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.

In December 2010, I returned to Kabul. I engaged a young man named Karim Sharifi as a local helper, and early one Friday, the Muslim day of rest, we drove to our first cockfight. We passed Babur’s Garden, which, having been beautifully restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, has closed its gates to the cockfighting fraternity. Kabul’s cockers have not moved far, but they have come down in the world. We arrived at a desolate, rubble-strewn lot with a ruined building in the middle. “It used to be a tile factory,” Karim explained. “Now it is the headquarters of the sport.”

It was just after nine o’clock. The lot was full of cars and people milling around, greeting one another and inspecting the birds that many of them held under their arms. One grizzled old-timer told me about the mythical hero Rostam and his flight after a particularly difficult battle. Rostam’s disapproving father arranged a cockfight and by this device impressed on his son that no true warrior turns tail. Today, Rostam’s name is synonymous with unyielding courage and valor. “But it was only after seeing a cockfight,” the old man explained, “that Rostam became Rostam.”

As we walked toward the building’s entrance, my attention was caught by a middle-aged man wheeling his bicycle into the lot from the road outside. He wore a scruffy anorak over a long tanbon shirt, and a piebald dastmal, or scarf, over his head, and exchanged pleasantries with everyone he passed. He grinned at us and went into the derelict factory, giving off a strong smell of hashish.

Karim and I also went in, handing over the equivalent of seventy-five cents. The walls had been badly shot up at various times during the many years of fighting, and the winter sun strained through holes in the roof. We took our seats on the lowest of several steps running around a rectangular area of packed earth the size of a squash court. By the time the last of the spectators had filed in, there must have been around 500 of us, greeting one another, cursing cheerfully, squeezed around the pit.

The spectators were as varied as Afghanistan itself. There were ethnic Uzbeks from the far north, wearing neat little turbans over red skullcaps, as well as a sprinkling of fuller Pashtun turbans, and beards one could lose a fist in. Most common was the mujahedeen look, consisting of a long shirt with an obliquely slashed hanging collar, trousers stopping above the ankle, and a soft-brimmed woolen hat over a trimmed beard. Even in winter, sandals without socks are de rigueur for the ex-muj, denoting manliness. And then, a disheveled fashion plate on the bottom step: the bicyclist with the dastmal over his head, his almond-shaped eyes suggestive of Turkish ancestry, listening with an amused expression to the anecdote of a neighbor.

Two men holding roosters walked to the middle of the pit. One was glowering and muscle-bound in combat fatigues. (He turned out to be a general in the Afghan National Army.) The other was chubby and young. His name was Sabur, and he and his brother Zilgai—Karim pointed him out, sitting behind us—were considered up-and-coming cockers.

Two handlers, called abdars, took the birds, and the owners sat on the lowest step around the pit. The abdars set the birds on the ground facing one another, beak point to beak point, hackle feathers rising to form collars around their small, concentrated features. Then there was a furious dash of wings and spurs.

It was all over very quickly. Before I had properly focused on the combatants, the general bolted from his place, his face ashen, and carried his rooster away. “I think the general’s bird was hit in the eye,” Karim said. “Very unlucky, after just a few seconds. I don’t think he’ll be able to fight on.” The young brothers, Sabur and Zilgai, were jubilant.

I had not seen the deadly blow, and I missed the significance of much else that day. The birds’ spurs were bewilderingly quick. The betting, with men leaping into the pit and shouting odds, and others signaling their acceptance, was chaotic. Later on, having grown accustomed to the speed of the action, I was able to follow the feints and maneuvers more easily. I was not revolted, as I had expected to be. There were several small boys among the spectators, looking on with frank enjoyment, and they may have had a disarming effect. I thought of my own seven-year-old and how he would have reacted.

Westerners have felt drawn to write about conflicts in Afghanistan ever since the British and Pashtun first crossed swords back in the nineteenth century. Journalists maintained the tradition in the 1980s, in many cases romanticizing the mujahedeen who fought to expel the Soviets, and they carry on today, embedding with American military units that are in conflict with the Taliban. Watching events in the ruined tile factory, it crossed my mind that I, too, was embedded—in a parallel war, a simulacrum of human combat, animated by the same honor and fear, the same selfishness and pride.

