More sports. Friday afternoons in north Khartoum there's a weekly power struggle, championship wrestling Nubian style. NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports from Sudan.

(Soundbite of whistle)

GWEN THOMPKINS: Hear that? That's the sound of about 5,000 years of experience whistling. Here in this makeshift ring of hung fabric, a referee is standing in the round, sandy center. He is tooting a kind of Morse code of messages to the men sitting in the dirt along the edges. He's saying, come one, come all! Or he's saying, I have a young contender, do I have a challenger? Or he's just exhaling, and he's forgotten to take the whistle out of his mouth. Somehow, the people here get it. And sooner or later, as the sun loses strength and expires on the horizon, one young Nubian stands up, dusts off the seat of his trousers, and offers himself as the next best thing in wrestling.

If he is not lucky, the kid will stand there alone and wait like a bridegroom who's been stood up at the altar. No one from the other side will step forward. And the referee will eventually whistle for him to sit down. But the crowd didn't come for wrestling interruptus. They're hoping that another young'un from the other side of the ring will rise and move forward as deliberately as a platform diver walks to the edge of the concrete. That's the way it's done here. There is no hurrying. In the desert it's too hot to hurry. And what's more, hurrying communicates anxiety, and anxiety erodes confidence. And no Nubian man who lacks confidence should be in the ring on Friday afternoon.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting)

THOMPKINS: Today, Ahmed Dayfon Muhammed steps forward. He's the crowd favorite. He's sort of a wiry fellow, all smiles, like the former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. He strolled in just when the crowd had begun to despair. And he's turning the whole afternoon around. First he makes a smooth turn around the ring, and in a wink he's in position, the distance of a handshake away from a guy at least three inches taller with the kind of six-pack you can't get at the grocery store. This crowd is excited.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting)

THOMPKINS: The whole thing happens in about 40 seconds. The two guys lean toward each other as if they're about to roll a pair of dice. One slaps the other on top of the head a few times, the other slaps back. The tall guy makes a big 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 - I think it's Muhammed - makes a dramatic pivot, and they both go down. The tall guy's shoulder thumps the dirt. Muhammed wins. Here, listen for yourself.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

THOMPKINS: Wrestling is one of humankind's oldest traditions. And the people of the Nuba Mountains of Sudan are experts at it. Not because there are college scholarships at stake or Olympic competition. Not even the World Wrestling Federation looks this way for new talent. It's because to be a Nubian man is to wrestle. That's what the earliest hieroglyphics show. That's 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 millennia. 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 them. When the whistle blows, they say, you just know.

(Soundbite of whistle)

THOMPKINS: Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Khartoum.

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