If you are coming to Fujairah for a day in the cooler months, make sure it is a Friday so you can experience the ancient sport of bull butting.
When you hit the corniche at the end of the main street, turn right (parallel to the beach and towards Oman) and after 200 metres on the right you will see lots of hard, bare soil and some tethering posts.
It is a laid back spectacle. Get there at four in the afternoon and you’ll think the meet has been postponed. By 4.30pm, as visitors from Dubai and Abu Dhabi are arriving, the owners will be rolling up in their trucks, salaaming each other and downloading their prize bulls that have been bulked up to weigh over a ton, thanks to a high carb diet of milk, honey and butter.
What is about to happen has been going on in this suburb of Al Ghurfa for hundreds of years. Bull butting is said to have been introduced by the Portuguese settlers between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Sometime about 5.00pm, men, women and children gather around the arena, standing, sitting on mats drinking coffee or watching from the safety of their strategically parked 4WDs.
When the action begins it is difficult for newcomers to tell what is going on as the instructions are bellowed in Arabic through a megaphone. Two men from each end of the arena will lead their bull by the snout, each holding the end of a rope that is threaded through the bull’s nose. There is an arena master who gets the bulls started somewhere in the middle of the pitch but umpiring bull butting is more unpredictable than refereeing a football match. There are no whistles, no scoreboard, no line umpires, no video referees and no cheer leaders.
The Brahman bulls lock horns and pit their strength against each other. The goal of the duel is for one of the bulls to butt the other out of the inner circle. The two bulls are only in the arena for 2-3 minutes before the round is concluded. Sometimes a bull will retreat, leaving the other with a clear cut victory. More often than not it is deemed a draw when there is no clear winner.
Blowing a whistle would be useless for stopping the bout but if the two handlers with each bull do not part their charges because one of the bulls is on a roll, a team of dishdashered men spring into action, sprint across the mud and haul like crazy on a rope that all has the semblance of a tug of war. Pulling these massive mobile magnets apart is no mean feat and sometimes when separated, a rampaging bull might make a final charge and launch its horns at the opponent’s flank.
Fujairah bull butting (mnattah in Arabic) is fortunately not a blood sport that concludes with a 50, 000 dirham carcass in the arena, yet sometimes there are spots of blood apparent on the bull’s head. This sport is primarily about the bulls, unlike the Spanish bull fighting in which the matadors skillfully evade and finally conquer their beast.
Part of the spectator suspense in Fujairah is created by the fact that people are not protected by fences or seated in raised grand stands and occasionally the bulls fail to see the exit and canter towards the people, who in turn scamper to their cars.
In an article for Xpress News, Mohammed N. Al Khan writes of the skill of the arena master:
The arena masters, acting as umpires, stand inches away from the locked horns. Armed with only a switch cane, their job is to entice the bulls to fight while making sure they don’t get tangled in their reins – and to keep the bulls away from the crowd.
"You have to stay on your toes – a bull can easily kill a man with a single hit," said Hamdan Bin Sultan, one of only two men brave enough to act as arena master in Fujairah.
"I picked up the sport from my father, spending most of my life with these animals. I feel comfortable being near them even in combat," he said.
Bin Sultan, a 28-year-old military officer, has been an arena master for ten years. He also owns and trains ten bulls. His fellow arena master, Mohammad Fares, has six.
"I have two kids, they are still young, but soon I hope to pass on to them what my father taught me," said Bin Sultan. "It’s a dying tradition and I want to keep it alive, but it’s up to God whether they have the affinity for it or not."
The ancient art of bull butting expresses something of the essence of Fujairah. There is history, rural aroma, physicality, dust and dirt, disorganization, unpredictability and community fervour.
Further descriptions of bull butting in Fujairah can be found at these links:
‘The Fujairah Factor’, Gulf News, 11 December 2004.
‘Bullish Tendencies’, Gulf News, 4 August 2005.
‘Raging Bulls Lock Horns in the UAE’, Xpress, 26 November 2007.
‘Traditional Bull Butting’ Fujairah Tourism, a 17 second video clip.
Dr Geoff Pound