Bullfighting in Oman
May 15, 2016 | 12:40 PM
by Mohammed Shafeeqe

One early summer Friday afternoon in Al Khabourah, Salim Abdullah Al Douhani, a key organiser of bullfights in the village, led us to a barren stretch of land a few metres away from the main road. The 34-year-old, who works as a Human Resources Manager in UMS in Muscat, has been watching bullfights since he was a boy.

Bullfights have taken place in small Omani villages for decades, and nowadays, Salim drives down to Al Khabourah every Thursday evening to prepare his six bulls for the weekend, making food for them before taking them to fighting rings in various locations. But in today’s fight, he explained, his bulls would not be participating due to ‘health reasons’. We looked around for the other bulls and their owners, but there was nobody in sight.

Around 4.00pm, a tanker came and sprayed water over the fighting ring to soften the soil, and after some time old pick-ups started rolling-in from all directions, kicking up the dust.

They began unloading mighty bulls, most Brahma’s from India, Pakistan, and Spain, in various colour, breeds, and sizes, some of which must have weighed over a ton.

“Before six or seven years, we had only local bulls and Salalah bulls,” said Salim. Now there are bull markets in Sohar, Barka, Fujairah, and Dubai where owners purchase these fighters.

The young bulls are being reared on a high carb diet that is heavy in grains, dates, and dried fish. Salim gives his bulls milk, dates, and a specially cooked mixture of greens, bananas, and dates. These prize fighters are also massaged daily and taken on long runs along the beaches.

“But on fight day we won’t give them heavy food. If the stomach is full it cannot move that easily. For big bulls the preparation and controlled diet starts from the day before the fight,” he explained.

Within half an hour the area was filled with the low rumble of owners talking and bulls bellowing. A crowd began flocking to the fight arena in pick-ups, SUVs, and sedans. The spirit and enthusiasm peaked, with the air buzzing with energy.

Older, disabled spectators travelled in on chairs teetering in the backs of open pick-up, which pulled ring-side to get a good view of the action. Locals, mostly men, perched on the earthen wall around the ring, clinging bottles of drinking water, soft drinks, and bags of potato chips. Some villagers set up stands and began selling vegetables from their farms on the sidelines, while a few boys and men ventured into the ring and seated themselves there to get a close up of the action.

“It’s exciting for people to sit in the ring to get a close view of the fight,” said Salim. “But once the animal gets angry, it’s very difficult to calm him down. They will just fight no matter who comes across.”

Distressed bulls strained against their ropes, their grunts expelling steam and vapour as they dug at the ground with their hooves, getting ready for the charge.

On an average 40 bulls vie for honour in every bullfight, but by 4.30pm almost 60 bulls had arrived at the venue for the fight. It seemed that the prospect of driving these snorting bulls weighing over a ton across kilometres of desert land was no deterrent for the proud owners, each of whom had to pay OMR3 for each bull participating in the fight.

“After discussion with the bull owners, the referee selects a pair of bulls based on height, weight, and size. The key weapon is the curved horns, which helps the bull get a better grip on the opponent,” Salim explained. The contest rule is simple: Whichever bull forces the other to back down or flee, is declared the winner.

The first set of owners lead their bulls with thick ropes looped through their heaving nostrils into the ring, which was already occupied by key organisers, a referee, some young fight crew, a commentator with a megaphone, and a few ardent fight fans seated in plastic chairs.

Taken to opposite corners, the unrelenting animals, who were snorting and pawing the ground, turn to face one another from across the ring.

There was no whistle from the referee as the ropes were removed; the bulls simply charged.

Clack! The sound of horns striking against each other echoed around the ring as the vociferous spectators cheered on their favourite stars. The roaring crowd, the dusty air, the shimmering heat waves, and the agitation of the beasts, adds to the excitement.

The bout lasted for four or five minutes until finally, one of the bulls retreated from the ring in defeat. Though the bulls do not get hurt seriously and there is no bloodshed; terror, mortification, and violence are apparent in the wild eyes of the animals.

I learned that the owners call their bulls by pet-names, and up next, ‘Namrood’ and ‘Dash’ would be locking horns. Clack! As the fight began, Salim explained that if the bulls are getting out of hand and the two handlers can’t stop the bout, a crew of locals in dishdashas spring into action, sprinting across the mud to grab hold of ropes in order to separate the animals, each side resembling a tug of war.

Pulling these mighty pugilists apart is no easy task and sometimes when separated, the unsatisfied, rampaging bull might make a final charge towards the opponent or the spectators.

Other times, the bull simply isn’t in the mood at all, and makes a retreat without even attempting to fight his opponent, much to the embarrassment of the owner.

We turned to watch as two bulls made a commotion as one chased the other out of the ring, forcing it to jump over the gallery as spectators leapt for safety.

There would be at least 15 to 20 gruelling battles in each bullfight overseen by a lively announcer who provides entertaining commentary during the events. There is no cash prize for the winning bulls in Khabourah, and there is no betting allowed either.

But these bulls are still investments, as their prices increase with every victory. “During matches, many farmers come from neighbouring places to buy and sell the winning bulls. The prices of some of the bulls can be incredible. If a bull wins, its price can be increased by a few thousand Omani rials,” said Salim. Another owner from Sohar, Ahmed, agreed, explaining that he’d purchased his bull Jamr for OMR9,000 and sold after the fight for OMR12,000. According to Salim, the record price for a winning bull last year was OMR50,000.

The fights continued, photos and cellphone videos uploading to YouTube almost simultaneously for the proud owners to watch and taunt each other with repeats. Watching the group of men, young and old, perched on dusty walls waving cellphones, it was clear that this is an ancient tradition, with a modern following — a legacy that the younger generation seems all too happy to take forward.

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*The next bullfight scheduled in Khabourah village

is on Friday, May 20.

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