Centuries before the Islamic Republic or even Islam, Persian athletes fused spirituality and strength training in a practice called Varzesh-e-Bastani, the legacy of which may still persist.
Iran's Behdad Salimikordasiabi lifts 500-plus pounds over his head, winning an Olympic gold medal and a world record. (AP)
Freestyle wrestling is often described as the "first sport" of the Islamic Republic of Iran, according to U.S.-based Iranian historian Houchang Chehabi. Iran excels at international wrestling competitions, winning three gold medals at this year's Olympics alone, and an astounding 35 medals since 1948. But the story of how Iran came to so dominate wrestling is older than the Islamic Republic, possibly older than even Islam itself, and may have to do with an Iranian understanding of the sport far different than the West's.
That story may also have to do with Iran's record at weightlifting and, to a lesser extent, tae kwon do. Iranian weighlifters won the men's super-heavyweight gold and silver this year, the former to the amazing Behdad Salimikordasiabi for lifting 545 pounds, more than a baby grand piano, over his head. He broke his own world record, which he'd set the year before in Paris, when he broke the previous record, also held by an Iranian. Though Iranians don't win as many Olympic medals in tae kwon do, both men and women are perennial winners at other international and Asian leagues. Iran's record in these three sports is even more striking compared to its abysmal Olympic record in everything else; in Olympics history, the country has only one medal from any other sport: a silver in discus throwing, won this Tuesday.
The surprisingly rich academic literature on Iran's impressive records at wrestling, weightlifting, and tae kwon do consistentlyconnects all three to an ancient Persian sport called Varzesh-e-Bastani, which literally translates to "ancient sport." To Westerners, Varzesh-e-Bastani might look like an odd combination of wrestling, strength training, and meditation. Though there's no known link between Varesh-e-Bastani and yoga, it might help to think of it as something like a Persian version of this athletic practice that's also a method of personal and community development -- and a symbol of cultural heritage.
Though Western cultures typically treat wrestling as an aggressive, individualistic, and deeply competitive sport, traditional Persian Varzesh-e-Bastani emphasizes it as a means of promoting inner strength through outer strength in a process meant to cultivate what we might call chivalry. The ideal practitioner is meant to embody such moral traits as kindness and humility and to defend the community against sinfulness and external threats. The connection of weightlifting with character development might sound odd, but it's perhaps not so different from, for example, the yogic practice of Shavanasa, a meditative pose meant to bolster the spiritual and mental role of yoga's stretches and poses.
Varzesh-e-Bastani is traditionally practiced in a building called a Zoorkhaneh, which means "home of strength" and is often built and decorated in an ancient style that's led archaeologists to trace them to the Mithraic era of the first through fourth centuries, AD. The Mithraic religion, named for the Persian god Mithra, spread through much of the Roman Empire before being displaced by Christianity -- and, much later, displaced by Islam in Persia itself. But some Mithraic ideas and practices persisted in the Zoorkhaneh, and can maybe still be heard in the pre-exercise chanting or seen in the ritual movements.
History is political in Iran, and has been for centuries. Its leaders have alternatively embraced or downplayed the country's ancient, pre-Islamic roots. After the Arab Muslim invasion, Persian elites resisted the new religion for centuries, seeing it as the Arabs' religion. In the 1500s, though followers of Islam's two major schools of Shi'ism and Sunnism had long been dispersed across the Middle East, Persia's imperial Safavid rulers played up Iran's Shi'a heritage as a way to unifying Arab Shi'a against the increasingly Sunni Ottoman Empire. The following migrations of Shi'a to Iran and present-day Iraq helped create a geographic division that largely holds to this day. The shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty, which took over in 1925, tried to bring Iran into the developed world in part by emphasizing its ancient Persian roots as an alternative to the Islamic identity that, as he saw it, tied it to the less developed nations of the Middle East and Central Asia. The Islamist revolutionaries of 1979 veered back in the other direction. In 2009, moderate presidential candidate (and, shortly after that, informal "green movement" leader) Mir Hossein Mousavi peppered his campaign posters with images of pre-Islamic cultural sites, a subtle nod to the days before the Islamic Republic.
