Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Poets and Pahlevans


My name is Marcello Di Cintio and I am a writer based in Calgary, Canada. My latest book, Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran, chronicles my travels to Iran in 2003 and 2004. I would like to thank Mina for inviting me to be a guest on this blog and giving me the opportunity to share some of my Iranian experiences with her readers.

The purpose of my travels to Iran was to seek out two distinct ‘phenomena’ of Iranian culture. The first is the Iranian love of poetry. After reading about the great Persian poets and how they are revered by Iranians, I decided to make my own ‘pilgrimages’ to these poets’ tombs. My second focus was on traditional Persian wrestling. As a retired wrestler myself – I have the scarred ears to prove it – I was interested in the ancient wrestling forms that were practiced in the rural areas of Iran. I resolved to seek out these styles, if they still existed, as I traveled in Iran. Fortunately, for both myself and my publisher, I was successful in both pursuits.

I spent four and a half months in Iran altogether; six weeks in the summer of 2003 and another two months the following autumn. In that time I managed to travel through much of the country. I spent a fair but of time in Iran’s big cities. I learned the pleasures of sipping tea under Esfahan’s bridges. I joined the devotees of Hafez in Shiraz and the pilgrims of Emam Reza in Mashhad. Most importantly, perhaps, I learned how to cross streets of the capital without dying. In fact, when people ask me if I ever was afraid in Iran – and they ask me this all the time – I say I was most afraid of being run down by the motorcycles that sped along the sidewalks of Tehran.

However, my dual focus of wrestling and poetry led me into some of the country’s lesser-visited regions. I found myself a guest at a Turkmani wedding in a village near the border with Turkmenistan. There I watched alish wrestlers fight in the dust for the entertainment of the groom. I found the tomb of poet Parvin E’tesami amid the splendor of Qom’s Hazerat-e Masumeh. I broke the Ramazan fast with a family in a desert oasis, and shared a funeral meal with mourners in the Zagros Mountains.

In Iran, I became fascinated by the concept of the pahlevan. The word is common throughout the Middle East and can mean, simply, ‘wrestling champion.’ In Iran, however, the pahlevan holds a special cachet. The pahlevan is not just a gifted athlete, but a good man. He is a community leader, a good father and husband, a person of great integrity and honour. He represents a sort of masculine ideal. The pahlevan has its origins in poetry, namely a first-century epic poem called Shahnomeh written by the great Persian poet, Ferdosi. (His tomb in Tus was the first poet’s tomb I visited) In Shahnomeh, great warriors fight over and over again for the survival, and glory, of Persia. These men are the archetypal pahlevans.

The idea of the pahlevan is, arguably, an old fashioned one, but I had the good-fortune to encounter modern-day pahlevans during my travels. I met an eighty year-old wrestler in a zurkhane, a sort of archaic wrestling gymnasium. The man told me about his successes as a wrestler and about his former feats of strength. He also told me that a revival of the pahlevan tradition could change Iran for the better. Then he removed his shirt to show me the tattoos on his arms and chest. They were characters from Shahnomeh. I saw poetry and wrestling collide in ink on this man’s flesh.

This was not the last time I would see the combination of wrestling and poetry, however. At the annual loucho championships near the Caspian Sea coast, poems were sung before the competition began. Some of the poems were indigenous to that region of Iran, but verses from the Shahnomeh were also sung. An announcer recited poems of the great local poet Makhtumgoli before wrestlers battled for the groom at the Turkmani wedding. Sung poetry inspired the ritual exercises of the men in the zurkhanes.

For Iranians, though, none of this would be unexpected. I learned early on that, in Iran, poetry is everywhere. Taxi drivers recited poetry to me as we navigated the clogged streets. In the Tabriz bazaar, a kebab vendor, his shirt translucent with grease, took a moment to write for me on a napkin verses about traveling from the Shirazi poet Sa’adi. I met a man who told me that when he was a sailor in the Shah’s navy he used to read Molanna every night aboard his ship.

My favourite ‘poetic’ moment, though, came in a small village in the Sabalan Mountains in northwestern Iran. An eleven year-old Azeri boy asked me to write something for him in English. I wrote my name, my age and where I was from on a scrap of paper. I translated it for him, then I asked him to write something for me in Farsi. He tore a page out of his mathematics workbook and wrote two lines:

Answer my pleas,
You who are the Friend of Love.

That scrap of paper is one of my most treasured souvenirs from Iran.

Poets and Pahlevans started out as a traveler’s exploration of two divergent facets of Iranian culture. The book ended up, unsurprisingly, as a 300-page love letter to the Iranian people. A reviewer in Canada said that the best parts of the book are not my discussions of poetry or wrestling at all, but the moments I spend with everyday Iranians. I would say that the best thing about Iran is the Iranians themselves. If this book succeeds in portraying this reality to its readers then it is, for me, a success.

I want to thank Mina again for allowing me to commandeer her blog. If anyone is interested, Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran is available at bookstores in Canada, and through everywhere.

Best regards,
Marcello Di Cintio

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