The Iron Sheik’s Legacy Was an Orientalist’s Dream

His recent death was met with tributes all over the world, yet the wrestling legend helped shape a culture that was comfortable 'othering' people from the Middle East

The Iron Sheik’s Legacy Was an Orientalist’s Dream
The late wrestler known as the Iron Sheik challenges Mayor Rob Ford to a fight outside his office in Toronto, Canada, on Nov. 6, 2013. (Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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Tributes have been pouring in since the death of the professional wrestling star Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, better known as the Iron Sheik. He passed away on June 7 in Fayetteville, Georgia, aged 81. Vaziri was instrumental in turning televised wrestling into a cultural phenomenon. The success of the World Wrestling Federation, the multibillion-dollar global brand that permeated many childhoods in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, rested on his shoulders. He paved the way for the likes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who paid him homage on social media.

In later life, Vaziri transcended professional wrestling and became a pop culture icon. The stars loved him; even rappers like Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z couldn’t resist the chance to be photographed with him — he was no doubt part of their childhood nostalgia. He passed away having realized the American dream, but that dream was built on exploiting racist tropes that he could never break out of, or perhaps never wanted to.

As a kid in Sweden, I was raised on ‘80s Americana, from Knight Rider and Top Gun to the Iron Sheik with his handlebar mustache, bisht, keffiyeh and boots with turned-up toes. Alongside other WWF heroes like Hulk Hogan, Macho Man and Sergeant Slaughter, he smashed his way through my childhood. Yet I had not the foggiest idea why I detested the Iron Sheik so much. Perhaps it was just the fact that he was a great baddie, or because I was slowly becoming aware of world events; the 90s began with the first Gulf war. The story, to my immature mind, was not unlike a wrestling match: Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Americans gave Hussein an ultimatum to either leave Kuwait or else. Hussein didn’t listen and America bashed him with righteous fury. The world appeared simple in those days. The battle lines of good and evil, for many of us, were starkly drawn. In 1991, the Iron Sheik appeared as Colonel Mustafa; he looked like the Iraqi dictator, he stared into the camera and shouted Islamic invocations like the declaration of faith, “there is no god but God,” and the Shiite chant, “O Muhammad, O Ali.” I had no problem with him getting a whooping from an all-American wrestling hero like Hulk Hogan. That’s because many of us, even a child from Sweden, had consumed so many Cold War movies from Rocky to Rambo that we had no difficulty thinking of ourselves as American. Not only was America a great country, it was good.

Eventually, though it was later than most of my friends, I realized the truth: WWF (later WWE) was fake. For a long time I was in denial; I felt like a child discovering that Santa wasn’t real. WWF lost all its magic and no longer possessed the grit and character that I still admire in combat sports. I became increasingly disillusioned by the Iron Sheik. In fact, watching him on YouTube now, I can’t help but be disturbed by him. There is one clip of him being interviewed in a harem of sorts, turning a rosary while being caressed by a temptress. He had twisted the mundane act of counting prayer beads, done by my own family members as well as millions across the world, into something sinister. I wonder whether The Rock understands why it’s hard to pay tribute to a man who could probably have had a chapter to himself in Edward Said’s “Orientalism.”

Vaziri must have known what he was doing. The man was far from the caricature he played. Born in Iran in 1942, he was forged in the furnace of Iranian wrestling, which has a 5,000-year tradition. Wrestling was and remains a national obsession, and has produced many Olympic medalists right up to the present. Vaziri said that he was “obsessed” with wrestling and he became the national Iranian army champion three years in a row. He also became the bodyguard of the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

In those days, his two heroes were the American boxer Muhammad Ali and Iran’s wrestling hero, Gholam Reza Takhti. Takhti’s politics were anti-shah. He often voiced his political opinions and, at one point, according to Vaziri, even told the shah to invest in schools, hospitals and universities. In 1968, Takhti died by apparent suicide, though many suggested he had been killed by the shah’s secret police, SAVAK. While there was little proof of that, conspiracy theorists peddled the idea that the shah could not stand the idea of Takhti being bigger than him, so he had him killed. Vaziri claimed that, at the time, he felt his days were also numbered, because he had trained with Takhti and was on track for Iranian wrestling glory too. Whether that threat was real, imagined or merely an excuse to leave Iran, in 1973 he went to the United States. Iran’s loss became America’s gain. He soon began training the U.S. Olympic wrestling team as an assistant coach, and helped them to medal success in Munich, Germany (1972) and Montreal, Canada (1976).

