Every Friday, kushti wrestlers get together in the heart of Dubai’s old commercial district for an ancient battle of strength and endurance
A moody sky has descended on Dubai but despite the lashing rain and swirling wind, the wrestlers and their supporters are out in force. There is a sole umbrella among the 100 or so people gathered around the makeshift dirt ring.
The spectators are happy to embrace the deluge as they are entertained. Every Friday, they congregate here on a patch of sand near Dubai Fish Market in Deira to celebrate, and perpetuate, this shared cultural heritage of India and Pakistan. Pehlwani, or kushti, is an ancient style of grappling that has been around in some form for millennia, though the modern incarnation can trace its roots back to 16th century India and the first Mughal emperor. In a one-on-one battle of power and technique, wrestlers must defeat rivals by pinning their shoulders and hips to the ground.
The sport requires tremendous physical and mental prowess and it is easy to see why, despite the downpour, a loyal audience has formed to follow the fortunes of Dubai’s kushti wrestlers.
Mumtaz, a 50-year-old truck driver from Attock, Pakistan, first stumbled across kushti contests in Deira two decades ago and after being immediately captivated, is now the man responsible for organising the weekly event. “The funny thing is, we are only really exposed to cricket in Pakistan,” Mumtaz says. “Wrestling was seen as a waste of time. It was only coming to Dubai that I realised the potential of this sport. Although I am the organiser, it isn’t a big role. Most of the people are here through word-of-mouth. A lot of the faces are familiar now.”
Originally published in Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
The wrestlers’ faces are also familiar, with the cult of personality as present in kushti as it is in other sports. Tahir Abbas Bhutta works in the fish market during the week but come Friday, he is a charismatic contender who prides himself at giving those watching a show to remember. “I have my own business and I’ve used my personality in this role to create a character in kushti wrestling,” the 26-year-old Pakistani says. “Selling things in a market boosts your confidence and makes you entertaining to a crowd of people.
It’s the same in kushti.”While personality may bring support, it is not at the heart of kushti in the same way as professional wrestling organisations like the WWE. There are no colorful masks or choreographed routines; it is simply two men going mano a mano.
“Pro wrestlers couldn’t do what we do, neither can we do what they do,” Bhutta says. “We are proud that our sport is not harmful to us or our opponents. Kushti wrestling is a cultural craft that’s about the strength of mind and body while not harming people physically in any way.”
Although physical harm is generally avoided, fatigue is not. This is a grueling sport, with the matches often lasting up to 30 minutes. Bhutta says most fighters regularly go to work “with sore bodies.”
For 20-year-old Mohammad Imran Pehlwan Baloch, a wrestler from Balochistan, Pakistan, an intense regimen – in terms of nutrition and training – is key to staying fresh.
“We focus a lot on diet,” Baloch explains. “Fresh meat, almond milk, desi ghee, rice. We have to make sure we’re ready every day to fight as a challenge can come at any moment. After work every day, me and a few of the other lads get together to train. It’s why it may come across that we have good chemistry. We know each other well through training.”
While physical fitness is vital to the success of any kushti wrestler, most of those who compete acknowledge that their spiritual health is equally important. Kushti is an outlet for frustrations and even anger – channeling those emotions through sport can be a major release.
“I started wrestling because I knew I had a lot of strength in my body and wanted to put it to use,” Baloch says. “There is always a sense that you can go down a dark path, but kushti allows you to be faithful to your religion and your morals. I was only 16 when I started here, but being around helpful people allowed me to grow up quickly and embrace this sport. Kushti makes you stronger and wiser.”
It is heartening to see Indians and Pakistanis standing side by side, both in and out of the kushti ring. Old geopolitical wounds may have been reopened between the countries recently, but for those assembled in Deira, politics has no place. Kushti is a combat sport, but it unites rather than divides.
“India has and always will be our brothers,” Bhutta insists. “The fact that our cultures are almost identical and that we can share the beauty of kushti wrestling with them is a blessing, not a curse.”
The light and the applause has begun to fade as another afternoon of kushti draws to a close in Deira. The number of spectators was impressive given the adverse weather, but in fairer conditions the crowds can be much bigger. Most wrestlers don’t mind if the crowds are big or sparse; kushti is more about the personal journey.
“I’m not only here every week, I’m here almost every day,” says Baloch. “Sometimes I’m wrestling in front of absolutely nobody and sometimes there are hundreds of people. To me it doesn’t matter, as we do this for ourselves. People appreciating us is just another bonus.”