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  • Written by Marcello di Cintio
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Poets and Pahlevans

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A Journey into the Heart of Iran

Written by Marcello di CintioAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Marcello di Cintio


List Price: $12.99


On Sale: July 16, 2010
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-36892-8
Published by : Vintage Canada Knopf Canadian Publishing
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Marcello Di Cintio prepares for his “journey into the heart of Iran” with the utmost diligence. He takes lessons in Farsi, researches Persian poetry and sharpens his wrestling skills by returning to the mat after a gap of some years. Knowing that there is a special relationship between heroic poetry and the various styles of traditional Persian wrestling, he sets out to discover how Iranians “reconcile creativity with combat.”

From the moment of his arrival in Tehran, the author is overwhelmed by hospitality. He immerses himself in male company in tea houses, conversing while smoking the qalyun or water pipe. Iranian men are only too willing to talk, especially about politics. Confusingly, he is told conflicting statements–that all Iranians love George Bush, that all Iranians hate George Bush; that life was infinitely better under the Shah, that the mullahs swept away the corruption of the Shah’s regime and made life better for all.

Once out of Tehran, he learns where the traditional forms of wrestling are practised. His path through the country is directed by a search for the variant disciplines and local techniques of wrestling and a need to visit sites and shrines associated with the great Persian poets: Hafez, Ferdosi, Omar Khayyám, Attar, Shahriyar and many others. Everywhere his quest leads him, he discovers that poetry is loved and quoted by everyone from taxi-drivers to students.

His engagement with Iranian culture is intimate: he wrestles (sometimes reluctantly) when invited, samples illegal home-brew alcohol, attends a wedding, joins mourners, learns a new way to drink tea and attempts to observe the Ramazan fast, though not a Muslim himself. Though he has inevitable brushes with officialdom, he never feels in danger, even when he hears that a Canadian photo-journalist has apparently been beaten to death in a police cell during the author’s visit. The outraged and horrified reaction of those around him to this violent act tightens the already close bond he has formed with the Persians.

His greatest frustration is that he is unable to converse freely with Iranian women aware that an important part of his picture of Iran is thus absent. Yet the mosaic of incidents, encounters, vistas, conversations, atmospheres and acutely observed sights, smells and moments creates a detailed impression of a country and society that will challenge most, if not all, preconceptions.

From the Hardcover edition.




And now they meet — now rise, and now descend,
And strong and fierce their sinewy arms ­extend;
Wrestling with all their strength they grasp and strain,
And blood and sweat flow copious on the ­plain;
Like raging elephants they furious ­close;
Commutual wounds are given and wrenching ­blows.
Sohrab now claps his hands, and forward ­springs
Impatiently, and round the Champion ­clings;
Seizes his girdle belt, with power to ­tear
The very earth ­asunder . . .

An old man recites poetry into a microphone. The measured verses float over the assembled crowd through a static-­garbled loudspeaker. When the poem ends he calls two wrestlers to the centre of the circle. Both are barefoot, and both brush the ground with their fingertips before touching their lips and forehead. This is an invocation to Allah, something I don’t quite understand. Village men sit on the perimeter in their white turbans and old fedoras, smoke cigarettes and spit out black sunflower seeds. They shout and cheer their muscled ­heroes.

The wrestlers shake hands and kiss each other on both cheeks, then lock their arms around each other in a warriors’ embrace. Their bodies, now merged, are tense and already sweating. I can see their faces: both are nervous but resolute. Their stillness is momentary. When a referee taps them on their shoulders the men ­clash.

The poetry, epic tales of ancient wars and legendary heroes, was meant to inspire the wrestlers in their battle, but now the crowd’s roar replaces the old verses in their scarred ears. They push each other back and forth in the circle, maintaining their grip around each other’s waist. Their knuckles blanch. The dust mingles with their sweat and slicks their legs with salty mud. The mob wave their arms and holler instructions in the village dialect. Young boys bounce on their grandfathers’ ­laps.

Then one wrestler thrusts his body forward. His grip turns to stone and he lifts his opponent from his feet. The noise of the crowd swells. The man hurls his rival to the ground and crashes down on top of him. They are invis­ible in the cloud of dust until the referee helps them stand. Both are filthy and exhausted, but only one man is a winner. The referee raises his arm and the two wrestlers shake hands and kiss again. The victor strides into the throng of his fans and is immersed in their cheers. The loser leaves ­alone.

When I pressed the button at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul I had no reason to be confident. I wasn’t granted a visa from the embassy in Ottawa and the verdict on my visa in Istanbul had already been delayed twice. I did not know why. Admitting I was a writer was, in retrospect, a strategic error; Iran is famously wary of foreign “journalists.” Also, Toronto was in the middle of its sars crisis. Canadians were being turned away at borders around the world. The man at the embassy who accepted my visa application wasn’t overly diligent on this point. “Do you have sars?” he asked. I said no and that was that. I worried, though, that his superiors might be less ­cavalier.

