3/01/2010

The Bird People


I'd never seen one before, but I knew the bird people were all over the old city. I'd seen their flimsy, scaffolded towers rising out of the slums across a five mile stretch of Islamic Cairo, and I'd seen the big flags waving across the crumbling skyline, swung by unseen hands for unknown reasons. I knew the towers were for birds and that the people who climbed them were bird people, and that was all.

Wandering a dead and dilapidated stretch of homes, tombs and garbage dumps, I spotted a silhouetted body in a nearby tower. It leaned against a fence enclosing the top of the tower, twenty meters above the dusty alley where I stood. Another body came into view as I climbed the brick wall behind me. They were both just boys. The second one had a red flag swinging from his wrist over the fence. A flock of pigeons shot into view over the tower and began circling over the alley. The closer of the boys turned towards the fence and looked in my direction. I waved his attention and pointed to the tower. He gave a friendly wave back, motioning to a grungy stairwell around the corner.

After a dark climb up three flights of stairs I saw the boy's face, opening a hatch in the roof and holding out a hand to shake. He introduced himself as Tarek and we both climbed the wooden ladder to the top of the tower. His brother was just as happy to meet me, and just as happy as I was to meet real bird people in an actual bird tower. Islamic Cairo spread beneath us in the dusk light, with the enormous Sultan Hassan Mosque silhouetted to the southwest. The boys got back to work, ignoring me as I paced around the platform.

The bird people were small, as I'd imagined. Tarik was 16 while his brother looked about 12. He said they'd been bird-handlers since their earliest memories, and that the same went for their fathers and their fathers' fathers. Perhaps even much further back in time, considering pigeon has been an Egyptian treat since the Pharaohs. Tarik explained that their jobs, at least as boys, were picked out for them long before they were born. Lucky for them, they both felt passionately about birds.

As the younger one busied himself with the flag, Tarek began opening a series of small hatches that lined the tower. Pigeons scurried out from their feeding cells and shot into the air just as fast as he opened them, one by one, until they were all empty and the two boys stood tracing the circling flock with affectionate eyes, whistling and pointing out familiar birds as if they knew them all by name.

When I emerged from the stairwell I continued up towards Sultan Hassan in the fading light. I'd put a face to the bird people but there remained something mysterious about the things they did in their fragile, stilted towers. Dozens of other towers and red flags across the old city now competed with Tarek's, and strange whistles followed me down to the mosque.