Connect to share and comment

Iran's poetry of motion

What an ancient Persian martial art form tells us about Iran.

In the 20th century, though, the tradition began to weaken. Iranians were drawn to Western-style exercise, and to new diversions like cinema. The Zurkaneh was scorned as an unhealthy, smelly place full of uncouth ruffians. Besides, it was said, Zurkaneh exercises are unscientific and do not correctly develop the full body. The rich preferred polo, the middle-class football.

Zurkaneh might have faded away if the Iranian regime had not decided in 1934 to throw a nationwide celebration marking the thousandth birthday of Ferdowsi, the national poet and author of the Book of Kings. Since he is associated with Zurkaneh, many exhibitions were staged. In 1941, Radio Tehran began broadcasting the drumming and chanting of a morshed every morning, so people could practice at home. Zurkaneh programs were opened to women, children and non-Muslims, all of whom had traditionally been forbidden to witness them.

After Iran participated in the 1948 Olympics, the government decided that the path to sports glory lay in steering young athletes toward Olympic events. This led Iran to great success in wrestling and weightlifting, two Olympic sports closely linked to Zurkaneh. By siphoning off promising strongmen, however, it also further weakened the Zurkaneh tradition.

Today, hip young Iranians go to the gym, not the Zurkaneh. They lift weights instead of juggling barbells, and run on treadmills instead of twirling. Not many connect their training to spirituality. On their walls hang posters of action heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, not the Zurkahneh masters of past generations.

In remote towns, the Zurkaneh once furnished strong men to keep order. The swiftest of them became royal couriers. But as the modern age dawned over Iran, such men were no longer needed. Some Zurkaneh athletes became thugs-for-hire, or worked as enforcers for protection rackets.

When the CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt arrived in Tehran in 1953, assigned to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, he sought help from a powerful Zurkaneh leader called Shaban the Brainless. For a fee, Shaban placed his men at the head of riotous parades that threw Tehran into chaos.

“They started with the Zurkaneh giants, weight lifters who developed their physiques through a series of ancient Iranian exercises which included lifting progressively heavier weights,” one historian wrote of these parades. “The Zurkanehs had built up tremendous shoulders and huge biceps. Shuffling down the street together, they were a frightening spectacle. Two hundred or so of these weight lifters began the day by marching through the bazaar, shouting, 'Long Live the Shah!' and dancing and twirling like dervishes ... As the throng passed the offices of a pro-Mossadegh newspaper, men smashed the windows and sacked the place.”

The coup against Mossadegh was successful, and after returning to his throne, Mohammad Reza Shah rewarded Shaban with a yellow Cadillac and his own modern Zurkaneh. His athletes performed at public events like celebrations of the Shah's birthday.

In more recent years, Iran's religious regime has promoted the Zurkaneh tradition, portraying it as essentially Islamic. Political candidates seeking support from the poor sometimes campaign with famous Zurkaneh athletes.

At the Zurkaneh in Isfahan, athletes worked out for an hour and a half. They finished by lifting and swinging a steel plank to which a chain was attached on both ends. This apparatus, called a kabbada, is a stylized and far heavier version of the bow and arrow ancient Persian warriors used in their far-flung conquests.

One recent study of Zurkaneh concludes that it is has declined because it “could not withstand the influx of materialistic western concepts of sport.” But when poor Iranians seek connection to their rich history, the Zurkaneh is still one place they turn.

“I am a lonely searcher, looking in every house for the beloved,” the morshed chanted as this evening of mind/body exercise ended. “From deep in my chest I chant the name of God, and of Ali also. But Lord, the distance to you is so great that I cry tears of blood.”


More stories by Stephen Kinzer:

Opinion: Story not over in Iran 

Opinion: UN sanctions risk real progress on Iran 

Analysis: "It's over" in Iran

Analysis: Holiday in the "Axis of Evil"