But unlike now, when wrestling can lead to a lucrative career in mixed martial arts tournaments like the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the path for most wrestlers then was the entertainment wrestling circuit. Professional wrestling was essentially show business, with the results already predetermined. At some point, Vaziri discovered, as many showmen do, that being loud and brash sold tickets. He decided to become a caricature resembling something out of Disney’s Aladdin, a living embodiment of ‘80s and ‘90s depictions of people from the Middle East. Unlike now, when some brown actors can star in roles usually reserved for white actors, in those days any brown actor wanting a movie role in Hollywood had the dilemma of playing a terrorist or an Afghan mujahid. It was that or no acting part at all.

Vaziri exploited American hostility toward the Middle East due to the 1973 oil embargo, and the Iranian Revolution followed by the U.S. hostage crisis in Tehran in 1979. Having settled on the name Iron Sheik, the Reagan era saw him shouting “death to America,” waving the Iranian flag and applying his signature move, the deadly “camel clutch,” whereby he mounted his opponent’s back as if riding a camel and gave him a chinlock. He appeared in front of the television in a harem or holding the reins of a real live camel and discussing its merits, while the audience called him a camel jockey, a racist term still in use today. Even though there were times when his own safety was at stake, the hate didn’t seem to faze him. He had embraced the dark side of America. Other wrestlers followed suit and played to American prejudices. Josip Peruzovic, a Croatian, decided to become Nikolai Volkof, who represented America’s arch nemesis, the Soviet Union. They later teamed up and won Wrestlemania I.

The pivotal moment for wrestling and Vaziri came in 1984. The WWF had picked Hulk Hogan, the all-American hero, to defeat Vaziri, the heavyweight champion. Vaziri’s loss in Madison Square Garden, New York, on Jan. 23, 1984, transformed Hogan and the WWF into a cultural and global behemoth. Had it not been for that pivotal match, there would be no Hulk Hogan, WWE or The Rock. In 2005, Vaziri was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, his legacy secure.

But what about the dark side of that legacy? Vaziri perfected the art of “othering” so well that you saw traces of him in many wrestling villains. He was there in Kamala Raw, the crude African tribal warrior wearing leopard skin, facepaint, mask and a spear. He was present in Muhammad Hassan, an Arab American villain played by an Italian, as he entered the ring in an Arab headdress, accompanied by masked terrorists, several days before the 7/7 bombing in London. Were these characters influenced by the Iron Sheik? I wonder whether he contributed to wrestling storylines in which they hunted illegal immigrants, Jim Neidhart walked into the ring with KKK headgear or when Goldust did blackface. Maybe Vaziri validated their ideas; he certainly paved the way.

Perhaps I should go easier on Vaziri. Maybe an immigrant in the ‘70s and ‘80s didn’t have a choice but to play that role. Many immigrants faced with responsibilities have taken on roles that were unbecoming, and perhaps he was the same. Vaziri was, after all, uneducated, with nothing but wrestling to fall back on. He had to support a wife, three children and a growing crack cocaine habit that ultimately shortened his career, especially after his daughter was tragically murdered in 2003. In the circumstances, those challenges could break any man. Moreover, after he was busted for drugs and alcohol in 1987 his career was never the same. He went into the wilderness, where he took part in small local shows with a few hundred attendees and made sporadic appearances in WWF/E which meant that his Iron Sheik persona was essential to putting food on the table and supporting his addictions.

But Vaziri didn’t try to escape those stereotypes even as the world got bigger and more opportunities opened up for him. He could have changed his approach, as many entertainers did. Instead, Vaziri carried on playing to those tired tropes long after it was funny. He was addicted to fame, and perhaps imprisoned by it. He reminds me of the old man in Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” a pitiful figure who tries hard to keep his past alive. With false teeth and instantly recognizable attire, Vaziri was wheeled out to play to his 640,000 Twitter followers, filling his timeline with expletives. The pop culture icon continued to appear in movies and computer games and on the Howard Stern show, threatening to sodomize anyone who stood in his way, because presumably that’s what Middle Easterners usually do when they are angry. To the very end, he exploited the stereotypes that he had helped to create several decades ago.

The Iron Sheik may have paved the way for Dwayne Johnson, who himself broke out of the roles a wrestler might be expected to play. Vaziri propelled the WWE brand into the stratosphere and realized the American dream, but it came at a price. In order to live that dream, he sowed darkness and exploited the base emotions of Americana: fear and xenophobia. I keep thinking of his hero Takhti, the Olympian, who reportedly stood up for his values, asking the shah to raise his people out of their squalor. Vaziri escaped the squalor at the expense of his people, and contributed to an industry in which stereotypes of the other remain alive and well. Perhaps even more astonishing is that, in an age when we don’t accept racial slurs against whole communities, we can still pay tribute to man who made a living from peddling slurs against peoples from the Middle East.

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