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Guy Jaouen, Traditional wrestling in Iran

Guy Jaouen, Traditional wrestling in Iran

TRADITIONAL WRESTLING IN IRAN: The Great Nation of Wrestling

Guy Jaouen,
Independent Researcher and Author in Sport Anthropology (France).
President of ITSGA – Global platform for Traditional Sports & Games

pdfGuy Jaouen Traditional wrestlin in Iran.pdf

This article was produced following a research trip by Petar Petrov and myself, both delegates of ITSGA, dedicated to traditional wrestling in Iran from March 30 to April 14, 2019. The visits were organized mainly in the North and North West (see the map) with the support of the Iranian Federation of Rural Sport and Indigenous Games, and its president Gholamreza Jafari (Vice-president of ITSGA in 2019 – International Traditional Sports & Games Association) who occupied a position that could be compared to that of the 'delegate minister' in Iran.

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Big statute of wrestlers on a round-about at one entry of the town of Esfarayen. Guy Jaouen and Petar Petrov are on the photo with some IRSLG leaders.

Iran is a vestige of the ancient Persian Empire and geographically it is three times the size of France (where I live). The country borders are Pakistan to the south, with Afghanistan to the east, Turkmenistan to the northeast, Iraq to the west, Turkey and Azerbaijan to the northwest. In 2020, it is a country with a population of 80 million inhabitants. Its largest cities are Tehran (10 million), Masshad (4 million), Isfahan (2 million), Tabriz (1.5 million). A high population density is located in a geographical belt bordering the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, that is to say the green and richest region of the country. Central and southern Iran comprises of mostly deserts, and the west and northeast are mountainous. The country is approximately 90% Shiite Muslim, and has never been Arabized. In fact, the ancient Zoroaster religion merged with Islam and forms a very particular Islam, referred to as Shiite, which represents ancient Persia through Iranian cultural heritage. The ancient festivals remain important today, in particular that of the New Year, or Nowruz, celebrated on March 21st, and in 2019, we were invited to be part of these festivals organized for 10 days after the New Year.
Iran is a mosaic of many different ethnicities, cultures and languages. The two primary ones are the Indo-European and the Turkish. The majority of Iranians speak a language derived from the Iranian group (Persian, Kurdish, Baluchi) and they all understand Persian, the official language of Iran. However, it should be noted that the linguistic area of Indo-Iranian languages extends from Turkish Kurdistan to central India, including Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The country therefore represents a large mosaic descending from the great Persian Empire, and each of these entities has developed its own personality, its own culture, its own sporting games. Indeed, so-called sporting practices arise mainly from cultural practices. They are the creations of a culture and the fruit of a particular history. They are the expression of a way of living and acting, of an original way of communicating with others. Traditional sports games are part of the body heritage of a culture, like dances and theatre, and they stage resurgences rooted in the deep memory of the social group concerned.
Iran is one of the greatest 'nations' of wrestling. It is not coincidence that the world federation of wrestling (UWW) offers a translation of its web site into Farsi (Persian). Many styles still exist in Iran however it is sometimes difficult to know if, for some, these styles are different or similar wrestling styles merely with a different name. Indeed, as with the several dozens of modalities of ‘palet’ (quoit) or skittle games and some other sporting practices in other regions of the world, it seems that there was clearly been a sort of competition, or emulation, in order to stand out from the neighboring region (neighboring ethnic group in Iran). The Pahlevani Research Institute in Tehran presents 19 wrestling styles in the country, but I was only able to observe some of them during my trip (see the numbers on the map).

