Dubai's underground Pakistani wrestling scene
With the expat population of Dubai around 75 percent, the city is fertile land for different cultural quirks to grow. From the newly opened Dubai Opera house, beach-bum lifestyle, motoring clubs and the home of the Middle East's comic con - the cliche has it that there is 'something for everyone'. In a sense, that rings true especially when it you dig a little deeper and find things like the city's underground South Asian wrestling scene.
Known as kushti, (or dangal) the rules are rather simple (although they do vary from village to village). Two fighters scrap it out (for approx 10 to 15mins) looking to pin the opponent's shoulders and hips to the ground simultaneously - although victory can also be achieved by knockout, stoppage or submission. The bouts are held within a circular area on a dirt floor. Every match is preceded by the wrestlers throwing a few handfuls of dirt from the floor on themselves and their opponent as a form of blessing.
Dubai's kushti scene is the focal point of the new music video "Rhama" from local band notable lo-fi indie band Flamingods.
Much like Dubai itself, the Flamingods are made up of a collection of expat kids who grew up in Bahrain before going on to find success touring around the UK and Europe.
To learn why the band chose to focus on kushti, Esquire spoke to Flamingods' Kamal Rasool and the music video director Maxime Cramatte:
ESQUIRE: Kamal, you were living in Dubai when you made the video for “Rhama”?
Kamal Rasool, Flamingods: I’m Turkish-Bahraini, I grew up in Bahrain, the band is based in London where I just returned to live, but the video was shot in Dubai where I’d been based for the past three years. Dubai is very divided in that you’ve got the old traditional side and the new glitzy side, and the variation between them is ludicrous. I lived in Satwa and loved it there. We would take breaks from recording to go to the local bakeries and restaurants such as Ravi Restaurant, which all inspired the new album. People in the Western world have a very fixed perception of Dubai and I’m trying to show another side.
ESQ: How did you get the idea for the video?
KR: My main inspiration came from a photographer in Dubai, Ammar Al Attar, who did a talk about his work. One of his photos was of kushti wrestling and from that point on I spent nearly two years trying to track it down. We ended up attending a fight in Deira and took a translator to have a chat with the wrestlers. We mentioned the idea of a video and they loved it. That led to the offer of going to Al Ain to visit the homes of some of the guys.
ESQ: What types of jobs do the wrestlers have?
KR: The wrestling is a weekend thing and by day they mostly work for construction companies. The wrestlers we were following mainly worked in lighting, I think.
ESQ: Tell us a bit more about the song itself…
KR: With the Flamingods, each song has its own way of coming together. It usually starts with a melody from an instrument or a sample. In this instance it was from an old Indian radio extract from the ’80s that was originally sampled by a musician of whom I’m a big fan, Alan Bishop. He kindly gave me the rights to use it.
ESQ: Maxime, how did Barbu-TV get involved?
Maxime Cramatte, Barbu-TV: Me and a friend run it. We are both from Switzerland and started Barbu-TV two or three years ago. I didn’t think I would be able to live here for more than six months, until I saw the real side of Dubai, in places like Satwa. That made us want to stay. And then the Flamingods are friends of ours, so we knew we were going to work together.
ESQ: Were the wrestling guys open to being filmed?
MC: Not at first, but we got to know them fairly quickly. When we went to Al Ain, where these guys live, there were six people sharing a room. We stayed with them and even had a small party one night. They were very welcoming and proud to show us their culture. Even with the fairly basic salary most of them were on, they wouldn’t even let us pay for a bottle of water.
ESQ: How does kushti wrestling work?
KR: It’s popular in South Asia and goes back centuries. The particular one we were focused on is called kushti or pehlwani wrestling. It is submission-based fighting where you have to pin the shoulder and the waist of your opponent on the floor simultaneously, but it very respectful. There are a lot of traditions behind it and it seemed they were all fairly good friends.
These are the guys that literally built Dubai and we showcased their incredibly interesting community
MC: We didn’t know much about the culture, but the more we shot the more they talked about themselves and their community. They showed us videos of the wrestling back home and its fanatical — the crowds are very large and loud. For the guys in Pakistan it can be a full-time profession and they get invited over here to perform. It’s very traditional and there’s a real family feel. The younger wrestlers are usually taken under the wing of more experienced guys and the ones we met were really grateful for the help because sometimes they don’t have money and the older guys give them food and somewhere to live. The older guy in the video is actually around 60 years-old but nonetheless incredibly talented.
ESQ: So you built some strong bonds with the wrestlers?
MC: Yes, we still are in touch with them. They were incredibly pleased with the whole experience and after the three days were over they almost cried. It was all very intense in a positive way. We went deep into their lives and became part of the family in a way. It was good to give them some importance and showcase their skills, in comparison to them sometimes being overlooked.
ESQ: Was there much planning or did you improvise?
MC: The first day we barely even shot anything, we were just trying to communicate; it was mostly non-verbal, we understood each other in different ways and were laughing together a lot. There was also a guy that came to the house some nights who spoke better English and he told us more about the community and Pakistani culture. From that point we started to shoot not only the wrestling but the community and their lives as a whole. I mean, these are the guys that literally built Dubai and we showcased their incredibly interesting community.
KR: The resulting video and song is our testament to the Dubai we love — the city less discovered, that is teeming with local culture, tradition and intrigue that often gets forgotten.
The single “Rhama” and album Majesty by Flamingods are out now. Visit flamingods.com for details.