March 22, 2010
Ringed in by swirls of rope, I train for that golden fight. Without power, now, yes, yet, the night is lit up by a winking star within my reach. I stretch, I practice and I meditate. This, till Fajr’s first light. The sea breeze washes over Lyari at this time and as it comes into the Ali Mohammad Qambrani Stadium, it caresses my wet skin, the sweat cools and evaporates and my muscles ache as the heat inside me subsides. My lungs clear of the day’s petrol fumes that still burn my throat and eyes. Here in Lyari the name Qambrani means something: pride. The breeze, weightless as a fly, as soft as a feather, whispers and places a burden on me: be unique, be the one, be unparalleled, be unrivaled, be superlative. Be. That’s the cheer in every street in every alley here. Be unique! Be unique! Be without comparison! Be incomparable! Be! And I know what that means. Its meaning belongs to the poor. Be unique belongs to the poor.
A head injury may be the price to be golden to belong, to be, that way.
That’s the price for being caught in the web, the ropes of family ties, carrying on the family name, the family tradition, the family honor and pride. That’s the price of being a hero. That’s the price of limelight and being on the ropes.
Saima is afraid. She says that this will destroy my pretty face—I’ll get bruised and battered and get scars and a busted nose, lose teeth. She says if I get ugly she might not want to marry me. I know that she’s only joking.
Boxing belongs to the poor. Yes it does. Look at the conditions in which we still become champions. What would happen if we had resources? Just look at the RCD club run by the Olympian and National Coach Jan Mohammed Baloch. He also started boxing at the Muslim Azad Boxing Club back in 1959 under the coaching of the late Ustad Ali Mohammad Qambrani and became junior champion at the age of fourteen. Ustad Jan Mohammad spends his time coaching the young at RCD coaching club near Ranchore lane. Here for so many years he has produced Olympians, and national and international level boxers. He served as national boxing coach and achieved hundreds of International medals for Pakistan. He qualified for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and represented Pakistan in the boxing tournament. Of those games in Munich he recalls the tragic event on September 5, 1972 and the gunning down of Israeli athletes. A terrible moment for everyone. And he talks about how Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was very fond of him. "Bhutto sahib often visited me and he visited our coaching camp in Hasanabdal." Under his coaching boxers qualified for 4 Bronze medals in Bangkok and 4 Bronze in Atlanta and 5 bronze in Athens. Even now his club produces players of international standard.
Ustad Jan Mohammad’s RCD club is located right on a busy street. He has just one room for a training hall and it is too small. So, most of the boys practice outside on the sidewalk amidst the poison of exhaust fumes of cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorbikes and scooters that travel on the busy street all day. The boxers practice in thick smoke and noise. There are two practice shifts daily each one for two to three hours. The boxers practice without light or cool air because always during the shifts there are the usual power breakdowns which can last for hours. During these power outages the boys continue to practice in the darkness under a chargeable battery powered emergency light. That’s tough. That’s hard. That’s a grueling practice.
Ustad Jan Mohammad has twelve children and half of them are married by the grace of Allah he says. Among them is his son Zaffar Jan who some ten years back got injured in his eye during a boxing bout and lost his sight. That was the end of his boxing career. Now Zafar helps Ustad Jan Mohammad at the club. A few years ago Ustad Jan Mohammad also got very sick and was taken to a hospital of great repute in Karachi but they asked him to submit the payment even before the treatment. He had no way to do that so he left saying “I have no money. All I have are my medals - certificates or photographs with famous dignitaries.”
Boxing can bring me gold—a chance which education in the schools around here might never bring me. I’ll never get a job—not anything that really pays or gets me noticed. My parents, afraid, I would be around the wrong people and would get involved in drugs, insisted that I join the club. Being in a club learning to box was better than hanging around the street all day and getting into all sorts of trouble. Even if I never finished school never crossed the ninth class we knew I could achieve it all in Boxing. That’s what they are hoping and that’s what I’m hoping for too.
“Defend yourself well and hit your opponent perfectly.” That’s the only lesson I need to learn well. Punch your way, away from despair, punch it away, punch it away. Punch your way to respect, pride, glory, recognition, immortality. So what if there is a head injury. A death?
I dodge, duck, focus, upper cut, jab, slide, swing, skip, sway, bob, weave, hook, parry and block. I bounce on the balls at the tip of my soles, move, move, one-two, one two- peek a-boo. I dodge and dodge it all. Dodge the gangs, dodge; the drugs; dodge the bullets; dodge the unemployment; dodge the defeat; dodge the humiliation of despondency.
