x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

When you must fly the coop, try to remember the nest

How the pigeons on our balcony helped human generations to grow closer together.

It was last October when I first met our family's pigeons.

The initial encounter did not go smoothly. Unaware of the mother's arrival, I opened the balcony door to show a friend the view over the Corniche, and the bird flew through my legs. We screamed until the building security guard shooed her out of a window.

I might have expected her to fly off and find some other place to start her family. But eight months later, she's still there. Her brood is growing - as is our bond.

One recent morning I noticed one of the matriarch's offspring nestled plumply in the plant-pot-turned-nest, waiting patiently to welcome her own offspring to Abu Dhabi, the third generation of pigeons that will call my balcony home. When they hatch, likely within a few weeks, the process will start anew: old will look after young, feed them, and push them off to fly on their own.

As I sat on my couch the other day, watching the miracle of nature play out, I started to wonder why this small flock had chosen my ledge to make a life. I don't look like a pigeon. I certainly don't speak bird. But for some reason I've become connected to their life, and they to mine. Indeed, their journey is a reflection of my own, and that of my family.

It is as much a literal reflection as it is a figurative one - my cataloguing of their lives taking place from behind the mirrored balcony door.

No sooner had I become acquainted with the first beady-eyed, hooked-nose creature (they're ugly, really, except when they first emerge from their eggs) than I began to see them as a reflection of my family.

As the chicks began to grow into their less attractive forms, so did the conversations between my father and I grow. Not to say we aren't close, but while we live in the same flat, we see each other only in passing (a simple misunderstanding, perhaps; I took him at his word when he told me to treat the house like a hotel all these years). We're friends, but how much did I really know him?

Giving a passing glance to the chicks through the window one morning, he said, nonchalantly, "They will be flying within five days". He was right. Five days later, they were off. I asked him how he knew.

My grandfather, he said, was one of the first ophthalmologists in Baghdad and, being rather well off, could afford hobbies. His passion? Raising pigeons.

Not any old pigeons, mind you, but the best on the market. During the 1960s and 1970s, my grandfather bought and bred hundreds of pigeons, allowing my father to become a self-taught expert in their habits. Dozens would be lost to wild animals or burglars - although some of these stolen few would eventually find their way back to the family.

Needless to say, my grandfather's hobby was not without critics. The Yemeni councillor who lived in my dad's old house was evidently not a fan. He complained so much about the 10 birds that kept flying to their old abode that my grandfather had to put them down, choosing to bury them in the family garden.

My father shared these stories one recent evening, as we sat together watching our new feathered friends build their family on the balcony. It wasn't long before we found ourselves rummaging through old photo albums, talking about the black-and-white and sepia-toned images of his childhood, and life in Iraq in the good old days. We eventually came across the photos of the pigeons, bringing our most thorough conversation in as long as I can remember to an end.

It's been several weeks since that first of several pigeon-related talks with my dad, and the pigeon on our balcony is almost a mother. Yesterday, I managed to slip onto the balcony to say hello. It won't be long before her young fly the coop and start on the path to adulthood.

Their departure will probably coincide with my father's departure.

In less than a month, my dad will leave Abu Dhabi for good. The following month, my brother and I, too, will find ourselves on our way out - not from the city, but from the flat that has been our home for years.

Like the birds (which my dad scoffingly does not think are the same family, but what does he know anyway?) I spent my earliest years in Abu Dhabi and, like the birds, I returned.

As I prepare to bid the pigeons farewell, I am glad for the additional love they have made me feel for this city, which so many of us take for granted. I'm also grateful for stories I'd probably never have heard from my father without them.



On Twitter @ZAlhassani