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New Europe

Day Thirty-eight: Edirne

Olive oil wrestling 
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Wrestlers in action. Buttocks can be used for leverage.
Michael Palin - New EuropeWhat I see as we arrive at a woodland glade beside the river is a number of bulbous men wearing only tight, black, buffalo-skin pantaloons (called kisbet), being doused in diluted olive oil which they rub all over their bodies, with no particular sense of urgency, as if they were in a shower. Two of the wrestlers are young boys, no more than eleven or twelve I would think, who look like cheerful ragamuffins from an Oliver chorus line. Selen says it's common for the up-and-coming to learn alongside their elders.

On the back of their pants is a name, which Selen tells me is that of their sponsor. This may be a small warm-up event, but these men are all professionals, and at the big summer festival their fights can be watched by thousands of people.

'It's a very traditional Turkish sport,' Selen assures me. 'It has 640 years of history.'

Whilst the wrestlers (known as pehlivani) oil themselves up, a band of musicians, another vital ingredient in the sport, are also gathering. They wear loose blue waistcoats and baggy trousers with black-embroidered patterns and their instruments consist mainly of drums, davul, and oboes, zurna.

At last an announcer, the cazgir, brings them all together. Before the bouts begin, and some of them can last up to ninety minutes each, the cazgir introduces the competitors in his own inimitable fashion, often with a poem or a few jokes.

'The crowd love these people,' whispers Selen.

When the grappling eventually begins, all the pairs fight at the same time, supervised by a referee for each of them. Victory is achieved only when you can get your opponent flat on his back. Punching is not allowed, nor poking in the eye, but otherwise the rules of contact seem quite liberal. As it's almost impossible to get a grip on the lavishly oiled bodies they are allowed, nay encouraged, to slip a hand down the trousers of their opponent and use the buttocks as leverage, whilst the other hand grabs at the leather hem of the trouser just below the knee.

Intense concentration is required, and very often two slippery men will just lean upon one another, breathing in great heaves and waiting, sometimes for several minutes, for the moment to surprise their opponents. The band plays its part too, dictating the tempo of a bout by slowing down or speeding up the rhythm.

There is no danger of the physical effort becoming any easier once the oil is rubbed off, for attendants are prowling with fresh supplies and reanointing
glistening bodies whenever possible. Now I know what 'pouring' is all about.

At the end of each bout, victor and vanquished have to hoist each other off the ground in a manly hug.

It sounds absurd, grown men covered in olive oil, hands down each others' trousers, but there is a curious dignity to the whole procedure. Nothing is arbitrary, moves are carefully worked out and sanctified by a history and tradition that goes right back to the Greeks and Romans. But it has been refined into something wholly Turkish, something that strikes a deep and patriotic chord in the country people.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-eight: Edirne
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Edirne
  • Book page no: 95

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  • Sport and Leisure
  • Day 6 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 7 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 4 
  • Pole to Pole