I waited for nearly two weeks, wandering through the fabu­lous mosques that crown each of Istanbul’s hills and point the way to heaven with their slender minarets. Five times a day the call to prayer boomed out over the city and gave a moment’s respite from the Turkish pop music blaring from every storefront and taxicab. Fashionable Istanbulus smoked water pipes and drank tea in popular garden cafés. The bazaars were filled with briny olives, Turkish silks, Ottoman antiques and cheesy ­belly-­dance costumes. It had been three years since my last visit to the Middle East and it was a pleasure to be back among the pistachio vendors, tea houses and ­honey-­soaked ­pastries.

But for all Istanbul’s charms, my mind was a thousand kilometres east. I’d spent the last two years infatuated with Iran. I had read Persian history and become obsessed with Iran’s politics, but it was the Persian love for poetry that first drew me to the place. I learned that all Iranians, even small children, could recite poetry from memory. Poets who have been dead for centuries are revered. Their verses resonate over time and colour everyday language. I wanted to investigate this devotion and be in a place where bazaaris and taxi drivers spoke in measured verse. Istanbul was a poor consolation. I wanted to be in ­Iran.

While the consulate deliberated on my visa application, I bought my ticket for the ­Trans-­Asya Express to Tehran, and did all the things I knew I would not be able to do once I crossed the border. I watched American action films in modern cinemas. I went to ­European-­styled coffee shops to sip espresso, and drank pints of Efes lager in noisy bars. I read a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Fury I found in a used ­bookstore.

I returned to the consulate. When the visa official opened the door he was not smiling. Neither was I. “Mr. Marcello?” he asked. I nodded. Then he tapped my passport against my chest and opened it to a fresh visa sticker. “You have one month. Have good times in Iran.”

The Haydarapasa train station stands on the banks of the Bosphorus Strait on the very edge of the continent. Asia begins here, and from Haydarapasa there is only east. I went to the station early, and was the first passenger on the train. The car was dark, but enough light filtered in through the window for me to find my cabin and stow my rucksack beneath a ­seat.

Another man entered the cabin. He was in his fifties, balding and with a thick white moustache. He smiled and greeted me, but beyond his salaam I didn’t know what he ­said.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”

“You are a foreigner,” he said in English. I was relieved. “Tourist?”

“Yes,” I said, though I hate that designation.

From the Hardcover edition.
Marcello di Cintio|Author Q&A

About Marcello di Cintio

Marcello di Cintio - Poets and Pahlevans

Photo © Ron Reive

MARCELLO DI CINTIO is the author of three books of travelogue including Poets and Pahelvans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran and Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, which won the 2012 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. Di Cintio is also a magazine writer whose work can be found in publications such as The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, The International New York Times, Condé Nast Traveller, Eighteen Bridges and Afar. Di Cintio is a former writer-in-residence with the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program and the Palestine Writing Workshop. His most recent book is Song of the Caged Bird: Words as Resistance in Palestine. Marcello lives in Calgary.

Author Q&A

Can you tell us how you became a writer?

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I remember, but I didn’t pursue writing until I was in my twenties. I never thought I had anything really to write about. I was a science guy, and ended up getting a degree in microbiology. I thought I would work in a lab somewhere. It was only after my first trip to Africa in 1997 — I spent a year there — that I figured I had stories to write. Those stories turned into my first book, Harmattan: Wind across West Africa. I guess you could say travelling gave birth to my writing.

How did the idea for Poets & Pahlevans begin?

I’d wanted to travel to Iran for a long time. Something about Islamic culture, and deserts, fascinates me. I read a tiny entry in a guidebook about zurkhanes (wrestling halls) and started researching this phenomenon in Iran. As a former wrestler, I was very interested in pahlevans. When I discovered the links to poetry, I was hooked and knew the book I wanted to write.

You chose a very unusual path into Iranian culture — researching traditions of wrestling and poetry and the relationship between them. Do you think that such a tight focus reveals more than an attempted overview?

First of all, I am not qualified for an overview of Iranian culture. I am not a historian or an anthropologist, so I wouldn’t even attempt some sort of overarching treatment. The tight focus turned out to be the perfect engine to run my travels. Seeking out poets’ tombs and old wrestling styles led to some pretty fabulous places in Iran, such as the Turkmani wedding, for example. It gave me an “in” with the locals. When I mentioned to Iranians my interests in poetry and wrestling, many told me about the poets they loved or, say, their grandfather who was a pahlevan. It gave people a reason to talk to me. I think the connections I made with people were greater than if I said I was writing a book “about Iran.”

This is the first time I travelled with such a specific quest. Often it made the travelling feel more like work. I couldn’t just wander aimlessly around like I did for my first book; I had things to find. Still, like I said, if it were not for the focus, I would not have found such places and such people. I want all my travels to be this focussed from now on.

Can you tell us about your working method? Do you take copious notes while you are travelling? And how soon after returning do you begin writing?

I take piles of handwritten notes while I am travelling. (The tea houses in Iran were the perfect offices for this.) I start turning those journal notes into some sort of coherent narrative as soon as I return home. I am always excited to get started. I could never write a book on the road. I need time away from the place to reflect on my experiences, to distill them into something meaningful for myself and, hopefully, for readers.

Why do travel writers write so much about food?

