Kamal Rasool had been living in Dubai for three years when he decided he wanted to meet the Kushti wrestlers. Rasool was living with Flamingods bandmate Charles Prest in a largely Pakistani neighborhood called Satwa, where they heard rumors about the wrestlers — working-class immigrants, mostly from Pakistan, who gathered in the desert outside the city on Friday evenings for intense, dramatic, gladiatorial bouts.
For Rasool, it was a fascination that reflected his own experience living in the city. "Dubai is not all the glitz and glamour you get in the Daily Mail,” he says now. "There is life going on there, there are people who built the city who stayed and brought their families and brought their culture. There’s always another side to a place if you just seek it out."
It was the winter of 2015, and Flamingods were prepping for the release of "Majesty," their third record, which had largely been written in Satwa. The band, four-fifths of whom originally hail from Bahrain (including Rasool) are known for their globalist musical outlook, layering, for instance, exotica flutes, field recordings from Nepal, and Brazilian rhythms atop their core psychedelic rock sound.
Kushti is much more common on the Indian subcontinent, including in Pakistan and Bangladesh, than it is in the Arabian Peninsulaa millennia-old practice that has long been part of the fabric of some South Asian cultures.
“Rhama,” the bleary, sun-beaten seventh track, was a song Rasool wrote about feeling alienated from his mother culture. He saw the same tension in the practices of the Kushti wrestlers, the ceremonies and rituals by which they had preserved the culture of their own homeland. By their very existence, they defied the stereotype of Dubai as a shiny glass paradise.
Rasool reached out to barbu.tv, a Satwa-based video collective lead by directors Yannick Poffet and Maxime Cramatte, with the idea of making a music video for “Rhama” featuring the Kushti wrestlers. Together, Rasool and a crew from barbu.tv traveled to a match just outside of town. They were immediately struck by the beauty of the Kushti ceremonies — the peculiarity of the rituals; the intensity of the matches; the little knot of colorful action juxtaposed against the endless beige desert; skin juxtaposed against sand. Kushti is much more common on the Indian subcontinent, including in Pakistan and Bangladesh, than it is in the Arabian Peninsula — a millennia-old practice that has long been part of the fabric of some South Asian cultures. Through an Urdu translator, Rasool asked the wrestlers if they would mind being filmed for the music video.
That was how the team from barbu.tv, ended up spending three days with several Kushti wrestlers, who lived together in a crowded apartment building in Al Ain, 80 miles outside of Dubai.
During the day, the wrestlers would go to work — one was an electrician working for the government, Poffet remembers, and another was an industrial painter — and the film crew would explore the neighborhood, filming locals at work or prayer, as they passed a neon sign shop, shops selling building materials, and myriad garages. One afternoon, just before the city paused for prayer, Poffet walked around Al Ain with a stabilizer and a camera. Soon, a crowd started to form around him.
“They had never seen something like this,” Poffet, who is originally from Switzerland, says. “At one point I had, I don’t know, like 50 people around me. Nobody was giving a smile, so I didn’t know if they were maybe offended. But I ended up getting an amazing shot — I did a 780-degree turn, with those guys all around me looking straight into the camera."
In the evening, the crew captured the wrestlers working out, and dancing around together in their rooms — roughly 100-square-foot quarters where five or six men, ranging from their early 20s to their mid 60s, lived together. They were men who had left their wives and children behind to work in the UAE, where there is more demand for work; aside from a few hours in the desert on Friday nights, they were mostly isolated from their own culture. Yet Poffet remembers they were almost absurdly hospitable — for instance, becoming upset with a member of the video crew who bought his own bottle of water.
"They live this really simple life, and they seem happy about it. It makes you look at yourself and say there’s no way for me to complain."
“They look at things in such a beautiful positive way despite their living conditions, which have nothing to compare with ours,” says Poffet. "They live this really simple life, and they seem happy about it. It makes you look at yourself and say there’s no way for me to complain when I look at these guys and see how happy they are."
The crew were immediately taken with a man nicknamed “Tota" — a brawny, intense wrestler, real name Ameer Ali, with a particularly expressive face. You can spot Tota working out in a T-shirt that reads "Satwa 3000," the name of Poffet and Cramatte’s art and events collective.
The wrestling matches themselves were filmed back in a central yet tucked-away part of Dubai. The camera often lingers on Tota, wearing only a kaupinam — his small loincloth — beating his chest and glaring deep into the camera. Much of the beauty of the video rests in how it captures the rituals around these matches. For instance, the colorful staff carried by the lone official, or how they toss sand onto each others’ chests, a form of blessing. Spectators form inner and outer circles around the wrestlers, moving constantly around the action taking place in the center.
The barbu.tv team chose to shoot some of these scenes from above, with a drone, partly to convey the sprawling, hallucinatory nature of the Emirati landscape itself. "We have such crazy landscapes in the UAE in general, that sometimes when shot from above it looks like something either really digital, or really abstract,” Poffet says. “That went in the same direction of the music — [it has] this psychedelic kind of vibe, and this was a good way to show this psychedelicism."
At the end of the last match in the video, Tota is seen victorious, walking around triumphantly inside the circle of onlookers. Poffet says he and Tota became Facebook friends afterwards, and that Tota — whose gruff exterior perhaps belies something a little more tender — often sends Poffet pictures of himself, and once sent a picture of a bouquet of flowers.
"Wash my tongue/ It’s taken by yours/ I can't speak my mother/ Wish I learned it younger."
Rasool also felt a kind of deep personal resonance with the men and their desert subculture. "There’s a line in the song which is: 'Wash my tongue/ It’s taken by yours/ I can't speak my mother/ Wish I learned it younger,'" Rasool recalls. “Which is basically my own personal experience of not being able to speak my mother tongue, and as a result of that feeling more disconnected from my own Arab culture than I would have been if I’d known it." Rasool is half-Bahraini and half-Turkish but got by in Bahrain, where most locals speak English, without learning Turkish or Arabic. “My next goal is to start learning the language and make some freaky Arab spoken psych,” Rasool says.
This type of struggle against cultural estrangement imbues the "Rhama" video. "You can [see it] in the video, because they are being taken context out of their cultural homes," Rasool says, "looking for a better financial future and being thrust upon this metropolis of a city. [They’re] learning to deal with the culture shock and figuring out their own lives."