Carpets cordon-off the seemingly impromptu wrestling ring in the heart of Souq al-Sita in Khartoum’s Bahri district. The cries from the hundreds of djellaba-clad supporters mixes with the dust filling the air within its confines. The focus of their gaze is the two giants stood at the hub of it all, their sinews taught as they crouch facing each other, arms poised to lunge.
The Nuba mountains—from which I had not long returned—saw fierce fighting during the civil war causing many people to flee. With them, certain local traditions endure, such as the wrestling and here in Khartoum it is a big event. The attire may not be akin to what is still worn down in Kordofan for such bouts, but the spirit is the same.
Men squared up to each other, as well as to the crowd who were more than forthcoming with their like—or dislike—of a particular fighter. Old men in djellaba would have no qualms about standing up and hectoring these titans. When a wrestler, or even the commentator, did find favour with them, they would approach them, lick a five Sudanese pounds note, and stick it to their forehead.
Policemen lolled around the ring, their wooden batons loosely held. Young boys did the rounds, selling cigarettes, small bags of peanuts and seeds. The only women in the arena were those plying a similar trade.
The dust not only filled the air, but was smeared into cuts, and rubbed over the contact points of the body, aiding the friction when a hold was taken.
The wrestling itself was much like life in Sudan. Often slow, strained and contemplative, but with sudden bursts of speed and aggression lighting things up. Fighters would grapple, their hands clasped around their opponent’s neck or knee, and the two would stagger until the grip was released, or is forced to the ground. There is no pinning and no submission, the objective being to slam one’s opponent to the ground.
As dusk grew nearer, the babbling Arabic commentary meant that we were not aware that the bout that we were watching was the final. As the ground thundered to the falling combatant, the crowd erupted, dust filled the air, along with shouts and ululations. People would come up and shake our hands—the token khawaaja—nodding and grinning as they expressed their delight with the result. The carpets were dropped, the arena opened up, and everybody poured out into the souq, the orange sun hanging low.
A far cry from the stadiums of American wrestling that are, regrettably, broadcast on seemingly every long-distance bus that plies Sudan’s roads.
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