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The IRSLG (Iran Rural Sports & Local Games) federation is the organization responsible for sport and indigenous games in rural areas, with a concerned population of 20-25 million people. The organization was overhauled in 2015 to ensure a balanced sharing, and access, of sport facilities and activities in rural communities. This is both for conventional sports in general and for indigenous sports & games: all wrestling styles, tug of war, Mas wrestling, Persian archery, popular horse racing, rifle shooting from horseback, archery from horseback, etc. One of its missions is to revitalize indigenous practices by organizing specific festivals to promote cultural values. In 2019, the IRSLG was present in 31 provinces, representing 1059 local sections (in very large multi-sport clubs). Another role of the organization is to help empower people and to improve the level of social health (global) of the communities.
So, traditional wrestling styles in Iran are numerous but there is no specific federation dedicated to the oversight, management, and support of all of these styles. These numerous styles are under the umbrella of the IRSLG, which basically only provides insurance. These wrestling styles are divided into two main groups:
A) Styles in which lifting the opponent for a few seconds, or throwing him to the ground is considered a victory, with the condition that no part of the attacker's body touches the ground first.
B) Styles in which victory is achieved by throwing the opponent directly onto his back, or by causing him to fall to his side and then (without interrupting the movement) rolling him onto his back.

1 - Zurkhaneh, a style prevalent in big cities
The basis for this style utilizes athletic and flexibility exercises (or Varzesh-e Pahlavani), which includes a form of wrestling, all practiced in the traditional Iranian gymnasium. This arena is an octagonal pit where athletes (Pahlevans) train to the rhythm of the sounds of drums and other percussion instruments. This practice has its roots in pre-Islamic culture and represented a form of cultural resistance after the Arab conquest. After the Islamisation of Persian society, this resistance turned into support for Shiite values in the face of Sunnism. Chivalric values and moral qualities are required from pahlevans.

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2 - Zoran style, province of Kermanshah and Kurdistan (Iranian Kurdistan, Kurdish language)
The position is very similar to the back-hold style (Scotland and Northern England), however the head side position is decided by lot. The wrestlers position themselves and are supposed to be chest to chest to begin the contest. We can note that the starting position is not stabilized by the referees, which can create confusing situations. The categories are -75, -85, -95, 95-115. The time for a bout comprises 5 minutes + 3 minutes of overtime in the event of a draw. The perfect result is to throw the opponent onto the back, or sideways and immediately roll him onto the back.

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Zoran Style

A fall on a knee = 1pt, a broken guard position = 1pt. Points only count at the end of the overtime. The federation renovated the old style around 2015 and is trying to revive the style with freestyle wrestlers. Despite the rule that it is a standing style of wrestling, I have seen attackers first falling down on their backs or buttocks to throw the opponent. We can observe the same break of the rules when the attacker gets down on his knees to make an attack, which clearly shows that the automatisms of freestyle wrestling have distorted the old style (in fact, when attackers does like this, they should lose automatically). Furthermore, the renovation attempt has failed several times because the interest is now centered on obtaining medals in Olympic wrestling, a source of social recognition and a way to obtain a good job.

3 - Ashirma style, province of Azerbaijan (Tabriz region, Azeri language)
It is a style of wrestling where the hands must keep the same position on a leather belt. However, the belt grip (the guard) is done in a different way from the Goresh style of Golestan (Turkmenistan Style). In fact, the right arm goes over the right shoulder to take hold on the back at the belt and the left hand takes hold on the belly at the belt. Wrestlers must maintain this guard throughout the bout. The categories are -66, -74, -84, -96, 96-120kg. The bout has 2 periods of 3 minutes. The perfect result is throwing the opponent onto his back. A fall on 1 knee = 1pt, broken guard = 1pt. A voluntary exit from the wrestling area = 1pt. The two 3-minute periods are a direct transfer from the rules of Olympic wrestling.

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Ashirma Style

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Wrestling is often accompanied by musicians and a specific music

4 - Gileh-Mardi style, Gilan province (Gilaki language)
‘Gileh-Mardi’ is practiced in the two northern provinces of Iran along the Caspian Sea, Mazandaran and Golestan. At the beginning, the wrestlers line up in a column and follow a religious ritual, such as taking a step towards Mecca, kissing the ground, looking at the sky while jumping, which means approaching God. Today, Gileh-Mardi is generally practiced alongside wedding ceremonies, from June to September, when the rice harvest is finished. In the past it was also to celebrate the end of the main agricultural works, or at fairs. Its specificity is that the tournament always starts in the evening, after work and obligations, and can end after midnight. Wrestling bouts are permanently accompanied by musicians. The cultural associations which organize these events have only very recently deemed it useful to have weight categories (- and + 72kg), once again under the influence of Olympic wrestling and the wrestling federation in Iran. It is also only recently that a combat of 2 times 4 minutes has been introduced.