Through these turbulent back-and-forths, leaders and popular movements alike have pushed away one aspect of Persian cultural heritage in order to lift up another, re-re-inventing their society so many times over that few institutions have survived intact. Even the Supreme Leader's Islam does not always look so much like the Shi'ism of earlier generations.
Yet, somehow, the Varzesh-e-Bastani traditions and the Zoorkhaneh have survived, embraced during both the shah's secular Westernizing era and under the Islamic Republic as a symbol of Persian national pride and of cultural roots. Both regimes, though they couldn't be more different, promoted the Zoorkhaneh and entrenched its practices into national physical education, even reminding Iranians that the sport's champions had once defended their communities against the Mongol invaders of a thousand years earlier. The Islamic Republic lionized the Varzesh-e-Bastani wrestler Gholamreza Takhti, elevating him to what one historian calls "the greatest Iranian sports legend of the twentieth century," perhaps in part because he could appeal to both Islamists and more secular skeptics, a unifying figure in a country that badly needed one.
Iranian nationalism and national pride -- of a kind that seems possibly even broader than that of the supreme leader's Islamist nationalism -- has become tightly wound with international wrestling and weightlifting competitions, the two sports most closely associated with Varzesh-e-Bastani. In 1989, just after the end of the devastating eight-year war against Iraq, Iranian heavyweight wrestler Ali-Reza Soleimani defeated an American wrestler for the world wrestling championship that year, exciting Iranians who badly needed something to feel good about, and striking a symbolic (for them) blow against the U.S., which had aided the Iraqis in the war. State funding for wrestling immediately increased, and the Islamic Republic played up its ancient Persian roots to try and cash in on the popularity.
In the late 1990s, reformists who followed new President Mohammad Khatami into power hinted that wrestling could be a path to detente with the U.S., a sort of Persian take on China's Nixon-era ping pong diplomacy. It never happened, but wrestling and weightlifting have remained so popular in Iran, and so closely linked to national pride, that Iranian research universities still produce studies on, for example, the effects of Ramadan fasting on weightlifting performance or the personality traits of weightlifters and martial artists versus players of team sports. Though the nation's Greco-Roman wrestling team performed the best of any country in this year's Olympics, Iranian social media users are apparently fuming over one wrestler's loss to a French opponent, insisting that Olympic referees had conspired against him (no, there's no evidence).
It's difficult, and maybe ultimately impossible, to say for sure why one country might do particularly well (or particularly poorly) in one athletic competition or another. And it's especially difficult to test the theory that Iranians are so good as weightlifting and wrestling (and, to a lesser extent, tae kwon do) because of those sports' roots in the pre-Islamic Varzesh-e-Bastani tradition, one of the few ancient cultural legacies that has been allowed to persist through the past century of near-endless political turmoil. After all, gold medals in these events are won by a tiny handful of individuals. Still, if even just these dozen or so Iranian athletes believed that their amazing skill was rooted in this particularly Persian heritage, then wouldn't that in itself make it at least somewhat true?
The first episode of the Streaming Wars is over. The rebels won. Now the empire strikes back.
Disney announced on Thursday that it would acquire most of the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox for about $60 billion in stock and debt, in what would be the largest-ever merger of two showbiz companies. Already the most storied entertainment empire in the U.S., Disney would become a global colossus through this deal, gaining large stakes in the biggest entertainment companies in both Europe and India. The deal will almost certainly receive regulatory scrutiny, as the Justice Department has been lately dubious of mega media mergers.
