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?
Democracies across the West are vulnerable to foreign influence—and some are under attack.
Mike Conaway, the Republican who replaced Devin Nunes as head of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election, has described his mission simply: “I just want to find out what happened,” he’s said. The more urgent question elsewhere in the world, however, isn’t confined to the past. It concerns what is happening—not just in the United States but in European democracies as well.
In the Netherlands, Dutch authorities counted paper ballots in a recent election by hand to prevent foreign governments—and Russia in particular—from manipulating the results through cyberattacks. In Denmark, the defense minister has accused the Russian government of carrying out a two-year campaign to infiltrate email accounts at his ministry. In the United Kingdom, a parliamentary committee reports that it cannot “rule out” the possibility that “foreign interference” caused a voter-registration site to crash ahead of Britain’s referendum on EU membership. And in France, a cybersecurity firm has just discovered that suspected Russian hackers are targeting the leading presidential candidate. “We are increasingly concerned about cyber-enabled interference in democratic political processes,” representatives from the Group of Seven—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S.—declared after meeting in Italy earlier this month. Russia, a member of the group until it was kicked out for annexing Crimea, wasn’t mentioned in the statement. It didn’t need to be. The subtext was clear.
The most comprehensive review of evidence on health consequences of caffeine use has just been published.
That’s what a Los Angeles news anchor said earlier this month, in response to the announcement that “the world’s strongest coffee” is now available in the United States. The product is called Black Insomnia, a playful nod to apotentially debilitating medical condition that can be caused by the product.
The anchor’s tone took a dramatic decrescendo as she read from the teleprompter: “The site Caffeine Informer says Black Insomnia is one of the ‘most dangerous caffeinated products.’” Her smile faded. “Oh. I’ll have to have this one sparingly.”
Black Insomnia is actually in competition for the title of “world’s strongest coffee.” Another, similar purveyor sells coffee grounds called Death Wish. They come in a black sack with a skull and cross bones. On its Amazon page, Death Wish claims to be “the world’s strongest coffee” and promises its “perfect dark roast will make you the hero of the house or office.”
It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.
This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
Film, television, and literature all tell them better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?
A longstanding dream: Video games will evolve into interactive stories, like the ones that play out fictionally on the Star Trek Holodeck. In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.
It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.
President Trump's plan will likely advocate for the repeal of a tax that only the ultra-wealthy pay.
I am not the first person President Trump or his economic team looks to for advice on tax reform. But if they wanted some, this is the free advice I’d give them: Don’t cut or eliminate the estate tax—raise it.
Repealing the estate tax—a tax on assets transferred from a deceased individual to their heirs—has become a staple cause among conservative Republicans. Eleven Republican candidates explicitly called for its elimination during the 2016 election. By calling it a “death tax,” and implying that it would hurt tens of millions of ordinary families, and force the sale of long-held family farms and family businesses, Republicans have successfully cast the estate tax as a ubiquitous and pernicious burden. That’s helped them win the public-relations battle over it so far.
Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and missile programs represent one of the most dangerous challenges since the end of the Cold War. But there are opportunities to stop it.
The drama that is playing out now over North Korea’s nuclear and missile program—accentuated Tuesday by that regime’s large-scale artillery drill—represents one of the most dangerous challenges for U.S. national security since the end of the Cold War. It is a crisis that has been building for a long time, as North Korea has broken through the nuclear barrier and possesses fissile material sufficient for 20 to 25 nuclear weapons, by one estimate. After many failed attempts, through pressure and negotiations, to bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear program, three new elements have heightened the urgency of the situation.
First, North Korea is racing to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the continental United States. In his annual New Years address in January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared his country to be “in the final stage of preparation for the test launch” of such a missile. Moreover, experts warn, North Korea could at some point in the next few year years make the terrifying technological leap to a hydrogen bomb, which could be up to 1,000 times more destructive than the nuclear weapons that now comprise the North Korean arsenal.
When astronomers talk about the search for life elsewhere in our solar system, they usually talk about microbes, simple and resilient forms of life known to exist in the most extreme temperatures and conditions. Space probes have mapped enough of the sun’s planets and moons to show there are no civilizations lurking in this star system, save for the one on Earth. But what if we’re not done looking yet? What if there are indeed signs of an ancient intelligent species right here, on the worlds in our own backyard, waiting to be found?
That’s the question posed by Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State University, in a new paper published Monday night. Wright posits the idea that an advanced civilization—an indigenous technological species, he calls it—could have arisen in the solar system before life as we know it did. (“Indigenous,” because it originates in the solar system, and not from extraterrestrial life that may exist elsewhere in the universe.) If it left behind traces of its technology—called technosignatures—some of those technosignatures may have survived, provided they were made of material not easily degraded by erosion or time. Perhaps, Wright writes, they remain hidden under the surface of Venus and Mars.
Instead of fixing its core issues, a potential new amendment to the bill only highlights the problems with the effort to replace Obamacare.
“Figure out a way to change the state that you live in.” That was the controversial advice White House budget director Mick Mulvaney offered to those worried about a proposal that would allow states to repeal required essential health benefits in health-insurance plans. That provision didn’t quite make it into the last round of the Republicans’ effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, and Mulvaney later clarified that he was urging citizens to persuade their legislators to enact changes where they lived, not encouraging them to move. But the soundbite, endlessly replayed on cable news, became a rallying point for the plan’s opponents. If Americans want their insurance to cover things like maternity care, hospital stays, or mental health under the future written by the American Health Care Act, they warned, they might soon have to pack up and move to another state.