Stronger than tigers

Persian Zurkaneh trains the mind as well as the body

Athletics with heavy woodenclubs, pushups, iron bows and...poetry. An Iranian Zurkaneh team visited Leiden. 'It's pure Persian, and pure Shiite.'

(Het Nederlandstalige origineel staat hier)
“You are stronger than tigers, lions, elephants”, is how student Amin Ghodratzadeh (International Studies) translates the chants of the morshed, two men beating on large drums and singing classic Persian texts.
“Listen carefully. If Iran does not exist, my body does not exist.” While the drum beats accelerate, in the front part of the large hall of the Lipsius Building, an Iranian man spins round a terrifying speed, turning faster and faster like a spinning top. “Like a planet”.
A group of traditional Iranian athletes perform impressive push-ups on wooden planks, throwing themselves on the ground, catching themselves with their hands and pushing themselves up again. Mostafa Hosseinnejad (30), the group’s leader, holds a 24-kilo iron bow with heavy iron rings above his head and swings it to and fro to the music, while ever-increasing patches appear in his armpits. Next, the men show off their arm muscles by waving mils, wooden clubs weighing four, five or ten kilos, above their shoulders. They also juggle with them and one of the athletes hits the ceiling with a club, only narrowly missing a lamp.
“I was worried there, for a moment”, remarks Asghar Seyed-Gohrab, a senior lecturer of Persian Literature. “But I really admire the fact that they could give such a performance is such a small room.” He had wanted to fetch Iran’s finest Zurkhaneh team to Leiden for years. “I’m studying the trinity of Iranian poetry, politics and religion, which are combined in the traditional Iranian sport of Zurkhaneh.”
According to Seyed-Gohrab, Iran’s national sport is difficult to compare to sports as we know them in the West. “It’s a sport of strength but it trains the mind as well as the body.” An English translation of a Persian mystic text is projected on the wall, but it sounds racy rather than religious: “You wound with the plectrum my strings, while my wailing and groaning reaches the sky and night.” 
“God’s praises are sung as to a lover”, explains Seyed-Gohrab.
In Iran, Zurkhaneh is practised in a round building that bears the same name: the house of strength. “It has a low entrance so that everyone - whether a king or a beggar – must bow as he enters as a sign of respect. And the floor of the gowd, the arena where the athletes do their exercises, is covered in dust to remind the powerful athletes of the transience of the world.”
The audience has a chance to try its hand at Iranian exercises after the show. Tough guys – wearing sneakers and coats with fur collars – step forward but soon drop the heavy clubs on their shoulders instead of lifting them with a flourish of power. A man from the audience can barely lift the iron bow.
Although it is a traditional sport, Zurkhaneh is experiencing a revival. “For Iran, it’s a good sport to stimulate the youth: pure Persian and pure Shi’ite”, Seyed-Gohrab says. Nonetheless, he thinks that any attempts to export the sport will not really work. “Everyone will find the summersaults impressive, but whether the Persian poems will become popular in Japan, Korea or China remains to be seen.” PM

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Stronger than tigers

Athletics with heavy woodenclubs, pushups, iron bows and...poetry. An Iranian Zurkaneh …