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The bout starts with a challenge commenced by one of the wrestlers. In a ritualistic sense it resembles a dance to challenge a potential opponent. When another wrestler approaches and touches his hands, this signifies that he accepts the challenge. If the first wrestler considers that this wrestler is of his class (his level of skill) the fight begins with wrestlers who first continue to dance to symbolize the challenge, bent forward, swinging their arms as if they were going to fight (see photo), but also in order to create ‘openings’ for combat. As soon as the opportunity is found, one of the wrestlers grabs his opponent and attempts to throw him down. Any fall of the opponent results in victory, as well as keeping the opponent lifted for 2 or 3 seconds, which a priori does not justify a combat time limit. At the end of the fight the winner kisses his opponent. The winner of the tournament is given a sort of puppet, symbol of victory (photo, with musicians). There are 12 tournaments and each lasts around 15 to 20 evenings! Around 40 to 50 wrestlers usually sign up. It appears that this style is practiced and experienced at least as much as a ritual ceremony as than a sporting activity.

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5 - Loucho style, Mazandaran province (Tabari language)
The Loucho style is widely practiced around Amol, Babol and Ghaemshahr. In fact, the “loucho” is a wooden stick 3 meters long and is used to display the cash prizes, but cash prizes are also collected from the villagers (goats, sheep, gifts, etc.). At the end of the tournament, the winner of each category will collect the prizes, attached to the stick, and will carry the Lucho itself in his hand as a symbol of victory. Loucho is organized during the villagers' free time, over one or several days, depending on possibilities. In the past, Loucho was arranged during religious vigils, major festivals, wedding ceremonies, after the rice harvest or during fairs.

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All athletes from neighboring villages are invited to participate. After the opening ceremony, challenges are organized to find opponents. Today the bout is 2 times 3 minutes. The goal is mainly to throw the opponent to the ground. Several results are counted as a fall: 1 knee + 1 elbow; 2 knees; 1 knee + head or shoulder; the back; the whole thigh; the belly.
The wrestlers cannot leave the circle drawn on the ground (approximately 12 m in diameter). If there is a draw, a special system is used to determine the winner by using a 2nd circle drawn in the center of the 1st, with a diameter of approximately 5m. The first who exits this circle loses. The technical results always remain valid, but forcing the opponent to leave the big circle is also a way to get the victory.

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Every year, there are approximately 90 to 100 tournaments organized with around 80 to 100 participants. Each village has its tournament. This style of wrestling was once used to resolve conflicts between families. For this, each family chose a representative and it was the winner who determined which family emerged with resolution, with their heads held high, having won the conflict of honor.

6 – Kordkuy or Koshti Ba-Shawl style, Golestan and Mazandaran provinces
Wrestling with a shawl – Koshti means 'wrestling' in Persian language. The Ba-Shawl style is practiced in a fairly limited territory, between the large city of Gorgan and that of Behshahr. For a neophyte, it is disconcerting to discover this wrestling style because once again it seems like a rite. The style was mainly practiced during spring festivals and weddings. Not so long ago practiced outdoors, Ba-Shawl wrestling tournaments are now mainly organized indoors, with a limited number of spectators. It seems that once again the influence of the modern organization of wrestling (sport) has introduced various prohibitions ('said' or 'unsaid'), which are referred to as modernization by others. The prizes, traditionally, were sheep, rolls of fabric, young cows and even money, given by local economic benefactors and awarded to the winners. Today every winner of a bout receives a small symbolic prize.
It is the former Olympic freestyle wrestling champion, Eisa Momeni from the village of Yesaqi (around 8,000 inhabitants) who welcomed us, as was the case with Fardin Masoumi (Olympic and world champion) in Rasht (Gilan province). These former champions are often employed by the IRSLG federation as regional coordinators. According to our informants, this area has provided very great champions, with the percentage of wrestlers (in different styles) exceeding 50% in the same age group as was also sometimes the case in some villages in the north of England or Brittany, two other old wrestling places.
The Yesaqi tournament had 18 participants and in this western area of Gorgan city there are only 100-120 wrestlers participating in the 8-10 annual tournaments. However, we can wonder why to introduce so many weight categories: -65 (sixty-five kilos or less); -75; -85; -95; 95-130, for a practice which today mainly resembles a ritualized game. Indeed, many participants came to try out a particular style where they get entangled with long rolled shawl (probably a sort of turban originally).

