It is a hot June afternoon in Sulaimaniyah, on the second day of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that concludes the holy month of Ramadan. While most Iraqis spend the day at home with their families or neighbors, roughly 50 men have gathered in a musty room on the third floor of a teahouse to watch one of the largest cockfights of the year. Everyone is smoking, sweating and shouting as two black roosters launch at one another during an exhibition match.
Cockfighting is among the most popular blood sports worldwide. It may also be the world’s oldest spectator sport, originating in Persia over 6,000 years ago. In fact, some archaeologists believe chickens were first domesticated for fighting and not for eating.
The sport maintains a small but steady following in Iraq. It was tolerated during the Baathist regime and has since expanded due to weak regulations on betting. Cockfighting today provides many men with an escape from the country’s precarity, despite the efforts of animal welfare activists to ban it.
According to Hajar Hamid, an organizer of cockfighting matches, approximately 100 men train roosters to compete and another 500 come regularly to watch in Sulaimaniyah. Matches are held every night except Fridays, when the match takes place in the late morning, and the fights take place year-round apart from July and August, the hottest summer months.
“Nothing is more exciting than cockfighting,” Barham Aziz, who has been coming to watch matches for over a decade, told Al-Monitor. “Roosters are quite respected here,” he added, citing a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad compares the crowing of cocks to seeing an angel.
In the cockpit, a long-necked rooster with a short beak crowed wildly, perhaps signaling readiness for its battle.
In Iraq, a rooster wins if it can force its competitor to submit or pin it to the ground three times. Each match consists of 15-minute bouts that can go on for as long as two hours. After that time, the match is a draw.
Iraq’s entertainment options are limited. Within a confined and shrinking space, blood sports offer a fringe, yet tolerated leisure option. Dogfights can be found in the countryside, and fights between Chukar partridges, Iraq’s national bird, are popular in the Kurdistan region in the springtime during mating season.
Everyone Al-Monitor spoke with had an opinion on the best type of rooster and a favorite local fighter. The “Harati” of Turkish origin is known for its courage and stamina. Vietnamese and Thai gamecocks are prized for their speed. Trainers will breed different specimens together to perfect their desired mix of traits. Aziz’s favorite fighter ever, Kaokab, was of an “Afghan-Indian mix.” His other favorite gamecock, Twenty-one, a “Shami” from Syria, won all of his matches in under 21 minutes.
Some spectators mark moments in recent history by the cockfights around them, such as when Jalal Talabani, the former president of Iraq, died. Hamid the match fixer told Al-Monitor that his favorite fighter, Bwanim, “was on a 35-match winning streak until he died, the same day Saddam did.”
Spectator sport aside, gambling forms the backbone of the game. Dana Yessin, who has trained thousands of roosters over a 30-year career, explained that the bets between the competing trainers start at $50, and the highest ranked fighters may bring in up to $5,000. The overall pot can “reach up to $60,000 on the biggest nights,” said Yessin.
Aziz wistfully recalled one rooster’s surprise victory with seconds to go in a two-hour match, saying, “One minute longer and I would have won $2,000.”
The few animal rights groups in Iraq have failed to shut down the cockfights. Sulaiman Tameer, the head of the Kurdistan Organization for Animal Rights Protection, told Al-Monitor, “There is no mention of animal fighting in any law here.” His organization has tried unsuccessfully to lobby the government to change things.
Much like other spectator sports, part of the trouble stems from the fact that cockfighting in Iraq is enjoyed by diverse elements of male society. “Politicians, doctors, engineers and common people can be found each night. All types of people are involved,” said Baqr, who runs the teahouse that hosts the majority of matches in Sulaimaniyah.
And the fan base is full of zealots. As Hamid mended one of the gamecocks’ broken feathers, he shared a story about the first rooster he ever trained. “When it won, all the money in the world couldn’t buy how happy I felt," he said.
Cockfighting can bring not only joy but catharsis to the men who participate. Yessin, the prolific trainer, recognizes that cockfighting can be brutal and at times unethical, but it also provides him with a necessary escape. He told Al-Monitor that cockfighting is an extension of the external and internal strife he faces each day, adding, “Everywhere I look, there is so much crisis and conflict, but training and fighting roosters helps me to deal with it all.” He went on to describe how much he admired the tenacity of his roosters, saying, “The best will continue to fight until the end. I had to step in and call off a match once when my rooster kept fighting after it lost an eye.”
But who can blame Yessin’s bird for its tenacity? In a recent match, a highly anticipated gamecock jumped out of the cockpit after it had received a bruising, being hit in the head just under three minutes. The young trainer who lost the match (and $250) walked slowly to the corner to pick up his bird. One onlooker told Al-Monitor, shaking his head, “That loser will never come back from this. Once a bird loses, it will never have the spirit to fight again.”
As in all sports, the loser will inevitably fade from the minds of the spectators. There is no place for the underdog. Yessin admitted of his cocks who can no longer compete, “I can use it for two things: training or eating.”