Letter from Afghanistan — From the December 2012 issue

Caliph of the Tricksters

Cockfighting in the ruins of Kabul

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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.

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