In the Crash of Bull Horns, Echoes of a Desert Land of Old

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AL FUJAYRAH, United Arab Emirates -- When the fight the audience had been waiting for arrived, a hulking black bull named Rocket, whose horns had been filed to sharp points, strutted into the dirt lot used for this city's bullfights.

Nearby, his opponent, an equally massive bull, scraped up clouds of dust with a front hoof and snorted. His name had been chosen, like those of professional wrestlers, to project strength and inspire fear.

His owner called him Satan.

At the judges' signal, the bulls charged, locking horns and trying to push each other backward in a competition that has entertained crowds and given bragging rights to bull owners along the Gulf of Oman for as long as people here can remember.

In Arabic, they call it "bull wrestling." Others refer to it as "bull butting" to differentiate it from the bull-versus-matador showdowns famous in Spain and elsewhere, whose appeal is not understood here.

"It's crazy they would let a man battle a beast," said Nasser Badr Abdulla, a local match organizer. "He could get killed."

As if to pre-empt attacks from animal rights groups, Mr. Abdulla said the worst injuries that befell the bulls normally required only a few stitches.

"Here it's the bulls that have five-star lives," he said. "They fight, and then we take them back to the farm for the best food."

The bull face-offs in Al Fujayrah, a sleepy city on the east coast of the United Arab Emirates, are one of the cultural holdovers from the time before this patch of rocks and sand jutting into the Persian Gulf became a country in 1971.

Before then, most people herded camels and sheep in the desert and fished or raised dates and other crops along the coast.

The development since has been rapid, as oil wealth and international business have turned Dubai and Abu Dhabi into skyscraper-lined hubs and given Emiratis a standard of living on par with Westerners'.

But echoes of the past remain. Crowds still pack camel races outside Abu Dhabi, although robots have done the riding since the country stepped up a ban on child jockeys in 2005, and the men of Al Fujayrah still pit bull against bull.

On a recent Friday afternoon, trailers bearing immense bulls arrived at the dirt lot near the city's oceanfront following afternoon prayers. The fighters bore names like the Murderer, Blackie, Spicy, Dynamite and Euro, and they bellowed as their owners hitched them near the lot and exchanged prefight banter.

"This one you see here is the strongest one in the ring," said Yazid al-Naimi, 25, pointing his chin at Rocket, his family's prize bull, and raising his eyebrows. "Those horns are his weapons."

Since his family bought the bull two years ago, Rocket had been on the diet and workout schedule of a prizefighter, dining on grass, corn, dates and dried fish and walking about a mile a day, sometimes on the beach or in the ocean for extra resistance, Mr. Naimi said. Sometimes, he went swimming.

Other owners reported similar regimens, though they all said it was impossible to teach a bull to fight. He either knows how or doesn't.

"There are some people who have the instinct to be scared and some who don't," said Salem Kalbani, the owner of Satan. "It's the same with bulls."

No prizes are given for winning, but their owners do it for other reasons. "It's all about reputation," Mr. Kalbani said. "If you win, people will talk about your farm and say it has the strongest bulls."

But winning carries a different sort of value as well. A bull bought for $20,000 can sell for twice as much after a victory, or half as much after a loss.

"Your pocket is the biggest loser if you own a bull," said Hassan Ali Hassan, 58, who watches the fights but owns no bulls. You can buy a bull for $13,000, he said, "and then he gets wounded or loses a fight and there goes his reputation and all your money."

When the judges blew the siren for the first match, a few hundred spectators in plastic chairs and on the dirt watched as two bulls were led in. Vendors plied the crowd with soft drinks and chips. There were no women in sight.

The handlers tried to get the bulls to face off, but one kept turning away, so the judges declared his opponent victorious.

The next two bulls came in, met each other's stare and rammed their foreheads together. One handler smacked his bull's rump with a stick, and the bull pushed his opponent sideways, earning a victory.

About 60 bulls were registered, and each would get one fight. Normal matches went on for two minutes before the judges called time and a dozen men in white robes and bare feet rushed in to pull the bulls apart. Then the judges picked a winner or declared a draw.

It is unclear how old the tradition is, though some suspect it started during the Portuguese colonization of the Omani coast in the 16th century.

Al Fujayrah's old men watched the fights growing up, but they say the season was shorter and the bulls also worked, powering water wheels for irrigation -- a far cry from today.

"Our old local bulls used to work like slaves all day and then be used for entertainment," said Abdulrahman al-Sharif, 60, a spectator and bull owner. "Now the bulls are pampered and live in luxury."

Organizers recalled one bull that died after a fight, but they said it was decades ago. So was the time a spectator was gored and ended up in intensive care. A few years ago, the city fenced in the lot to protect spectators, though many sit inside to be closer to the action.

Owners seeking to raise their bulls' profiles -- and value -- can challenge others, which is how Satan ended up facing Rocket in the featured showdown of the day.

The crowd yelled as the bulls' horns met, but Rocket suddenly turned and made a run for it, causing the spectators to leap from their chairs and cheer the winner.

While the handlers led the bulls out, a fight erupted in the crowd, and men rushed over to break it up. An organizer got on the bullhorn and ended the event, telling everyone to go home.

As Mr. Kalbani led Satan back to his truck, he said there was no way to know why one bull had beat the other. "It's all in the instincts," he said.

Rocket's defeat set off a crisis among his owners. One brother said the bull was so worthless that he should be slaughtered and given to the poor. The father suggested a dignified retirement.

Mr. Naimi, who had brought the bull out to fight, wondered what had gone wrong. Was it the heat? A sharp blow to the head in a previous bout?

"In the end, they are animals, and you never know what to expect," he said with a shrug. "Nobody likes a loser."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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