x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Raging bulls connect with past

A new bull-butting arena has been added to the annual Al Saif (sword) Competition in Fujairah to raise awareness of traditional sports unique to the mountainous east coast.

Bull-butting at the Fujairah Heritage Village. The Fujairah Government has now set out clearer rules to help raise the traditional sport's national profile.
Bull-butting at the Fujairah Heritage Village. The Fujairah Government has now set out clearer rules to help raise the traditional sport's national profile.

Rocket Launcher v Snake. Spark v Praying Lion. Stab v Lahore.

These are not the names of Spandex-wearing wrestlers from prime-time televised bouts, but the titans taking to the "ring" to showcase the sporting heritage of the mountainous east coast.

To cheers from an enthralled crowd, the fighters are massive bulls and each takes to a new bull-butting arena, introduced at this year's Al Saif (Sword) Competition and built to raise the profile among residents and tourists.

"The sheikhs have made this new arena for us to enjoy," said Mohammed Al Shari, the former bull commentator who can still be found pacing the sidelines every Friday, teasing bull masters and building up the bovines.

"Men and women, boys and girls, our culture is that we are buying the bull and making the bulls come together but the meaning of this is to be with friends."

The Al Saif Competition has grown this year from simple sword-throwing to a wider festival of heritage that highlights mountain traditions as an integral part of UAE culture, as worthy as camel racing or falconry.

Bull-butting is held exclusively on Oman's Batinah coast and in Fujairah, where the rocky landscape makes the use of camels impractical.

The sport does not injure the bulls, which are highly prized for their cash value as much as the social status they bring to their owners.

Last year's competition transformed the traditional sword dance from a past-time into a formal sport with set rules for spectators, who voted by text for their favourite swordsmen after televised broadcasts. Hundreds of thousands of votes were cast and the finale set a first-time Guinness World Record entry for the highest sword throw.

Now, the Fujairah Government may set clearer rules for bull-butting to raise its national profile.

"It's important to us," said Sheikh Abdulla bin Saif Al Sharqi, a member of the organising committee. "If you don't document it, we will lose this sport.

"You can see, people are coming from all over the Emirates to see what Fujairah has to offer. When you put it in a [formal] way then more people can understand what it's all about."

At the informal and immensely popular bull-butting that takes place every Friday on the Corniche, the bulls lock horns for a few seconds - sumo-style - before one is declared the winner.

It is not always clear to first-time spectators who is the winner but regulars who know each bull by sight are left without doubt.

It has been suggested the new arena should have lines that measure how far bulls push each other. With a clear winner, there could be formal prizes. The bull barons are yet to be convinced.

"It's not easy," said Sheikh Abdulla. "Unless we come up with certain rules we are not ready for that, but we're working hard on it."

The new arena is lined with heavy bars and a grandstand for spectators to make the sport safer but some people daring enough continue to sit within the arena itself, scattering in all directions when the bull gets too close.

The arena's loose sand slows the action compared with the compacted sand of the Corniche. It also makes it harder for the bull to run off into a nearby street.

"It happened a lot, because you cannot stop a bull," said Mohammed Ali, a bull owner. "We were six, seven people to catch only one."

Mr Ali, 31, is part of a new generation who have driven the popularity of bull-butting.

Mr Ali bought his first bull at the age of 16 "when bulls were cheap" but is now the proud owner of the seven-year-old black bull Ramses, and the six-year-old, ash-and-black flecked Sharara.

Mr Ali bought Sharara for Dh4,000. He is now worth Dh10,000 and yet to grow.

"Wallah, he's too small," said Mr Ali of Sharara as he entered the ring to a larger opponent. "He's not ready to be a bull. When a kid grows up, when does he become a man?"

Mr Ali paid Dh650 a month at a farm for wrestling bulls but costs have risen with the sport's popularity.

Humpback Brahmans, from Pakistan, are the original bull of choice but three years ago Dutch Bulls and Jerseys made their appearance. As one bull master put it: "Pakistan is a V6 engine. The Dutch is a V8. Jerseys are for Endurance."

Hareb Jamu Sareed Al Neaimi, 65, one of the men who founded the formalised sport in Kalba 40 years ago, has his own criteria. "Look for big hooves, big legs and the ears of a good fighter should be small, not big. Small." He owns 20 bulls, some with a value of Dh70,000. "Now is the time for National Day and we want to share this as part of our culture," said Naji Al Zaabi, 40, a head bull butting organiser. "The government asked us to come here to show our support and so we are here."

Bulls will compete next Monday at the Fujairah Women's college and next Thursday at the Men's College.



This year’s sword competition will take on a new format to showcase swordsmen of the highest quality and give them greater opportunities to retain their titles.
Half as many swordsmen will compete in the final five rounds this year, but the 16 who qualify will face two opponents before voting begins.
The top swordsmen are then selected for a further display before final votes are made.
Judges will make their scores based on four criteria: the meeting, the confrontation, the throw and originality.
Scores from the judges are worth 400 points and each text vote from spectators, at Dh5, will count as one point.
“It’s good because all will compete at the same level and have a true chance to show their skills,” said Mohammed Al Shehhi, 22, a swordsman competing for the second time.
This year’s competition runs at Fujairah Fort every weekend until December 17.
The contest will include camel races, horse beauty pageants, a mass wedding, a haunted house, folk concerts and bull-butting.
Further details are on Facebook at Al Saif Competition.

*Anna Zacharias