Sharing a meal with someone is one of the best windows into their culture. Every place I have travelled is proud of the local cuisine and excited to show it off to visitors. These meals invariably make their way into my writing. Personally, though, I am a food fanatic. My wife and I travelled to Turkey for our honeymoon, and my obsession with finding, say, the best Turkish cheese or most authentic anchovy pilaf drove her crazy.

In your acknowledgements you thank certain people for enabling you to make Poets & Pahlevans “a much better book.” Could you give us any insight into this?

My editor, Michael Schellenburg, did a great job with the text. He had a keen eye for what was missing in early drafts. The editing process for this book was more about adding material than trimming it. Maryam Nabavi is not a writer but an Iranian friend of mine. She helped me make sure I wasn’t making any incorrect assumptions about Iran — something I always worry about when I write about another place. Richard Harrison is a fine poet who helped me make the wrestling passages in the book more visceral and real. He taught me how to unfold a scene bit by bit. He has a poet’s touch for using only the exact number of words necessary. I cut more text following his advice than I did with my actual editor.

Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?

Most of the reviews for this book have been positive. There have been a couple of reviewers who have said, basically, that this is not the book they would have written. That is somewhat frustrating, but it doesn’t change how I feel about my own writing. Most importantly, though, is that Iranians like the book. People have said to me that the book makes them feel homesick for Iran. I find that tremendously gratifying. It makes me feel that I got it right.

Which authors have had most influence on your own writing?

I greatly admire the travel writing of Ryszard Kapuscinski and Graham Greene. They were my constant companions as I wrote this book. Kapuscinski, especially, showed me how important, and beautiful, it is to engage with locals in a strange place. The work of Michael Ondaatje is one of the reasons I am a writer. Reading a couple of pages of any of his books is enough to unblock me. I strive to achieve his lush descriptive style, but I know I am not there yet.

When you are writing a book, does the urge to go travelling again grow stronger?

When I am writing, I feel I am already travelling — or, I suppose, re-travelling — so the urge does not come then. This is probably the only time I don’t feel that urge. The rest of my day I wish I was elsewhere.

Do you think Poets & Pahlevans has any kind of message or mission?

Not a mission, but I hope that my readers see a side to Iran that gets little play in the regular media. Iranians are not hateful, backward fundamentalists. They are intelligent, hospitable and the stewards of a rich and beautiful culture. I want my readers to see that Iran is not dangerous and that its people are kind. This book started out as a travelogue about poets and wrestlers. It turned out as a love letter to the Iranian people. I hope readers see this side of things.

From the Hardcover edition.



“A fine, fine talent to be savoured.”
–Wayson Choy

“The worlds of poetry and Persian wrestling intersect in this captivating book. It’s a journey spiced with sweat and the scent of saffron.”
–Will Ferguson

“Travel is all about connecting, true, but Di Cintio’s headlocks and body slams take cross-cultural bonding to a new level. . . . Though its subject is wrestling, this is much more a book about putting your life in other people’s hands in an age of distrust.”
The Globe and Mail
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Di Cintio tells us that Tehran did not look like his “dream of Iran.” What do you imagine his dream of Iran was? To what extent did he find it?

2. Di Cintio looks for the spirit of the country mostly in rural areas and in what remains of Iran’s ancient past. What are the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach?

3. What effect does the author’s concentration on poetry and wrestling have on your engagement with the book and your understanding of Iranian society?

4. The culture of the pahlevan promotes the idea of “perfect men” who combine strength with gentleness. Do you see cultural equivalents in, for example, mythology, chivalric legend or Hollywood movies?

5. The author expresses “surprise” at finding IKEA furniture, black bras and Chris de Burgh CDs in Iran. Can you offer a fuller analysis of his reaction?

6. When the author sees a farmer sleeping among grapevines, he writes, “I wanted his life.” Why does travel make him desire less rather than more? Do you think he would be content as an Iranian farmer?

7. If Di Cintio had been able to speak with Iranian women, what do you think they would have told him?

8. Though not a Muslim, Di Cintio observes the tradition of passing under the Quran in a gateway in Shiraz, and later attempts to fast during Ramazan. As the Iranians do not expect this of him, why does he do it?

9. Di Cintio writes of Jeremy, his wrestling partner, “Like me, he wanted to reconcile his creativity with combat.” What do you understand from this, and what does it tell you about the book?

10. Iranians are extraordinarily welcoming to a stranger, yet suspicious and disparaging of their countrymen in the next town or village. Do you think a visitor to your own country would encounter the same reception?

11. What examples of permanence does Di Cintio discover in a place of revolution and upheaval?

12. Di Cintio reports hearing many opposing attitudes to the West and to recent Iranian history. He does not attempt to choose between them or to reconcile them. How do you feel about this as a reader?

13. Which incidents or conversations in the book remain vivid in your mind after reading it? Can you explain why?

14. How has reading Poets & Pahlevans changed your view of Iran, wrestling, or poetry?

  • Poets and Pahlevans by Marcello Di Cintio
  • August 07, 2007
  • Travel - Middle East; Travel
  • Vintage Canada
  • $16.95
  • 9780676977332

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