Friday Wrestlers of Dubai

The wrestlers are egged on by the older and retired wrestlers who function both as cheerleaders as well as referees. (sanjay austa austa)

Wrestling moment, Dubai


The story first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror. Dec 2013. 

Its Friday in Dubai, just about an hour before the evening prayers.  A  short walk from the Hyatt Regency in Deira, a rag-tag throng of men in pathani suits begin to form a large circle in the light of the setting sun. In their midst, a man in henna –dyed beard and  surma-lined eyes makes a clarion call to the bugle of the bagpipes :

Jeda koe pehelwan aaya ho. Usay kasam lagay jay voh Akharay di salaami na karay” ( Curse be on any  wrestler who is amongst you and doesn’t come and pay his obeisance to the akhara)

In heavy rustic Punjabi he challenges, he mocks and he cajoles the pulsating crowd now growing thicker and more responsive, half clapping, half cheering as he hollers.

You would be forgiven to think you were in  Sialkot, Peshawar, Hoshiarpur or Bathinda.  For miles you see  men in pathani suits or kurta- pajamas. They talk in Punjabi or Urdu. They chew pan and spit. Some play cricket and gully- danda in the dusty grounds before joining the circle.

The Referee usually an older retired wrestler makes announcements for the day's bouts. He provokes, challenges and heckles with the crowds daring them to enter the ring and fight. (sanjay austa austa)

The ringmaster  throws the challenge to the crowd, Dubai.


Glitzy Dubai is far far away from here. Its vestiges of sky-scrappers seen only if you focus hard in the distance.

Every Friday at sundown this abandoned dusty sprawl behind the Deira fish market in Dubai is transformed into an Indian sub-continental background. The men; migrant laborers from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh mill around this expanse seeking company and release.  Away from their families whom they see once in two years (some after three) the Friday wrestling gives them some semblance of home and belonging.

They gather here in hundreds every Friday, to wrestle and watch and connect but surprisingly there is no mention of this exotic spectacle in any tourist guidebooks. This is just as well, for the authorities tired to impose a ban on their Friday entertainment. It would sometimes attract such enormous crowds that they would spill into the nearby markets and cause traffic snarls.

But the wrestling has never stopped and it has been going on since the last 40 odd years in this forgotten corner of Dubai. It is the only source of entertainment  for these migrant laborers from the Indian sub-continent. There are no tourists here and the other well-healed Dubai migrants are surprised that such a gladiatorial event occurs in this swanky city.   But Dubai has a way of concealing as it has a way of making an ostentatious show. The migrant laborers, who built all that is new in Dubai- the skyscrapers, the malls, the chimerical islands off the coast- live their invisible lives here unknown, unsung and often exploited.

Wresting bouts on Fridays is of their few entertainments for these laborers in Dubai. (sanjay austa austa)

Wrestling is their only entertainment for these migrant laborers, Dubai.

But  loneliness and sorrow only unites them all and subsumes  all identities  of religion or nation. Pakistani Muslim , Bengali Bangaldeshi or Indian Hindu they live, revel and commiserate  together as one big  family.

   I am tipped off about the wrestling  by a photographer friend who himself made the discovery quite serendipitously one Friday.

Armed with a camera they allow me into the middle of the circle where the dark  patch of dug up earth forms the wrestling pit.  The henna-bearded ringmaster’s calls become louder and urgent. The crowd is there but no wrestler has stepped up. He began  to taunt and jib.  And then he shouts the name of wrestlers.

“ Hey you Bela Pehlwan Chandiwala you only come”, he shouts. But he is met with silence.

“ Today Chandiwala has also vanished”, he says as the crowd titters.   He laughs along, “He is here only somewhere hiding behind someone”, he peers into the crowd.

Even as he taunts, a loud cheer goes up from the crowd. Two men enter the ring. They raise their hands and make guttural war cries. They thump their chests and thighs and hop about on one leg. Then they kiss the ground and disrobe into their loincloth.

The challengers enter the man-made ring one by one circling the dug up mud-pit menacingly. (sanjay austa austa)

Pre-fight walk around the ring, Dubai

The crowd is ecstatic but disciplined. They do not cross the circle drawn out for them in the dust. Besides the ringmaster there are older retired wrestlers in the ring who both cheerlead and referee the bouts.

There is an informal air to the fights. But the studied ceremonial announcements of the ringmaster are an effort to lend the wrestling some gravitas.

The wrestlers themselves mean business. They slap their thighs like professionals and grapple in earnest. After being vanquished by his opponent, a wrestler pleads for another round. He is refused as after the initial reluctance, wrestlers are now aplenty waiting in the queue. After the bout both the winners and the vanquished go around the ring collecting donations from the crowd.

This  hour long  Friday wrestling   has grown in reputation among the grapplers beyond Dubai. So much so that professional wrestlers visiting Dubai make it a point to participate in exhibition bouts.

“Many professional wrestlers come from India and Pakistan and entertain us all. They have a huge fan following among the migrants here”, says Muhammad Illayas the ringmaster , a migrant worker from Pakistan, dusting himself after a job well done.

Most of the audience and all the wrestlers today were Pakistani “ There are Indian wrestlers also. But I think they were hiding behind somewhere”, says Md. Illayas. And as if to compensate adds ,“Binda Singh a wrestler from India was here last time  and he won ”.

The light-weight wrestlers have their bouts first. (sanjay austa austa)

The light-weight wrestlers have their bouts first, Dubai


A crucial moment in the bout, UAE (sanjay austa austa)

Pinned down, Dubai.


After the bout both the winner goes to the crowd who tip him. The loser is also tipped. (sanjay austa austa)

After the bout the wrestlers go around the circle for their tips, Dubai. UAE





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