Far from the skyscrapers of Dubai and the camel races in the desert, the tradition of bullfighting in Fujairah has continued for decades, a custom little known in the United Arab Emirates and denounced by NGOs.
“Look how they fight,” shouted the commentator during a brawl in the village of Al Qurayyah (Northeast). Two bulls charge head to head, each surrounded by three or four “assistants” who are ready to intervene by pulling on a rope attached to their neck or to one leg.
The fight lasts one to two minutes, others follow for over an hour. When certain cops get dangerously close to the public, people hastily get out of their chairs.
About 200 spectators are at the rendezvous, the men are sitting around the arena, the women are mostly sheltered in the cars parked directly behind them, the children are sitting on the roofs of 4x4s and pick-ups.
Trucks laden with cattle converged from across the region. The silence gave way to the roar of about fifty bulls scattered around the arena, a large sandy arena wedged between rocky mountains and the waters of the Gulf of Oman.
At a nearby farm, Issa explains the tradition. He rolls up the sleeve of his kandoura, traditional men’s clothing, and dips his arm in a huge pot, stirring a cooked mixture of wheat, dates, herbs and fish.
“That’s what gives bulls their power,” says 34-year-old Emirati with a smile on the family farm, where he’s been helping his father “since he was little.”
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He learned that Issa, with the help of six employees, is preparing some of the 17 bulls on the farm for the weekly cattle fights after the big Muslim prayer on Friday.
“We go to the animals and see if they are okay (…) We take their temperature, then we feed them”.
Unlike the bullfighting popular in countries like Spain and Mexico, where bulls are typically killed by matadors, in Fujairah two horned beasts clash with far less deadly consequences.
Nonetheless, NGOs, like the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), criticize these struggles: “The story is marked by bad traditions, so we don’t have to continue it,” Elsayed Mohamed, the NGO’s regional director, told AFP.
But Issa and his family want to continue this tradition and ensure the sustainability of their breeding by mating the bulls with local cows.
“If we see a bull that we like, we can also buy it,” says Khatam, Issa’s uncle. The price ranges from €1,000 to €1,500 for a few-month-old bull, and he’s climbing for an adult, he points out, recalling his “very brave Golden” buying around €9,500.
Previously imported from Asia, particularly India and Pakistan, bulls were used for farm work in the region, but the introduction of new technology has rendered their role obsolete.
“We had the idea of organizing bullfights and making it a conversation, a moment of gathering. It’s a tradition that’s been passed from father to son for decades,” explains Issa, who passes it on to his six children.
“The bull that wins is the one that shows the greatest courage and doesn’t run away,” says Issa. Owners don’t receive awards, he said.
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Camel racing is popular in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, other emirates in the country, “but here it’s bullfighting,” observes Majid, a 36-year-old Emirati whose cattle finished level with his opponent.
“This sport is an age-old tradition,” popular from Fujairah to around Muscat, the capital of the neighboring Sultanate of Oman, explains Mohammed al-Souraidi, another viewer.
But the reputation of the fighting in Fujairah is now expanding thanks to social media, says Issa, whose nephew is streaming the fighting live on Instagram and TikTok.
In public, German Gunter Beelitz and his wife are the only tourists present at these fights, which they discovered in an “alternative guide book”: “This is unusual for us, just a fight between two bulls,” said Gunter, who works in the theater.
However, the absence of “bloody fights” cannot justify this practice for Elsayed Mohamed: “Even if certain precautions are taken, the cops can be injured.”