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The Heroic Heritage

Hoda Saber & Ebrahim Mokhtari, 2011, Cheshmeh Pub., 472 pages

The literary and cultural office of the Iranian National Television decided in 1984 to commission documentary filmmakers to document contemporary Iranian painters. I was one of those documentarists and I chose to focus on Qahveh-Khaneh (or teahouse) painters.
Qahveh-Khaneh painters depicted the lives of legendary heroes. In all their works, whether religious or epic in theme, the hero is engaged in battle with the enemy. It is said that two famous Qahveh-Khaneh painters (Hossein Qular and Mohammad Modaber) painted and hung their drapes (canvases) in a teahouse (Qahveh-Khaneh), and their source of inspiration was the oral tradition of story telling and poetry reciting called naqqali. It was this relationship between the narrative form and painting that caught my attention.
The last remaining naqqal (poetic storyteller) in Tehran was Valiollah-e Torabi Sefidabi and he introduced me to the heroic world of the ancient Iranian Zurkhaneh [*] and its patrons. Valiollah the storyteller got his inspiration not only from special naqqali literature and the Book of Kings, but also from the living heroes of these houses of power.
The subject was interesting and I spend two or three days a week in particular zurkhanehs documenting the activities of those who attended ceremonies. It was then that I realized that a large number of city dwellers, not only in Tehran but in other cities of Iran, still go to zurkhaneh on a regular basis and work out the way their ancestors did years ago. The word “still” is important here because I thought that the social role of warriors and heroes had been delegated to the annals of history. Nor did I think that the society took traditional heroes and their role seriously anymore.
In the above sense, the extinction of the storytelling tradition in teahouses was more significant than the livelihood of zurkhanehs. It was also true for me that the set of rituals and exercises performed in zurkhanehs were not visually appealing to the outside observer or audience. It was then that I started wondering why a tradition so insipid to an outside audience had survived more than 700 years to reach this day and age.
It soon became clear that the so-called “ancient sport” (practiced in zurkhanehs) was at some point a warm up for the more prominent wrestling match. In the past, active wrestlers went to zurkhaneh to practice and prepare for ongoing matches within the place; otherwise, the workouts were in and of themselves nothing noteworthy.
After talking to a lot of people and doing research on the topic, I reached the conclusion that for our heroic tradition to regain its previous stature, wrestling should come back to zurkhanehs and reestablish its own set of rituals.
It was then natural for me to find out if there was an institution trying to establish a link between wrestling and the heroic tradition, and if so, whether there were literatures on the topic that could shine light on this relationship? The answer in both cases (glossing over the latter) was in the negative.
I then thought that even if an imaginary institution wanted to start the task today, it would have to find some of the old-timers, those that had seen the days of wrestling in zurkhanehs. With some calculations, I realized that these veterans had to be 80 years or older.
For me the issue was not limited to “reviving” the tradition of zurkhaneh, as it is now called, but to discover the social behavior of this group and the way it formed a subculture. The revival could conceivably follow from such pursuits. As such, I tried to draw the attention of officials in charge to the importance of preserving a tradition on the brink of extinction. But I wasn’t successful. I subsequently drew up a plan and tried to get funding for it. It didn’t work either. Finally, for four to five months in 1993, me and a researcher friend, started identifying and gathering information on the old-timers.
The recording of the memories and sayings of the old-timers reduced the danger of loosing valuable information on their craft and rituals, indeed, but the information gathered was not complete. More funds were needed. So, I tried again and tried other state institutions. This time, Seyyed Mohammad Beheshti, head of the “Cultural Area Development Company,” came to the rescue and I resumed the project in 1994.
This book, The Heroic Heritage, is the outcome of that research. It is arranged in three sections.
The first section is the author’s analyses, part of which deals with the “essence of heroics” found in the legend of Rustam (the epic hero of the 11 century Book of Kings), Puria-ye Vali, and Takhti (the latter two being popular street heroes, one from the older times and the second more recent), and another part tries to understand the reasons for the demise of the heroic tradition in this century, evaluating its impact on the zurkhaneh and related customs. The first and second sections, as such, complement each other.
The second and third sections, recounts the life of heroes, teachers, and owners of zurkhanehs as they told it to the author (I explain the methodology in the pertaining chapter).

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