WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE

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The Independent Culture
Bullfighting has always aroused strong, simple feelings: violent disapproval among its opponents; passionate commitment from its devotees. But the bullfights of Oman provoke a more complex reaction. There are no matadors involved, no feats of human grace and courage in the face of a raging beasts: this is bull against bull, not bull against man. Nor, at least by Spanish standards, is there any cruelty: no gore, no goring, no inevitable coup de grace. After a fight, the bulls return to their owners to recuperate; usually, they do not even have any wounds to lick.

Yet the spectacle remains compelling. There is an elemental thrill to this display of male aggression in its purest form. There is no dodging or feinting; the zebu bulls scarcely even charge. Instead, they lock horns and push, the winner being the beast which first pushes its opponent out of the centre of the arena. This is a trial of brute strength, pure and simple - as unsophisticated as a rugby scrum, though rather more beautiful.

Bulls have been fighting in Oman for centuries: the original object of the exercise was to select the strongest animals for breeding purposes. But the mechanisation of agriculture in the Sixties and Seventies meant that zebus lost their central role in Omani life, and the sport all but died out. It has recently been revived, by the present Sultan, in a spirit of patriotic traditionalism, and is proving unexpectedly successful, especially in the coastal region to the west of Mascat, Oman's capital. The biggest fights take place fortnightly, either in Seeb or in the purpose-built arena which the Sultan has provided in Barka. Crowds run into thousands.

Farmers may no longer use zebus to till fields or draw water, but their enthusiasm for the beasts has rarely been greater, as each strives to produce an unbeatable champion. A top fighting zebu can fetch anything up to pounds 5,000, and no effort or expense is spared in the quest for winners. Promising zebus are raised for fighting from the earliest age. Their calfhoods are pampered: they are allowed to feed from their mothers for an unusually long time, before switching to a diet of luxury foods such as dates, dried sardines, barley and hay. And, of course, breeding is planned with the utmost care, a fact reflected in the grandiose names - Al Masfi ("the exterminator"), Al Ghool ("the demon") - which the bulls are given.

In the centre of the arena, an area of watered sand marks the limits of the ring, into which combatants are led in pairs. The first bull to be pushed out of the ring loses. Each beast has a rope attached to one leg, so that its owner can pull it away if the fighting gets too violent - or when the referee declares one of the combatants the winner. Each fight lasts between one and 10 minutes. At the end of the day's competition, the winners re-enter the ring to be crowned as champions. Then the zebus are taken away to have any cuts washed with sea water, or damaged horns treated with a tincture made from shark liver, before going home to regather their strength.

Winning owners are particularly elated, because the value of their animals has increased, but all involved seem satisfied with the afternoon's entertainment. Some will have won or lost gambling on the outcome of the contests (although betting is officially banned); all will have been enthralled by the raw excitement of the display of brute force that they have witnessed.

Some Westerners may feel uneasy at the spectacle: the simple pitting of animals against each other is uncomfortably reminiscent of, for example, cock-fighting. Yet it is rare for the zebus to come to harm, and it would be difficult to argue that they would be better off if the sport were banned. And, as these pictures show, even the simplest contest between raging bulls can throw up moments of extraordinary beauty. !

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