Not into wrestling? How about Iranian wrestling?

By Gary Yeates

Zurkaneh, a gym and sport combo peculiar to Iran dating back millennia, has a literal translation that reads “House of Strength”. 

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With visions of creative pseudonyms, good guys and bad guys, a square ring and some good old fashioned WWF theatrics, albeit with a Persian twist, off we strode. Actually, off I strode, the wife took some convincing.

Contrary to my preconceptions, Zurkaneh was anything but professional wrestling. No Hussein the Assassin using all his underhanded tactics to pummel poor Mahmud the Likeable into submission. No brain busters, sleeper holds, full nelsons or even a sly, desperate squirrel grip. Zurkaneh had history and tradition tattooed on its forehead.

Yazd is an atmospheric Iranian desert city and its version of Zurkaneh is set inside an ancient water reservoir under a mud brick dome the shape of a giant rugby ball. Entering the subterranean gym was a portal into a few of the complexities that embodies one of the planet’s prouder cultures.

The body odour was thick enough to grab a fist full from the air that enveloped a small sunken circular ring, the gaud. All around was an array of buffed-up training implements which wouldn’t have looked out of place in an S and M torture chamber.

The participants, all male, came in every shape and size, aged from 7 to 70, sporting knee length batik-like patterned shorts held in place by a thick leather belt. This uniformity of outfit exuded a sense of collective spirit despite the diverse physical appearances.

Prior to entering the gaud, the athletes were required to purge themselves of sins by kissing the floor, passing on some well placed reverence and then seeking permission from the “murshed”.

The murshed were the heart and soul of the session and had a much higher calling than simply granting consent to enter the gaud. From a pulpit-like box overseeing the entire enclosure, these two conducted the rhythm of the session via the beating of drums and chanting of Persian poetry. During the length and breadth of the hour long period, they worked up a sweat equivalent to the fellows in the ring.

Back in the ring and a strict pecking order was observed. From the “nowcheh” (rookies), right through to the “pahlavan i pahlavanon”, (champion of champions) who conducted the group of around twenty through their paces.

Zurkaneh isn’t so much a contest but more an 80’s aerobic workout, an 1180’s aerobic workout, as if nothing has morphed in a thousand years. Whilst the health benefits of the routine were obvious, the accompanying murshed’s chants were dense with the poetic connotations of religion, art, literature and patriotic fervour giving the entire process an ambience as far removed as imaginable from Olivia Newton John getting physical.

To the people of Iran, Zurkaneh is not simply viewed as a means to shed the odd excess kilo but rather an intricate ingredient in developing an awareness of their rich cultural tapestry. Coming to Iran? Don’t miss the opportunity.

Gary Yeates is a former English Teacher who eventually morphed into a French and Spanish teacher. With that now a distant memory, he has spread his wings and regularly traverses the planet, chronicling and photographing the events. Back in his home town in Sydney, he is also attempting to cross the thin journalistic line into more feature based writing. See more at the www.thegreyglobe.co