Sunday, February 21, 2010

Deve güreşi

First, let me clear up a couple of misconceptions: Turkish oil wrestling has nothing to do with girls in bikinis and camel wrestling does not involve men tussling with dromedaries. Having now witnessed both sports, I can say that there are some surprising similarities between the two. In both cases, the contenders often do not possess what most of us would think of as, shall we say, athletic physiques. The "action" consists of a lot of slow, lumbering pushing and grappling before the decisive move, and what exactly one party has done to ensure victory can be a bit mysterious to the uneducated spectator. Maybe that's true of all wrestling.

But when it comes to sheer entertainment value, the camels win hands (hooves?) down. First, the outfits. While the human wrestlers don a minimalist garb of tight leather pants and a healthy coating of olive oil, their animal counterparts are bedecked in every kind of colorful carpet, banner, headband, scarf, and other ornament you could possibly think of.

Second, the spectacle. The stadium full of men watching the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne seemed to take their sport of choice very seriously. There was no apparent beer drinking, no raucous applause, no bare chests painted with the names of their favorite wrestlers. Women and children were entertained outside the arena with shopping stalls and carnival rides, but inside it was just intent attention being paid to the two men in the ring trying to put their hands down each others' pants.

Camel wrestling, in contrast, is an all-day fun fair, with the sidelines often more entertaining to watch then the field itself. Children and stray dogs run everywhere, men knock back plastic cups of rakı and get up to dance, sucuk sellers grill up greasy camel-sausage sandwiches on tiny grills, and children and adults alike don festive orange scarves that actually (and awesomely) are embroidered with the words "camel wrestling souvenir." Plus, the oil wrestlers never make a mad dash for the stands, causing spectators to scatter. They don't spray thick, frothy spit everywhere either. (OK, that one's a point for the oily dudes.)

Next up, Turkish bullfighting and men on horseback trying to hit each other with javelins! Who's with me?

UPDATE: An article I wrote about camel wrestling, "Close Encounters with the Wrestling-Camel Kind," was published in the March 2011 edition of Time Out Istanbul magazine. Check it out!

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