-grab scandal, or my sense of the Taliban at the gates. “That,” Fakhri said, “is no way to look at a city.”

Before he got up to return to work, Fakhri presented me with an edition of his short stories. It was called The Roosters of Babur’s Garden. He advised me to read the title story, adding, “I think you’ll find there is something of Kabul in that.” After he had gone, I ordered a pot of green tea and opened the book.

“The Roosters of Babur’s Garden” is narrated by a boy whose father, a poor Kabuli, sells his patch of dry, stony land and buys a three-month-old pedigree cockerel. Cherished by his new owner, the cockerel grows into a fine adult, taut from exercise and energized by a diet of wheat seeds, worms, and almonds. The transformation extends to the owner, who seems to grow in confidence and stature along with his bird. “I’ve had black-flecked birds,” he boasts, “spotted ones, raisin-red and white birds, and bee-colored birds. I’ve had birds with upstanding combs, flat combs and floppy combs. A bird is a bird. But this one is something else. Woe betide the bird that is matched with this!”

Cockfighting, I learned from Fakhri’s story, is not simply about pedigree and preparation. Luck is also essential, for only in the pit will a bird’s true martial abilities show themselves. Is he wild and unthinking, a “tyrant” who exhausts himself after a quarter of an hour, or a stayer, his resolve growing as the shadows lengthen and his rival starts to weaken? Does he have a particular trick, such as thrusting his head under one of his adversary’s legs and forcing him to hop around, draining him of energy? It is better to strike rarely but lethally, in those very tender “death places,” the eyes and chest, than to land blow upon blow on a rival’s feathery armor. Finally, and most important, will the cock fight until victory, no matter how valiant his opponent? In losing, the cock dishonors not only himself but his owner too.

So it proves in “The Roosters of Babur’s Garden.” One icy winter’s morning, father and son take their bird to the opening bout of the season. The fights take place in the ruined garden in which the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Babur was buried. The rookie clucks and crows impressively, and a match is found, with a mean-looking specimen, dirty and unkempt. But the ragamuffin turns out to be deadly, and over the course of a long and terrible fight the poor Kabuli’s bird weakens and eventually takes a spur in the eye.

The cock’s defeat is bloody, but Fakhri is equally interested in the demise of his owner. The crowd rains derision on the stricken bird, and the boy wishes his father were “safe inside the four walls of home, under his bedclothes, where no one but God could see him.” His sympathy does not last, however, for suddenly the enraged father seizes the dying cock and slits his throat. “Stony-hearted!” someone exclaims. “Mad!” someone else calls out, and the boy runs home in shame.

Reading the story, and rereading it after returning home to England, I found myself drawn to the idea of a literary sensibility engaging in so savage a pursuit. Cockfighting is a blood sport par excellence. There is no ulterior motive, no equivocating about killing in order to eat, as there is with shooting game or fishing, or about killing vermin, as is the case with foxhunting. Cockfighting is pure vicarious violence, and the sport has been marginalized to the point of extinction. Although illegal, it endures in pockets of America, and in one or two parts of Europe it has been preserved by local laws as a relic of the old decadence. Not so in Afghanistan, where civil war of one kind or another has been waged for the past three decades and combat is for many the most salient fact of life. Cockfighting is outlawed in Afghanistan, but not for the reason it is outlawed in virtually all American states and most of Europe—that it is cruel. It is illegal in Afghanistan because its association with gambling brings it into conflict with Islamic law.

Fakhri had told me that the season gets going in December and continues to spring. I learned that the center of the sport is Kabul, with at least two regular meets each week, though there is a provincial scene as well. The sport is gaining in popularity, and attendance and bets are growing. I was amused to be told all this by a policeman. Clearly, the word “illegal” has a particular meaning in Afghanistan.

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