In pictures: Cockfighting in Iraq's Kurdistan
The sound of a rooster crowing echoes throughout an unfinished building in the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq's Kurdistan. A barnyard odour clings to the walls, as men filter through a corridor to watch birds fight. Despite its illegality, cockfighting is a popular pastime in the semi-autonomous region. (All pictures by Florent Vergnes/MEE)
The fights draw crowds of men, often including high-ranking government officials, which has led to law enforcement officers turning a blind eye to the fights. Local animal rights groups want the authorities to take a tougher stand on cockfighting, as well as other blood sports.
The fight begins with the breeder showing off the bird to the audience and preparing it for combat by swinging it back and forth and whispering words of encouragement to it. The rooster is then placed into the pit.
“He’s my favourite, my champion,” says Hassan, a member of the audience, talking about one of the roosters competing. The 20-year-old places bets on his favourites nightly. With some birds having been forced to fight for a number of years, they eventually develop a circle of fans among those who regularly attend the fights. Most of the roosters are illegally imported from Turkey through the mountains, but also from other countries such as Iran, China and Vietnam.
The rules of the fight are spelled out on the tile-covered walls that surround the fight pit and the spectator area. They stipulate that each gamecock can fight for no longer than an hour and that a fight is lost the moment a bird sits down, or lowers its head for more than a minute. Rounds last eight minutes each, and a breeder can throw in the towel once they feel a rooster might be harmed. “When I was fighting for the Peshmerga, I crossed the border into Iran. There, roosters fight for two hours at a time, and blades are attached to their spurs,” says Kamal, a leading breeder at the game pit.
Kamal watches over his bird Proud, which is the favourite for the evening's bout. A Peshmerga veteran, the 58-year-old was wounded by a bullet to the leg and to his eye. “During the mountain combat in 1979 [the third Iraqi Kurdish uprising], my birds were all I could think about,” he recalls nostalgically, as he eyes his champion through the wire mesh. At his clandestine game farm, Kamal admits to having over 30 cocks conditioned to fight. “I feed them a special diet for longevity, but the recipe is secret,” he says.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, around 50 spectators from all walks of life are gathered around the pit. The wealthier members of the crowd may consider the blood sport a pastime. However, most of the people placing bets are from the working classes, including Iranian refugees who are hoping for a payday.
“Some nights, if it’s a good fight, bets can reach up to $3,000. But none will go higher than 500 tonight,” one spectator tells MEE, his eyes glued to the ring. “The bets are highest on Thursdays. That’s when the big names are sparred off.”
Between rounds, the owners hold their contenders up to “shore them up”. They file their spurs/combs, speak words of encouragement and stroke them. When the match resumes, the owners show their bird to the onlookers once more, then place them back in the ring.
Once the roosters are back in the pit, the fight immediately resumes. Though at this venue their spurs are filed to prevent injuries, the cocks fly at each other and make vicious beak stabs that are potentially fatal.
The gamecocks are frequently injured. Proud’s beak was broken at tonight’s match. The owners wrapped it tightly with strips of cloth and tied it to the bird’s crown to hold it in place. The fight was resumed straightaway.
Half an hour into the fight, the roosters start to tire, indicating a potential winner and pushing the wagers higher. Cockfighting is banned throughout Iraq, owing in part to the cruelty of the blood sport. However, fights are organised around the country every day, more or less openly.
One owner takes advantage of a break to look at his champion’s wounds. The cock has already sat down twice during combat and is showing signs of weakness.
The protests in Iraq's Kurdistan last December over the non-payment of wages have not impacted cockfighting events in Sulaymaniyah, where fans continue to flock in the hope of winning large sums of money. According to Hassan, cockfighting is an escape from the difficult realities of everyday life. “My wife doesn’t know I’m here. She thinks I’m drinking tea with friends. It allows me to get away,” he says. Despite the vicious nature of the combat, cockfighting continues to bring together hundreds of Iraqis every night.
A version of this article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.