RAS AL KHAIMAH // After a long day's work, as most people rush home to their families, Ahmed Mohammed Ali likes to take a detour to the back of his house. There, his best friends greet him with a lot of cooing and flapping. "There is just something so peaceful and beautiful about a pigeon," Mr Ali said. He owns more than 200 pigeons of all sizes, colours and breeds. At the age of 25, he has put the idea of getting married on hold so he can spend more time with his collection. "These pigeons are my family and I don't want to neglect them," he said.
A pigeon fancier since he was 10, Mr Ali said his hobby had a practical aspect: "The falcon is for the rich, and the pigeon is for the common man." Sometimes, in his rush to visit the pigeons, Mr Ali does not bother changing out of the dark green uniform he wears as a member of the Ras al Khaimah Fire Department - and it can get messy. "They have only one problem, they poop too much," he said, laughing as he cleared away another stain. "It is good luck."
Taking care of pigeons is nothing new. The domestication of the birds dates to 3000 BC and the fifth Egyptian dynasty. The sultan of Baghdad established a pigeon post system in AD 1146, and Genghis Khan used a similar method for relaying messages. Pigeons remained popular messengers in Europe and the US well into the 20th century. While they do not carry messages any more, they are still very popular in the UAE and elsewhere.
Mr Ali is one of several pigeon fanciers living within several blocks of each other in the village of Shamal. Some are members of his family and are equally hooked on birds. His 19-year-old cousin Essa Abduallah has several homing pigeons, a brown-and-white fantail (a popular breed with a fan-shaped tail made of more than 40 feathers), and a tumbler pigeon - so named because it tumbles as it flies.
Mr Ali and Mr Abduallah have a soft spot for the palm or laughing dove and its unique call, more of a musical, bubbly sound, different from regular cooing. "Beautiful! They are just so gentle and beautiful, unlike a falcon that is aggressive and a killer," said Mr Abduallah, who also loves rabbits and dislikes falcons for their appetite for his furry friends. There are pigeon fanciers outside the big cities, and often they are found on roofs in the villages or in the ezba (farm) of city dwellers. Friends from the city like to hang out with Mr Ali and his feathered friends at the weekend and on special holidays such as Eid.
They come to watch as he trains his prized racing Pakistani pigeons, with sharp black eyes and grey and white colouring. They compete in races throughout the year. "They are fun and also good business. Some of the pigeons cost as little as Dh25 and as much as Dh40,000 (US$10,900), depending on how rare their colour and formation of their feathers," Mr Ali said. Last February a man made headlines when he was caught with two pigeons stuffed in his trousers after he got off a flight from Dubai to Melbourne.
It was the kind of report that pigeon fanciers like to repeat, for it serves as "proof" of the seriousness of their industry. "It can mean big business, either because of their beauty or because of their racing skills," Mr Ali said. There is a secretive Dubai Racing Pigeon Club with hundreds of members across the UAE. Members are not authorised to speak to the media and the club leader did not respond to requests for an interview. The club communicates by word of mouth to inform members of the dates of upcoming races.
There are different types of races. In some, pigeons are transported a few kilometres from their homes and the first one back is the winner. In others, pigeons are released from their home loft to see how long they can stay in the air; the last pigeon home is declared the winner. Pigeons have an uncanny instinct for finding their way home. It is believed they can sense the Earth's magnetic fields to get their bearings. Their keepers also use special training methods.
"There are many techniques, such as using a female pigeon or special whistles to attract and call the pigeons home," Mr Ali said. The symbolic importance of a pigeon to the Emirati culture was captured in a locally produced short film starring a female bird. "She didn't need any rehearsing. The emotions she expressed were instinctive and captured on the camera," said Ali Jamal, a filmmaker who won the jury award at the Middle East International Film Festival for The Crossing.
The film follows the reactions of a pigeon as she realises she has lost one of her babies after it was snared in a plastic bag. "The eyes of the pigeon can tell a tale. They tell us what the pigeon is thinking and feeling," Mr Jamal said. "The pigeon is found everywhere, and is part of our life, and I wanted to capture the impact of something so trivial as a floating plastic bag on the life of something representative of our regular life and that which we may have taken for granted."
Mr Jamal never raised a pigeon he borrowed the leading lady from a pigeon fancier but he acquired an appreciation for the calming effect they have on people. "The pigeon, like the cat, is the friend of the common man. You can find them everywhere, even on top of construction sites, giving comfort to a working man," he said. No one could agree more than Mr Ali. As he petted his "bu balloon" pigeon, one of his favourites, a shiny black and grey bird, he blew into the bird's chest as an expression of endearment.
"They sense a good person from a bad person, and they understand where their home is and come back," he said. There is a hole in the cage, and his pigeons are free to get out and fly about. Almost on cue, they come back home as the sun sets. "They have their families and their food here, so they always come back," he said. "And maybe, they also like me and so always come back home to be with me."