In a makeshift ring of hung fabric, a referee stands in the sandy center. He uses a whistle to send what sounds like Morse code to men who sit in the dirt along the edge. He's saying, "Come one, come all" or "I have a young contender. Do I have a challenger?" As the sun sets over north Khartoum, one young Nubian stands up and dusts off the seat of his trousers and offers himself up as wrestling's Next Big Thing.
Wrestling is one of humankind's oldest traditions, and the people of the Nuba mountains of Sudan are experts at it. To be a Nubian man is to wrestle. That's what the earliest hieroglyphics show and what the pharaohs of Old Egypt saw. The Nubians of antiquity and the people in the ring today may or may not be of the same blood — but they have within them the same fire that has kept the sport alive for millenia.
Size Doesn't Matter
The Nubians say size doesn't matter. The secret to winning is to take the measure of the opponent before the match begins: his eyes, his hands and the fight he has in him. And when the whistle blows, you just know.
If he's unlucky, the kid looking for a match today will stand alone and wait, like a bridegroom who's been stood up at the altar. If no one from the other side steps forward, the referee will eventually whistle for him to sit down.
But that's not what the crowd came to see. They're hoping another young man from the other side of the ring will rise and move forward, as deliberately as a platform diver walks to the edge. That's the way it's done here. In the desert, it's too hot to hurry. Hurrying signals anxiety, and anxiety erodes confidence. No Nubian man who lacks confidence should be in the ring on Friday afternoons.
The Crowd Favorite
Then, Ahmed Dayfon Muhammed steps forward. The crowd favorite, he's sort of a wiry fellow, all smiles. He strolled in just when the crowd had begun to despair. First, he makes a smooth turn around the ring. And in a wink, he's in position, a handshake's distance from a guy at least three inches taller with the kind of six pack you can't get at the grocery store. Anticipation roils the crowd.
It's over in about 40 seconds. The two opponents lean toward each other as if they're about to roll a pair of dice. One slaps the other on the top of the head a few times. The other slaps back. The tall guy makes a move and one of Muhammed's legs ends up off the ground. There's a clinch, a one-legged hop, a couple of skips and then someone makes a dramatic pivot.
Both fighters go down, and then the tall guy's shoulder thumps the dust. Muhammed wins.
That's championship wrestling, Nubian-style. A weekly power struggle on Friday afternoons in north Khartoum.