The little-known tradition of bullfighting lives on in a village in the United Arab Emirates

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Al-Qurayyah (United Arab Emirates) (AFP) – Far from the gleaming skyscrapers of Dubai and the famous camel races, a bullfight is underway in the emirate of Fujairah, where the tradition lives on unbeknownst to most of the United Arab Emirates.

“Watch them fight!” a commentator shouts into a microphone as the first cattle battle of the day kicks off, sending clouds of dust through the village of Al-Qurayyah.

Two bulls, each weighing hundreds of kilograms (pounds), charge while assistants hold ropes tied to their necks or legs for added security.

Sometimes the huge animals come dangerously close to onlookers, knocking them out of their chairs.

About 200 men, women and children gathered in a large field to watch, with children perched on the roofs of 4×4 vehicles and pick-ups.

Trucks carrying bulls converged from across the region on the arena, a field of dirt wedged between rocky mountains and the Gulf of Oman.

About 50 of the beasts are scattered and their bellows echo throughout the area.

Sometimes the huge animals come dangerously close to onlookers, knocking them out of their chairs Giuseppe CACACEAFP

“There are no rules,” said Issa, 34, whose family owns a nearby farm and has been involved in bullfighting for decades.

“The winner is the one who shows the most courage and doesn’t run away,” added the man whose nephews stream the fights on TikTok and Instagram.

In the better-known emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, beauty contests and camel races are popular, but “here it’s bullfights,” said Majid, 36, whose animal scored a match no one in the fight.

Cruel and abusive?

Unlike popular bullfights in Spain and Mexico, where animals are usually killed by matadors, in Fujairah two beasts clash with far less lethal consequences.

A bull with partially dyed orange hair is pictured before the start of a traditional bullfight
A bull with partially dyed orange hair is pictured before the start of a traditional bullfight Giuseppe CACACEAFP

The competition usually ends after about an hour, with each bout lasting only a minute or two.

Animal welfare groups, however, have denounced the sport as cruel and abusive.

Elsayed Mohamed, the regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, argued that just because something has been part of a society for so long doesn’t mean it’s right.

“Every culture has a lot of bad traditions, but because it’s a tradition we have to follow?” he asked, noting that animal fighting is prohibited by UAE law.

Those who promote the fights, he said, argue that “it is ‘not a bloody competition’…comparing these fights to those in Spain that end in the killing of the animal.

“Even if they take precautions to avoid any harm, injuries will happen,” Mohamed said.

Bulls were once imported from South Asia for agricultural work, but the emergence of new technologies has made them obsolete for farming.
Bulls were once imported from South Asia for agricultural work, but the emergence of new technologies has made them obsolete for farming. Giuseppe CACACEAFP

Standing in the audience at the recent bullfight were a German tourist couple who had heard about it from an “alternative tourist guide“.

“We thought it would be interesting to see this – it’s unusual for us,” said Gunter Beelitz, who works in theatre.

“It’s a bit like fighting in Spain except here it’s just bull against bull and not a man,” he said. “And the bull doesn’t die. We don’t like Spanish bullfights.”

family tradition

Bulls were once imported from South Asia for agricultural work, but the emergence of new technologies has made them obsolete for farming.

Children sit on top of a car as they watch a traditional bullfight
Children sit on top of a car as they watch a traditional bullfight GIUSEPPE CACACE AFP

Issa’s family raises the animals or buys them for between 5,000 and 40,000 dirhams (about $1,360 to $10,900).

With the help of a number of farm workers, he prepared about 17 beasts to fight every Friday after prayers.

He said he had been preparing bulls for battle since he was “just a child”.

“We go to see the animals, we check if they are well (…) we take their temperature and we feed them,” he said.

He rolled up his sleeves and plunged his arm into a large pot of beef powerfood – a boiled mixture of wheat, dates, herbs and fish.

“That’s what gives bulls their strength,” said Issa, dressed in a traditional Emirati “kandoura”, a shirt that comes to the ankle.

Issa and her family said they have no intention of ending the pastime passed down through generations.

Trucks carrying bulls converged from across the region on a field of dirt between the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Oman
Trucks carrying bulls converged from across the region on a field of dirt between the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Oman Giuseppe CACACEAFP

“People didn’t have much to do, and they would scavenge the animals and make them fight, a form of entertainment,” Issa said.

“It would bring people together,” he continued, adding that he plans to pass the practice on to his six children.

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