The plight of the pigeon

The first time I looked up, properly looked up, in medieval Cairo, I noticed weird wooden towers built on the top of apartment blocks. “What are they?” I asked the old man showing me the view from a mosque in Cairo’s City of the Dead.

“Hammams”, he said.

“Bathrooms?” I thought. How weird! People climb up those rickety little ladders to go to the toilet?

“Hammans?” I asked, just to be sure.

Yes, yes, he nodded. “Hammams.”

What I later discover in the great game that is learning Egyptian is that a hammam is a bathroom, but a hammam...is also a pigeon. Something to do with more or less ‘m’ pronunciation.

Yes, winged rats despised by the Anglo world, scourge of European monuments. Yet all over Egypt, these little boxes on stilts are where one of Egypt’s great delicacies are nurtured. In the evenings, you can hear a whistling as the owners call their beloved flocks home.

“They’re very intelligent,” someone tells me. A first I’ve heard that, but then I’m not a pigeon fancier.

The best restaurants in Cairo are said to include Farahat in the medieval part of the city, Gamilaya, as well as upmarket Nasr City. I’ve eaten pigeon in the alleyways of Khan al-Khalili, where a boy rushes up to you, asks you, “How many?” then rushes off again to grab the required number of pigeons, salad, bread and a peppery, watery pigeon broth and slaps it all on the table without any ceremony or cutlery. It’s oily and messy, the little bodies stuffed with fireek, or crushed wheat (think bulgar, Aussies).

In comparison, I ate pigeon at a friend’s home. His wife is obviously the mistress of pigeon cooking – she stuffed hers with rice, which sits just beneath the skin. Less oily, less messy, infinitely more tasty.

“Eat like you’re at home,” she said as she dropped two platters of pigeons on the table. “With both your hands, your feet...whatever.”

Then I learned what is considered the pièce de résistance amongst this breed of pigeon fanciers. A quick tap on the head and voila, pigeon brains. I have only one word to describe them. Small. But then, what do you need a brain for if you’re a pigeon? Thinks: eat. Thinks: procreate. Thinks: eat. Sounds like utopia. If only the accommodation was better. Still, city views are good...

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