By Emma Levine
It was something of a cultural high when first experiencing camel wrestling in Turkey, back in 1992, the beginning of my first trip of many to Asia. In this Aegean village, on a cold January afternoon, I discovered this little-known sporting culture and leapt headlong into the experience. My simple SLR clicked traditional musicians playing zurna and davul, camel trainers getting happy on raki, and a crowd cheering on the two prize fighters (that’s two camels wrestling each other, not man against beast) decorated with tassels and bells, foaming at the mouth
Ten days later I flew to India, and stayed with friends in their one-roomed home in the Old Delhi market Chawri Bazaar. We heard singing and dancing outside, which turned out were celebrations for India winning a crucial match in the Cricket World Cup, being played in Australia.
This was my Road to Damascus; any nation that loved its cricket was fine with me, and I began a professional bond with India that was to last a lifetime.
Eschewing my homeland for a four-year stint in Hong Kong, it was my base to develop a love and knowledge of grassroots cricket culture in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Words and photos provided me with the material for a couple of books, plus numerous published articles.
It was never the Tendulkars or Kapil Devs that particularly interested me – there were enough journalists documenting their every match. It was the grassroots that interested me more, the unsung heroes; teenagers playing on the numerous maidans (parks) in Bombay, Afghan refugees in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, and kids playing in Jaffna’s bombed-out school grounds ravaged by a war against the Tamil Tigers.
But these trips also honed a penchant for independent adventures. There were plenty more to come; numerous more overland trips to countries such as Iran, Bangladesh and Syria – hardly your regular destinations for a short, white woman travelling alone.
It was the 13-month trip in 1998, for the next book on the culture of Asian indigenous sports, which took me to Kyrgyzstan’s villages watching buzkashi (game of polo with a headless goat); inside religious gymnasiums in Iran where men recite Saadi and the Qu’ran while exercising; and batir (sparrow-type bird) fighting betted on by stoned locals in tucked-away houses in Quetta. It was experiencing these types of sporting culture that gave me a buzz.
Once I moved to London in 1999, it was my base for further work and travels; writing guidebooks and extensive work in Turkey; a research project on women’s sports in Islamic societies, where I met Afghanistan’s first-ever female Olympian and feisty rally drivers in Iran, and a boxing club in Calcutta especially created for young Muslim women.
But as the old adage goes, you can take the girl out of Bradford, but you can’t take Bradford out of the girl.
I was brought up in a sports-loving family in Shipley, where Bradford City and Yorkshire cricket were a key part of our lives. With three older brothers, I went to Bradford Park Avenue for cricket matches since ‘so high’ and could bowl some mean left-arm spin. And even once we all left Bradford in 1985, and I moved to Nottingham to study and further afield after graduation, the football club was never far from my heart.
Like most longstanding fans, I’ve been through the highs and mainly lows, for which I won’t elaborate. Living in London since 1999, I’ve enjoyed the away match experiences – my only contact now for a city where my well-dispersed family have long gone. And of course these haven’t been the most glamorous of sporting events, except for the few Premier League matches I was privileged to see in those two glory years.
These days I relish that short journey from my North London home up to Barnet – one of my favourites as I love their terraces, and of course that amazing 4-0 win last season; to Dagenham & Redbridge, where I was lucky enough to strike up conversation at a bus stop with two lovely City fans (who, it turned out, helped my get my Wembley tickets); to desolate Millwall on a cold December night for an FA Cup second round match, where I was spat at on the walk back to the station; aesthetically pleasing grounds like Wycombe, where wooded hills form an interesting backdrop and a distraction in duller moments of the match; a few decent cup matches at Watford; the three-sided ground at Oxford where a mis-kicked shot on goal ends up in a shopping centre’s car park; to seaside Southend where I never got to see the sea.
And then of course was Villa Park. What more can I say? The most incredible sporting experience, the most exhilarating and surprising. (I’m still saying ‘bloody Nora’ even now when I relate the experience to others.)
But the biggest sporting buzz of all: Sunday 24 February, when I go back to my roots and yell for Bradford City against Swansea. It’s all the things we love about sport: the underdogs beating top opposition to reach Wembley, road that has seen us beat top-flight Arsenal, Aston Villa and Wigan.
I’ve travelled far and wide for over two decades to capture the thrill and glory, the ups and downs of sporting life, albeit obscure. This time I’ll be walking down Wembley Way with 32,000 of my fellow Bradfordians, wearing my 30-year-old claret and amber scarf and brand new ‘road to Wembley’ t-shirt bought from the club’s website.
Sometimes you don’t have to travel that far to get a buzz – it can be right on your doorstep. But there again, if City win and we’ve qualified for Europe, it could well mean a bit more overseas travel – perhaps my first-ever trip to lesser-known cities in Ukraine and Norway.