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South Asian Men Are Wrestling in the Dubai Desert to Keep the Art of Pehlwani Alive

Every Friday a diverse crowd gathers to witness Pehlwani—a raucous form of wrestling from the Asian subcontinent that’s being kept alive in Dubai while it fades away in its homeland.

Gaar Adams

If you've never been there, you probably have a preconceived idea of what Dubai looks like. And I’d imagine it involves lots of tourists walking over silk Louis Vuitton scarves so they don’t burn their feet on the sand, before popping vintage Veuve over domesticated lion cubs—a purified Disneyland of opulence devoid of any genuine culture.

But from where I’m standing, staring across a sandlot buzzing with Indians, Emiratis, and other Arabs who’ve gathered to watch a bunch of barrel-chested South Asian laborers in brightly colored pants throw each other around in the sand, Dubai doesn’t look all that cut and dried.

Every Friday a diverse crowd gathers to witness pehlwani—a raucous form of wrestling from the Asian subcontinent that’s being kept alive in Dubai while it fades away in its homeland. As a sport, it’s similar to the kind of wrestling you see in the Olympics or high school movies. The aim of the match is simple: Pin the shoulders of your opponent to the ground for three seconds. 

Yet a few notable exceptions and regional variants exist, like the complicated act of grabbing an opponent's underwear and using it to flip him onto his back. That side of it veers more toward the WWE spectacle, only without the spandex short shorts and nu-metal entrance music.

As the Friday sunlight wanes between asr and maghrib—the third and fourth prescribed prayers of the day—three Pakistani men hauling a crate of water in a dusty wheelbarrow shove into the center of the lot, and the pehlwani ritual begins. Two of the men methodically throw water and wheel around to form a 15-foot wide circle called the khala, a sacred wrestling ring. The third, an old man with kohl-lined eyes, shouts at passers-by in Urdu and Arabic, ordering them to assemble around the arena.

Emiratis saunter over from the souk a few blocks south. Scores of Bangladeshis and Indians disembark shoddy buses driven in from labor camps on the outskirts of the city, pushing their way into the crowd—which, by this point, is three people deep—around the ring. I stand next to two Balochi men who work in an oil field near the Saudi border and get one day in the city every four weeks.

“I come here every month with my friend,” one of them told me excitedly in broken Arabic, pulling his co-worker into a tight headlock. “We were wrestlers in Pakistan. Now, in our village, there is no training. I swear, only in Dubai can I see pehlwani now.”

Before the first match begins, the old man introduces the brawny competitors who’ll be taking part in the afternoon’s two scheduled bouts, and the crowd roars for all four names. It’s a knowledgeable audience, and my new Balochi friend nudges me when his favorites’ names are called. The first two move to change into their jangia—bright cotton underwear used as a wrestling uniform—and a section of the crowd knowingly forms a tight, outward-facing circle around each of them to protect their privacy. As the two pehlwans finish tightening their waistbands, the old man goads the audience again.

“Is anyone brave enough?” he dared the crowd in Urdu, pointing his cane at the spectators. Unscheduled fights occasionally happen between pehlwans new to the Emirates, former Dubai champions who only came to watch, or just gutsy idiots (I once watched a champion Pathan take about ten seconds to pin a doughy Syrian man who thought he could wrestle). The old man calls the first two pehlwans into the khala, and they emerge from the crowd shouting an Arabic invocation before patting the edge of the ring, kneeling down to ask forgiveness and touching the feet of the old man, a pre-fight ritual that merges Islamic and non-Islamic rituals. After covering each other’s bodies in sand, they’re ready to brawl.

Mohamed Rafiq, the old man—a 30-year resident of Dubai and one of pehlwani’s two weekly match organizers—gives me a brief history. Pehlwani in this form dates back at least as far as the 16th century, when Mughals conquered northern India and melded their Sufi-infused Persian koshti pahlavani wrestling with India’s Hindu-inflected malla-yuddha form. Indian seafaring merchants then brought pehlwani to the shores of Dubai in the 19th century, and for the past four decades practitioners have organized bouts in this same sandlot.

“Jhara Pahalwan fought here before he beat Inoki,” Mohamed said, referencing the famous match between the Pakistani and Japanese wrestling legends. “He took down three men in one afternoon.” 

Even as late as the 1980s, pehlwani wrestlers were national heroes, and names like The Great Gama, The Bholu Brothers, and Goga Pahalwan were legendary across the subcontinent. However, today, the form struggles to survive. In Pakistan, only around two dozen of the 300 akhara training centers that existed at the time of partition in 1948 survive today.

