In northeast Syria, farmer draws crowds with cockfights

Qamishli (Syria) (AFP) –


On a dusty farm in northeast Syria, Shufan Mahmud cradles his nine-month-old prize rooster in his hands. Sniper, as the fighting fowl is named, is gearing up for a cockfight.

Banned in many parts of the world due to concerns over animal cruelty -- in this mainly Kurdish corner of the war-torn country the blood sport is proving popular.

Eight years ago, poultry farmer Mahmud installed a special pit for these tournaments near his house, and they are now drawing in more and more residents of northern Syria.

Sniper's black plumage is dotted with white specks, and his head his topped with a small red crown.

"All the cocks are afraid of him because he's so powerful," says Mahmud proudly, stroking Sniper's elongated neck.

A short walk away from the fighting ring is a coop where the next generation is being raised.

Clucking hens fret over their tiny yellow chicks in a special wing where eggs are laid, as the crows of roosters mix with the loud barks of a guard dog nearby.

Mahmud's farm is outside Qamishli, a Kurdish-majority town that has become the hub of an autonomous zone in northern Syria.

Since government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority zones in 2012, local authorities set up their own institutions, including police forces.

Mahmud, 39, says fans come to watch the matches near his home from all across the Kurdish-controlled north. Some just come as spectators, while others are there for the money.

Even the roosters hail from different places -- Sniper has come from Germany.

"But the roosters who perform the best usually come from Adana in Turkey," he says, while still others come from India and Pakistan.

- Lebanese beauties -

"We breed them with hens imported from Thailand for their speed and from Lebanon for their beauty," says Mahmud, squatting down in the grass in a stripy t-shirt, cargo shorts and sandals.

In a small room after dark, men gather around the cockpit, the low carmine wall of which is dashed with splatters of the blood of past crested combattants.

Lone feathers lie inside the ring as the match begins with a flap of wings.

The fighters bound at each other, dancing in circles and dashing in for vicious beak stabs.

A man jots down bets in a notebook as the male spectators cheer, some perched on a higher bench for a better view.

The tussle continues until one rooster sits or flees, sealing the other's victory.

People flock to Mahmud's farm every day for the fights, but Friday -- a weekend day in Syria -- is the busiest, says Rezan Faysal, 38, one of the organisers.

"Bets vary between 1,000 and 5,000 Syrian pounds ($2-10) -- and sometimes even reach half a million ($1,100)," says Faysal, who has raised poultry since he was 13.

Mahmud says cockerel fighting is relatively new in Syria's Kurdish region, but follows on from a more local version of the activity.

"This sport was introduced into our region dozens of years ago by gypsies," he says.

"Partridge fighting was the most famous sport among Kurdish communities."

Syria's Kurds have largely stayed out of the civil war since 2011, instead reviving their culture and focusing on building their own semi-autonomous zones.

- 'Bruce Lee' -

But they have come under attack by Turkey and allied rebels. This year, pro-Ankara fighters pushed Kurdish fighters out of the enclave of Afrin.

"Syria has been transformed into one giant cockfighting ring including fighters from abroad, who attack cities and their residents," Mahmud says, alluding to Turkey.

As the roosters spar in the ring, some onlookers film with their mobile phone. Others shout encouragement while smoking cigarettes or sipping tea.

Some among the crowd hide their faces from the cameras to make sure they are not identified.

Despite its apparent popularity, cockfighting remains taboo in Kurdish society as betting is frowned upon.

"I don't want my friends to know I watch cockfighting," says one spectator, who gave his name as Abdel Rahman.

"They would never accept the idea and would lose respect for me," he says, even if he only watches and never puts down any money.

Still, for others the sport appears to be lucrative enough.

Ahmad Sharabi, 25, is a self-described cockfighting addict, and admits he's in it for the money.

He hails from Derbasiyah, a town on Syria's border with Turkey, and says he was long able to win big thanks to his first-rate rooster Bruce Lee.

"He only needed 10 minutes to beat the other cockerel," boasts Sharabi nostalgically.

"I ended up selling him in Iraq," he says, adding prices can go up to $2,000.