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In Pakistan, Pigeon Racing Is More Than A Hobby

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sometimes, if you want to know what a country's really like it's best to look at the small details. It's something our correspondents are encouraged to do. And it's what inspired this next story.

NPR's Philip Reeves went to Lahore in Pakistan and sent us this postcard about one of that city's favorite pastimes.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Night is melting into a pale, blue dawn. Later, when the sun's up, Lahore will be as exuberant as any other South Asian city. Yet morning here sidles in gently. Early prayers are over. Elderly men wander home from the mosque. Down an alley in Lahore's Old City, a young man, Nisar Ahmed, is doing what he always does at this hour. He's climbing a ladder leading to his roof and to his most precious possessions - his pigeons. Ahmed opens their cage. His eyes shine as is hungry birds bossily strut out onto his flat roof.

NISAR AHMED: (Through translator). It's very exciting for a pigeon keeper when his birds come up to him asking for food when they chirp and shake their bodies.

REEVES: People often use the term pigeon fanciers to describe those who keep pigeons. In Lahore, it's a full-blown romance. Look across the skyline - one house after another is crowned by a big, spindly pigeon cage. Keeping pigeons dates back to the days when this city was part of the Moghul Empire. Nisar Ahmed says just in the few blocks around his home, many thousands of pigeons live in rooftop lofts like this. Some of the birds take flight and join a flock circling high above us. Ahmed looks up and tracks his pigeons.

AHMED: (Through translator) One of them is that flying there?

REEVES: Flying high in the air.

The best breeds are the highest fliers, says Ahmed. He's spent entire days consumed by anxiety over whether his pigeons will return.

AHMED: (Through translator) When we fly them, there are so many fears in your hearts as to what might happen to them.

REEVES: He worries about his pigeons being killed by hawks or power lines or being stolen. A black shoe hangs from his pigeon loft. Folk here believe this wards off evil. Yet Ahmed insists his hobby is fun.

AHMED: (Through translator) Because when the pigeons return, I feel happy.

REEVES: The pursuit of happiness isn't easy in Pakistan. For most people here, life is tough. There's poverty, corruption, sectarian and political violence and Islamic militancy. If a man can escape all that for a few precious hours by roosting alone on his roof as he awaits his pigeons, who can blame him? Notice I said man. Pakistan's a patriarchal and conservative nation. Women usually don't get to fancy pigeons, explains Nisar Ahmed.

AHMED: (Through translator) It's a sport that requires a person to be on the roof, and it's not good for a woman to be on the roof.

REEVES: Women are expected to stay indoors and to listen as their men sit around for hours enjoying pigeon talk about how to pick a good bird by looking at his eyes, about how some folk feed pigeons powdered gold and silver to make them stronger and test their birds' endurance by racing them in extreme heat.

In this tough place, concern for animal welfare carries little weight. And pigeon racing can be very lucrative. There's big prize money and lots of gambling on the side. A few blocks away, Mohammed Salman's on his roof tending to his birds. He says he got interested in pigeons five years ago after his mom died. He races them and breeds them for sale to Arabs from the Middle East. The hobby's changed his life, he says.

MOHAMMED SALMAN: (Through translator) It saved me from many vices. I used to drink and get into quarrels, but now I've stopped. It saved me from that.

REEVES: Salman pulls out a photograph...

SALMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: ...Of a pigeon called the lioness. The lioness was a bit of a legend in Lahore - half a kilo of feather and bone that outpaced every other rival. When she won, Salman's neighbors would come by to dance and feast. Last month, the lioness fell ill and died but not before winning Salman two motorbikes and 1,300 bucks. A windfall that explains why in this tough country so many men spend so many hours roosting on their roofs. Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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