Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Kash hamam

On nice days, locals and visitors alike flock to the plaza in front of Damascus' most famous gathering place, the Umayad Mosque, to see the pigeons. Old women toss them handfuls of seeds and children run in their midst as they peck the cobbles. They nest along the crenellated walls of the mosque and, every day, swoop down for food and attention.

The pigeon has long captured the imaginations of Damascenes. Pigeons are pawns in an ancient, secretive sport, long since banned, called kash hamam. Men known as kashash own flocks of pigeons and compete with one another by trying to steel away each other's pigeons as they circulate in the skies above the old city. The sport is banned because it is considered a form of gambling, forbidden in Islam. The kashash also draw scorn from society as they are believed to be voyeurs, operating on rooftops, which often offer views into upstairs windows.

Some say the final blow to the sport was the bird flu scare two years ago, which prompted the government to crack down on the kashash. Still, I often see flocks of pigeons circulating above the rooftops of the old city, and wonder to whom they belong, if anyone at all.