Koka is a respected figure in Cairo’s pigeon fighting world. His life revolves around preparing for the contests, in which whole neighbourhoods clash to hunt and capture each other’s pigeons.
Away from the duels, he spends his time caring for the hundreds of pigeons he rears in a ramshackle wooden tower he has built on his roof.
Like numerous other breeders, Koka treasures the pigeons for their loyalty, discipline and the deep pride they bring him.
But his pigeon fighting days may be numbered. Coming from a conservative community, the 29-year-old is under immense pressure to quit his passion, get married and settle down.
Fearing that his next contest could be his last, Koka challenges one of Cairo’s best pigeon fighting neighbourhoods. Will he cement his reputation as a great pigeon handler or lose his parting battle?
I stumbled upon the phenomenon of pigeon contests in Cairo while working on different topics in this mega city’s endless suburbs. I was always impressed by the fragile wooden structures standing on rooftops all over the city, and I knew that they were connected to pigeons, but I would never have thought that there was a whole world up there with its own rules, even with its own language.
I was wandering the streets of Garbage City, an area of mostly Christian waste workers, when I first met Koka, one of the strongest competitors inside the community of pigeoneers. Standing on his pigeon tower felt like being in a different world, far from the chaos that rules the streets.
Fortunately, I met Koka during wintertime, the season for pigeon contests. It was right before some major encounters between different neighbourhoods that have a long tradition of going into battles with their pigeons.
Seeing a race for the first time was an overwhelming visual experience, which made me stick to this topic for the following three years. These pigeon contests served as a perfect vehicle for getting an inside view of such a closed community. I was taken to gatherings and battles in areas that I would never have gotten to otherwise.
The society of the pigeon fighters is unknown even to most Egyptians. Their races are based on a sophisticated set of rules and their language is dominated by military expressions. The combatants call themselves knights and each knight has a nom de guerre, such as “The Butcher” in Koka’s case.
During filming, the question that interested me the most was, “How does a pigeon – otherwise the symbol of peace – become the token of martial spirit and male pride?”
One of the fighters tried to explain it to me this way: “Imagine it like it was Barcelona against Real Madrid. It is like football, only that it’s more serious, because we’ve been doing it for way longer than them.”
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