Zurkhaneh in Esfahan
19.06.2012 - 19.06.2012 28 °C
Late night in a dark backstreet of Esfahan. An anonymous door leads to an old gymnasium illuminated by strip lights. The walls are decorated with photos of local wrestling champions. Sweaty men, leather chaps and the hypnotic beat of the drum: welcome to the House of Strength!
One experience in Esfahan deserves an entry of its own - our visit to the zurkhaneh, i.e. "The House of Strength". The activity is perhaps best described as a type of "spiritual athleticism". Zurkhaneh is a very old Iranian tradition, founded here but also practiced in Azerbaijan, Iraq, and other countries. The first zurkhaneh world championships were held in 2009, involving teams from as far afield as Lithuania and South Africa.
It is not widely advertised but we had been lucky enough to bump in to Ali, a friendly and eccentric guide from Esfahan, who had recommended checking it out. On the Tuesday we gave him a call asking him if it would be possible to watch the zurkhaneh the same evening. "No problem" he said, and we agreed that he would pick us up at our hotel later.
Ali arrived on time and we began our 20 minute walk to the old town of Esfahan. The walk turned out to be a major part of the experience as Ali himself is quite a character. A geologist by training, he had now retired and worked as a local tour guide, dazzling people like us with his ability to talk incessantly in both English and French, and with his BMW car - a rarity in Iran. After a while he asked us if we knew the American show "The Daily Show". "I was on it!" he told us proudly. The Daily Show travelled in Iran in 2009, trying to present a more nuanced picture of the country. In Ali, and many others with him, they found what they were looking for. They started asking him and others easy questions like who's the current President of the US, former presidents etc. Ali knew all the answers. They then started asking him more difficult questions, on the US judiciary system and constitution. Ali knew the answers to that and all the other questions they asked. The journalists were completely amazed. In the programme, they also went to Times Square in New York and asked Americans similar questions about Iran. You can guess what comes next - the Americans didn't have a clue.
You can watch the clip here http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-june-23-2009/jason-jones--behind-the-veil---ayatollah-you-so. Ali is the guy in glasses and blue shirt.
Stopping for some snacks before the show
Ali's intense explanations and eccentric style proved to be a highlight of the evening
Ali led us into the labyrinth of backstreets in his local neighbourhood. We came to a darkened doorway around which some burly local men were loitering. With a couple of words from Ali we were admitted inside to a small gym with a pit sunk about a metre into the floor in the middle of the room. We took a seat on the chairs arranged around the pit. This is a spectator sport even for locals, but tonight we were the only fans in the house. Meanwhile several local men loitered at the edge of the pit, getting changed into strange long leather shorts (much like lederhosen) and getting psyched up for the exercises to come.
Scene in the zurkhaneh gym, including the local "wall of fame"
As we watched on, the sport began. The leather-clad men took up position around the sides of the pit, and an older man - topless but for an open leather waistcoat - took up position on a raised platform above the pit. This was the leader, and as he beat his drum and chanted the sportsmen in the ring set to work on their exercises.
The multi-talented musical leader - here playing a flute while Ali sang extracts from Iranian poets, later playing a drum and reciting poetry himself
In time with the beating of the drum, they ran through various routines: lifting and juggling heavy wooden clubs, dancing on the spot, press ups and rolls, and head-turning spins. Sometimes they would join in with the leader and chant in time with the drumbeat. There was focused determination written on the faces of the participants, and the exercises and chanting were perfectly coordinated with the leader's drum beating.
Lifting heavy wooden clubs to get started
Those leather pants look pretty tight...
Juggling heavy wooden clubs
Spinning very fast
So what exactly were we witnessing? Zurkhaneh is a kind of spiritual workout, strictly for men only (Helena was allowed in as a foreigner, hence an honorary man). In the West, we like to work out to techno music; but Iran being a deeply civilised nation prefers to work to poetry. The drumbeat and chanting of the leader is verses from Iran's national poets, a group of individuals at the heart of Iranian national identity. The smell of the gym left us in no doubt of the physical component of the activity. The participants also chanted a group blessing for us, their only spectators that evening, which the leader translated. Zurkhaneh is thus a blend of poetry, music, spirituality and working out. We felt privileged to be able to watch.
After an hour or so, the spectacle was over. The men dipped and touched the floor of the pit then touched their head in prayer before jumping out to slip off their leather gear, get back into their normal clothes and melt into the night. They would be back at the same time tomorrow; they do their exercises every night. We made a small contribution to the gym - the Iranian government subsidises sports such as football, but not zurkhaneh, for reasons we never managed to learn - and left.
Group shot after another great poetry recital/workout session