Wrestling For The Masses

Battle of brawn a hit with motley crowds

BY JAMIL KHAN @ Gulf Today-Sharjah, August 20, 2009

It was 5pm on Friday when an elderly man started watering an open space in the car park near Dubai’s Fish Market, using a plastic jar filled with seawater. He was preparing the site for the weekly sub-continental bouts of the traditional form of wrestling widely known as ‘kushti’ and ‘pehalwani’.
The site has been used for this major sport event every Friday evening for over eight years, to provide spectators with a chance to witness a couple of competitions between the pehalwans and fill their weekly off-day with enjoyment. web-wrest-3
The majority of spectators hail from Pakistan, and work in different parts of the UAE. Among the roughly estimated 4,000 spectators, many are from India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are often present to enjoy the bare-handed competition between the wrestlers.
Although the Dubai Municipality has placed a ban on these events, so far, no officials have reportedly tried to stop an event or imposed a fine to implement the ban.
Ilyas Pehalwan, who has been supervising these events for the past 35 years, claimed that they had settled the issue with the officials after negotiations to provide recreational facilities for the people. This particular focus is due to the fact that the audience mostly consists of labourers, who have very limited options for making their weekly day off a memorable one.

Amusing spectators with traditional folklore tunes.-Photo by Kamal Kassim

Amusing spectators with traditional folklore tunes.-Photo by Kamal Kassim

Ilyas, who has been working as an electrician in a firm based in Al Ain, can be found organising competitions at the site every Friday. The bouts take place between amateur pehalwans, and occasionally even with professional pehalwans called forth from Pakistan, India and other neighbouring countries in the region.

Shedding light on the history of the sport, Ilyas mentioned that pehalwani is a centuries-old form of wrestling that is predominantly played in many parts of Pakistan and India.
“In the UAE, we started to organise one or two competitions 35 years ago, on Fridays at an empty space near the Hyatt Regency Hotel. We later moved here, near the Fish Market,” he said.
“In the early days, I also fought in many wrestling matches with amateurs as well as professional pehalwans. I became prominent among the Pakistani community living in the UAE and, with the support of the people, I have supervised many tournaments sponsored by many leading firms during the past couple of years,” he said.
Ilyas, who had also fought for the Pakistan Army, took part in many events held in Pakistan, Iran and India before moving to the UAE in the early ’70s. He made his presence here as part of weekly wrestling events for 10 years. Later, his son, Javed, also fought in many wrestling matches with prominent pehalwans from Pakistan and India.
Another senior pehalwan, Ali Madad Pehalwan from Lodhran, Pakistan, is now retired from wrestling though he is still a key member in organising weekly events. While talking to The Gulf Today, he said that during the past couple of years, they had arrange many major events in which professional pehalwans from Pakistan, India, Iran, Yemen, Iraq and Sri Lanka took part. It provided real entertainment to the spectators.

“One of the major events was held in 2003, in which dozens of pehalwans from different countries came and took part. The event was run for 8 consecutive days and was won by Rustam-e-Pakistan, Bhola Bashir,” he added.
Muhammad Aslam, who has been watching these events for the past 30 years, said that it is the only recreation being enjoyed by the labourers, who mostly come from Pakistan. He mentioned that the lack of training hinders the production of good pehalwans.
Aslam mentioned that, “Nowadays, most of the pehalwans are labourers and are unable to take part in any exercises that require a truly good command of their skills. Yet they still manage to continue practicing and keeping this traditional sport alive in this region.”
It should also be mentioned that the recent weekly event has become one of the most memorable, as the holder of the title ‘Rustam-e-Dubai’ (Hero of Dubai), Goga Pehalwan, lost one of the matches to Hameed Pehalwan after a neck-to-neck competition.
Besides this, it has become tradition for the winner to circle the spectators, collecting bounty money that people give through their own will. Sometimes, the winner is able to collect more than Dhs500 as a reward from the public. Organisers have no reward money to give the winners of weekly events.
Goga retained the title of Rustam-e-Dubai after beating Shafeeq Pehalwan, who came from Gujranwala in Pakistan about three months ago to take part in the event.
Syed Farhan, one of the spectators, said that Goga had won many matches in the past but failed to uphold his ‘unbeatable’ status by losing this match.
Many fans who have been visiting the arena for the past couple of years vowed that the matches at this location should be continued, as people from all over the UAE have easy access in reaching this spot.
On different occasions, the performance of drum-beaters and pipers also enthrall the audience with traditional folklore.
Rehan Ahmed, one of the workers at the Fish Market, mentioned that people living in different emirates have grown used to having a presence at this weekly event. They often attend accompanied by their friends and children, while being provided with a good opportunity to get together with other fellow countrymen.

~ by jamilkhan on August 20, 2009.

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