The sun has barely risen and already dozens of Afghan men are swapping fistfuls of bank bills, frantically betting in one of the country’s goriest pastimes: bird fighting.
In a shady patch under a cluster of trees in a Kabul park, two partridges face off at opposite ends of a small square of dirt.
The spectators press closer, roaring the birds on as they clutch their cash.
A man sprinkles water into the air to keep the stifling heat at bay for the birds, an action that recalls the throwing of salt at the start of a sumo bout.
“These two birds are very good. The fight could last 10 minutes to two hours,” said Hafizullah, a large man in his 50s wearing a red-and-white turban.
Under the 1996 to 2001 Taliban regime, such a scene would have been unthinkable as the Islamists banned all forms of gambling and animal fighting.
However, under the Western-backed government of today, fights between anything from quails to bulls have been restored as a violent aspect of daily life in Afghanistan — as is the war between Taliban insurgents and 100,000 NATO-led troops.
In the second round, one partridge grabs the other by the neck before being thrown off. As the fight goes on, the bets rise.
“At the beginning, bets were like US$200, but now it’s US$800 and it’s going to be higher. This fight will continue until one of them runs away,” Hafizullah said.
Gradually the birds become caked in mud, shed feathers and become increasingly aggressive, fired up by the violence and shouts from the crowd.
“It is not good for them, they are gonna be hurt, they may die. They are innocent, why are we making them fight?” said teenager Abdullah Wafa, who wandered down to the park to do some exercise, but came over to the fight to check out the commotion.
After more than a hour, one partridge refuses to continue, losing the fight and prompting the spectators to overrun the fighting ground as money changes hands.
Taliban militants have targeted animal fights in the past. In February 2008, about 80 people were killed by a suicide bomber at a dog fight in Kandahar in the south, but Afghans, for whom war is a daily reality, are not deterred.
On the sidelines, men unwind in the park, chatting and stretched out on large carpets smoking hashish between mouthfuls of barbequed meat.
In the bird market of Kabul, down a narrow street on a slight hill in the old city, partridges can sell for several thousand US dollars — a fortune in a country where one in three people live in poverty.
One shop selling the birds is owned by Shokrullah. It is a little bigger than a cupboard, crammed with cages stored on old planks of wood. Shokrullah has a mischievous smile and a wealth of information about the bird trade, such as that their diet must be especially crafted to give them power and endurance.
“We prepare a nutritious cake or bread in which we put lentils, different seeds, almonds, cream, pistachio, saffron plus some more [stuff],” he said.
Shokrullah said the best fighters come from Pakistan, ironically from the southwestern city of Quetta, seen as a hiding place for Taliban leaders.
He seems philosophical about the dangers and the cruelty of bird fighting in a country exposed to three decades of war.
“This is mainly like a boxing match and as you know, sometimes boxers do die during the fight,” he said.
Yet the fighting and trading of the birds, and the inevitable cruelty which that entails, is not to everyone’s liking.
“We condemn any kind of fighting among animals, whether it includes bird fighting or dog fighting because it’s cruel,” Kabul Zoo director Aziz Gul Saqeb said.
“We did as much as we could to stop it,” he said. “But fighting animals has become a tradition. Particularly in rural parts of the country, dog fighting and bird fighting have become very common.”
In addition, the authorities have other priorities in a country riven by war, poverty and daily violence, and are loathe to take on deeply entrenched traditions.
Scottish traveler and explorer Alexander Burnes wrote in the 19th century about the passion for the sport in his book, Travels into Bokhara.
“Nothing can exceed the passion of Afghans for this kind of sport, almost every boy in the street may be seen with a quail in his hand and crowds assemble in all parts of the city to witness their game battles,” Burnes wrote.
Mohammad Omar, who brought his son and his prized US$500 partridge to fight in Kabul, could not agree more.
“Sometimes I can win, sometimes I lose, it depends,” he said, before jokingly motioning toward the bird and adding: “I even like him more than my son.”