Photos of Dubai's Sandlot Wrestling Matches at Sundown

Alexander Wolfe

Every Friday before sundown, South Asian expatriates in Dubai gather in a sandlot behind a fish market to compete in a series of wrestling matches with the aim of pinning an opponent to the ground for two seconds.

Just a short walk from Dubai's Deira Fish Market is a vacant, scrubby sandlot. In the hazy half-light just before sunset, expatriates from the emirate's Southeast Asian communities gather here each Friday before evening prayers. They come to watch a few rough-and-ready rounds of pehlwani, also known as kushti, a centuries-old style of wrestling originally developed in India that Dubai's expatriate communities embrace today.

Stripping down to a pair of Speedos and a kaupinam, or loincloth, wrestlers from countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh compete in a series of grappling matches, moving and counter moving with the aim of pinning an opponent to the ground for two seconds. Organized by the longstanding elders of the community, the weekly event features large crowds comprised of hundreds of taxi drivers, construction workers, and other imported laborers who cheer on the athletes, as well as give money to those who are victorious. The pehlwan may not have the intricate, bodybuilder physiques that are revered on Dubai's beaches, but they are powerfully built and many have trained since childhood: The men's chests, backs, and shoulders bear impressive battle scars.

Despite expatriates vastly outnumbering the local Emirati population in Dubai, the quality of life for many foreigners, including a large majority from South Asian, is often overlooked or troublesome. One day a week, though, these men come together not just to blow off steam and make some petty cash, but to experience a fleeting moment of stardom while continuing a tradition tied to their home nations. Kushti is taken so seriously by some men in Dubai that wrestlers and spectators will even compete in 120-degree heat throughout the summer.

Save for an elderly ustad, who presides over the ceremony with a colorful staff and a bagpipe-playing sidekick, there is little pomp or ceremony: When the sun sets and the muezzin calls worshippers to maghrib, the fourth daily prayer of Islam, the Kushti crowd disperses as quickly as it gathered.

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