The yuletide haul includes some of the most famous properties in television and film. In the transfer of power, Disney would receive the 20th Century Fox film studio, including the independent film maestros at Fox Searchlight (Best Picture Oscar–winners include: Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave, and Birdman), the X-Men franchise, Fox’s television production company (worldwide hits include: The Simpsons, Modern Family, and Homeland), the FX and National Geographic cable channels, and regional sports networks, including the YES Network that broadcasts New York Yankees games. Disney also acquires a majority stake in the TV product Hulu, which it may use to kickstart its entry into the streaming wars.
Don't make a scene. Look the other way. Social discomfort has long been used to maintain the status quo.
“Young women say yes to sex they don’t actually want to have all of the time. Why? Because we condition young women to feel guilty if they change their mind.”
That was the writer Ella Dawson, in her essay reacting to “Cat Person,” the New Yorker short story that went viral, and indeed that is still going viral, this week. Kristen Roupenian’s work of fiction resonated among denizens of the nonfictional world in part because of its sex scene: one that explores, in rich and wincing detail, the complications of consent. Margot, a 20-year-old college student, goes on a date with Robert, a man several years her senior; alternately enchanted by him and repulsed by him, hopeful about him and disappointed, she ultimately sleeps with him. Not because she fully wants to, in the end, but because, in the dull heat of the moment, acquiescing is easier—less dramatic, less disruptive, less awkward—than saying no.
Democratic men are 31 points more likely to say that the “country has not gone far enough on women’s rights” than Republican women.
Amidst the exhilaration of Roy Moore’s defeat, and the broader cultural revolution sparked by women’s willingness to expose the sexual misdeeds of powerful men, it’s worth remembering this: Ninety percent of Republican women in Alabama, according to exit polls, cast their ballots for a man credibly accused of pedophilia. That’s a mere two points less than Republican men. By contrast, Democratic men voted for Moore’s opponent, Doug Jones, at the same rate as Democratic women: 98 percent. In early December, The Washington Postand the Schar School at George Mason University asked Alabamians whether they believed the allegations against Moore.
At my request, researchers from the Schar School broke down the answers by party and gender. The results: Party mattered far more. Republican women in Alabama were only four points more likely than Republican men to believe Moore’s accusers. In fact, Republican women were 40 points less likely to believe Moore’s accusers than were Democratic men. All of which points to a truth insufficiently appreciated in this moment of sexual and political upheaval: It’s not gender that increasingly divides the two parties. It is feminism.
A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.
Public schools in gentrifying neighborhoods seem on the cusp of becoming truly diverse, as historically underserved neighborhoods fill up with younger, whiter families. But the schools remain stubbornly segregated. Nikole Hannah-Jones has chronicled this phenomenon around the country, and seen it firsthand in her neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“White communities want neighborhood schools if their neighborhood school is white,” she says. “If their neighborhood school is black, they want choice.” Charter schools and magnet schools spring up in place of neighborhood schools, where white students can be in the majority.
“We have a system where white people control the outcomes, and the outcome that most white Americans want is segregation,” she says.
Content moderators review the the dark side of the internet. They don’t escape unscathed.
Lurking inside every website or app that relies on “user-generated content”—so, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, among others—there is a hidden kind of labor, without which these sites would not be viable businesses. Content moderation was once generally a volunteer activity, something people took on because they were embedded in communities that they wanted to maintain.
But as social media grew up, so did moderation. It became what the University of California, Los Angeles, scholar Sarah T. Roberts calls, “commercial content moderation,” a form of paid labor that requires people to review posts—pictures, videos, text—very quickly and at scale.
Roberts has been studying the labor of content moderation for most of a decade, ever since she saw a newspaper clipping about a small company in the Midwest that took on outsourced moderation work.
In 2018, party strategists fret, they’ll face a tough electoral landscape—and a bumper crop of fringe candidates.
Washington Republicans have put the fiasco of Alabama’s special election behind them, but their electoral nightmare may just be beginning.
