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Where Wrestling Is a Way of Life

Winners of the annual Kirkpinar, the World Series of Turkish oil wrestling, are all national heroes

Mustapha, "the Terrible Turk," was an impressive character to me when, as a schoolboy, I used to watch him wrestle on Tuesday nights at the Boston Arena. At the time I never questioned the sincerity of his strangleholds or the integrity of his celebrated "Turkish Belly Bounce," in which his victim, vigorously propelled by Mustapha's alternately contracting and expanding midriff, ricocheted off the ring ropes into the front-row seats. His shaved skull, creased neck and handlebar mustache remained for me symbols of undiluted ferocity until the cynicism acquired as a college sophomore taught me to question the authenticity of his craft.

It was therefore with a sense of an abused trust restored that I encountered "Mustapha" again this past summer in his native Turkey and discovered that his profession, in spite of its perversion abroad, is a true and honorable one in his own country. In actuality I saw about 200 Mustaphas impressively gathered in the market town of Edirne for the annual Kirkpinar—the World Series of Turkish oil wrestling. The Kirkpinar is on few tourist calendars, and it is not, strictly speaking, a sporting event. It is, in essence, an annual reenactment every June of a military training exercise which Sultan Murat the First began 600 years ago on his palace grounds in Edirne—the Kirkpinar—to keep his troops in fighting spirit on the eve of their expeditions into eastern Europe. The oil wrestling techniques, the ornately embossed leather breeches and the nonstop wild Turkish music have all been handed down, father to son, as part of a tradition that has remained unbroken through 33 sultanates and four republican presidencies.

The environment of the Kirkpinar certainly sets Mustapha off to advantage. He wrestles barefooted on an open field, cheered on by fellow villagers, his courage kept high by a gypsy pipe and drum corps. (This gang, with their frenetic clamor, must have set a nonstop record last year. The six of them—plus two reliefs—played continuously for the three days and two nights I camped on the wrestling grounds.) At times as many as 20 of Mustapha's colleagues were fighting simultaneously. Thus, as a spectacle, the Kirkpinar is unique: a dozen pairs of Anatolian giants, their oaken torsos glistening with olive oil, are locked in seemingly mortal combat on a bare field under a scorching sun. One easily imagines primeval behemoths charging, engaging and retreating, their stentorian grunting and breathing audible from one end of the field to the other.

The rules of the contest are as primitive as the spectacle. A victor is he who drags his opponent three feet in any direction, or throws him to the ground so that "his belly sees the sun" (even if only for a second), or holds him aloft for a count of three. Some of the matches I saw were concluded in a matter of five minutes, but most lasted about an hour, and several were well over two hours in the running. The endurance required for these longer bouts staggers the imagination. I can only suggest as an equivalent conditioner rolling a greased beer barrel out of a mud flat for the better part of an August afternoon.

There are surprisingly few injuries, considering the violence of the individual matches and the rough terrain. But blood is frequently drawn after a hard fall on stony ground. When this happens the injured wrestler stoically awaits an attendant whose sole function is to circulate about the field with a swab and a bucket of carbolic acid. The stinging swab is then applied to the wounded while his opponent patiently bides his time before resuming the attack.

Most falls are followed by a surprising flourish of sportsmanship. The winner, humbling himself, bows before the vanquished and kisses his outstretched hand. To a jaded modern this rite must appear as some sort of quaint anachronism, as appropriate to the Atomic Age as the code of chivalry. However, a small number of matches are concluded in a less Queensberrylike manner. Since one fall alone automatically eliminates a competitor from the entire tournament, the disappointed loser may violently challenge the outcome. This usually involves a fierce denunciation of the hakem (referee), plus an impassioned appeal to the judges. In its extreme form it may mean Mustapha's reverting to his old "Terrible Turk" manners, that is, a direct physical assault on the ref. Last year I watched four tough Turkish gendarmes, backed up by bayonet-wielding Anatolian troops, visibly struggle to subdue Mehmet Ordu, a finalist who chose to inject a dash of Boston Arena roughhouse into the ordered ritual of the Kirkpinar. For his boorishness he was banished from the wrestling fair for two years.

The prestige conferred by a victory in the Kirkpinar is enormous. The winner of the heavyweight division, the Bash Pehlivan, emerges with all the glory and perquisites of a World Series winning pitcher. The material rewards are slim by American standards—only the equivalent in Turkish liras of $100 and a golden belt. But a Bash Pehlivan can expect to be treated as a conquering hero in every hamlet of a country where wrestling is the national sport. Mere entrance in the tournament is a status symbol. A measure of this is the legend spelled out in lanterns hung between the lofty minarets of Edirne's principal mosque. It reads: "Kirkpinar, Harvest of Heroes."

