Monday, July 25, 2011

The Sport of Heroes

 We’re standing at the front of a crowded dizin restaurant in Tehran waiting to be seated. I’m looking forward to the food served here: dizin is a traditional one-pot stew of lamb and vegetables served with bread, pickles, and yogurt. But for the time being, I’m perusing a wall of photos depicting Iranian sports idols. From one grainy, black-and-white snapshot stares a face that could be the spitting image of my husband’s, except for the silly grin that is somehow all wrong.

“I didn’t know you were a famous athlete,” I kid my husband.

“That’s Takhti, the wrestler,” he replies with an air of long-suffering patience. “Everyone says I look like him.”

No kidding.

What fascinates me about Gholamreza Takhti, besides his uncanny resemblance to my husband, is the sport in which he excelled. Takhti was a Jahan Pahlavan, a master of the ancient Persian sport of varzesh-e pahlavani (also known as varzesh-e bastani), or pahlavani for short.

Often described as traditional Persian wrestling, pahlavani is actually a martial art that combines physical endurance and strength-building exercises with Sufi-based mysticism. The philosophy behind it is that physical strength (and hence masculinity, for this is an exclusively male domain) comes from spiritual and moral purity. The athletes (known as pahlavans) are supposed to enter the ring with only truth and honesty in their hearts and refrain from words and actions that would insult or humiliate their opponents. No wonder it’s called varzesh-e pahlavani, which translates as the “sport of heroes.”

Pahlavani is practiced in a zurkhaneh (house of strength), an octagonal structure with brick or mud walls, a round opening in the roof, and a sunken pit (gaud) in the center of the room. In traditional zurkhanehs the gaud floor is cement, but modern ones have more comfortable wooden surfaces. The area around the pit is divided into several sections for spectators, musicians, and the athletes themselves. A raised platform is reserved for the murshed, a person who recites poetry and beats a drum that provides the rhythm for the exercises.

Pahlavani practice involves a series of exercises performed to music and chanting, starting with acrobatics and juggling by a pishrav (novice). Athletes also swing huge, heavy clubs (mil), lift weights (some in the shape of iron bows), and perform push-ups and calisthenics. In one exercise, the men spin in circles and leap to the rhythm of the drum, an action that reminds me of Turkey’s whirling dervishes. The ritual ends with a wrestling match between two master pahlavans, one of whom is the zurkhaneh’s current champion and must defend his title against an opponent. The two men grasp each other tightly by the belt and try to knock the other off balance. The objective is to force the opponent’s shoulder to the floor. This form of wrestling is called koshti pahlevani (heroic wrestling).

The sport has its roots in pre-Islamic Persia and was banned soon after the Arab invasion that brought Islam to the country. The Arab invaders considered pahlavani clubs to be hotbeds of subversive activity. Pahlavani reached its peak of popularity the Qajar Dynasty (1785-1925), when Nasser-ed-Din Shah built a zurkhaneh in his palace and staged a big competition during the Persian New Year to select a national champion. Today, the sport is still going strong, with 450 zurkhanehs throughout Iran. In the Islamic Republic, there are even two schools of pahlavani: the traditionalists, who compete to the rhythm of poetry that praises the Prophet Mohammed and his family, and the nationalists, whose musical accompaniment retells the exploits of pre-Islamic kings and warriors.

I’ve never watched a real-live pahlavani competition, and it’s unlikely that I ever will in the Islamic Republic. Under current laws, women are banned from the zurkhaneh. Presumably the reasoning is that so much concentrated testosterone in one place would be too much for our weak sensibilities to take. However, zurkhaneh clubs have spring up all over the world in nearly every place where Iranian immigrants have put down roots, from Australia and Canada to Germany. Maybe there’s even is one in my California neighborhood. In the meantime, check out these video clips to get an idea of how this ancient, heroic sport is practiced.

A zurkhaneh in Esfahan

Athletes spinning

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