Running With The Bulls

Crowds come from afar to watch bulls fight in Fujairah. Image by author

In Fujairah, bulls fight for fame not to the death

BY Martin Dokoupil

A black head with short thick horns appeared between the rails of a fence, followed by a massive body that almost filled the narrow entry gate. It was surrounded by a large cheering crowd.

A young man dressed in a white robe with a matching white silk scarf atop a turban stands next to the bull. He waves a short wooden stick behind the bull’s rump to make it move and keep the animal under control.

Reaching the middle of the spacious rectangular fighting ring, the bull slowly comes to a halt as if he is saving his energy for what is to follow. That gives his handler a chance to hastily untie the rope as the animal’s adversary approaches. Other men appear skipping around the bull and throw sand on the seemingly indifferent animal.

For a moment, the bull remains completely still, its bulging eyes fixated on its rival. Heavy coastal air, fueled with tension takes the place hostage.

Suddenly, the beast’s powerful neck muscles contracted as it leaps forward with brute force, its bulky head gliding low above the dusty ground and sharp curved horns aiming at its now dangerously close enemy.

The place reverberates with ecstatic shrieks coupled with the steady flow of a football match-like commentary on the loud speaker. The fight was on.

But it was not a matter of life or death as the quickly moving target in front of the charging bull was not the red cape of a matador, or the killer of bulls, as bullfighters are known in Spain. It was his equal. Another more than a half-a-ton beast that, at the same moment, thrust its robust body forward to lock horns with the attacker, kicking up a cloud of dirt in the bullring in the northern Gulf Arab emirate of Fujairah.

“This [kind of] bulls fighting started more than 60 years ago. At the time of my grandfather they used to fight at the farm,” says Mohammed Abdalla, who brings his 15 bulls on a regular basis to test their skills and strength.

At 4p.m. on Friday afternoons, a deserted dusty stretch of land near a public beach in Fujairah comes alive with dozens of cars and people emerging from all directions to line a fenced area in between two roads.

Some drive as many as two hours from the United Arab Emirates’ capital of Abu Dhabi or cross the neighboring border of Oman to watch the “soft” version of the Spanish corrida—bulls fighting, a weekly family entertainment for free.

Some spectators climb to a small dirt mound, while others squeeze through their SUV rooftop windows to get a good view of the upcoming battle of as many as 60 bulls.

But it is the bravest ones who choose to camp on chairs or straight on the ground inside the fenced sand pit, which has two gated openings for the entry of the bulls, oblivious to the dangers posed by the fight-blinded charging animal.

The origins of bulls fighting in Fujairah, the only emirate in the UAE where it is practiced, and neighboring Oman are uncertain. Some believe it came with Portuguese conquerors, who set up a string of coastal forts along the Strait of Hormuz to control trade from the Gulf in the 16th century. Others say it first emerged in Oman’s farmlands without any link to the Portuguese invasion.

Preparing bulls for their fighting career starts when the animals are around five or six months old. Their owners first teach them to walk straight with and without a lead rope before test fights at their farms. Their first encounter with the arena is between the age of two and five.

Early morning or late in the afternoon, handlers walk dozens of bulls on Fujairah’s beach as part of their daily routine of an estimated six kilometer walk and swim in the sea to boost their strength and stamina.

“The beach sand makes them strong and gives [them] big muscles. We take care of them,” says Abdalla. “It is not like in Spain. Here we do not kill. We just see when one bull is stronger than the other we can go and catch him and pull (it away). We do not let him complete the fight.”

Typically, every fight lasts between two to five minutes depending on the time of the year as the scorching summer heat does not allow for longer encounters.

The simple rules state that the first animal to run away within the time limit is declared the loser. There can also be a partial winner or a draw if neither bull concedes ground.

During the fight, one or two men act like match referees watching bulls from close quarters and making sure ropes attached to their legs do not entangle the fighting animals.

Around a dozen men jump in at the end of each fight, grabbing the ropes to drag the bulls apart while throwing sand at the winner.

“We throw sand at the bull before the fight to motivate him and we throw sand after to appreciate him winning the fight,” says bull owner Fahad Al Sereidi, who learned how to raise and fight bulls from his father. “We have hot weather here so we do not use bulls from Spain. We only use a local breed.”

While in the past two decades, owners recall two incidents out of thousands where two bulls were killed during a fight, injuries like cuts are a common occurrence.

Bulls in Fujairah tend to continue fighting for several years, gaining experience and fame in the ring. Due to a large number of bulls, some 300-400 estimated in Fujairah alone, owners rotate the animals in two groups, giving bulls at least a two-week rest in between their fights.

As all bulls are given names, their performance is tracked on a YouTube platform which is flooded with hundreds of recordings showing bulls fighting and training.

Owners divide their bulls into levels to make sure only animals with equal chances are entered in fights. Cross-border bullfighting and trading of animals with Oman is common.

Since betting is not allowed in Islam, bull owners make money in a different way. They tend to buy young or less successful animals for a cheaper price, then turn them into champions fighting their way to the top. Once the animal becomes a winner, its value increases and its selling price continues to increase after each win. According to owners, winning bulls certainly attract buyers.

While young bulls can be bought for as little as 10,000 dirhams ($2,720), the best fighters can command prices of between 250,000 to 300,000 dirhams ($68,000-$82,000).

An Omani champion bull called Nar Aljamahir, or (Fire of the People) , is revered across the coast never having lost a fight.

“He’s [very] famous,” says bull owner Abdulla Alawadhi, sitting at his farm between rows of shaded bull pens. “The owner was a very poor guy. They were giving him 1 million dirhams ($270,000) and he did not sell it because he won more than 150 times.

I took one of my bulls there to fight him but I lost,” he says.
Running a bull farm is not cheap. Alawadhi, who says he sees his bulls more than his children, shells out more than 7,000 or 8,000 dirhams every month to feed his eight bulls and two cows, who eat as many as nine times a day.

“We give them many different kinds of feed. It becomes expensive,” Alawadhi says, showing a big chest full of dates, cereals and a bag of dried fish, he believes make his bulls stronger.

Dates are easily the biggest cost as every month; he buys some 150 bags for 45 dirhams each to feed 14 bulls that he and his friends keep on his farm just a short walk from the fighting ring.

Although bulls fighting in Fujairah is more about the sport than business, Alawadhi says some owners can make between 600,000 – 700,000 dirhams from their hobby if they have a good eye for bulls.

But some bulls are hard to sell as many owners form a strong attachment to their animals.

“I will never sell this bull for meat,” he says pointing to a big muscular bull resting nearby. “I will keep him until he dies. I have been fighting with this one for seven years. I would never sell it. They were giving me 85,000 dirhams but I said, no.”

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