KABUL, Afghanistan, June 7, 2009 -- Released from their cages, the two fighters circle each other in the dirt ring. Behind them trainers whisper in their ears, coaxing them into striking the first blow. Then, one of the pugilists strikes, sinking his red curved beak into the back of his opponent's neck.
Hundreds of turbaned men lumped around the circle cheer, at the Sha'are Naw city park in the heart of Kabul.
Some clutch wads of cash -- colorful Afghan "Afghanis" mixed with hundred dollar bills.
Bookies call out the odds. Thousands of dollars are exchanged in each round -- a lot of money in a country where the average wage is about 30 dollars a month. Gambling is illegal in Afghanistan, but this sport and its accompanying vices have long been tolerated -- a police station is just 50 yards away.
Just inside the ring, urchins with tin platters circulate with sandwiches and juice, as men twitch with excitement.
The pugilists continue to strut around each other, clucking territorially. This, after all isn't cage fighting, its Kowk Fighting, one of Afghanistan's cherished national sports. Kowk are specially bred fighting partridges featuring distinct bright red beaks, black breast stripes, red lidded eyes and a war-paint like crescent that curves from above their eyes to their necks.
The birds gouge at each other, wings flapping, feathers flying. They seem to wrestle their opponent by clinging to their neck and flinging them down. It's neither bloody nor exciting and telling the birds apart takes special practice.
That doesn't stop the partridge owners from talking trash. "This bird is strong like Hulk Hogan," said one owner, called Faisullah, pointing to the plump bird in the wicker cage he held. "He can defeat anyone, anyone."
Has the bird been fought? "Oh yes, he has won twice and has never lost." 2-0, isn't bad, but hardly the Hulkster's record. Most of the fights end in technical knockouts because owners like Faisullah, who spent $500 on this particular bird, wouldn't dare let serious harm come to their prized possessions.
Dosing Up Birds With Opium
Faisullah lavishes incredible care on his bird. He nuzzles it, and the other birds he keeps. Afghans' love of birds, despite bird flu fears, is in stark contrast to the near paranoia elsewhere over contracting swine flu. Only one pig lives in this country, he's generally on display at the Kabul zoo but is currently quarantined.
"This is not exciting to you?" asks one toothless gambler standing by me, who said his name was Amin Shakoor. Well, I answer, I am not sure I understand the rules. He explained that in the wild one bird might kill or severely wound the other. But here, a winner is declared when one bird runs away.
There is a lull in the fighting. Corner men flap blankets to fan the exhausted birds, as the managers cover them with the domed wicker cages. Their managers bend down a whisper to them, or pluck a feather from their beaks -- with their teeth.
The squeaking birds are inherently territorial. And the wicker cages with similarly ornate, though slightly larger female birds are brought into the center of the ring to get the male's territorial and hormonal juices flowing.
The corner men retreat, and the birds attack again. Flinging themselves at each other, flapping, flopping on their backs. And then it's over. One unfortunate bird, begins trotting away. Some men cheer, some groan. Bills are exchanged.
Afghans will bet on anything, from dog fighting to kite flying to egg fighting (you try to crack your opponent's hard-boiled egg (often dyed red) with your own brightly colored egg.
There's no official Kowk Fighting association in Afghanistan. But the bird fighting mecca is the bird market, tucked in the city's labyrinthine old market. Bird song leads the traveler through the decrepit alleyways, just wide enough for wheelbarrows to squeeze through.
Once in the heart of the bird market, men haggle over the price of doves, prized pigeons, and larks -- in Kandahar lark (budana) fighting is popular, and lark owners often keep the birds in their blooming "sharwal" trousers.
But the king of Afghan birds is the fighting partridge. Some are sold as hatchlings, but grown fighting partridges can fetch $5000, an astounding amount in one of the world's poorest countries.