Afghanis Love to Take Birds Under Their Wing

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In an alley off an alley off an alley in Kabul, one market fills what seems to be a deep need for many Afghans. It sells birds of nearly every variety, from canaries to doves to the birds of prey that Afghans love most.


In recent years, most of the news out of Afghanistan is about war, terrorism and drugs. But Afghanistan is an ancient country, a key part of the Silk Road that connected China with Europe. Marco Polo walked across Afghanistan's mountains. Traders and merchants have bought and sold in its cities for thousands of years. In Kabul, there's a market that seems to have forgotten that the rest of the world has moved into a more modern era.

NPR's JJ Sutherland went to Kabul's bird market.

JJ SUTHERLAND reporting:

Off a busy street in Kabul lies an alley that leads to a smaller ally that leads to an even smaller one. Walk past a knife sharpener plying his trade using the same tools his grandfather or grandfather's grandfather might have used, the sound of Kabul's ever-present scooters and traffic fades away. Turn a sharp corner to the right, step past the fighting cock in a cage, and you've found yourself in Kabul's ancient bird market.

The market is a narrow dirt path, maybe 10 feet wide. On either side are two-story mud-brick shacks. The first floor of each is an open shop full of birds.


SUTHERLAND: There are birds of every type and color: canaries, finches, doves, fighting cocks, quails, cockatoos, owls, parrots, the ones with feathers that look like quills, the ones that are the size of your thumb, the ones that I can't even describe, let alone know the name of.

Zabir is eight. He's one of a small crowd of children who will instantly gather around any Westerner who ventures into the market.

So what kind of a birds do you think you're selling?

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ZABIR (Afghan Child): Canary.

SUTHERLAND: Are canaries your favorite?


SUTHERLAND: The enthusiasm for birds in Kabul is remarkable. They can be found in shops and homes. The Minister of the Economy keeps three cases of canaries in his office. Afghans have a hard time explaining their love for their birds. One man tells a story of living for years in exile in Iran. He took his beloved canaries with him and took them back to Afghanistan when he returned. He now has 20 but doesn't really consider himself serious about it.

There are birdcages hanging from every wall and beam. They are works of art in metal or wood, not ornate, but simple, clean curves. But what I came here looking for are the birds that the Afghans are most serious about: birds of prey. My translator doesn't know the word for falcon but he does know hawk, and more importantly, he knows the word the Afghans use: hunter.

About halfway down the dirty ally is a plaid cloth hanging over a storefront. Lurking behind it is an old, gray-bearded man with one eye gone milky white. Shay Momat(ph) disdains the typical light-colored, flowing garb and cloth vest of the Afghans. His clothes are black, with an aged and cracked black leather vest. He sits, shielded from the light, surrounded by cages of hunters. He holds one in his hand and feeds it the remains of a smaller bird, a bird probably purchased at the next stall over.


SUTHERLAND: She is beautiful, a sleek, evolutionarily designed killer. Her talons are sharp and her beak is curved and she stares piercingly at you. She is small and lean and every inch a hunter.


SUTHERLAND: Are they trained to hunt?

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) No, they are not trained because they are still babies.

SUTHERLAND: How long does it take to train one?

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Typically, one month, but still, you know, this is half-trained. Even now, you know, if I let it go, it will hunt for me.

SUTHERLAND: What does it hunt?

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Everything I want. Usually the sparrows, the small birds like canaries and the others.

SUTHERLAND: Does this hawk have a name?

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Her name is Durkpushta(ph). It means red-backed hawk.

SUTHERLAND: So how much do the hawks cost?

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) One thousand afghani, which equals to 20 bucks.

SUTHERLAND: The Afghans are legendary for their love of falconry. A crowd has gathered around the seller of hunters and they begin to tell their own stories of their deadly birds. Neulan Haut(ph) is an iron welder. He's been hunting with birds for decades. His village lies just outside the massive coalition base of Bagram Air Field, a little bit north of Kabul. He began as a small boy, he says. He caught five canaries on his first day and was hooked for life.

Mr. NEULAN HAUT (Iron Welder and Hunter, Afghanistan): (Through translator) I hunted hawks and then by hawks I hunted eagles and by eagles I hunted, you know, the huge birds. I don't know their name.

At that time, you know, some Arabs would come to me and they joined me in hunting. And we would make tents around the deserts and we would stay there three months.

SUTHERLAND: In February of 1999, the CIA began spying on these hunting camps. Osama Bin Laden was known to be a passionate falconer and the agency thought he was there. According to Steven Coll's book Ghost Wars, a CIA team was sent to the camp to lay the groundwork for a missile strike.

Many within the agency argued for blowing the camp up, but they didn't have absolute proof that Bin Laden was present. They were pretty sure, but didn't have a smoking gun. And, it turned out, it was a camp set up by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. ally.


SUTHERLAND: The hunters, that time, were called off. JJ Sutherland, NPR News.

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