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.


Moroccan saffron farmers battle knockoff spices

A photo taken on November 7, 2018 shows saffron flowers in a field in the Taliouine region in southwestern Morocco. (AFP)
Updated 17 December 2018
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Moroccan saffron farmers battle knockoff spices

  • Once dried and sorted, the flower’s crimson stigmas and styles are turned into saffron — the world’s most expensive spice — popular with top chefs across the globe
  • Counterfeit saffron can sell “for less than a euro a gram at the famous Derb Omar market in Casablanca,” said Dar Azaafaran’s head Ismail Boukhriss

TALIOUINE, Morocco: Saffron farmers in southern Morocco have long taken pride in the coveted spice they produce from the purple-petalled Crocus sativus, but some are worried knockoff versions are threatening their business.
“The pure saffron of Taliouine is the best in the world, according to experts,” local grower Barhim Afezzaa boasted, proudly noting his spice’s designation of origin (PDO) label.
But the 51-year-old is worried that “counterfeit” crops are tarnishing Taliouine’s reputation and its PDO — which guarantees a product’s origin and uniqueness.
In small plots below the snowy peaks of Mount Toubkal, saffron cultivation in Taliouine has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
The flower requires drastic climate conditions — hot summers and cold, wet winters — and it can only be harvested during a month-long window from mid-October to mid-November.
Workers start at dawn each morning, meticulously picking the delicate flowers by hand and placing them in wicker baskets. The purple blooms are picked before they fully open to ensure quality.
Once dried and sorted, the flower’s crimson stigmas and styles are turned into saffron — the world’s most expensive spice — popular with top chefs across the globe.
Morocco is the world’s fourth largest producer of saffron, behind Iran, India and Greece, according to the figures published in 2013 by FranceAgriMer, France’s specialist institute of agriculture and fishing.

The spice is both a source of pride and a lifeline in the Berber city of Taliouine, which, along with a neighboring town, produces 90 percent of the kingdom’s saffron.
Some 1,500 families in Taliouine depend on sales from the crop to survive.
Knockoff versions “damage the image of this culture handed down from father to son, which is our pride,” said 24-year-old Driss, a member of a local collective in the area.
Saffron’s rarity and its painstaking cultivation help explain its price — it takes nearly a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of flowers to create 12 grams of the spice.
In Morocco, PDO-certified saffron sells for about three euros ($3.5) a gram, according to Dar Azaafaran, or The House of Saffron, which works with 25 local cooperatives.
To maintain their PDO-label and association with Dar Azaafaran, producers submit their harvest for various tests that check for moisture content, taste, color and smell.
Counterfeit saffron can sell “for less than a euro a gram at the famous Derb Omar market in Casablanca,” said Dar Azaafaran’s head Ismail Boukhriss.
Local producers say counterfeiters often use chemical dyes and remains of other plants in an attempt to pass poor quality saffron off as a top-shelf spice.
Boukhriss said that while authorities hold PDO-labelled producers to a high standard, “the informal market is not subjected to the same controls.”
The National Food Safety office told AFP that some “non-conformities” were detected in bulk sales of saffron which had not been properly packaged or labelled.
It advised buyers to only purchase “products labelled and packaged by approved and authorized sellers.”
Some say salesmen working to sell saffron outside the PDO-approved collective networks are to blame, while other small growers sell to middlemen to avoid payment delays common to larger groups.