Sandlot Wrestling with South Asian Migrant Workers in Dubai
Last week, I published a story for VICE on Pehlwani, an ancient wrestling tradition fading away in its South Asian homeland but still enthusiastically practiced by an eclectic group of Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi migrant workers along the shores of Dubai. Unfortunately, four weeks of fieldwork and interviews with these fascinating men could not fit into one 1500 word article. So here, I present a window into some of that time: a written and photographic journey through an afternoon of unguarded conversations on life, sex, and the importance of almonds with the men at the very center of a heated international debate on migrant labor in the United Arab Emirates.
The world has come to recognize Dubai – that gleaming metropolis of artificial islands jutting proudly into the Persian Gulf – for its precipitous climb onto the international stage and its notorious social stratifications. In the media, the city is regarded mostly for its half-century transformation from humble fishing village to Vegas-like Middle Eastern playground for the jet-setting class. Or noted for its chasm between the privileged local population and the migrant workers who built the city. Or maligned as a vapid tourist destination devoid of any significant cultural landscape or identity. But for both the diverse participants and spectators of Pehlwani wrestling, Dubai is a place of exchange – just as it has been for centuries.
Here in the early 19th century – long before Dubai became synonymous with oil wealth in the West – the East encountered the village as a burgeoning port critical to its various maritime industries. All along its nine-mile creek, wooden dhow boats carried merchants from Africa, India, and the Far East, creating an international community of transient seafarers in pearling, fishing, and trade. Though skyscrapers pierce through the clouds further in the distance today, an amalgam of nationalities still buzz in the labyrinthine marketplaces hugging the creek’s shoreline, and many still make a beeline each Friday afternoon to nearly the exact sandlot where Pehlwani matches have been contested for almost fifty years. Screw what you’ve read about a strictly sanitized city: this rowdy international crowd in Dubai typifies a type of exchange that has been happening here for centuries.
Read more here.