For South Asian dockworkers in Dubai, kushti is a way of life

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Expatriate workers watch a competition in Dubai. Kushti is popular in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and was developed in the Mughal era by combining native ‘malla-yuddha’ wrestling with Persian ‘pahlavani’. (AFP)
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Immigrant workers in the UAE take part in a kushti competition in Dubai, turning a sandy lot in the emirate’s bustling district into the ring of champions. (AFP)
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Pakistani kushti wrestler Mohammed Arsalan, right, also known as Kala Pehlwan, talks to a colleague during a break from work the fish market in Dubai. (AFP)
Updated 17 April 2018
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For South Asian dockworkers in Dubai, kushti is a way of life

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 is a beloved pastime. They are also a pillar of the United Arab Emirates’ workforce.
Veteran wrestlers, now referees, pour water over the inner ring to minimize dust.
A peanut vendor drags a rickety cart around the circle, tending to the crowd — now three rows deep.
“Clink, clink, clink,” ring out 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 Mohammed 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 finds himself overpowered — and faced with a challenge.
“Find me a fighter that can beat me,” his opponent taunts.
Kala Pehlwan, 26, 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.
Within days, they had gathered the money, throwing in 50 dirhams to 100 dirhams each to pay for a plane ticket.
“I can’t meet you tonight I’m going to the airport,” Kala Pehlwan tells AFP one Monday evening.
Two days later, AFP met Kala Pehlwan at his workplace, Dubai’s gleaming Waterfront Market.
Row upon row of ice-topped stalls are laden with fresh fish from Oman, Sri Lanka and beyond — a testament to the shipping hub that is Dubai.
The stalls bear the names of Emirati owners, but South Asians are the face of the market.
“We have connections from Pakistan at the fish market,” says Kala Pehlwan. This is where he learned about the kushti matches when he arrived in Dubai six years ago.
The brawny fighter enters the delivery area, crossing paths with his mentor, Mohammed Iqbal, who is pushing a cart of fish.
“When I enter the market, everyone is excited. They recognize 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 Mohammed 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.
“Fish is my favorite dish. It is the healthiest food because in Dubai, most things are coming in frozen form but fish is fresh. Every other day I am eating a fish from the market. We are getting free fish from our employer at the end of the day,” Kala Pehlwan says, returning to stack crates.
For Kala Pehlwan and many of his friends, Dubai is a temporary stage in life — a place to save cash before returning home.
They work hard and sleep in shifts.
AFP obtained permission to film at the men’s residence but was unable to because it would have disrupted the group’s sleeping patterns.
“We all have our jobs here. Some are porters, some work in the fish market,” Iqbal says ahead of a Friday match.
But kushti, he adds, “is our tradition. It’s where we come to de-stress.”
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.
Kala Pehlwan says he can earn 500 dirhams to 600 dirhams on a good night — the money collected in a plastic bag by the referee and champion — but kushti is not about money.
“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.


In emotional reunion, Spielberg revisits ‘Schindler’s List’

Updated 34 min 2 sec ago
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In emotional reunion, Spielberg revisits ‘Schindler’s List’

  • It was the first time Steven Spielberg had watched “Schindler’s List” with an audience since it was released in 1993
  • Spielberg initially shied away from “Schindler’s List,” scripted by Steven Zaillian and based on Thomas Keneally’s novel “Schindler’s Arkansas”

NEW YORK: Steven Spielberg says no film has affected him the way “Schindler’s List” did.
Spielberg, Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and others reunited for a 25th anniversary screening of “Schindler’s List” at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, in an evening that had obvious meaning to Spielberg and the hushed, awed crowd that packed New York’s Beacon Theater. In a Q&A following the film, Spielberg said it was the first time he had watched “Schindler’s List” with an audience since it was released in 1993.
“I have never felt since ‘Schindler’s List’ the kind of pride and satisfaction and sense of real, meaningful accomplishment — I haven’t felt that in any film post-’Schindler’s List,’” Spielberg said.
The reunion was a chance for Spielberg and the cast to reflect on the singular experience of making an acknowledged masterwork that time has done little to dull the horror of, nor its necessity. “It feels like five years ago,” Spielberg said of making the film.
Spielberg shot the film in Krakow, Poland, in black-and-white and without storyboards, instead often using hand-held cameras to create a more documentary-like realism. Neeson remembered Spielberg running with a camera and, on the fly, directing him and Kingsley down Krakow streets. “It was exciting. It was dangerous and unforgettable,” Neeson said.
“Schindler’s List,” made for just $22 million (Spielberg declined a pay check), grossed $321 million worldwide and won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director. It also did much to educate the American public on the Holocaust. After the film, Spielberg established the Shoah Foundation, which took the testimony of 52,000 Holocaust survivors.
More needs to be done for Holocaust education, Spielberg said: “It’s not a pre-requisite to graduate high school, as it should be. It should be part of the social science, social studies curriculum in every public high school in this country.”
Making “Schindler’s List” was a profound, emotional and fraught experience for many of those involved. Kingsley recalled confronting a man for anti-Semitism during production. Spielberg said swastikas were sometimes painted overnight. Recreating scenes like those in the Krakow ghetto and at Auschwitz were, Spielberg said, very difficult for most of those involved. Two young Israeli actors, he said, had breakdowns after shooting a shower scene at the concentration camp.
“That aesthetic distance we always talk about between audience and experience? That was gone. And that was trauma,” said Spielberg. “There was trauma everywhere. And we captured the trauma. You can’t fake that. (The scene) where everyone takes off their clothes was probably the most traumatic day of my entire career — having to see what it meant to strip down to nothing and then completely imagine this could be your last day on earth.
“There were whole sections that go beyond anything I’ve ever experienced or seen people in front of the camera experience,” the 71-year-old filmmaker added.
Spielberg actually released two movies in 1993. “Jurassic Park” came out in June, and “Schindler’s List” followed in November. While he was shooting in Poland, Spielberg made several weekly satellite phone calls with the special effects house Industrial Light & Magic to go over Tyrannosaurus Rex shots — a distraction he abhorred.
“It built a tremendous amount of anger and resentment that I had to do this, that I actually had to go from what you experienced to dinosaurs chasing jeeps,” Spielberg told the audience. “I was very grateful later in June, though. But until then, it was a burden. This was all I cared about.”
“Schindler’s List” was a redefining film for Spielberg, who up until then was mostly considered an “entertainer,” associated with fantasy and escapism. Since, he has largely gravitated toward more dramatic and historical material like “Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Munich,” “Lincoln” and last year’s “The Post.”
But Spielberg initially shied away from “Schindler’s List,” scripted by Steven Zaillian and based on Thomas Keneally’s novel “Schindler’s Arkansas”. He urged Roman Polanski, whose mother was killed at Auschwitz, to make it. Martin Scorsese was once attached to direct.
Yet the making of “Schindler’s List” prompted an awakening for Spielberg, who has said his “Jewish life came pouring back into my heart.” On Thursday, the director said he wanted to make the film about “the banality of the deepest evil” and “stay on the march to murder, itself.”
To keep his sanity while shooting in Poland, he watched “Saturday Night Live” on Betamax and relied on weekly calls from Robin Williams.
“He would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” said Spielberg. “I would laugh hysterically because I had to release so much. But the way Robin is on the telephone, he would always hang up on you on the loudest, best laugh you’d give him.”