On the third floor of a dirty, concrete building in the backstreets of Tunis, six men and 12 rams are trying to make their voices heard. The men are trying to explain to me that ram-fighting is one of Tunisia’s oldest and most popular spectator sports, but their gladiators seem intent on ruining the story. Straining impatiently at their chains, the animals are filling the room with their distinctive bleats. It's funny; they sound like they're barking, braying and burping at the same time. “It’s a long-running tradition in my family,” says Ali, a plump 26-year-old in tight jeans and a shiny green shell-suit jacket. “It's in our blood.” There are ram fights every Sunday in the Tunisian capital, but today is the ram-fighting equivalent of the Champions League final.
Armando, the Maradona of Tunis' ram-fighting scene. “Just like Diego Maradona won the football World Cup, today Armando will become the champion of his sport,” boasts Ali, who grips the large, white ram he gave Maradona's middle name by one of its horns. “You will see today, he moves like an artist. I've even given him a special look.” He points to two lone tufts of fleece – dyed orange – on the ram’s otherwise completely shaven back. The six men smile indulgently at Armando. He returns their gaze, his expression inscrutable. Ram-fighting is taken extremely seriously in Tunisia. Most teams include a physician, a doctor, a trainer and a groom. Champion rams require a special diet and lots of exercise, often running two or three kilometres a day. The animals are referred to as athletes and compared with famous boxers and football players. When I suggest they are neither as graceful nor as skilled as either, owners merely shake their heads in disbelief.
Ali’s opponent is a leaner, older man who is altogether more philosophical about the fight, despite his ram being slightly less experienced. “Sure, I'm afraid for my ram. He's been with me for three years and now he's like one of my sons.” Salim pauses to pick some dirt out of its eye. “We do it for the pleasure of the audience, though. That's why I prefer long fights, so that people can really appreciate him.” The fights themselves, luckily for Salim, are rarely fatal. Unlike dogs or cocks, rams don’t fight to the death, so it’s up to each animal to either head-butt the other into submission or force him out of the ring. Battles last between five and ten minutes, and are watched by a seated panel of judges and a referee whose job it is to separate the animals when their horns inevitably get tangled in each other’s wool.
The build-up to each collision feels like someone stretching an elastic band to breaking point in your face. The two sparring animals slowly back away from each other, gazes locked. The further away they pull, the greater the tension, and the more spectacular the eventual clash. The owners stay close to their fighters throughout, spurring them on to victory with pinches and rousing words. With no gory deaths and little prize money, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a uniquely Tunisian phenomenon. Yet the sport is widely practised in countries as diverse as Indonesia, China, Nigeria and Yemen, and in some cases boasts an even more official setup.
As the crowds pour onto a dusty football pitch later that afternoon, however, it becomes clear that this is primarily about socialising. The scene is typically Tunisian. Teenagers on flashy motorbikes rev past fathers carrying small children, while old men jostle for plastic chairs.
Twenty minutes in, and Armando is sporting several large gashes and backing nervously away from his attacker. It’s all over. Ali leads his ram away dejectedly, while Salim accepts a small silver trophy from the judges, his arms raised in triumph.
"Do you feel bad that the other ram has been so badly hurt?" I ask. "Is it a cruel sport?"
“Rams fight in the wild among themselves,” Salim says, stroking his champion’s head. “We are just organising them, feeding them, washing them. They even have a doctor to take care of them. How can that be cruel?”
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