Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Houses of Strength

Houses of Strength or zurkhaneh are neighborhood places all over the country where men can gather to work out. The space itself is quite simple: the walls are filled with photographs of previous athletes and other memorabilia, exercise equipment lines the octagonal sunken area, large enough for 10 or 15 men to practice a set series of exercises in unison. We spent an evening watching a practice in Esfahan.

In addition to the physical exercises designed to built strength (slinging about Indian clubs, lifting a heavy plank of wood while lying on your back, using heavy metal bows to build shoulder strength) and balance (whirling about as fast as possible with your arms outstretched), there is a spiritual component as well. The practice originated in pre-Islamic Persia but now incorporates various Islamic virtues as well: strength, courage and respect for Mohammed and the Imams.

The leader of the zurkhaneh, usually a former athlete, sits on a raised platform, playing the drum, and singing from Shanameh and Hafez. He also instructs the athletes after the ritualized exercise is over and asks them questions such as “Why were you late to the practice this evening?”

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