THE KUSHTI FIGHTERS

OF DUBAI

Mohamed Shahed travelled from Pakistan to Dubai to support his family and make a name for himself. The ancient sport of Kushti fighting was his ticket to international fame.

As the sun sets on a Friday evening, a few hundred Pakistani men gather to watch the latest round of traditional Kushti fighting. “Welcome to the International Kushti stadium of Dubai,” laughs one man, looking at the patch of desert wasteland that lies ahead.

 

Nestled between the Deira fish market and a busy roundabout, many of those in the crowd have travelled far to watch just over an hour of sparring before sunset.

 

Hailing from a 3,000-year heritage spanning India, Pakistan and Iran, Kushti fighters traditionally adhere to strict training programmes, focusing on building their sporting prowess. They’re expected to live a pure life where diet is strictly controlled to maximise muscle, and drinking, smoking and sex are banned. It is steeped in tradition with a mystical and philosophical heritage.

 

Mohamed Shahed is a 23-year-old Kushti fighter from Pakistan who is currently working in Dubai as a labourer, sending most of his meagre daily wages of 60 dirhams ($16) back home to his wife and three children.  He’s here to both alleviate his poverty and make his name in Kushti on an international level. Sometimes he lifts heavy loads for 12 hours a day. When he’s not working, he is training for his next fight. He trains in the mornings and wrestles on Fridays during the weekly competition in Deira.

 

Shahed comes from a long lineage of fighters - his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all practised Kushti fighters. His now-deceased father dreamed of Shahed becoming a famous fighter and making their family proud.

Men gather around an informal fighting ring before sunset. [Celia Peterson/Al Jazeera]

Back in the ring of sand, the referee, an elderly man with a colourful stick steps into the circle and shouts for the fighters to present themselves. Contestants in traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez step forward from the crowd, dancing and jumping to a loud round of applause. Sparring partners are then matched, at which point, the men change into brightly coloured underwear. Music from bagpipes fill the air, creating a carnival-like atmosphere. The fighting begins with massive cheers from the excited crowd.

 

Shahed is focused. He later says he never realises notices the crowd around him until the fight is over. As the referee explains the rules, Shahed and his opponent rub sand all over their bodies in preparation for the bout.

 

“Our teachers tell us the dirt in the ring is like our mother,” he says.

Mohamed Shahed [Celia Peterson/Al Jazeera]

At the referee signals, the two lumbering men begin to grapple. The fight lasts only a few minutes, with Shahed clearly outsizing his opponent. He soon has him pinned. The crowd erupts in applause. Though he is out of breath, Shahed is beaming.

 

“I’m becoming the fighter my parents dreamed I would be. I feel like I’ve touched the sky.”

 

The euphoria doesn’t last long, though. A few months later, Shahed realises he’s not making enough money to feed his family back in Pakistan. Getting a job that pays better proves to be difficult, so he is forced to make the painful decision to give up on his dream for now and return home.

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THE

KUSHTI FIGHTERS

OF

DUBAI

Filmmaker: Celia Peterson

Executive Producer: Yasir Khan

Article: Celia Peterson

Photos: Celia Peterson

Assistant Producer: Ziad Ramley

the sun sets on a Friday evening, a few hundred Pakistani men gather to watch the latest round of traditional Kushti fighting. “Welcome to the International Kushti stadium of Dubai,” laughs one man, looking at the patch of desert wasteland that lies ahead.

in the ring of sand, the referee, an elderly man with a colourful stick steps into the circle and shouts for the fighters to present themselves. Contestants in traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez step forward from the crowd, dancing and jumping to a loud round of applause. Sparring partners are then matched, at which point, the men change into brightly coloured underwear. Music from bagpipes fill the air, creating a carnival-like atmosphere. The fighting begins with massive cheers from the excited crowd.

the referee signals, the two lumbering men begin to grapple. The fight lasts only a few minutes, with Shahed clearly outsizing his opponent. He soon has him pinned. The crowd erupts in applause. Though he is out of breath, Shahed is beaming.