DUBAI: Every Friday evening in Dubai’s bustling Deira district, a sandy lot is transformed into the ring of champions. It is kushti (wrestling) night and Kala Pehlwan is ready to fight.
As the sun sinks below towering palm trees, dozens of men — many in tunics, others in T-shirts — begin to form a perfect circle.
Most are Pakistani or Indian, from the cross-border region of Punjab, where kushti (traditional wrestling) is a beloved pastime.
Mohammad Arsalan (left), better known as Kala Pehlwan, working at the fish market in Dubai. AFP
Veteran wrestlers, now referees, pour water over the inner ring to minimise dust.
A peanut vendor drags a rickety cart around the circle, tending to the crowd — now three rows deep.
“Clink, clink, clink,” ring wooden cymbals with bells.
The wrestlers unabashedly strip down to their underwear, donning yellow, red, or even floral-patterned loincloths.
“Kala Pehlwan, son, come to the ring! Suhail, son, come to the ring,” cries out 50-year-old Mohammad Iqbal — a Dubai kushti fixture.
Glaring, the opponents swipe one another’s bodies with sand — a reciprocal move to counter sweat.
The day’s matches are quick — sometimes under a minute — and hard fought.
A foot is trapped between a rival’s legs, a fighter flips over his opponent’s shoulders to escape his grip. One pins his match down on his stomach and throws sand in his face before getting restrained by the referees.
Spectators dart into the ring to film fights. Others watch in rapture, breaking out in cheers at decisive moments in the match.
The winner is declared when a fighter manages to pin his opponent to the ground on his back.
If the fight starts going over 20 minutes, the referees declare a tie.
On this evening, Kala Pehlwan (which in Urdu means black wrestler) finds himself overpowered — and faced with a challenge.
“Find me a fighter that can beat me,” his opponent taunts.
Kala Pehlwan, 26, who works at the Deira Fish Market, huddled with friends and came up with a plan. They would find a challenger — not from Dubai, but from their hometown of Muzaffargarh in the Punjab region of Pakistan.
“We have connections from Pakistan at the fish market,” says Kala Pehlwan. This is where he learnt about the kushti matches when he arrived in Dubai six years ago.
The brawny fighter enters the delivery area, crossing paths with his mentor, Mohammad Iqbal, who is pushing a cart of fish.
“When I enter the market everyone is excited. They recognise me and know my name. And if there is any problem, they come to help me because I’m famous,” Kala Pehlwan grins.
That evening, Mohammed Shahzad — the challenger from Muzaffargarh — tags along.
Dressed in a crisp, blue tunic, Shahzad, 22, says he didn’t hesitate when he received Kala Pehlwan’s call.
“The other fighter beat my friend and challenged him to find someone who can knock him out ... so I came to Dubai,” he grinned.
Kala Pehlwan says kushti is a way of life back in Muzaffargarh.
“In our town, it’s a tradition to learn wrestling. Everybody grows up on kushti. They do not have bad habits like cigarettes or drugs. Everyone is trying to be fit for a fight.”
Kala Pehlwan — whose real name is Mohammad Arsalan — took his nom de guerre from a hometown legend who shares his fighting style.
He says a proper diet, coach and training are key to success. Eating right is his biggest challenge in an expensive metropolis.
Here, the fish market has some benefits.
Iqbal wrestled for more than two decades in Dubai before passing the torch to the next generation, whom he takes the time to train each evening before work.
“It’s not hard to get a space for these fights because in Dubai they always want entertainment and encourage us.
“The (authorities) say arranging fights like this is better than fighting in anger where you live or at your workplace,” said Iqbal.
“We can’t enjoy life, we can’t have a good time if we don’t have wrestling in Dubai,” he said. When Friday night comes around again, it’s the visiting challenger Shahzad who wins.