Sun, Nov 04, 2007 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: War hasn't curbed Baghdad residents' love of birds

AFP , BAGHDAD

Dozens of Baghdadis flock to the center of the Iraqi capital on Friday mornings, ignoring the threat to their lives, with a sole aim -- to ease their loneliness in the company of a bird.

Their destination is not a cinema, theater or concert hall -- a rarity in the Iraqi capital -- but central Baghdad's Al-Ghazl bird market.

All kinds of birds, from rare species smuggled in from Brazil and Africa to noisily chirping parrots, are the focus of these pet lovers.

"I know parrots are expensive birds, but it's nice to spend time with them at home," Mohammed Fuad says as he moves along a row of cages checking each bird.

Al-Ghazl, a textile and garment market until the 1960s, turned into an animal market as new traders moved in.

"Our situation at the time of Saddam was much better," says Amir Casco, son of Baha'a Hussein al-Tamimi, a prominent seller of exotic animals at the Al-Ghazl.

He said that during the former regime pet lovers from Iran and even Russia regularly visited Al-Ghazl to purchase animals.

"Today we have local customers who like to have birds in their homes, as these people do not step out," he said.

Fuad is one of them.

"I do not go out of my home. Because of the dangers, I prefer to stay at home rather than seek work. So I decided to buy a parrot who can entertain me," says Fuad, an unemployed graduate.

And for them the Al-Ghazl market is the place to be every Friday, the weekly Muslim holiday.

"We sell just parrots smuggled from Brazil or Ivory Coast," says Casco without hesitation. "Lebanese merchants first brought the birds into Lebanon, then into Syria and finally into Iraq aided by local traffickers."

Trading in birds of endangered species is internationally banned and it became more restrictive after the bird flu crisis.

But the demand from Iraqis, traditionally known as bird-lovers, has not dried up and they are willing to pay a up to US$2,000 for rare species, Casco says.

In these troubled days, buyers quickly disperse after making their purchases.

Though he is not nostalgic about the former regime, Casco cannot help missing the relative calm under Saddam.

"Even the officials came to buy birds. I remember that one of them wanted a parrot who could sing the praises of the president," he said.

"In three days I taught a bird a song glorifying Saddam and offered it to the official who wanted to present it to the president."

But times have changed.

Casco points a finger to a group of animals and suddenly an African Gray parrot, a new arrival, screeches out "Down with Bush!"

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