In India, coaches complain of scant government funding and pressure from wrestling’s national body to align their traditional sport more closely with Olympic wrestling. And the exhaustive training—which often lasts more than six hours a day—to learn the intricate series of moves and counters prevents full-time employment. Without sponsors or government assistance, the incentive to continue as a serious pehlwan no longer exists.

No formal pehlwani training programs exist in the United Arab Emirates, but as a country where expatriates make up more than 75 percent of the population—and a majority of those from South Asia—the country is bringing together wrestlers, coaches, and aficionados from all the different villages and cities across the subcontinent where the sport once flourished. Even into the second match, men from Pakistan and Bangladesh walk over together in droves as they finish their shifts at the fish market across the lot, kicking up sand as they walk.

As the crowd grows larger, I’m pushed next to a barber from Varnasi who’s eagerly filming away on his crappy flip phone. “I just moved here three weeks ago,” he shouted above the crowd’s roar, pointing to his ramshackle apartment building across the lot. “I see pehlwans here from Pakistan, from Bangladesh, and I could not believe this, so I will send pictures to my family. Maybe next week I will fight,” he smiled.

Before the second match can finish, a middle-aged taxi driver in a crisp blue uniform runs across the lot to Mohamed and solemnly touches his feet. Once the crowd calms after a burly Rajasthani pins his opponent, Rafiq announces that the Pakistani taxi driver wants to wrestle. A group of men from northern India’s Uttar Pradesh push one of their friends toward the ring, and he agrees to a match. Both men pat each other on the chest and move to change into jangia.

“I just finished my ten-hour shift driving. Dubai, Sharjah, Dubai, Sharjah—back and forth like this. I am very tired,” the cabbie sighed, loosening his tie. “But today in Lahore, young people don’t like pehlwani. Only here in Dubai. There are some Indians, some Bengalis,” he said. “So I thank God I can fight.” He told me that he tries to come every week, even in the July and August’s roasting 120-degree heat.

As the two spontaneous competitors sand each other up for the final match of the day, the winner of the last bout takes a victory lap around the ring with Rafiq. As the pehlwan champion shakes hands with his supporters, Rafiq playfully shakes them down for donations. Men reach into their pockets and eagerly hand over ten dirham bills—the equivalent of about $2.50.

“Pay or I will throw you upside down!” Rafiq shouted in Urdu, laughing. “He is a driver like many of you. Praise God. He is a champion, but he has no sponsor. There is no Saudi dairy company sponsor or anything like this,” he laughed again. “There is only you! Five, ten dirhams for the champion!”

Winning one of these matches in Dubai allows a pehlwan to take home upwards of $200. For these men—many of them taxi drivers, construction workers, or unskilled laborers who come to Dubai to support their families still living in South Asia—that’s the equivalent of more than two weeks’ salary.

“I watched the finals for Champ of the Camp, but pehlwani is every week,” one Bengali construction worker told me, referencing a hugely popular annual competition among 70 labor camps in the UAE to find the best Bollywood-style singer. Each week, he and some co-workers drive rusty vans in from their camp, he explains. “Pehlwani is better than watching music or movies because it is real life,” he told me, slapping the Rajasthani winner on the back and handing him five dirham.

Finished with his long lap around the ring, the winner stares incredulously at the money in his hands before changing back into his clothes and shoving it in his pocket, a proud smile lighting up his face. “I was a very good pehlwan in India,” he told me, his friends gathering around to congratulate him. “But there was no money for my family there, so I came to the Emirates to send them my salary. Now, in Dubai, I can support them as a builder and as a pehlwan. This is my dream,” he smiled.

As the maghrib call to prayer rings out across the darkening lot, the taxi driver pins his opponent to the sand and wins the match. He’s jubilant as Rafiq shouts his name, grabbing his arm to start the final victory lap of the day. After his daily grind, he gets the chance to be a hero for a few minutes. Concerns about the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf remain, but at this unkempt sandlot, pehlwani gives them an escape.

“The khala is like a mosque, church, or temple. The khala is our [place of] sanctity,” Rafiq told me as the last of the crowd hands money to the taxi driver. “Every week, we skip invitations to tea, or we skip dinner with other friends on our one day with no work, because wrestling is our love. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh—no problem. In Dubai, we can all be pehlwans.”

Follow Gaar Adams on Twiiter.

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