x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Wrestlers fight for survival

Dubai Municipality, worried about safety, orders a stop to the weekly pehlwani wrestling matches in Deira.

Bouts of pehlwani draws huge crowds to the fish market area of Deira every Friday.
Bouts of pehlwani draws huge crowds to the fish market area of Deira every Friday.

DUBAI // Once every week, centuries of sporting tradition are distilled into a market car park in Deira as crowds gather to watch two men wrestle on a patch of bare ground. As they have for 30 years, hundreds of Asian expatriates headed for the fish market at the weekend to watch the hand-to-hand combat known as pehlwani. With the crowds steadily getting bigger, Dubai Municipality, concerned about safety and interference with the market, recently ordered the wrestling matches to stop or move elsewhere.

But the ban is not working. If anything, it attracted more spectators on Friday, and officials admitted afterwards that they were powerless to stop the spectacle. "The municipality cannot ensure the activity will not be performed again in the market," said Obaid Ibrahim Mohammed, head of the markets section in the municipality assets management department. The ban was put in place this month because, he said, the area was "a local market and not a gym". He said inspectors on routine checks had asked the organisers of the matches to stop immediately. So far, no fines had been issued, but officials have not ruled out imposing them.

The sport, which dates back more than 2,000 years in Pakistan and India, has reached a new peak of popularity with Asian expatriates in Dubai as every Friday around 5pm, labourers, taxi drivers and shop workers gather for a taste of the gladiatorial action. Many fans say the sport provides a cultural anchor for Pakistanis and a means of entertainment on their day off. "We hope this continues as it is our best and only entertainment," said Azhar Mahmood Ali, a former wrestler who now coaches participants.

Mr Ali said: "There were some problems a few weeks ago as the crowds grew and many men were crossing the main road unsafely. We assured the officials that this would not happen again." Most of the weekend's crowd were from Pakistan, though Indians were also present. The men formed a large circle in which the wrestlers fought. "This has been going on for ages and, with Ramadan coming, it will get even more popular," said Mr Ali.

The sport is growing so much in Deira that teams are visiting from Pakistan to join in. "Good wrestlers are now coming to take part," said Mr Ali. "It is very popular. During Ramadan holidays, we wrestle almost every day." The wrestlers said they were aware of the ban but no one had stopped them fighting. One of them, Shamsher Ali, said: "We are not professionals but do this as a passion. We will have nothing to do if this is banned."

Pehlwani, also known as kusti, involves two men wrestling in an open space. The winner is the first fighter to pin his opponent's shoulder to the ground. The rules are simple - no punching, kicking or biting. The master of ceremonies, the ustaad, who trains some of the more committed fighters, warms up the crowd, strutting around the ring with a brightly coloured stick, bellowing an invitation to anyone brave enough to step up and prove himself.

The matches in Deira are casual and fought as exercise or entertainment. There is no entrance fee or formal payments for those taking part, although wrestlers are allowed to tour the crowd after a bout to collect donations, which can bring in several hundred dirhams. One fighter said he received about Dh800 (US$217) for each fight. Anyone can take part, although there are regular fighters and crowd favourites. Some fans climb on to car roofs and bonnets for a better view, while others try to jostle their way to the front.

Amjad Sharif has been watching the matches for the past two years. "Most people who gather here are workers at the fish market," he said. "They live close by and come here to entertain themselves. This sport reminds us of our homes and we enjoy it." The fans believe that the matches will not draw such big crowds if they are moved elsewhere. Ihtiyas Omer, a regular spectator, said: "There are lot of Pakistanis in this area and it has been going on for a long time. If the location is moved, many people will not come to watch or even take part."

pmenon@thenational.ae