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The installation of the two wrestlers (generally from the crouching position) can take several minutes, and it is often necessary for the referees themselves to arrange the shawls correctly. The shawl is crossed to make an eight (8) figure, with one turn at the waist and another at the top of the leg (right or left).

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Once the wrestlers have taken grip, with one hand on the belt and the other on the leg, the referee gives the signal and the wrestlers stand up and attack (standing-up wrestling). As the position requires a very close hand-to-hand fight, the outcome is generally very quick. The winner is the one who can put the back (by a direct fall or by rolling the opponent), or even the knee, of his opponent to the ground.

7 – Goresh style, Golestan province (Turkmen language)
The Goresh style is practiced by the Turkmen populations of Golestan. It is a belt wrestling style similar to the Tatar style and many other Central Asian wrestling styles, also similar to Lucha Leonesa in Spain. We can say that all these styles were strongly influenced by the everyday clothing in the sense that the protagonists held on to the piece used to keep their pants, often a fabric belt, a sort of shawl. This social recreation was generally practiced during weddings and on the occasion of religious festivals with tournaments organized on soft ground around the village or on the grounds of a fair. The referees were chosen from former wrestlers, which is basically a universal custom. The organizer announced the prizes to be won: ‘Bayragh’, i.e. animals, money, and rolls of fabric. There were no weight categories or time limits a few years ago. The bout is lost as soon as the hand or any other part of the body touches the ground.

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Like almost everywhere in the world of traditional wrestling, spectators stand in a circle such that everyone can see and experience the moment to the fullest, with the best visual perspective.

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Wrestlers must roll up their pants such that the pant does not interfere with leg hooking techniques.

In 2019, it was the federation officials who welcomed us to Gonbade, then invited us to a wedding. The afternoon was devoted to the bouts in honor of the bride and groom and their families who had put three goats up for grabs as well as some cash prizes (the equivalent of €50-60 for the 1st place). After a few bouts reserved symbolically for family and friends, the wrestlers were called and approximately fifty athletes stood in a circle around the track, aged 20 to 40 years old. The contests were organized as a challenge. The referee positioned the wrestlers, gave them a belt and checked that it was tightened correctly. To ensure a good adjustment, a terracotta brick (such as those to construct houses) was placed between the belt and the back, then removed, which is supposed to allow the wrestlers the necessary space to place their hands. This region is the last to practice this technique, as well as the organization of wrestling to celebrate marriages. In the starting guard position, the wrestlers must each grasp the other's belt from behind, on either side, and one hand must be wrapped by the belt around the wrist.
A few years ago, the sportification process of the Goresh further imposed five weight categories whose values fluctuate: in 2019 -75; - 82; - 90; - 100; + 100kg. The time of the bout was limited to 3 minutes and the possibility of a victory by points was added to the rules. A fall counts 1 point, and you need at least two falls to win the bout before 3 minutes. The fall is equivalent to that of the Scottish Back-Hold, which is to say that a fall on any part of the body gives victory. If at the end of the bout time a wrestler has 1 point, he wins. If there is a draw, then extra time is decided. The competition is by direct elimination. Some years ago indoor competitions were also initiated, on mats. In 2016, a first international tournament was organized, on mats, with the participation of Turkmenistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. A second was organized in 2019. That same year the young federation was offered a head office in Gonbade-Kavoos. Today training is done in large multi-sport clubs. There are only a small number of coaches who visit 6-7 clubs once a week. There are around twenty official tournaments, including two organized at the time of important holidays (20-25,000 spectators for one of them).

