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Enter Mir Mehdi Varzandeh

After Varzandeh arrived in Tehran in 1915, he was received by the minister of education, whom he tried to convince of the importance of physical education. The minister recommended him to the Ministry of the Interior, so that he could gain employment in the Swedish-officered gendarmerie.45 But at the gendarmerie he was told that there was no need for him.46 Not only could he not find employment, people made fun of him for wanting to serve his country with Jimbalastik. He continued arguing his case, and gained the respect of a number of physicians who referred their patients to him for massage therapy.47 Ten students from the Alliance Franqaise school agreed to exercise under his supervision, but they met with such hostility and criticism that they stopped after two months. He now went to the St. Louis school and, there being no money, taught physical education for free for six months. At this point a number of graduates of the Dar al-Fonun school founded a school by the name of Sepehr, which employed him as a physical education teacher with a monthly salary of eight tumans. Four months later, the Dar al-Fonun held its annual celebration of education (jashn-e ma ‘aref) in the presence of the minister of education, Hakim al-Molk.48 Varzandeh delivered a speech extolling sports, and then gave a demonstration with his students from the Sepehr school. Impressed, Hakim al-Molk conferred a medal on him and appointed him physical education teacher at state schools with a monthly salary of 40 tumans. In an official note dated 2 November 1915 the minister wrote:

Esteemed directors of state schools,

Mr. Mir Mehdi Khan, who is a graduate of the Union Franqaise of Istanbul and has high diplomas in the teaching of gymnastics, has been appointed teacher of physical education at state schools by the Ministry of Education. Therefore fix the hours of his teaching as soon as possible so that he can start teaching.49

In the beginning, the goals were modest: two hours of physical education per week. Varzandeh taught at a number of schools, including the military school (Madreseh-ye Nezam) and the officers’ academy (Daneshkadeh-ye Afsari), and continued championing the introduction of physical education classes into school curricula. In 1919 he succeeded: physical education officially became part of the compulsory curriculum under the minister of education Ahmad Bader (Naser al-Dowleh).50

In 1924 Varzandeh was sent by the Iranian government to Paris, where he studied fencing and gymnastics for over a year at the abovementioned Ecole de Joinville, which had received a Persian delegation in 1923.51 Upon his return to Iran in 1925, he was named inspector (mofattesh) for physical education at Tehran high schools, and proceeded to appoint Abolfazl Sadri as his deputy.52 One of the measures he instituted was to suspend elementary school classes on Monday afternoons and send pupils to the outskirts of the city for play,53 something Lefebure had suggested for fair-weather days.54

On 29 December 1925 (8 Dey 1304) the Association of Propagators of Sport (Hey’at-e moravvejin-e varzesh) was founded in Tehran, with the aforementioned Naser al-Dowleh at its head. Varzandeh, Sadri, the constitutionalist statesman Seyyed Hasan Taqizadeh, and the newspaper editor ‘Ali Dashti were “consulting” (moshaver) members. Under the guidance of Varzandeh, the members exercised thrice a week. The future plans of the association included positive eugenics, described as “improving the Iranian race,” (eslah-e nasl-e Iran) and preventing the spread of immorality (monkerat va raza’el-e akhlaqi). To do so, it planned to set up free spaces in the city where members of the public could exercise. At one of the association’s meetings, Varzandeh was asked to compile a survey of the capital’s athletic facilities and activities. It transpired that there were eighteen zurkhanehs, and that thirteen private schools had regular physical education classes taught by teachers employed by the Ministry of Education. At the American School (the future Alborz) physical education was taught by an American; the school of political science and the Alliance Franqaise had no physical education classes; and at the German Technical School (Madreseh-ye San‘ati) Geranmayeh was teaching.55

The new dynamism generated by the advent of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 and 1926 provided Varzandeh with forums to publish a few articles expounding his ideas. In the summer of 1925 he wrote a short piece in the new monthly publication of the Ministry of Education. After recounting the story of his life and struggles so far, he suggested instituting physical education teacher-training classes at the Dar al-Fonun school, so that with the help of these teachers the ministry would “succeed in improving (eslah) the Iranian race (nasl-o nezhad) and training the nervous (asabi) and bone marrow (ozvi) cells of Iranian children so as to provide people with sound bodies and sound morals for the future of Iran.” He further explained: “It is obvious that people whose nervous system (selseleh-ye a‘sab) and mental powers (qova-ye damaghi) have matured in accordance with sound methods, and whose bodies are fit and can sustain all sorts of difficult activities, and whose muscles do their duty naturally, will have a healthy mind, [enabling them to] achieve all sorts of progress and attain their goals and ideals.”56 Here Varzandeh clearly echoes the Social

Darwinism and associated eugenics that were popular at the time in Europe and had crept into the ideology of Swedish gymnastics.

The propagation of physical education was also high on the agenda of Mahmud Afshar, a fiercely nationalist intellectual who proposed modernizing remedies for Iran’s problems in his influential publication Ayandeh (Future).57 In the very first issue of this journal, which included what might be termed his manifesto, he wrote:

Another matter that the people need and to which we hope the government will pay serious attention is the generalization and propagation of physical exercise and public health. ... Although no one doubts the benefits and necessity of sport, it is not as developed in Iran as it ought to be. ... Physical education must not be limited to elementary schools and should be instituted in middle and high schools as well. ... Special teachers are needed for this, and they need to be trained. . We believe that sport is so important for Iran that the government would render the nation a great service if it forced all those who are on the state’s payroll to exercise. The way to do this is to establish sports halls offering facilities for gymnastics, tennis, and football in various points of the city, and force civil servants to exercise by deducting membership fees from their salaries.58

