A boisterous roar sweeps through the crowd as a pair of roosters spar in a sandy pit, their spurs kicking, wings flapping and beaks pecking.
“Bizan! [Hit it],” one spectator barks in Dari.
“Bokoshesh! [Kill it],” hisses another.
Cockfighting, known in Afghanistan as ‘Murgh Jangi’, has the trappings of a gladiatorial contest.
Wings outstretched, the avian fighters tear into each other as bets furiously exchange hands. Feathers are shredded and blood is drawn.
In a few seconds, it is over. One bird collapses and half of the baying crowd lets out a roar of triumph.
Cockfighting, like all animal fighting and gambling, was banned under the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule. But the gory bloodsport, a symbol of masculinity and virility, has since made a swift comeback as a popular winter pastime in Afghanistan.
Kabul’s biggest amphitheatre for cockfighting is tucked away behind the bombed out ruins of the historic Darul Aman Palace, an enduring symbol of the destruction wreaked by decades of conflict.
Outside, opium addicts swaddled in wrinkled shawls crouch along the walls.
Inside, there is tiered seating for two groups of rooster owners, bloodsport enthusiasts and imperious Godfather-like figures recording gambling bets in crumpled notebooks.
Shouts of “I bet double!” compete with “I bet triple!”. Up to 200,000 Afghani ($3,000) can exchange hands, a small fortune in a country wracked by poverty. “People may not have food to eat, but they come here to bet,” said spectator Muhammad Humayoon, a private telecom company operator. “I have seen very poor people walking out rich.”
But it is not just about money. As rampant joblessness and a roiling conflict spur pessimism about the future of the country, ancient bloodsports — however brutal — offer a sense of beguiling escapism.
From cockfighting to quail fighting to buzkashi — polo with a headless animal carcass — Afghanistan’s violent pastimes are redolent in some ways of the tumult that the country has experienced in four decades of war.
But unlike war, cockfighting is a contest of equals. Only birds of the same size and weight are paired against each other in a fight while the taped-on spurs attached to their claws to inflict damage on opponents have to be equally sharp.
In a country where women’s groups voice a shockingly common refrain to be granted the same basic dignity given to animals, the birds are sometimes treated even better than family members. “We feed them everything we cannot afford to eat ourselves,” said a rooster owner.