by Marius Kociejowski
I made a mistake with this one––not a disastrous mistake, mind you, though it sure felt like it at first. You see, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus is Kociejowski’s follow up to his earlier work, The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool, a book which I have yet to read. I didn’t, at first, realize this was the case, and, after discovering the truth, I hoped it wouldn’t matter. Starting things off, the author was strongly referencing and revisiting people and places we presumably came to know and love in the first book. Approaching something like 50 pages in, I was starting to worry I wasn’t going to get anything of value out of this one as a result. I very nearly put the reading on hiatus until I could locate the other, elusive book, but things, luckily, turned around shortly thereafter.
The Pigeon Wars of Damascus is one of Kociejowski’s travelogues to Syria, this time in the midst of the US occupation of Iraq post-9/11. It was providence that brought him to a pigeon keeper, and he was soon struck with a sense that such people would hold the key to a greater understanding of the Middle East. Though trying to pursue this doesn’t prove easy; pigeon keepers happen to be an elusive bunch. Met with almost universal revulsion in Syrian society––and at constant worry that their birds will be confiscated due to the government ban on pigeons in response to avian flu––the author captures their bitterness, their distrust of outsiders, but also a passion that’s almost impossible to pin down.
Shortly after making his intentions clear, Kociejowski begins employing pigeon imagery and drawing parallels between things he encounters and birds, and it starts to happen frequently, almost to the point of unwelcome. But, remarkably, this becomes a purposeful part of the deeper exercise. As we go on, the author is candidly honest about finer aspects of his writing and things like his struggles working on specific passages. Here, he makes clear how much he understands the distinct lack of subtlety going into these earlier images, but he relates this back to the search itself. He finds that he’s relating everything back to the pigeons, and things start to feel a bit contrived, which makes him consider that he’s attempting to force things that aren’t actually there. But, stepping back, letting the winds of fate guide his journey, even moving away from pigeon talk, things start to feel insubstantial. Just in the relating of this aspect of the struggle, Kociejowski cultivates a great sincerity.
And this sincerity isn’t just relegated to these discussions. It extends into the writing itself, and it seems to extend even into Kociejowski’s broad approach toward travel and connecting while doing so. For, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus is more about people than the place, and it’s amazing how successfully the author’s able to get people to open up to him, even with linguistic and cultural barriers. But much of this can probably be explained by his approach, of building a great knowledge of the place cultivated by a desire to learn, by being persistent, and by being so, so honest. And when he’s able to get people to open up, which he frequently does, the writing shines brightest within the dialogue. But don’t think this is just because he’s able to get these people to share with him; it’s because it’s real, and it’s because he takes pains to capture this realness, the essence of these conversations, and it comes across.
With this book, Kociejowski does something special. He expresses something elusive, a sort of bitter sadness intermingling with levity that seemed to inhabit people in the region at the time, a feeling he takes great pains to understand, and he allows us a glimpse, however small and however brief. While you may do yourself a favour by first reading The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus is still strong enough on its own to provide you with something of value by the end.