And in this world that we live in of lords and owners, who claim saints as ancestors and own the world because of it--- in this criminal world it’s not easy to dodge it all, dodge them all. In this, their world, dogs, mongooses, snakes and cocks are bred and trained to fight and win for them petty money—these precious pets eat better then pets like us. In this, their world, all of us are pets belonging to the same kings. It’s not easy to dodge it all. There’s money to be made in a competition which is all about a fight. There’s money to be made when someone has to lose. Someone has to be poor so that someone else can be rich. Someone has to be punished so that someone else can be powerful. And there is always an audience that gains; which watches, and watches, and watches and cheers. The audience, makes money, everyone wins except those in the fight. But I have to believe that there is a good fight— the one for us to survive.
Here in Lyari the name Qambrani means: pride. They are a famous family, a big boxing clan. All famous people in Pakistan belong to families. Pakistan belongs to family names. It used to belong to ideas but now family names count. Every talent is kept in the family. Ali Mohammad Qambrani, his sons Siddiqui and Yaqub Qambrani. His grandsons Ali Mohammad Qambrani, Maherullah Qambrani and Abdul Rashid Qambrani. Qambranis have gone to the South Asian, Asian, Commonwealth and Olympic games.
The Muslim Azad Boxing Club was founded by Ali Mohammad Qambrani who was among the founders of boxing in Pakistan and launched his own Muslim Azad Boxing Club to attract the young boys and men in Lyari and train them to become boxers of international repute. The club was renamed Ali Mohammad Qambrani Boxing Club. The Government established a Boxing Stadium in his honor and named it Ali Mohammad Qambrani Boxing Stadium.
His son Siddiq Qambrani was an international boxer, we all know the famous story that he beat an Israeli boxer in Bangkok in 1970 at the Asian Games. The Israelis never played in Asian games after that. Well that’s the legend around here. He retired in 1978 and started coaching at the club. His family trains here, sons and nephews and grandsons.
His son Ali Qambrani who was named after Siddiq’s father trained here too. This grandson Ali Mohammad Qambrani, lit up the family name, he was the gold winner, the champion. He started boxing when he was only twelve years old. We all do. He won his first national title in the inter provincial under fourteen boxing championship when he was thirteen years old. He was part of the Pakistan national boxing squad from 1990-1999. He was also the winner of many national and international medals including being the five times national champion from 1995-1999. Ali Qambrani had won gold. He was a champion. In Hiroshima at the Asian Games in 1994 he won the first Junior silver medal. He won the gold medal in the Asian boxing championship held in Manila, Philippines in 1995. He won the gold in the Quaid e Azam International Boxing Tournament in 1997.
Last year in early October when he was only forty years old, he started complaining of a pain in his head. When the pain became unbearable, his family took him to the Lyari General Hospital. He died there the next day. That was October 2009. He was just forty years old and maybe many people in Lyari in October 2009 would say that’s a long life for a man in Lyari.
And then there are his cousins, gold medalists at the Asian games and Olympians. They didn’t win at the Olympics but they were there. Abdul Rashid Qambrani was born in 1975. He represented Pakistan at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia in 1996. But to be at the Olympics was honor enough. He was stopped in the first round of the men’s light flyweight division by Ukraine’s bronze medalist Oleg Kiryukhin.
Gold was in Mahurullah Lassi Qambrani’s destiny. And he punched his way to it in the featherweight division in the Asian Games 2002. Maybe that was enough and he should have stopped but he went on to qualify for the Olympics in Athens in 2004. But there he lost his first bout a division lower then featherweight at bantam against superstar and two-time winner Guillermo Rigondeaux and went back up to featherweight. At the end of his career he was on a TV program called Ek Mukka Aur, One Punch More. At the South Asian Game s in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2006 he and Faisal Karim tested positive for drugs—marijuana, and were banned from the games for life.
The breeze whispers in the night, be the greatest, that you can be. Bring gold, bring silver, bring bronze bring it back here to me. Bring back the name, bring home the fame bring home the pride. Go box your way out of Lyari. Go grab the limelight. Go fight there and bring us honor here in Lyari. Go to Manila, Go to Bangkok, go to Seoul go see America, go see Europe. Go to the South Asian games go to the Asian Games and the Olympics. Go. And then come back to become the coach-become the ustad.
I come to the stadium when the day dies and the night cools. Surrounded by the sounds from hundreds of flats all around: the sounds of radios, DVD players and televisions, songs from weddings, the sounds of quarrels, and gunfire floating down to me, I begin. Here in the ring, in Ali Mohammad Qambrani Boxing Stadium I come home. Here I become Ali Mohammad Qambrani and all his sons. I become Jan Mohammad. I become Cassius Clay and I become Mohammad Ali. Here I prepare to become my destiny which is to be, till Fajr and first light.
Photographs by Akhtar Soomro
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