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In Sudan, Nubans challenge prejudice in the wrestling ring

Despite a four-year war and centuries of discrimination, dark-skinned Nubans are hoping that their style of wrestling, now considered a national sport, will help them achieve more acceptance from the Sudanese-Arab population. 

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    Two wrestlers fall in what will be a close decision. By Nuba rules, a wrestler loses if his back touches the ground first. May 1, 2015 Khartoum.
    Jason Patinkin
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Two wrestlers, torsos streaked with ash and biceps wrapped with amulets, stand bent at the waist, foreheads almost touching, as they slowly circle each other around a dust ring.

Suddenly, they lunge forward, locking heads and arms like bulls in combat. Until one manages to flip the other on his back, winning the bout and sending the thousands watching into a frenzy.

This is Nuba wrestling. Three days a week, thousands of people gather at a stadium in the dusty al-Haj Yusuf neighborhood to watch the most famous cultural export of the Nuba people who hail from the Nuba Mountains in Kordofan. 

“This is a Nuba tradition and our heritage,” says Abtaher Adam, a wrestler nicknamed ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction'. “We brought this tradition to Khartoum from Nuba.”

The Nuba tradition of wrestling is said to be the most watched sport in Sudan after soccer, and is Sudan's official national sport. Once solely performed during harvest time for the largely agricultural Nuba people, today, non-Nubans are picking up the sport and Nuba athletes are now representing Sudan in wrestling matches abroad.

But the success of the sport hides a grim reality outside the ring.

The Nuba Mountains, some 400 miles south of here, are at the center of a four-year civil war between Nuban rebels and the Arab-dominated Khartoum government. Some rights groups accuse Sudan of ethnically cleansing the dark-skinned Nuba people by bombing hospitals, schools, homes, and markets.

No longer safe in their own territory, many Nuba in the conflict zones have fled to neighboring South Sudan and Ethiopia. The ones who remain in Khartoum are an impoverished underclass that suffers racial prejudices at the hands of the lighter-skinned Arab elite. 

“As a wrestler you have a lot of support from a lot of people and tribes, but this kind of racism happens many times,” says Beder al-Din, the coach of one of Khartoum’s top clubs. “We don’t get served in stores. People look at us differently.” 

For centuries, darker skinned Sudanese, many of whom are now part of South Sudan, served as slaves and servants to Arabs in Sudan. Over time, this has created a complex hierarchy involving race, class, and economics; at the bottom of the ladder are the Nuba people. But the rising popularity of their brand of wrestling could help lessen these prejudices, even as the war rages on.  

And for these wrestlers, at least for a few hours during bouts, the indignities and racial biases are put on hold.

Wrestling for a living

By 5 pm on tournament days, thousands of paying spectators arrive at the al-Haj Yusuf stadium to squeeze into any available space. On a recent day, an announcer lists the top “knights”—as the top wrestlers are known. There’s “The Fat Tiger,” a seven-foot man called “Influenza,” and a particularly thick-bodied wrestler called “Dictionary.” 

In four-minute timed bouts, the wrestlers grapple, muscles straining and feet stamping up dust in the late afternoon light. After each bout, the victor marches through the crowd; adoring fans line up to slap banknotes on his forehead.

Despite the cheering crowds, wrestlers say the sport is better played in Kordofan, where the crowd is mostly young women cheering on the men. The rings are bigger, they say, and the matches last as long as it takes for a winner to emerge. There, the wrestlers are local heroes who can focus all their energies on the sport.

The winnings in Khartoum aren’t enough to sustain even the best knights, who by day are menial laborers who fix pipes and work on construction sites, before rushing off to bouts. 

“Here, the wrestlers are all really suffering. They aren’t getting enough payments, income. They aren’t even eating well,” says Mr. al-Din. "When we were in Nuba Mountains we were really comfortable and living a good life but here our lives are terrible.”

Al-Din, nicknamed “The Fan” for his signature move of spinning opponents in the air before slamming them down, remembers how in his prewar prime, he and other knights would travel around Kordofan and fight for fame and cattle.

They would spend months training before tournaments that lasted all day, eating fine, high-energy foods like sheep, dates, and honey cakes before big bouts. 

"After the match your name would be in every house," al-Din remembers. "The best place for wrestling is still in Nuba Mountains."

"I dream of going back," he adds.

Nubans as Sudanese

Yet the chance of returning are low. The wrestlers talk of getting dreaded phone calls that their village is attacked, or a relative killed in the conflict. 

Until peace comes, the Nuba wrestlers say they will continue to practice their culture to keep it alive despite their tough situation. More importantly, they hope it will allow others to see Nubans as Sudanese, rather than second-class citizens.

“We have the right to show our culture here because we are a part of this country,” says Adam Musa Nimer, the president of the Sakra al-Jidian wrestling club. “This sport is before the war. If the war is existing or not, this sport will exist and continue.”

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