FLY AWAY HOME
Pigeon-Keepers in Lebanon
At sunrise and sunset, pigeons fill the sky across Lebanon. Most pigeon-keepers are men, but the practice becomes a communal affair, as most birds are housed on the roofs of family homes and flown daily in dense urban neighborhoods. “When I come home to my birds the heaviness of the day melts away,” says French-Lebanese pigeon breeder Imad Alameh.
Palestinian brothers Mohammed and Ibrahim spend every evening on the roof of their apartment building in Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp, drinking tea, talking, smoking, and watching their birds, as friends come and go. Filled with potted plants, chairs and tea glasses tucked into odd corners, their roof is an oasis of calm from the hustle and bustle of their 7-day work week.
Mahmoud used to be a shoe seller in the Tripoli souk, but now he has a pigeon shop and sells pigeons that he breeds on his rooftop. He says that pigeon-keeping earns him a better salary than shoe-selling, as he can make $50 per sale and his upfront costs are only the food and medicine it takes to raise his birds. In this way Mahmoud supports his family.
With whistles, claps and the warble of a caught female dove, along with visual cues like swinging ropes, pigeon keepers fly their birds from their rooftops and then coax them to return home. This flight is a daily ritual and a moment where, eyes on the sky, the problems below can momentarily disappear. The roof becomes a sacred space where pigeon-keeping’s labor of love transcends the constrictions of crowded urban settlements, refugee lived realities, the summer heat, and the daily struggle of life within Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis.
Watching the men who keep pigeons is to witness tenderness. In the life lines of their tanned and wrinkled hands is a story of passion, tradition and longing for a former home or a way of life that used to be. Eyes on their birds, Lebanon’s pigeon-keepers wonder if one day, they may fly away too.
(left) Ashou 38, a Syrian resident of Shatila refugee camp, has a tattoo of a fox and a pigeon, his two favorite animals, on his right shoulder. Ashou has been keeping pigeons for 5 years, but has loved the birds for far longer, learning the craft and spending time on friend’s rooftops daily, before being able to afford a space to keep his own.
(right) A pigeon rooftop in Burj el Barajneh