Iran’s gyms, a clash of the ancient and the modern

The ‘houses of strengths’ reflect a society torn between Western influence and a continuing traditional culture

March 24, 2018 08:37 pm | Updated 08:53 pm IST

Bulking up:  Iranians train with wooden clubs during a workout session at the traditional Shir Afkan “zurkhaneh” (house of strength) in Tehran.

Bulking up: Iranians train with wooden clubs during a workout session at the traditional Shir Afkan “zurkhaneh” (house of strength) in Tehran.

A few streets and several centuries apart, Iran’s gyms come in distinctive breeds, ancient and hyper-modern, reflecting a society torn between outside influences and the continuing strength of religious ritual.

The musical differences are among the most striking. In the shiny new Sport Plus gym in central Tehran, the soundtrack is all pounding DJ mixes and dirty basslines imported from Europe.

Ten minutes down the road at the ‘zurkhaneh’, or ‘house of strength’, a bespectacled man sits in a booth with a large drum on his lap, beating out a rhythm with his fingers, occasionally clanging a bell and calling out mournful pleas to Imam Ali — the beat no less energetic, but doused in ancient history.

The workout takes place in an octagonal pit in front of him, using the same equipment, modelled on medieval weapons, that has existed for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years: huge wooden clubs called ‘meels’, clanging metal contraptions that resemble an archer’s bow, and a huge shield known as the ‘sang’. The physique that comes from working out with these items — along with the ritualised press-ups, spins and wrestling — is the sort of barrel-chested heft that might fatally be confused for obesity.

Meanwhile, under the soft neon lighting of the Sport Plus gym, the musculature is of a more preening variety. Quadriceps and abdominals are precisely sculpted and are accompanied by nose jobs and tattoos, the objective being physical beauty as well as fitness.

Stark contrasts

Here they serve energy drinks and smoothies, while the zurkhaneh still brings you chai in a little white cup and saucer. The contrasts might be stark, but neither feels out of place in today’s Tehran.

A globalised, consumer class has re-established itself in recent years, bringing hipster coffee shops, avant-garde galleries and Western-style gyms to every neighbourhood.

That has eaten away at Iran’s traditional culture, but not as much as sometimes feared. The deep roots of Persian culture, from the bazaar to the mosque to old pastimes like the zurkhaneh still command a powerful allegiance. “This sport didn’t start yesterday. It goes back 700 or 800 years,” said Hossein Peykanfar, 62, a retired factory owner who comes regularly to this zurkhaneh in the Khosh neighbourhood of southwest Tehran.

In fact, zurkhaneh’s roots are unclear. Some see its history going back to Persia’s pre-Islamic martial societies, but today it has become entwined with Shiism, as much about modesty and religious devotion as brawn. “The very foundation of it is Islam. Without the prayer recitals, there is no point,” said Mr. Peykanfar. There are still around 1,000 zurkhanehs in Iran, the government says.

But lifestyles are changing and the rigid rituals of the zurkhaneh no longer fit the routines of busy urbanites. “You’re in charge of your time here,” said Pooryia Akhoondi, 35. “And with body-building, you get more attention.”

Modern life has wrought other changes, too. “In old times, those doing this sport had a special kind of honesty, a gentlemanly behaviour. I’m not saying it’s not there now, but it’s faded,” said Ali Masoumi, 38, the ‘meshed’ performing the music from the booth.

“The people in charge of the sport today don’t understand the rituals,” he said, complaining about the lack of support for mesheds.

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