The atmosphere of the pit, the wracking coughs and curses and the gamblers slipping out to squat and piss over the rubble outside, did not correspond to any idea I had of wealth. Then, after one fight, Karim told me that the equivalent of $22,000 had been riding on the result, including a $2,000 wager between the owners. These are huge sums in a country where per capita income is less than $500. Karim gave me whispered biographies of the better-known personalities sitting around the pit, telling me of their past service to the jihad and of their current elevated positions in President Hamid Karzai’s bureaucracy, army, and police. I would not, I realized, find a version of the poor Kabuli who had featured in Hossein Fakhri’s story. That character had bought his pedigree cockerel for less than $700; nowadays he would need to pay four or five times that much. Kabul is an artificial boomtown, powered by war, crime, and foreign aid, and the price of virtually everything, including gamecocks, has soared.

Later, at the end of fights that proceeded in increments and often lasted several rounds, I saw magnificent creatures die, trembling and alone, reviled by the very men who had cheered them, and I regretted my earlier insouciance. Surely the bouts could be stopped before it came to this, and points awarded? That way, the birds would live to fight another day and perhaps enjoy a warrior’s retirement. I looked around—at the flushed faces, the looks of triumph and vindication. No, death was the whole point.

As we were leaving the building, Karim and I found ourselves in step with the man with the dastmal over his head. We learned that he was called Hafiz and that he owned several fighting cocks. He agreed to meet with us the following day to talk about cockfighting. “The one true love of my life!” he cackled and went to fetch his bicycle. We heard someone greet him, “Hafiz! How are you, caliph of the tricksters?”

Early the next morning, Karim and I went for a walk in the center of Kabul. He told me that our route, toward Straw Sellers’ Alley, would take us past Zilgai, one of the brothers whose bird had caused such a sensation at the tile factory. Zilgai’s day job, as it happened, was selling fighting cocks.

Along the way I had a grand experience: my pocket was picked and then exquisitely unpicked. I was squeezing between two hawkers’ carts when I felt my progress impeded by a dark, bedraggled figure at my side, also trying to get through the narrow gap. “After you,” I said, and the man walked on. There had been a slight pressure on my waist, so I put my hand into my jacket pocket. My mobile phone was gone.

So was the man, who was now running through the crowds. I made mad chase, shoving people out of the way and eventually grabbing his collar and stopping him dead. “Give me back my mobile!” I shouted, guessing that a Persian-speaking Westerner upbraiding a thief would draw sympathetic interest; he stared with addled eyes while I raved and a small crowd gathered. The thief pointed at my pocket and said, “Have a look.” Again I put my hand in my pocket, this time drawing out my mobile phone. It took me a few moments to realize what had happened, but by that time the dark magician was gone and the crowd had turned away in disinterest.

As we walked on, I saw Zilgai from a distance, crouching in his black leather jacket while two cocks sparred furiously, their lethal spurs clad in leather muffs, for the benefit of a dozen observers. Both combatants were red aseels, the celebrated Indian breed known for its small wattles and indomitable courage that is prevalent in Afghanistan, but one of the two rose higher and struck with greater accuracy at his adversary’s head and neck, and it was clear that Zilgai had deliberately mismatched them in the hope of attracting buyers.

He separated the birds before they exhausted themselves, the observers drifted away, and there was no sale. “I keep the best specimens at home,” Zilgai told us, grinning and cradling under his jacket one of the combatants, who clucked excitedly. “That’s where the serious buyers come.”

Karim and I moved on from Zilgai, passing hundreds of chickens and turkeys for sale at the side of the road, and entered Straw Sellers’ Alley. The name is a misnomer—straw hasn’t been traded here for years—and the first few storefronts, where knife sharpeners sit at their wheels and an old man promises a cure for rheumatism, offer no hint of what lies ahead. Then this corridor of a street narrows further, and the sounds of the city are drowned out by the warbling and chirruping of thousands of birds inside wooden cages that have been hung up in the storefronts or laid out on the ground. The bigger cages are spliced with twigs jammed between the bars—perches for quails, starlings, and mynahs. Pin-striped partridges sit with their mates, while barrel-chested homing pigeons, the color of café au lait, squabble and chafe.

Straw Sellers’ Alley doesn’t cater only to the refined senses—our enjoyment of the mynah’s mimicry, our poetic identification with a flock of pigeons performing above our heads. The shopkeepers here deal mostly in partridge and quail, and these are sold in order to fight. In front rooms and back yards the length and breadth of the city, combat is arranged, bets laid, and birds maimed and killed. So the economy of Straw Sellers’ Alley, too, is a war economy.