Roy Moore’s stunning defeat Tuesday night was met with quiet sighs of relief throughout the GOP establishment, where the culture-warring ex-judge and accused child abuser was widely regarded as radioactive. Yet even as Moore’s political obituaries were being written, party strategists were bracing for the army of Moore-like insurgents they expect to flood next year’s Republican primaries.
Indeed, Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon has already pledged to field challengers for every incumbent Republican senator up for reelection next year (with the exception of Ted Cruz). And even if Bannon fails to deliver on his threat, many in the GOP worry that experienced, fully-vetted candidates are going to struggle to beat back a wave of rough-edged Trump imitators who lean into the white identity politics that the president ran on in 2016.
The internet is as much the enemy as it is the hero of contemporary life.
Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, opens a bag of Cheetos with his teeth, dumps them onto a hipster food-court lunch bowl, and slathers it in Sriracha sauce. He snaps a pic for social media.
It’s a scene from a video, “Seven Things You Can Still Do on the Internet After Net Neutrality,” shot by the conservative outlet The Daily Caller and published Wednesday, the day before the Federal Communications Commission voted to gut rules to treat internet traffic equally. Besides “’gramming your food,” Pai also assures The Daily Caller’s readers they will still be able to take selfies, binge watch Game of Thrones, cosplay as a Jedi, and do the Harlem shake.
Net-neutrality proponents have lambasted the video, and with good reason. A federal appointee charged for stewardship of public communications infrastructure comes off as insolent.
With late support from Senators Bob Corker and Marco Rubio on a package finalized Friday, the GOP is on the precipice of a major legislative victory next week.
It’s all over except the voting.
Republican negotiators representing the House and Senate on Friday morning signed off on a final version of legislation that will, at a cost of up to $1.5 trillion, deliver a steep permanent tax cut to corporations and more modest, temporary reductions for individuals and families. In the last hours of tweaks, the GOP boosted a benefit for working families at the behest of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, likely securing his vote and the support the party needs to pass the bill next week. And they flipped the one Republican senator who had voted no on the chamber’s original bill earlier this month, Bob Corker of Tennessee.
The House and Senate must each hold final votes on the tax plan next week, and given the GOP’s fractious and shaky majority, there’s always the potential for last-minute drama. But the conference-committee report signed on Friday won’t be subject to amendments, and negotiators evinced little worry that the landmark deal—which represents the largest changes to the tax code in more than 30 years—would fall through.
A timeline of the events that led up to former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s departure from the White House
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is authorized to broadly investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, but recent reports suggest he’s focusing on a narrow period in the years-long saga.
NBC News reported on Monday that Mueller and his team are paying close attention to events between January 26, 2017, and February 13, 2017. That timespan stretches from the day Sally Yates, the acting attorney general at the time, notified the White House that then-National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn had made misleading statements to the FBI to Flynn’s resignation 18 days later.
Earlier this month, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the agency. Now, the question turns to who knew what—and when—about his false statements. If, hypothetically speaking, the president knew Flynn had committed a crime when he purportedly urged former FBI Director James Comey to drop the agency’s inquiry into Flynn on February 14, that could be used as evidence of intent when pursuing obstruction-of-justice charges. Below is an updated timeline to help contextualize this potentially crucial sequence of events in Trump’s early presidency.
The president’s ability to get confirmations to the bench has been his brightest spot, but this week saw two nominees withdraw and a third humiliated by a Republican senator.
For a presidency beset by problems of policy and politics at home and abroad, judicial appointments have been a rare bright spot for the Donald Trump administration. Any list of the White House’s biggest achievements begins (and arguably ends) with his successful appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a placement that will likely reshape jurisprudence for decades, and below that come a huge number of appointments to lifetime seats on lower courts.
This week, even that began to look a little shaky. Two picks for district courts withdrew their nominations after Senator Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, publicly told the White House to reconsider their nominations, while a third was humiliated by a Republican senator during committee hearings.