The Kirkpinar begins on Friday, the Moslem holy day. So, naturally enough, the wrestlers and their followers attend the noon service in the massive Selimiye Mosque, which, with its four minarets, dominates the Thracian plain for miles in every direction. Despite the ample dimensions of its cavernous interior, the mosque seemed to be packed well before the praying began. And the intricately woven prayer rugs must have received a more vigorous workout than usual with the addition of 200 heavily molded wrestlers crashing onto them in the ordered cadences of Moslem prayer. From past experience in many Turkish mosques I knew that the Imam's Friday sermon was frequently a topical one. Although Turkey's constitution emphatically excludes a state-sponsored religion, this Friday sermon is often laced with current events. In the past I have heard denunciations of both Nasser and Communism from the pulpit. Thus, I expected some sort of timely address—at least an allusion to the Kirkpinar—and some sort of exhortation to the wrestlers. In fact, I suppose I was cynically waiting for the Imam to emulate a Notre Dame chaplain's pregame delivery and tell his boys to "get out there and wrestle for Allah." If so, I was mistaken. His oratory clung strictly to doctrinal themes, and my interpreter was mildly scandalized when I expressed disappointment.

Because the Kirkpinar is the biggest annual event in the province, it draws peasants from all over Thrace. And, just as any Iowa farm boy might become a bit blasé on the second day of a corn-husking bee, his Turkish counterpart is similarly sated after a couple of days of nonstop oil wrestling. So, like any midwestern state fair, there is a midway to help separate rustics from their loose change. All the rides, concessions and con games, as you might suspect, have an Oriental flavor of their own. Most of the aerial rides are primitively strung together with wooden beams and greased ropes; the tent shows run to gypsy snake charmers and belly dancers; and the game-booth prizes are usually children's drums or ceremonial circumcision caps. I even learned the Turkish equivalent of "Hey, Rube!," that American carny man's expression which means, "Help me throw this jerk out of my booth before he ruins my game!" A burly farmer was sledgehammering the daylights out of the strength-testing machine to the tune of about 10 drums. The game operator had clearly had enough of this. "Haydi, Osman!" brought three hefty Anatolian bruisers on the run who swiftly wrestled the sledge out of the peasant's fist and sent him packing. He took it in surprisingly good nature.

To watch a Turkish peasant gawking at a tent show of belly dancers on Saturday night is to grasp all at once the essence of Middle Eastern mores, the nature of Anatolian village life and the whole Mid-Eastern concept of women. The girls are young, hefty, according to the Asiatic ideal, and imported from Class C cabarets in Istanbul. But compared to what goes on in any Chicago strip joint, their performance is strictly prudish. What's left after the "seven veils" are peeled off is what any girl watcher has come to expect as his due on any American beach in August. The Turkish farmer, however, reacts to the whole show as if he had just come into a legacy of harem houris. So there is a good reason for the heavy iron grille (resembling nothing less than a section of a lion cage) that separates the front-row benches from the sagging platform that is the stage. A Westerner gradually catches on to the startling but obvious fact that a village Turk never sees a woman even partially undressed, outside of his own family, until the day he marries.

Patience and corpulence

Two other things struck me that Saturday night in that sweltering tent. The first was the extraordinary patience of a really tough-looking audience in waiting for the show to begin. No girls appeared until at least half the seats were filled, and that took 40 minutes from the time the tent opened for business. In my day, in Boston's Scollay Square, even the most repressed bank clerk would have stormed the Old Howard's orchestra pit before submitting to such box-office high-hand, edness. And, for me, the second revelation was the Turkish male's worship of sheer feminine corpulence. The dancers who received the most applause were not the most beautiful, the most undulating or the most curvaceous. They were simply and undeniably the fattest.

The Kirkpinar—unlike most sporting events—is a three-day affair. Thus, I cannot deny that by the end of the third afternoon I had about had my fill of wrestling and of oil-smeared Turkish giants. But as I watched the final peshref—that incredible balletlike fighting march that precedes each match—I was forced to ask myself where else in the world do men assert their masculinity with such fierce pride and ordered dignity as in the ancient rite of combat that is Turkey's Kirkpinar. In the final contest for the Bash Pehlivan championship there was ample glory for Sezai Kanmaz, who won the golden belt, but there was no less honor for the loser, Shaban Filiz. Only such men as these, locked for two hours in a seeming death struggle, could lift a jaded tourist to the point of feeling that he had just witnessed a noble encounter between Titans and Olympians.