TUNIS: The rams stamped in the dust and charged, butting horns with a crash that drew roars from the crowd on a dusty wasteground near the Old City of Tunis, where young men on the margins of society rear animals to fight.
The rams were raised by two groups of men in the city's Bab Souika district who said the sport gave them a connection to their neighbourhoods and history, and an escape from unemployment, dreams of migration and COVID-19 restrictions.
In the vaulted cellar down a cobbled alley where they keep their ram, one group said few of them had jobs and that the 2011 revolution that brought democracy to Tunisia had not changed their lives.
"This is something that lets us get away from our cares," said Mourad, owner of the ram which he looks after with a dozen or so friends who had gathered there, most of them in their 20s.
"Nothing changed in this neighbourhood after the revolution. Prices went up and nothing changed."
Behind a gate their ram, "2Pac", was chained to a ring in the cracked tile floor, pawing at the straw. Religious charms and a hand drum hung from nails above.
Popular across North Africa, ram fighting is restricted in Tunisia. Fights need a police licence that is seldom given and animal rights groups criticise them as cruel.
Garlanded in thick leather halters and ornamented with studs and seashells like the belts of boxing champions, prize fighting rams are sometimes paraded by their owners in local streets.
Mourad, who owns a small cafe, declined to give his family name. He has lived in Bab Souika all his life.
Frustration has risen across Tunisia since the revolution at the lack of jobs, high prices and deteriorating state services. Protests this week included rioting by young men in poor districts.
The International Monetary Fund estimates Tunisian unemployment at over 16per cent, affecting young people, women and low-skilled workers disproportionately.
Some young men from the neighbourhood had made the dangerous voyage in smugglers' boats to the Italian island of Lampedusa as emigrants, said Mourad.
One man in the cellar lived in Italy and Germany for five years before he was sent home for lack of papers. He will soon try to return, he said.
'THE FIRE TO FIGHT'
The afternoon's fight was to be 2Pac's first and the ram, with a black head and rich grey fleece, reared high in the pen.
Mourad and his friends bought the ram early this year and fed him to make him strong, he said. Now, they decided, he was ready to fight.
The rival ram was close by along narrow cobbled alleys lined with tall white houses with blue shutters and laundry flapping on balconies.
Mourad said he and the other ram's owner, Hussein al-Din Meslati, had known each other since childhood.
Meslati and some friends bought their creamy white ram, "Lahmer Bousayala", last year from a farmer in the mountains.
"If the ram has the aggression, the fire to fight, we see that and we invest in him," he said.
Meslati said ram fighting, which often attracts illicit gambling, had a poor image among many Tunisians. But he said it gave him a connection to his community.
The fight was arranged for late afternoon between Old City dwellings and a steep bank running up to a highway, where spectators stood for a better view.
Mourad and Meslati, along with their friends, strutted in with their rams. Men and boys crowded close in while women watched from windows.
The rams battled, hoofs pounding and horns smashing, as blood stained their wool. Finally Mourad conceded, scowling as friends consoled him.
Spectators drifted away down the alleys into Bab Souika. All that remained was a clot of blood drying in the dust under the long shadows of the sun.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Mike Collett-White)