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?
An Uber autonomous SUV killed a pedestrian. What does that say about the promise of self-driving technology?
On Sunday, the inevitable happened: an autonomous vehicle struck and killed someone. In Arizona, a woman police identified as Elaine Herzberg was crossing the street with her bicycle when a self-driving Uber SUV smashed into her.
Tempe police reported in their preliminary investigation that the vehicle was traveling at 40 miles per hour. Uber has suspended its self-driving car program in response.
This is the second death in the U.S. caused by a self-driving car, and it’s believed to be the first to involve a pedestrian. It’s not the first accident this year, nor is this the first time that a self-driving Uber has caused a major vehicle accident in Tempe: In March 2017, a self-driving Uber SUV crashed into two other cars and flipped over on the highway. As the National Transportation Safety Board opens an inquiry into the latest crash, it’s a good time for a critical review of the technical literature of self-driving cars. This literature reveals that autonomous vehicles don’t work as well as their creators might like the public to believe.
Fifteen years after the U.S. invasion, there’s no satisfying answer to the question: What were we doing in Iraq anyway?
One morning in October 2003, I was shaken out of bed by an explosion. I was in Baghdad, leading a platoon of Army Rangers as part of a special operations task force that was hunting down the famous “deck of cards”—the last of the Ba’ath Regime loyalists, and Saddam himself.
Because we did all of our work at night, I had only been sleeping for a few hours. When I first felt the explosion, I rolled out of bed, grabbed my M4 carbine, and ran out of the house we were living in on the southern tip of Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone. Improbably, my giant grizzly bear of a platoon sergeant remained asleep, snoring away in the cot next to mine.
When I got outside, I was initially blinded by the sunlight, but eventually I could see the al-Rashid Hotel, where visiting dignitaries often stayed, smoking in the distance. It had been struck by some kind of rocket. The only other person awake, meanwhile, was one of my Rangers, who was on the porch of our house with a cup of coffee in one hand and a Marlboro Red in the other. He looked me up and down. I was wearing my underwear, flip-flops, and carrying my carbine in one hand and my body armor in the other.
After a year of uncertainty and unhappiness, the president is reportedly feeling more comfortable—but has he really mastered the job?
It was a fun weekend for Donald Trump. Late on Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired Andrew McCabe, the outgoing FBI deputy director whom Trump had long targeted, and the president spent the rest of the weekend taking victory laps: cheering McCabe’s departure, taking shots at his former boss and mentor James Comey, and renewing his barrage against Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Trump’s moods shift quickly, but over the last week or so, a different overarching feel has manifested itself, a meta-mood. Although he remains irritated by Mueller and any number of other things, Trump seems to be relishing the latest sound of chaos, “leaning into the maelstrom,” as McKay Coppins put it Friday. This is rooted, Maggie Haberman reports, in a growing confidence on the president’s part: “A dozen people close to Mr. Trump or the White House, including current and former aides and longtime friends, described him as newly emboldened to say what he really feels and to ignore the cautions of those around him.”
Invented centuries ago in France, the bidet has never taken off in the States. That might be changing.
“It’s been completely Americanized!” my host declares proudly. “The bidet is gone!” In my time as a travel editor, this scenario has become common when touring improvements to hotels and resorts around the world. My heart sinks when I hear it. To me, this doesn’t feel like progress, but prejudice.
Americans seem especially baffled by these basins. Even seasoned American travelers are unsure of their purpose: One globe-trotter asked me, “Why do the bathrooms in this hotel have both toilets and urinals?” And even if they understand the bidet’s function, Americans often fail to see its appeal. Attempts to popularize the bidet in the United States have failed before, but recent efforts continue—and perhaps they might even succeed in bringing this Old World device to new backsides.
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One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.
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It said The Atlantic’s footage, which captured alt-right members giving Nazi salutes, was “borderline content” under its hate-speech policy. It restored the video after being questioned on Monday.
Less than two weeks after the 2016 election, a prominent alt-right leader addressed more than 200 people gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. Millions of people would come to know what happened next.
“Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” said the leader, Richard B. Spencer.
Attendees in the room replied with shouts, applause, and Nazi salutes. The speech closed the annual conference of the National Policy Institute, which describes itself as “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.”
The moment was captured on video by Daniel Lombroso, a journalist at The Atlantic. In the days after the speech, Lomboro’s footage of Spencer’s declaration—and the Nazi salutes that followed—would be viewed more than 50 million times on Facebook and YouTube. It was also broadcast on dozens of television networks.
For years, the restaurateur played a jerk with a heart of gold. Now, he’s the latest celebrity chef to be accused of sexual harassment.
“There’s no way—no offense—but a girl shouldn’t be at the same level that I am.”
That was Mike Isabella, celebrity chef and successful restaurateur, making his debut on the show that would make him famous. Bravo’s Top Chef, to kick off its Las Vegas–set Season 6, had pitted its new group of contestants against each other in a mise-en-place relay race; Isabella, shucking clams, had looked over and realized to his great indignation that Jen Carroll, a sous chef at New York’s iconic Le Bernardin, was doing the work more quickly than he was.
Top Chef is a simmering stew of a show—one that blends the pragmatic testing of culinary artistry with reality-TV sugar and reality-TV spice—and Isabella quickly established himself as Season 6’s pseudo-villain: swaggering, macho, quick to anger, and extremely happy to insult his fellow contestants, including Carroll and, soon thereafter, Robin Leventhal (a self-taught chef and cancer survivor). Isabella was a villain, however, who was also, occasionally, self-effacing. A little bit bumbling. Aw, shucks, quite literally. He would later explain, of the “same level” comment:
The strange, cosmic reason our evolutionary path will look ever luckier the longer we survive
It was hard times for the bomber pilots that floated over Europe, their planes incinerating cities below, like birds of prey. Even as they turned the once-bustling streets beneath to howling firestorms, death had become a close companion to the crews of the Allied bombers as well. In fact, surviving a tour with the Bomber Command had become a virtual coin flip. While their munitions fell mutely from bomb bays, an upward sleet of fire from smoldering city grids and darkened farmland shot the planes out of the sky like clay pigeons. For recruits encountering the freshly empty bunk beds of dead airmen, morale was sapped before they could even get in the cockpit. Hoping to slow this attrition, Allied officers studied the pattern of bullet holes in returning aircraft for vulnerable parts to reinforce with armor.