Varzandeh and the legacy of traditional physical education

To appreciate the obstacles Varzandeh faced when he set out to introduce modern sports to Iran, it is useful to look at the state of physical education in the country before his arrival on the scene. In urban Iran, physical exercises were carried out by male athletes, termed pahlavans, in zurkhanehs, houses of strength (or force), which date back at least to Timurid times. The main function of the various exercises was to prepare athletes for wrestling, then the only zurkhaneh discipline that was competitive. The best wrestlers found employment at Court and at the establishments of elite Iranians whom they entertained with their displays of strength and dexterity.8 Since there were no weight classes, the most successful athletes were also the heaviest, and pahlavan connoted someone who was, if not obese, at least bulky.

In 1874 Prince E‘tezad al-Saltaneh,9 the minister of science of Naser al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96), asked the Dar al-Fonun school in Tehran to draw up a manual of gymnastics and wrestling based on the traditional exercises of the zurkhaneh. Iran was in the midst of a famine and two epidemics,10 and the shah hoped to improve public health by encouraging physical exercise. The Dar al-Fonun, founded in 1851 and Iran’s only modern school at the time, employed a number of European teachers and was an appropriate setting for such an endeavour. The general Qajar attitude to European culture was to adapt rather than to adopt;11 taking native practices and systematizing them for a novel purpose was in line with such an outlook. The resulting treatise, authored by one ‘Ali Akbar b. Mehdi al-Kashani, bears the title Ganjineh-ye koshti (Treasure of wrestling), but it was not published and zurkhaneh exercises were never introduced in Iranian schools.12

One can only guess why the project was never implemented. One reason may be the generally haphazard, unsystematic, and short-term manner in which reforms were instituted in the Naseri era.13 But there is probably more to the disinclination to introduce the ways of the zurkhaneh to the nascent modern educational system. Contrary to the official narrative on “ancient sport” that came into being in the 1930s, which presented the institution as a depository of noble and chivalrous values inherited from Persia’s glorious preIslamic past, zurkhanehs had a much more ambiguous reputation in Iranian society. While many were indeed imbued with spirituality, others attracted thuggish elements that at times terrorized neighbourhoods. Hygiene was poor, and it was well known that homoerotic practices were tolerated in some of them.14 In other words, they were not the type of institution from which patriotic reformers, bent on revitalizing the Iranian nation, could draw inspiration. It is therefore not astonishing that the pioneers of modern sport in Iran almost completely ignored the zurkhaneh tradition and preferred to import Western methods wholesale; in Varzandeh’s writings we do not find any reference to Iran’s traditional exercises.

And yet, it was the tough, bulky pahlavans of the zurkhaneh and their heavy muscle-building instruments that informed the average Iranian’s conception of athleticism and manliness. The Swedish callisthenics taught by Varzandeh struck traditional people as frivolous if not effeminate, and he was criticized for making his pupils dance, dancing being considered a dishonourable activity.15 ‘Isa Sadiq, a pioneer of modern education in Iran, wrote in his memoirs that Varzandeh’s efforts were met with hostility by conservatives, who called callisthenics varjeh-vurjeh (horsing around) and declared them to be contrary to human dignity: “But with his pleasant demeanour, wit, and sacrifice Varzandeh was able to set up physical education classes in a few schools.”16

It took time for Iranians to take to the new exercises, and many were never convinced. In April 1934 Robert Byron, the English traveller, was taken by

Herrick B. Young, the American librarian of the American College, to a zurkhaneh. Young had become “aware of this institution by hearing his pupils disparage Swedish drill in favour of it.” Byron agreed with the pupils:

The orchestra of drum, voice, and bell played throughout, slackening and quickening its rhythm, so that the performers were visibly responding to a musical impulse, faces and bodies were vivid with enjoyment, and the contrast with Swedish drill, as it transforms the hope of Europe into ranks of gesticulating automata, became even more painful to us than to [the] Persian pupils.17

Given the powerful build of traditional Iranian pahlavans, Varzandeh was at first not taken seriously because he was by comparison slight in stature. The story is told that when he was introduced to the prime minister, who was tall and expected to see someone even bigger than himself, the latter said in jest: “It’s with this small body that you have created such a stir?” In response, Varzandeh quoted Sa‘di’s verse Asb-e laghar miyan be kar ayad / Ruz-e meydan, na gav-e parvari (On the day of battle a lean horse is useful, not a fat cow). The prime minister in question was probably Reza Pahlavi himself.18

More than a decade later, Varzandeh explained how his ideals differed from those embodied in Iran’s traditional athletic practices:

When I ask people to come to the club, they say they want to be strong. The aim of physical education is neither to become a pahlavan, nor an acrobat, nor a weight-lifter. What is it, then? The aim is to be healthy; have a long life; be jovial, well humoured, clear minded, brave, and disciplined; meaning that one should be absolutely dutiful, love one’s king and one’s nation, and thus become a complete human being. Gentlemen: one has to admit that technique (fann) has no homeland. All methods that the civilized countries have accepted and from which they derive benefit, we have to accept as well. I am not saying that the sports offered at the Varzandeh Club are the best, but I can state with confidence that they are the same that are practised in civilized countries.19

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