In search of Syria's pigeon smugglers
Many people in the Middle East love pigeons - it's a passion that can dissolve all religious and national divisions. Some of the finest birds were bred in Syria until the civil war intervened. Now Syrian birds are being smuggled to Lebanon, across front lines and through areas controlled by the Hezbollah militia.
"Five kilometres from here are the marijuana fields," I'm told as I step out of the car in front of a pet shop in Lebanon's North Bekaa Valley.
Darkness enshrouds us. An ape in a cage stares as I walk past. I pause to take a photo but a strong arm pulls me away.
"No photos outside. This is Hezbollah territory."
I had already worked that out. The marijuana fields are Hezbollah's too - and apparently a significant source of income. But my companions seem less relaxed than before so I put the camera away and ask if this means we're in danger.
"No," comes the answer.
"You're here with Nasser al-Hindi. You're here for the pigeons."
My interest in the pigeon smugglers of Syria was sparked in Amman, the cosmopolitan capital of Jordan, at Nasser al-Hindi's home.
He has bred pigeons for more than 30 years and the coop on his roof contains birds unlike any ever seen mobbing tourists on London's Trafalgar Square.
The breeds have poetic names - Ablak, Baghdadi, Rihani, Shikli. Some specimens are valued at $15,000 (£10,500) or more and many wear jewelled anklets on their feet.
The full collection is worth well over $1m (£705,000) and the 250-plus birds live in a style that befits their value: the coop is air-conditioned, with rows of individual cages for star pigeons, and a separate veterinary wing.
These birds regularly win regional contests, where they are judged on their looks and grace. Among them is al-Hindi's prize specimen - a pure white female Baghdadi pigeon called Jawaher (Jewels).
He tells me how Jawaher was entered into a contest for male pigeons but still won thanks to her size and strength. Only after the victory did he reveal her sex to the astonished judges.
"It all goes back to Noah's Ark," he says, explaining why pigeons and the Middle East have a special relationship.
The Torah, Bible and Koran all agree on the story of two doves or pigeons released by Noah to find land after the floods - the first references to pigeons anywhere, he says.
Other sources indicate that pigeon-breeding was practised across the region at least as far back as the 8th Century. But the best breeders, al-Hindi says, were the Syrians, until their country descended into civil war.
"During the last five years, the Syrians started selling their pigeons so they could buy food to eat," he says.
"The birds were dying in explosions anyway, so they started sending them to Lebanon to sell."
When buyers from the Gulf states arrived in Lebanon to snap them up, al-Hindi took exception.
"Why should the pigeons go somewhere outside the Sham?" he asks, using an Arabic word for the Levant.
"They have to stay here. This is where they came from."
Over the last five years he has spent more than $500,000 (£350,000) buying Syrian birds, and two years ago he founded the Association of Amateur and Professional Pigeon Fanciers of the Sham, of which he is now president.
We meet again a few days later in Lebanon. Arriving in Beirut on a Sunday morning, I find al-Hindi at a hotel on the Mediterranean coast.
Our driver is one of Lebanon's most renowned pigeon fanciers, Tariq Khalid abu Jabal, and before setting off to find Syrian pigeons, we call in at his coop.
It is hidden among a gaggle of unassuming brick buildings jumbled together on the outskirts of Beirut, and as usual it is on the roof of one of these buildings. From street level the only clue to its existence are the kits of wild pigeons that fly in waves across the area and settle en masse on a nearby roof, attracted to the presence of other birds of their own kind.
We briefly admire the birds then set off again, taking the road to eastern Lebanon, and later forking right at a sign pointing the way to the Syrian border.
At this point, al-Hindi's towering business partner, Khaled jokes about meeting so-called Islamic State, while miming a beheading. Everyone in the car laughs.
IS are not pigeon fans, Khaled says. According to one unconfirmed report the militants regard pigeon-breeding as a distraction from religious duties, and the penalty is death.
As we approach the town of Anjar, which lies directly on the Syrian border we can see the frontier itself, manned by Lebanese troops in American-made M113 armoured personnel carriers, with gun barrels the diameter of dinner plates. New refugees are arriving constantly, and many can be seen buying food in a sprawling outdoor market.
The man we are visiting is a Syrian called Mohammad Jomaa, from Idlib in north-west Syria. He moved to Lebanon because of the war, but relatives who remained behind buy Syrian pigeons and send them to him.
The birds must survive for 24 hours in muslin bags, crossing from rebel-held into government-held territory, and then across the border into Lebanon.
There are set amounts to bribe officials along the way; $500 (£350) for every 10 birds is the going rate for the full journey - more than a month's salary for the average Syrian.
Once a shipment of 70 birds died on the journey, I'm told, when the smugglers got caught in crossfire. Jomaa offers to send me photographs of the ill-fated consignment, but I politely decline.
It's clear that some of the birds in his coop are pedigree specimens, though not surprisingly they seem a little the worse for wear compared with al-Hindi's prize-winners.
The next stop is the town of Chtoura, back where the road forked, at the coop of a trader nicknamed Ali Baba. He has some exceptionally beautiful pigeons, which have recently arrived from Syria, also by the Idlib route. The rumour is that Syrians send him birds, but the payment doesn't always make it back across the border. Hence the nickname Ali Baba - a vague allusion to the 40 thieves in the Ali Baba story.
We then head north up the Bekaa valley, stopping at an expensive restaurant with tuxedo-clad waiters to rendezvous with a breeder called Abdallah, dressed entirely in black.
It's already dark now, and the checkpoints are manned not by the Lebanese army but by some kind of militia. At each one, Abdallah, sitting next to me in the back of the car, simply winds down his window and looks the armed guards in the eye, and that is enough for them to wave us on.
When I ask what the area's main source of income is, it's Abdallah who laughs and tells me about Hezbollah's marijuana crops.
He's also the owner of the pet shop we reach late in the evening, the darkness of the night accentuated by a power cut - electricity is only available for a few hours per day in the North Bekaa Valley.
Inside, some parts of the shop are getting power from a generator and a pro-Hezbollah cable TV network, Al Mayadeen, is quickly switched off to avoid offending the Jordanian visitors.
Once again al-Hindi inspects the birds. Quarantine procedures are rarely followed, he explains, which results in the death of many birds. He'd like to introduce a system of medical certification to replace the current chaotic state of affairs.
On this trip he hasn't bought any Syrian birds to add to his coop but everywhere we have been he has checked for disease, and seen no worrying signs. He's also discussed pigeon welfare with the men who deal in smuggled birds, and dispensed much advice.
"There's a secret to loving pigeons," he says. "Someone who raises pigeons would bankrupt himself to make sure they're well."
I ask why a Jordanian is willing to risk a journey deep into Hezbollah territory for the sake of these birds.
He replies by pointing at his hand. The Bedouin have a saying about their tribes and it's the same for all the pigeon breeders he knows.
"Like my fingers, each one is different," he says. "But like my fingers, each of us belongs to the same hand."
All photographs by Stephen Peiris
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