There are certain associations people make when one says they are going to Dubai. Going to Dubai to see a group of Pakistani men wrestling in the late afternoon, is probably not one of ways people would think to spend their afternoon in Dubai. Pehlwani, the Urdu word for wrestling, was certainly going to be an experience unlike any other.
We were walking through this empty lot, completely open and right by the side of a main road. There were men appropriating the space to play cricket or volleyball, and as we walked we noticed something else. Further on was a ring made out of rocks placed on the ground. A few men were there, seated on a small rock slab so as to not get their kurtas dirty. We each took a place around the circle, and watched as a man brought out a several big bottles of water.
He proceeded to empty them one by one in the center of the ring, pouring the water over the ground to designate the playing space and make it easier to step on. There was another elderly man who appeared to be the ringmaster or rather, referee, of the event. As the sun was slowly setting, more men were approaching the ring, taking their seats on one of the rocks or preferring to stand. The referee spoke to the crowd, and they responded in unison. They cheered, and as they did so, two men began to run in place. Almost out of nowhere, a group of men brought out a carpet and place it on one side of the circle. A man walked with his shoulders rolled back and his chin held high. He approached the carpet, then jogged into the playing area to shake hands with the referee before sitting down on the carpet. He must have been the financier or organizer of the evening wrestle.
Men who wanted to fight would jump enthusiastically into the space and run around to get warmed up. After a few stretches, they began to undress. They dismissed their fine kurtas and stripped down to their underwear, and wrapped an additional layer of cloth, which they securely tucked into the rims of their underpants.
Wrestlers would pay respect to the playing space before stepping onto it. They would touch the ground and put their hands together, an act typically associated with religion. After stepping onto the arena, wrestlers would acknowledge each other’s presence. They would then be introduced to the audience by the referee, before approaching each other, ready to fight. They would take the dirt and sand from the arena and pat each other down. They slapped hands and then would commence with the fight.
The referee would speak to the audience, riling them up and challenging them to fight. It seems as though anyone willing could get up and fight.
By the looks of it, it seemed that a wrestler won when he had toppled his opponent over. The crowd cheered, and the winning wrestler would approach the men seated on the carpet to be congratulated by them. Afterward, the winner walked around the circle, collecting their winnings from the crowd.
In defining performance, Schechner says that performance is what becomes “the whole constellation of events” (Schechner 8). It involves both the performers and the audience. Interestingly there is the opportunity for the audience to be the performers and vice versa as one can choose to wrestle or observe the matches instead. When Huizinga defines play he writes that it is voluntary and limited by time and place. The ties between ritual and play are so strong in Pehlwani. It did not seem disorganized; there was a clear structure and awareness of what was going on. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects was to see the men that would be gathered around the wrestlers, there mobile phones in hand recording the match. Despite the fact that we are watching a fight between two men, the space never felt unsafe. The referee would be there to manage the wrestlers if they got too close to the crowd.
I was so excited to be a part of this experience. It was strange to feel like what I was watching something that was not supposed to happen, yet it does in this very open space in a city that is supposed to be quite stringent in its laws. Men gathered around fighting each other seems like it should be illegal, but it really did not feel that way. In fact the form of play they are engaged in does seem safe; the men never punch or kick each other. They would push against or hold onto each other till there was an opportune moment to take the other down.
Being able to speak a few words in Urdu, I was able to converse just a little bit with the men that were seated beside me. They are all from various cities and towns in Pakistan, from Lahore to Karachi to Faisalabad. I was even introduced by one of the men to the main man seated on the carpet, but though I was nodding in agreement I really have no clue what they were saying. To me though this was an important moment because it meant that the crowd, wrestlers, and the ‘managers’ were comfortable with having us in the space.
Before the call to prayer, the men disperse and go back to the routines of their day.
Schechner, Richard. “Drama, Script, Theatre, and Performance.” The Drama Review: TDR 17.3 (1973): 5-36. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.