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Cockfighting More Popular Than Ever

Bird flu scare did little to hinder a traditional spectator sport in the Kurdish north.
By Aso Sarawee
Nuri Rahima Shwan’s teahouse in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah offers a lot more than just Iraq's famously brewed tea.



On Fridays from 10 am to 2 pm, he runs cockfighting matches that pull in punters paying 500 dinar (35 US cents) each to watch an assortment of birds battle it out in a small outbuilding – and to bet on the outcome.



Cockfighting has been a weekend activity for men in this northeastern Kurdish province for decades.



A bird flu scare in the region earlier this year briefly slowed the action at Shwan's, but he said business is now better than ever.



"I have 60 customers," he said. "I believe it's growing daily."



Cockfighting and dog fights are popular spectator sports for men in Sulaimaniyah, and matches are deadly serious for devotees.



Gambling is legal, with some restrictions, in Sulaimaniyah, and at Shwan’s teahouse they will bet up to 20 dollars on a bird that looks to be in good form.



The owners look on the birds as investments, and give them grand names like “the King”.



Dana Muhammed, 30, is the proud owner of Pharaoh, for which he paid a cool 1,000 dollars in Syria. He believes it the most expensive fighter in Sulaimaniyah.



"He’s never been defeated. He’s fought five times in Syria, three times in Baghdad and once in Sulaimaniyah," he explained. "He’s won all his fights, which is why he’s known as Pharaoh."



Briyar Kareem, 26, brings his bird to Shwan's teashop every Friday. He regularly films the encounters and said the most exciting cockfight he has seen was in Erbil, and lasted two hours.



"The [loser’s] owner said he’d purchased it for 800 dollars," Kareem recalled. "When it was defeated he sold it for 10 dollars."



All free-range birds were supposed to have been slaughtered in Sulaimaniyah following the death of at least one resident from the deadly H591 virus. During the scare, Barzan Alladin sold off eight cocks worth 200-300 dollars each for just 15-20 dollars during the bird flu scare.



He still comes to Shwan's every Friday to watch the matches, but does so with a long face. "I lost some of my best cocks, and it's not easy to get ones like them again," he said.



Shwan sent his own prizefighters – all eight of them - to live with a relative in Kirkuk, and retrieved them once the bird flu panic was over.



"It's a pastime we can't give up," he said. "Dogs and cockerels instinctively start fighting as soon as they see one another."



Ali Abbas, 25, is another enthusiast but unlike many, he recognises the sport is morally questionable.



"I know staging fights between them is bad - but there’s a lot of fighting in this country," he said. "This fighting is better than all the other violence, because at least no one gets killed."



Aso Sarawee is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah.

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