To the aficionado of the fighting cock, these others are inferior warriors. As Hafiz told me, “I don’t like quail or partridge. They fight for a few minutes and then one of them gives up. Even fighting dogs will fight for no more than five or ten minutes before one of them gives up. But a fighting cock, that’s a different matter! They fight over three days, four. They fight until they can no longer fight. God created these birds to fight.’ ”

I spent more time with Hafiz than with any other cocker. I visited his home, accompanied him to a provincial fight, and partook of the cigarettes, laced with charas, a local form of hashish, that he smoked when he was not tending his birds. “I am addicted,” he declared without regret. He was referring to the cockfighting, not the hash. “Everything I earn, I lose!”

Hafiz stands about 5’7″ and often smiles through his gray beard while his eyes twinkle roguishly. Apart from the dastmal, his main prop is a ring set with a milk-white agate, which he rubs against his eyes, and to whose mysterious properties he attributes his excellent eyesight. As a cocker and a charsi, Hafiz stands on the margin of respectable society, and this is how he likes it. He is a bucolic rejection of all the hand-wringing that abounds in Afghanistan—all those predictions of doom and gloom. I once asked him how he viewed the country’s future, and he gave a shout of laughter and replied, “I don’t think about my own future. Why should I think about the future of the country?”

Hafiz earns good money when he works as a construction foreman, but the building season in Afghanistan ends at the start of winter, when he becomes unemployed. This frees him to spend much of his earnings on cockfighting; he has lost a lot of money over the years and has had to sell family land in order to put his children through school. Hafiz is far from being one of the richest members of Kabul’s cockfighting fraternity. He is the only cocker I have seen who comes by bike to the old tile factory.

As a Shia Muslim and a member of the Hazara ethnic minority, Hafiz is distinguished twice over from the Sunni, mostly Tajik elite that dominates the new security forces. The sum of his military experience was a spell as a reluctant conscript in the Soviet-run army of the early 1980s. He described the civil war that followed, when the different mujahedeen factions fought one another, as a “wretched” time. Hafiz spent the Taliban period in exile in Pakistan, weaving carpets in Peshawar, returning home only after Karzai came to power in 2002.

Sitting in the house he inherited from his father, in a modest but respectable Kabul neighborhood, he showed me the bird he intended to take to the tile factory that coming Friday. The cock was a lustrous red creature with a large comb and a white-tipped saddle, and Hafiz withdrew him from his cage in a corner of the warm sitting room so that I could admire his sheen and the tautness of his breast and thighs. Even when his cage was covered, Hafiz told me, this bird unfailingly emitted his first crow of the day a few moments before dawn; it’s not for nothing that the cock’s first crow is known as the call to prayer.

Hafiz had exercised the bird that morning, driving him around the courtyard to build up his muscles and stamina. Now he placed him on the floor and snapped his fingers. The cock pirouetted aggressively, his dark eyes gleaming. In Afghanistan they call the onset of maturity, when a cockerel becomes an adult and will fight any adult male who comes near, his “drunkenness.” Hafiz’s eyes gleamed, too. “He’s ready to fight! He’ll cause a revolution in the pit—just see if he doesn’t!”

I asked Hafiz’s eldest son, Omid, a solemn eleven-year-old, whether he would be coming on Friday. Omid shook his head, and Hafiz explained how, unlike many other owners, he has not encouraged his children to get involved in the sport. In this, and in his charas smoking, Hafiz’s approach to fatherhood is to point to himself as a negative example. “Who do you learn manners from?” he asked, then supplied the answer himself: “From the ill-mannered.”

Hafiz placed an iron tablet flat on the room’s wood-burning stove. When the tablet was hot, he laid some lengths of old cloth on it and unscrewed a container that was full of a dark, glutinous pomade. Several times in the days leading up to a fight, Hafiz coats the heated cloths with this pomade, which he has concocted from a dozen concentrates and infusions, and wraps them tightly around the bird’s head, breast, and thighs. This is intended to toughen the skin and make it harder for a spur to penetrate. Hafiz started telling me which ingredients go into the pomade: “alum, pomegranate skin, tamarisk blossom, walnut shell . . .” Then, wrapping a length of cloth around the bird’s neck, he interrupted himself: “Hold on! I’m not going to tell you the rest. They are a secret that only I know!”

The following day, Hafiz was due to attend a meet in the Shamali Plain, about two hours’ drive from Kabul, and he agreed that Karim and I could accompany him. Traveling is one of the aspects of cockfighting that Hafiz likes best, and the trips he has made around the country are his fondest memories of the sport. From Mazar-i-Sharif in the far north to Kandahar in the south, Hafiz has carried birds from one fight to the next, staying with fellow cockers, smoking his charas, and watching the young men whose dancing, in this sexually segregated society, constitutes an acceptable evening’s entertainment.

