Power Games; in Iran, Wrestling Is More Than Just a Sport. Dominic Byrne Visits a Tehran "House of Strength" to Find out Why

Article excerpt

"Nothing is easy in Iran, but there is always a way." An Iranian businessman makes small talk in the arrivals queue at the Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran. I nod with a knowing smirk. Numerous phone calls from London to the ministry of culture in Tehran eventually pushed through approval for my working visa application, albeit three days after I was supposed to fly out. Inconvenient, but I nevertheless feel slightly smug as I show my ten-day permit--a rare commodity these days--to the passport official.

A few days later I'm led to a backs of south Tehran, to a green door with stone steps that spiral downwards. As I descend, the drumming and wailing reverberate louder. This zurkhaneh, or "house of strength", where wrestlers meet for physical and spiritual training, is 300 years old. The traditions of the "sport of heroes", as it is called, go back more than two millennia to the Persian empire. Iran's martial art, I learn, means far more to Iranians than just a sport.

I am fortunate the zurkhaneh is open. Most are closed because it is a public holiday--the Heavenly Departure of Imam Khomeini, which remembers the former supreme leader's passing in 1989. Even Tehran's awful traffic--thanks to 15 million inhabitants and subsidised fuel prices at five pence a litre--has abated. Tehran means "end of the road", and the city does indeed finish where the Alborz Mountains to the north start. Beyond them is the Caspian Sea and plentiful oil and gas reserves. Today, a sallow smog obscures the remnants of snow on their peaks.

Wealthy Iranians live in marble high-rise blocks of flats in the fresher north, almost halfway up the mountainside. It's a ten-kilometre taxi ride to the humid streets of the more deprived south--smoky and noisy from the bustle of kebab sellers, revving mopeds and beeping horns. On the way, the taxi driver asks where I'm from. "Britain," I smile. He looks disappointed but then, with an ounce of irony, replies: "Anyway ... welcome to Iran."

Below the streets, inside the zurkhaneh, is a domed ceiling, and underneath this is a hexagonal pit where 15 well-built men are exercising, gracefully rolling weighty wooden clubs over their shoulders back to their barrel chests. It is oppressively hot and sweaty. Above them on a podium is the morshed--their "guide"--who plays a drum and chants what sounds to foreign ears like a call to prayer. It feels more like a place of worship than a gymnasium.

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Next, each man takes his turn to spin, arms outstretched, and at ferocious speed. My guide, Omid Khazani, tells me it's to prepare for dizziness in battle. Omid is a government "interpreter" who goes everywhere I go. In his inside jacket pocket he holds a permission letter with a list of interviewees and locations I've specified. If I travel beyond a 15-mile radius of central Tehran, he says politely, he has to make a phone call. He is softly spoken and extremely hospitable, but there is inevitably a little tension in the air.

Omid is, however, well informed about Persian history and culture. He tells me the morshed chants salutations to Shia imams. At other points in the ceremony, the morshed recalls mythical characters and battles from ancient Persian literature. At another, he cries: "Iran will not give one inch to foreign powers!" It's no wonder the national team has dominated Olympic-style wrestling for decades: Iran's cultural heritage, its politics and its religion are bound up in the sport.

The walls of the zurkhaneh are covered with framed pictures. …