Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran


295 pages
ISBN 0-676-97732-4
DDC 915.5045'44




Reviewed by Laila Abdalla

Laila Abdalla is an associate professor of English at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, and former professor at McGill University.


Two of Iran’s dominant traditions intersect and complement each other,
even if they may seem mutually exclusive, at least for a Western
audience. The historically rich and culturally ever-present practice of
creating and reciting poetry occurs simultaneously with that of
wrestling. Often at matches, poetry is recited, before, during, and
after the actual wrestling. In turn, Pahlevans—the wrestlers of
ancient Persia and modern Iran—are revered within verse. These
Pahlevans “embody a masculine ideal,” a physicality and macho-ness
that, paradoxically, is fкted by the emotional and “feminine” genre
of poetry. It is this seeming incongruity that Marcello Di Cintio sets
off to recover in modern-day Iran. And he finds it. When he encounters
an old wrestler with lines of poetry tattooed on his chest, the author
thrills to the link between poetry and wrestling literally “made

Poets and Pahlevans is a travelogue. Di Cintio’s account is linear;
he begins his journey in Turkey, travels to Tehran, then proceeds
throughout Iran, all the while reporting his adventures. While overtly
he seeks poets/wrestlers, poetry/wrestling styles, or poetically
important sites/wrestling locales, he is simultaneously proposing the
“marriage of muscle and verse” as the crux of the other
contradictions that form modern Iran. Some love George Bush and hate the
Khomeini, others vice versa. Tehran is decorated with anti-American
propaganda, but the inhabitants illegally download American music. The
city is suffocating and inhospitable, “but the Iranian capital was
wholly redeemed by the Persians.”

Di Cintio writes well, and the paradox he seeks to explore is
interesting, if not as bizarre as a Western readership may perceive. The
incidents he recounts are well-turned, and he has an eye for details
that can turn a banal encounter into an entertaining one. The poetry
unfortunately receives less attention than the wrestling, but Di Cintio
has sensitive insight and can discover the art that lies in the


Di Cintio, Marcello., “Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 20, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/16825.