Strength tests: oil wrestling

Let's say it without fear: before a sphere, the world is a gigantic ongoing conversation. We will not be uncomfortable with the clichés of holism or the butterfly effect; it is a coincidence, however, that we exist - we are, act, communicate - and that the world, of course, responds to us. And it is an interconnected and accelerated world, the one that is at the other end of the wire today. Rather than a conversation, an archive of conversations reproduced simultaneously: sport responds to art, religion and the history of customs that came from the past. Chaotic speeches, polyglots, paths of misunderstandings and short circuits.
Take Ben McNutt, a young photographer from Baltimore, for example. In 2015, he addresses the world with a series dedicated to his very personal obsession: Ben is a lover of wrestling. The shots linger on the grappling actions, limbs and thorax, on the athletes' uniforms in lycra. A kind of wrestling that is strongly, unequivocally homoerotic. The world of art responds by celebrating it, that of fans and purists of the discipline arising with violence. An expected reaction, perhaps: the provocative purpose, the artist declares, is in a certain sense to reveal wrestling to itself, to bring to light the hidden ambiguity of a traditionally conservative sport, weighed down by heteronormativity and nationalism.
Two years later, Ben McNutt takes the floor again. He was in Edirne, Turkey, between Istanbul and the Greek border: for Vogue he photographed Kirkpinar, the most important summer tournament of Oil Wrestling.
The oil combat
Among the tall tufts of grass in the arena are fifteen divisions of well-planted men, strengthened by the Spartan workouts and gallons of milk, honey and raw eggs ingested during the months of preparation. They are the pehlivanlar, the' warriors' of the Yagli Gures, a Turkish national sport whose roots yearn in time: if the Kirkpinar attracts visitors warmed since 1346 - in an Edirne that will soon be the capital of the Ottoman Empire -, there are those who trace the first vagaries of the Yagli Gures even in Egypt four millennia before.
We forgot, Yagli Gures stands for "oil fight". Here, in fact, our people grab a small golden jug and pour it on themselves with plenty of olive oil. So abundant as to soak up the kipset, the traditional buffalo leather trousers, long calf lengths and are the only garments worn for the competition. The oil is so abundant that any hint of friction is immediately reduced to zero: arms and torsos become eels. It is precisely to the pre-insulated folds of the kipset that it touches; it is not uncommon that a pehlivan literally places his hand into the opponent's trousers to lift him, turn his belly to the sky and win the victory.
The meetings are preceded by a sacrificial halal slaughtering and interrupted by the daily prayers at Mecca, which take place in bunches of ten, next to each other, into an arena that has been macerated by the sun. A single meeting can last up to forty minutes.
McNutt focuses on the younger pehlivanlar, and gives us a portrait of it as Pasolini's youth - creatures, from nervous eroticism. They are beautiful photos, but what in Turkey would have been an undoubtedly iconoclastic gesture is defused by context and latitude: expressed in America, at a comfortable distance, McNutt's conclusions remind them despite those of the common ironic commentator from the forum, so a hand in the trousers of a male competitor is already evidence of blatant homosexuality. Not to mention that an audience of gay people have come to those same conclusions for a long time and in total autonomy: by uploading the tournament videos to their red light sites.
Turkey vs Iran
Then there is the fact that the Yagli Gures, on the other hand, is not so conservative. Let us enter into another centuries-old conversation: between Turkey and neighbouring Iran, which today we could summarize in the animated dialogue between Sunnite and Shiite Islam (two currents united in the foundations but divided on the importance attributed to Imam and Ayatollah, divinized by Shiite Iran, Author’s notes). Even when they end up talking about sport, the two nations disagree. Turkey is deemed too progressive, too much visible flesh and its tolerance for Sumo: a few years ago, and at Kirkpinar, it hosted a delegation of even more embarrassing nudity.
In Iran it is different. As the essay Muslim Bodies reminds us (LIT Verlag, 2015), after the Islamic revolution of 1979, We returned to embrace the hard line in costumes, even allowing a touch of neopuritanism. Where is it written, for example, that male athletes have to cover themselves with a t-shirt? The rule prohibits the performance of thigh and knees (and footballers and swimmers regularly disregard it. Even that between reality and dogma is a difficult conversation, and yet the men of Zurkhanen - the "house of force" in Iran - embrace bows and shields forced into what someone without too many turns of words has called an aesthetic distraction, made of traditional trousers and ultra-contemporary t-shirts. The waistline as a spatio-temporal passage.
But if the Koran and normative literature do not speak of it, what is the reason for this rigidity? Muslim Bodies quotes the Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who has a suggestive hypothesis: and if the responsibility (we will not say guilt) was indirectly ours, of an unconscious West and of a bodybuilding culture that since the eighties has aestheticized the masculine chest? Perhaps it is not entirely exclusive. After all, we live in a gigantic conversation in progress; the new pleasures of a part of the world become the shameless, equally new, of the opposite side. The aesthetics of beefcake, a muscular cover-up bustle, would have made Iranians suddenly feel naked and obscene.
Ben McNutt was clear: wrestling is his muse and has no intention of abandoning it. The Yagli Gures, on the other hand, continues along its relatively enlightened road, with a UNESCO plaque and an international appeal ready to be converted into tourism. Have they already flipped through Vogue last October in Edirne? We do not know, The ending is open. And the conversation does not stop, and it doesn't stop getting out of hand: just like a pehlivan that is too oily.

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