The Pigeon Man of Fez

By: Jacob Mardell

fez_city

I mistook Ibrahim for a calm man, but when he spoke about our imminent doom, his long, sedate face lit up. With the enthusiasm of a village gossip, excitement bristled his features, and with the sincerity of a child repeating a teacher’s lesson, he spoke to me about the coming storm.

Before that, had been simpler times. He had shown me his pigeons. The day had been a day for aimlessly wandering the souks and small, steep cobbles of Fez. I was intent on the road, but I happily made a stop by Ibrahim’s unassuming stall. Fez is abuzz with human and animal life both, but neither the straggled cats, nor the hard-worked donkeys of the city, were a match for Ibrahim’s well-preened pigeons.

I’ve never really understood the pigeon. A constant, and much maligned presence in my hometown of London, they were an obvious, but unexamined feature of the landscape. But Ibrahim’s pigeons were not the forlorn, sometimes gormless, and toeless beasts that hobble across wintery station platforms. They were good looking birds of varying shade, and shape, some bearing a strong, but dignified resemblance to the feral London pigeon.

I asked Ibrahim whether I could take a photo or two, and he replied in broken, but fairly good English, that I could. Wearing a Corona Extra T-shirt and casually leaning with one hand against the wall, he watched me. His long, dark face wore an expression of kingly resignation, but somewhere amongst the equilibrium of his small, full lips and aquiline nose, a flicker of interest registered.

As I struggled to take a good photo through the tight wire bars of a pigeon’s cage, and while I quizzed Ibrahim on his aviary, he began to open up a little. He talked that is, but he still kept his toothless smile under wraps, checked by a sometimes almost teenage despondency unbefitting his grey hairs and advanced years.

He was however, only one part Eyeore and six parts cool, and when he told me the prices he had paid for his extraordinary pigeons, he did so without too much obvious pride in his voice. After weeks in Morocco, I was highly attuned to the sales push, and at first thought that I might be expected to buy something. But I soon realized that the multi figure sums Ibrahim cited were simply meant to communicate the value in his trade.
There seemed something odd about paying so much for a bird that people spend time exterminating. The pigeon’s poor public image clouds the mind to the majesty that is sometimes, but very rarely glimpsed in the fairytale coo and puffed iridescent breast of a feral pigeon. That it’s all a matter of prejudice is evident in our delight at the sight of a snowy plumed dove. The pigeon and the dove are in fact one and the same, the word ‘dove’ being more often used to describe the petite members of the 310-species-rich Columbidae family. Our beloved street pigeons are feral versions of the domestic pigeon, lulled into the cradle of civilization thousands of years ago, and probably nuisancing our streets ever since year dot. They are a subspecies of ‘rock dove’, a name that is easy to appreciate beside the pigeon’s beautiful stoney grey plumage.

Clearly Ibrahim did much to convert me to pigeon appreciation. He opened the cages, one after another, and retrieved each struggling occupant for my inspection. There were familiar looking pigeons, whose plumage sat smoother than a typical London specimen. But there were also white doves, black and white speckled pigeons, pigeons whose tail feathers splayed upwards at the end of the bird like an ostrich’s might. There were pigeons with brown breasts and pale ivory blue heads that cooed softly. There were in truth, more types of pigeon in Ibraham’s tin shed store than I knew existed.

‘This one is from Africa, from the south, it cost 2,000 dirhams, it is very rare, beautiful. This is from here, less than 1,000 dirhams. These are not so expensive, 300 dirhams or so, these are mates. This is a good pigeon, I bought it in Europe, in Germany, from the forests. Yes, I sell them, I sell the babies. The Germany wood pigeon, I can’t find a mate, look.’

At this, Ibrahim scooped the German pigeon up from its cage and held it firmly between two hands. It was dappled white and chocolate brown, its eyes and beak encrusted with pink shades of wrinkled, waxy skin, similar to a turkey’s wattle. Ibrahim thrust the pigeon into another bird’s cage. The two looked similar, both ice cream white and chocolate brown. This was apparently the mate that Ibrahim had chosen for his German prize. The birds avoided each other’s gaze for some time, their heads darting this way and that as they circled one another. Simultaneously fearful and enraged, they eventually flew at one another, repeating their attacks in periodic displays of noise and feathers.

Ibrahim looked up at me. You see? Not good, they cannot mate. He removed the intruding pigeon and set it back in its original cage with a slightly angry flourish. A woman had been standing watching this display. Youngish, pale skinned, and with a weathered, slack jaw face, she wore a blue head covering and carried something in her arms, wrapped in a plastic bag. Ibrahim introduced her as his wife and I said hello.

‘She doesn’t speak Arabic, no English, no French, only Berber, she is from the mountains.’

Ibrahim evidently spoke Berber too, because after he’d introduced her, they exchanged some words, a practical conversation that lasted a few minutes, before she excused herself and shuffled off to join the ever present stream of foot traffic.

There are stringent laws in Morocco against polygamy, but Ibrahim didn’t seem to have noticed. He told me about his first wife, who was closer in age to him. He had sons too. The appearance of his young wife, and the two uncoupled pigeons must have been playing on his mind, because after I’d taken a few more pictures, he began on the subject of women.

‘You know something…there are too many women in Morocco. Do you understand?’ I said I did. But perhaps I didn’t. ‘We have too many women. I can get my wife, because it is easy to find a woman in Morocco. Less men, and many spare women. My wife is a good woman, but the woman today is not so good. They used to find a man, and then sleep, and then after, they would stay together, husband and wife.’

Ibrahim used hand gestures to clarify the verbs. His hands danced, while his long, moody face remained almost static.

‘Now, things change. The woman mates with the man, but they do not stay. More and more young women like this. It is wrong – too many women. Morocco has too many woman and it is a bad sign. They have this person, this person. Things change and now we live – these times? Very bad. So many women and no wives. Do you understand?’

Ibrahim’s cool facade began to crack a little, he seemed agitated at the idea that I might not understand. That I might not realize the sexual sins of modern Morocco. We went through the story again, and again, and we forgot about pigeons. Ibrahim reiterated that there were too many single women in Morocco, but we had only started on the consequences. His pigeons cooed as Ibrahim switched gear.

‘Do you know the Quran? The Quran. The end, you understand? – The end – ‘

His hands signaled the end, finality, destruction, death, as well as they could, but though he spoke with force, his face could not keep up with their expression.

‘I am old. I will not see it. I will soon die.’ He whistled and mimicked sleep.
‘But you, my wives, my children, him, him.’ He gestured to passers by. ‘They can see the end. Everything will burn, die, we all finish. You know the Quran? I watch, I watch…’ He pointed to his hooded, wide brown eyes, ‘I watch it on there’. And now he pointed towards his ancient tv set, nestled in the corner of his shop, amongst scrap and fading photos of the king. ‘I watch and learn about the judgement and how soon it is. The women, the women. Too many women. Judgement, the end, you understand?’

I felt that my nods and reassurances that I understood weren’t worthy of the thunder in his still eyes, and the ultimately serious nature of the subject in hand. Ibrahim’s pigeons too seemed flustered by his sermon.

I tried to steer Ibrahim back to the calm of his pets and his trade, but he was hooked. I shook Ibrahim’s hand after confirming again that I understood. I did understand, and as I left Ibrahim to return his attention to his pigeons, I knew firmly how I felt about his birds. I was less sure that I knew who Ibrahim the calm and kingly was.

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