Iran’s ‘houses of strength’, between the ancient and the modern

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TEHRAN, MAR 24 (DNA) – 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 endlessly Instagramable, accompanied by nose jobs and tattoos, the objective being physical beauty as well as fitness.

Here they serve energy drinks and smoothies, while the zurkhaneh still brings you chai in a little white cup and saucer, with sugar cubes to stick between your teeth and suck through.

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. Maybe people are busier these days and have other things to do, but it is still going on,” said Hossein Peykanfar, 62, a retired factory owner who comes regularly to this zurkhaneh in the Khosh neighbourhood of southwest Tehran.