8 – Ba-Choukhe style, or Kurdish wrestling, in the 3 provinces of Khorasan (Kurdish language).
The Ba-Choukhe style was formerly practiced by the predominantly Kurdish populations of the North-East of the country. It is a wrestling style with jacket similar to the Chidaoba of Georgia and also the Gouren of Brittany. Here again this style was strongly influenced by everyday clothing because 'Choukhe' means vest in the Kurdish language. Ba-Choukhe is therefore a wrestling style with a wool or linen jacket, open and held by a fabric belt, the same as in Turkmenistan. The pants should not fall below the knee. This outfit is very close to that of British Cornish wrestling and its Irish cousin, the Collar and Elbow wrestling style. Wedding celebrations and calendar festivals were also an opportunity to get together with tournaments organized on soft ground around the village.

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The arena, or Gout, of Esfarayen, the great tournament organized on the 13th and 14th days after the Persian New Year. 210 wrestlers were registered in 2019 and around 20,000 spectators were present (photo).

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Leaders of regional administration and federation at Esfarayen 2019 (Jafari is 3rd from left).

Until the beginning of the 2000s there were only a few tournaments each year, but with the arrival of social networks since the 2010s each village wants to have its wrestling arena because it is the only major village entertainment in the year and today there are, on average, 50-60 tournaments per annum. These arenas, called Gout (pronounced 'gaout'), are in practice large pits dug into a hill, then low walls are built from the low point in order to create different terraces to accommodate the spectators (see photo). The wrestling area is sand that is stirred so that it is soft. It is an ingenious solution, cheap for local finances and which does not destroy the environment. In 2019 there were also several indoor mats tournaments.
As I explained in the first part of the article there are no specific federations representing the majority of the various styles. They are all grouped under the umbrella of the Iranian IRSLG federation which primarily provides the necessary insurance. There are no specific clubs but a few (judo) clubs partly fill this lack of organizational support for the best of them. Other players must therefore find solutions to train. As it is often construction workers or shepherds who participate in order to earn a little money, they sometimes train at their workplace, like for example the peasants of Brittany in the beginning of 20th century. However, in 2016 the Ministry of Sports had attributed this style to the Olympic wrestling federation, but as it did absolutely nothing to promote it, players demanded its return to the IRSLG after less than a year. Considering the current growing interest for this style (around 10,000 competitors are insured for this style, plus entries from judokas and freestyle wrestlers) a sort of national committee was created, under the IRSLG. It should also be noted that during my stay the television offered a debate between promoters of a more or less professional international Ba-Choukhe federation and representatives of the IRSLG. This form of professionalism is probably inspired by the 'Grands Prix' system that the UWW, or also the international tennis federation, judo, etc…, has promoted.

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Public at Esfarayen and musicians at Nodeh, another tournament, 2 days before.

New weight categories and bout time limit were introduced quite recently: -65, -75, -85, - 95, +95kg. In the 1980s, three categories were introduced, -70, 70-80 and +80. The time is 5 minutes + 3 minutes in case of a draw with extra-time (in 1983, it was 10 minutes and 5 minutes). If after 8 minutes there is still a draw, the 2 wrestlers are weighed and the lighter is declared the winner. A perfect fall gives an immediate victory as in the Gouren of Brittany. This is the result of the opponent fall on one or both shoulders, either directly or while rolling in the same movement. Probably coming from a resurgence of ancient rites, this can also be a front fall of the opponent on both palms of the hands and both elbows (!!). Finally this can be when the opponent is lifted, bent 90 degrees and the attacker turns so that the shadow of his opponent disappears. These last two elements seem to go back to the night of time... The system of perfect fall and time limit system imposes intermediate results: 1 fall on both hands and knees = 1 point; 1 fall on the hip with a landing on both palms of the hands + 1 elbow = 1 point; when the shoulders are closer to the ground than the hips after a fall = 1 point. Today, prizes in kind are still given, but they tend to be replaced by money. The first prize could be a mare for the winner, a dairy cow for the 2nd prize, a ram for the 3rd. In Esfarayen 2019, the 1st in each category won approximately the equivalent of €250, i.e. an equivalent of an average monthly salary, 2nd €200, 3rd €100.
This monetary increase of prize money in Ba-Choukhe tournaments and the prizes allocated to them induces many freestyle wrestlers and judokas, from other regions, to participate. At every tournament where I was invited, banners were held up demanding the right to become an Olympic sport. This is a sure sign of another myth that is in fact representative of the eternal search to create a better world.