Karim and I picked Hafiz up at dawn and drove northward, out of the capital. He told us that the Taliban exerts growing control over the countryside, including many main roads, and that traveling is becoming less and less feasible. If members of a Taliban roadblock find a gamecock being transported, they will confiscate the bird and fine or whip the owner.

Shortly after the Taliban took Kabul, in 1996, Hafiz was caught attending an underground cockfight. “They hung me up from the ceiling by my right wrist and flogged me on the right side. Then they did the same to the left side of my body. I was covered in wounds.” But Hafiz was dedicated, and two days later he attended another meet. “Suddenly,” he recalled, “someone shouted that the Taliban were coming. I ran for home, a long way away, and by the time I got back my wounds had opened and I was covered in blood.” This experience convinced Hafiz that he should leave the country. A few days later he was in Pakistan.

Now we were beyond the mountains that encircle Kabul and so had escaped the city’s dust and smog. We entered a broad plain flanked by mountains and headed toward the Panjshir Valley and Mazar. We were traveling along one of the few safe routes out of the capital. The people here are Tajiks with a history of loyalty to the mujahedeen, and they have provided thousands of recruits for Afghanistan’s new army and police. Taliban are thin on the ground.

I asked Hafiz to describe the most poignant cockfight he could remember, and he responded with a tale of humiliation. One of his birds had been losing badly, and Hafiz had wanted to concede defeat, which would have saved the bird. A fellow member of his syndicate had insisted on a different course of action. “I’ll take over your bet,” the man had said. “Your winnings or losses will be mine.”

After this, Hafiz recalled, “my bird suddenly got a second wind. He defeated his opponent, and my partner picked up my winnings. I put the bird under my coat and went home, but when I got home I saw he had died along the way.” He grinned ruefully.

The men who gamble large sums on cockfights do not regard themselves as having repudiated their religion. Hafiz’s description of his encounter with the Taliban reminded me of the words of another cocker I spoke to at the tile factory. He said, “Everything we do is sinful. You walk down the street and look at a woman—it’s a sin. Under Islam, traders are supposed to make no more than ten percent from their transactions, but here in Afghanistan there are people who make five-hundred-percent profits.” Then he quoted an Afghan saying: “Drinking wine is forbidden; tell me something that is permitted in this world!”

We arrived at a small provincial town, came off the main road, and followed a dirt track away from the houses and in between the fields, many of them planted with vines. High adobe walls encircled even the smallest plot—a testament to the precariousness of ownership in Afghanistan. Our destination was the bank of a canal that was lined with parked cars. We walked across a bridge to a big ruin, also made of adobe, which had once been the home of a prominent local family before it was colonized by the cockers. By now the sun was up, warming our backs.

A dozen owners were in the pit, sorting out which bird should fight which. Hafiz saw friends and went off to say hello, kissing cheeks and exchanging the usual profanities. A coal-fired samovar chugged away in one corner, and Karim and I breakfasted on green tea and greasy french fries wrapped in bread. A couple of armed men wandered around. Spotting me, the only foreigner in the place, one of them asked whether I was a suicide bomber. I said no, and he accepted a cup of green tea.

During an interval between fights, we sat by a stream and chatted with a local commander, a youngish man wearing a dun-colored shawl. He had joined the mujahedeen as a thirteen-year-old, he said, and after a few years came to lead a force of 2,000 men. Now he was a high-up official at the Culture Ministry in Kabul, with responsibility for museums across the country. It crossed my mind that this culture czar might not be able to read or write. And that the cost of his sleek black SUV and of maintaining his various flunkies could not have come out of a government salary.

The commander told me that the essence of cockfighting was showq, or love—love of the fight, of the fraternity, and of the valiant birds themselves. I had heard similar sentiments from owners and gamblers back in Kabul. The grandees of the pit, distinguished white-bearded gentlemen, had called for enough showq to “turn our woes into flowers!”

Hafiz survived on showq that day. He lost more than $200, which was split among the five-man syndicate of which

he is a member. Still, he had

Friday to look forward to.

The old tile factory filled up. The owners gathered in the pit, setting their birds on the ground, sizing up prospective adversaries, arranging the fighting order. Bets were placed. Someone exclaimed, “Whoever is not true to his word is a pimp and a cuckold!” A younger man protested: “If I am not true to my word, stone me to death!’ ”

A bear of a man named Bagho got impatient. He seized a stick and began circling the pit, whacking the ground and sending up clouds of dust, shouting at people to take their seats. Bagho is a fixture of the Kabul cockfighting scene. He used to be an abdar, but the birds he was allotted generally lost, and it was said that Bagho had brought them bad luck. In the end, people stopped asking Bagho to be an abdar.