Varzandeh’s and Afshar’s insistence on training physical education teachers was heeded by the government. The minister of education at the time was Seyyed Mohammad Tadayyon, who was a believer in physical education (he seems to have exercised at home).59 In July 1926 the High Council of Education (Showra-ye ‘ali-ye ma‘aref) established a Physical Education Teacher Training College (Dar al-mo‘allemin-e varzesh) and appointed Varzandeh as its director. The college’s two-year curriculum included nine subjects: gymnastics, sports, pedagogy, anatomy, physiology, nutrition and first aid, physics, scouting, and music.60

After Afshar’s opening salvo in favour of physical education, Varzandeh contributed two articles to Ayandeh on this subject. In the first, titled “The History of the Appearance of Sport,” he wrote that the Greeks had invented sport, although he qualified this by admitting that before the Greeks the Egyptians, and before the Egyptians the Indians, had some sports of their own. What is remarkable is that in sharp contrast to many other modernists, who found the origin of just about any cultural and civilizational phenomenon in ancient Iran, his only reference to Iranian traditions is a negative one, making fun of a pahlavan for telling the story of another pahlavan who was so strong that when a wall collapsed on him it inflicted no injury on him, so that he dug himself out with brute force, emerged from the heap, and walked away.61

A few months later he published another article, clarifying the relationship between games and sport. He wrote that it was imperative for the education of children to include games. “The Swedes, whose moral virtues and progressive thoughts have astonished the world, established a school to train games teachers in Naset, a town near Goteborg.” Since then, he averred, teachers from the civilized countries visited this school every year, and games featured prominently in the curricula of European elementary schools. While playing was necessary for children, competitive games in which individuals are winners should be avoided, so that the weaker should not be humiliated. Older children could also engage in sports, but only after their bodies had been made fit through physical education. Even then, football should be played in schools only as a game, not as a sport.62

Having provided for the training of teachers, on 5 September 1927 the Iranian parliament passed a law authorizing the Ministry of Education to introduce compulsory daily physical education in public schools:63

Article 1 - The Ministry of Education is empowered to make physical education obligatory in all modern schools.

Article 2 - Except on holidays, physical education has to take place in said schools every day.

Article 3 - The Ministry of Education will determine the number of hours and the times physical education [will be taught].

Article 4 - After its promulgation, this law will be applied in provincial capitals within one year, and in the rest of the country within three years.64

The implementation of this law turned out to be fraught with difficulties. Given the paucity of qualified teachers, in the beginning teachers of other subjects were used. Neither they nor their students showed any enthusiasm, and classes were often cancelled. Budgetary allowances were insufficient as well. To enforce the law, the government decreed a few months later that two hours be set aside for physical education in all schools.65

As a teacher Varzandeh seems to have been popular. Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic, remembers:

Mr. Varzandeh used all his skills to attract the youth to sports and games. With his bald head, short stature, and his histrionic style he would speak both earnestly and in jest, and he was very effective. He took his students on hiking trips to the mountains and founded a number of sports clubs, including Iran’s first public swimming pool.66

In addition to teaching in public schools, Varzandeh was also the private physical education instructor to Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom he taught fencing and boxing before the crown prince left for Switzerland in 1931.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, in the 1930s the modernist press propagated competitive Western sports more than physical education; perhaps it had something to do with the rising nationalism and militarism of the 1930s, which exalted struggle and competition. The widely read (and Nazi-financed) Iran-e Bastan, for instance, published pictures of European sports events in almost every issue. To give one example, under the heading “Different athletic disciplines for the attention of young girls and boys of Iran - a sample of sports and competitions from the civilized world” photos show ice hockey, tennis, horse riding, skiing, diving, volleyball, and boxing.67

In the spring of 1934 the minister of education, ‘Ali Asghar Hekmat, took the initiative of inviting a number of influential personalities to join him in founding the National Physical Education Association (Anjoman-e melli-ye tarbiyat-e badani). Hekmat was a graduate of the American missionary school in Tehran, and believed that physical education in Iran needed to be improved;68 whether he had any concrete misgivings about Varzandeh I do not know. The new association invited a recent graduate of Columbia University, Thomas R. Gibson, to come to Iran and reorganize Iranian sports. Varzandeh took umbrage, as he considered Gibson to be less qualified than he was himself, retired from his position in the Ministry of Education, and withdrew from state service.69 The teacher-training college he had directed was closed down.70

Under Gibson’s guidance, callisthenics in Iranian schools were replaced with competitive sports as well as games such as football, volleyball, and basketball.71 Gibson, who stayed until 1938, also set up competitions between school teams, mostly in football. Within a few months of the reorganization of Iranian sports, 24 football teams had been formed, all of them connected with educational establishments. To encourage the public to take these games seriously, the tournaments were attended by the highest dignitaries of the state.72

The new approach to physical education was a victory of the Anglo-Saxon notion of competitive games over the continental preference for non-competitive physical exercises, the grounds for this victory having been prepared by the Protestant missionaries. The old teacher-training college having been dissolved, in 1938 a new institution called Daneshsara-ye tarbiyat-e badani was set up to dispense a two-year course of study for the training of elementary and middle-school teachers.73 It closed down after only five years because of World War II, but its four classes graduated 138 teachers who became Iran’s most eminent and effective physical education teachers.74

Varzandeh’s retirement from state service did not end his engagement with health and physical education. In 1935 he published a book titled Dastur-e varzesh-e ruzaneh (Manual for daily exercises).75 His club and its famous swimming pool remained open, attracting health-conscious citizens. In the 1950s he seems to have been the director of the Bank Melli sports club.76

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