Abdar means “he who has water,” a name that evokes one of the abdar’s key functions, which is to ensure his bird does not overheat. At regular intervals he fills his own mouth with water, separates his bird from his adversary, and sprays the bird’s head and anus. Using a cloth that he keeps slung over his shoulder, he fans the bird and wipes him clean of sweat and blood. Curling the cloth tightly, he puts it down the bird’s throat and retrieves potentially hazardous feathers that he has swallowed while pecking his rival. The abdar replaces broken spurs and beaks with spares that have been lifted from dead warriors. He uses his tongue to clean bloody eyes, and he stitches up chest wounds. His job is not for the squeamish.

The first and second fights began, proceeding in alternating twenty-minute periods. Every so often I glanced at Hafiz, who was sitting on the lowest step, his bird under his coat, conferring with other members of the syndicate. Hafiz had been paired against Zilgai and Sabur and was more pensive than I had seen him up to this point.

The second fight ended with the withdrawal of one of the birds. I went out for tea, and when I came back the third fight was under way. There was much excitement, not only because the contestants were evenly matched but because one of the cocks, a sturdy, black-flecked creature, was owned by the nephew of one of Afghanistan’s most powerful warlords. The nephew in question, a thin man of about forty, sat impassively, but his young companions were less inhibited. Their faces became ugly and contorted as the fight grew bloodier, and they ran into the pit to shout bets and punch the air.

By the end of the second round, both birds were exhausted and bleeding. They hung off each other, their necks entwined, before stepping back and launching themselves into the air, kicking furiously. Some way into the third round, the black-flecked bird suddenly stumbled. One of his wings rested on the ground. The men around me yelled, “He’s blinded!”

I turned to Karim and asked, “Surely they’ll stop the fight now?” He shook his head. “Do you know how much money is riding on this? More than thirty thousand dollars! They’ll do anything to make sure he can fight on!”

There was pandemonium as the spectators milled around the pit and the abdar locked the stricken bird between his legs and stitched a gash that had opened under the bird’s darkened eye socket. Then he rummaged through his pockets for a replacement for the bird’s shattered beak. Someone loudly accused the abdar of improperly interrupting the fight. Others retorted that he was behaving within the rules.

The abdar cradled the black-flecked bird, who it was now clear had been paralyzed. His single eye stared, dying and uncomprehending. Money started changing hands—more money than I had ever seen in Afghanistan. The nephew of the famous warlord went off in his Land Cruiser with his bodyguards.

At the end of the fight, Hafiz rose from his place at the side of the pit. It was getting dark; his fight and several others would have to wait until the following day. He put his bird into a box on the back of his bicycle and pedaled off. But when he reappeared the next morning, the bird’s face was a shade darker than it had been, and his eyes were listless and dull. Whether from being kept the whole of the previous day in the chilly factory or from being moved around in Hafiz’s drafty box, he had caught a chill.

Later I learned that Hafiz’s partners in the syndicate had urged him to withdraw the bird and pay Zilgai the standard forfeit, but he had insisted the fight go ahead. Was it a kind of madness, or the need to gamble, that led him to field a bird that was sure to lose? At times, over the course of the three rounds he fought that day, Hafiz’s bird came to life, and Hafiz with him, jerking his little limbs, his dastmal over his head—a fighting cock in a man’s body.

But the bird with the white-flecked saddle landed only a few good hits. It was a battle of attrition, which only the brothers’ stronger, fitter bird could win.

That night Hafiz stayed up, sweating him, murmuring to him. At dawn he failed to crow. It was a terrible omen. Hafiz brought him back to the tile factory. The bird’s face was almost black. The fight restarted.

A more futile, avoidable death cannot be imagined. The decisive blow, inevitably, was a spur in the eye. Hafiz’s bird staggered backward, and the assembled cockers turned on him with their usual vitriol. The abdar brought the bird over to Hafiz, who looked down and exclaimed, “No! God! It’s all gone bad!” Zilgai and Sabur smiled.

Hafiz conceded defeat. The syndicate paid out around $1,000, a third of which came from Hafiz’s pocket. “I got him as a cockerel and raised him,” Hafiz said, to no one in particular. “What can I do if he turns out to be impotent on his wedding night?” Then he rode away on his bicycle. Two days later, Hafiz’s bird died of his wounds.

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