Thursday, April 12, 2007

Muslim College Professor Joins Wrestling Blog!

Hey all!

I'd like to introduce myself. I am a professor of Religion at Skidmore College in upstate NY. Professor Ford kindly invited me to hang out here and talk with you all about wrestling. I am teaching a section on wrestling in my Theory and Method course right now. Some of my students may pop in to talk to you all.

I am a huge fan of professional wrestling. I just got into it a couple of years ago and now I am hooked. Since I am a historian by trade I do a lot of reading and research on old-school wrestling. I am currently reading Wrestling at the Chase on the old St. Louis scene and promoter Sam Muchnik. But I love all the recent stuff too in the indy promotions and WWE. I am no wrestling snob (did you know you could be a wrestling snob? Funny how there is a snob for nearly everything, eh?).

I am also a Muslim feminist activist. I do a lot of work on women's issues in the Muslim community. I run the website ProgressiveIslam.Org with my friends Sohail and Omar. Every so often, I write about wrestling and religion for the site. I was recently at Wrestlemania and wrote a piece on Muslim gimmicks and finding my place in the wrestling and Muslim communities.

You all be good to Mick Foley today! If I hear otherwise, I'll have to come out there teach y'all a little lesson! (^:

Laury Silvers


Joshua Shea said...

Your father was one of the funniest people to ever live. I don't know if he was a groundbreaker, a pioneer, or ahead of his time. I just know when I saw "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" at 15, that your dad made me laugh harder than almost anyone else had done to that point and that's more important as an entertainer than that other stuff. He had the greatest voice. Today he'd be making millions in cartoon voice-over. It's too bad more of his stuff isn't on You Tube.

Are you a muslim who is a professor or a professor who teach about muslim? I couldn't tell based on your entry or from the other web site.

Laury Silvers said...

Thanks! He was hysterical wasn't he? I realized how great he was myself when John Cleese named him as a major influence. I knew he was my dad and he was awesome, but John Cleese!

I think part of why I like wrestling so much is my dad's influence. I guess the love of broadly gestured performance is in my blood. I take classes for pro-wrestling. I hesitate to say I train. I do not want to disrespect the business by calling what I do "training." These folks are serious athletes and performers. There are a couple up and coming wrestlers at my school. Bobby Fish, for instance, who just did a stint with NOAH. He is a precise athlete, a consummate performer, and a professional. Me, I am getting a work out and learning what I call "Burlesque Self-Defense." I'm just glad they let learn how to take bumps and do squats with them.

I am a Muslim professor of Islamic studies and Religion. I converted around the age of 25. I'm 43 now, so its been a few years. I do progressive activism in the muslim community. Mainly stuff on domestic violence and other family issues. But I have also been active in the women-led prayer movement. I gave the sermon at an Eid prayer out there in Boston this past year. My friend Nakia Jackson led the prayer.

Thanks for the interest!

What's your story? Are you a student or a nutty prof type like me?

Joshua Shea said...

I wrote a bit 15 years ago, when it wasn't all that cool to do that, about wrestling.

I worked for four years, first as booker, then as owner for a New England indy from 1998-2001.

These days I'm a freelance media consultant, which means whatever I want it to that day depending on what someone will pay me.

As for the students who post here, they've not taken a liking to me, but I try to save those posts for their own threads.

Laury Silvers said...

I'm going to check out the threads here this weekend, I look forward to reading yours. I am a regular reader on the Wrestling Classics board. I have learned so much from the folks there, many of whom, like you, have been in the business. Sounds like there has been some lively discussion here!

narwood said...

Joshua's just being modest. Excepting a few students with an inability to take personal challenge, we love him!

He does appear to take a vocal dislike to anyone with a strong belief in academia, but you should be fine so far as you stick to John Cleese and fan talk.

Anyway, welcome Laury. It sounds like you have some interesting perspectives on wrestling, and I look forwards to hearing more from you (and seeing you later in the term.)

Laury Silvers said...

Any threads I should look at in particular? I'm not usually a high spot kind of girl, but I'll make an exception since I am coming in a bit late here.

Narwood, I won't be visiting your class. I read about the class on a wrestling message board and then tracked down Sam to tell him how jealous I am! He invited me on the blog.

You can visit my class, tho!

Sam Ford said...

We're really glad to have you here, Laury, and I don't want to priviledge certain posts over others. Many of them are in response to specific viewings and/or readings, but you should go back through and take a look at what these students have had to say. There are a few threads focused on some interesting disagreements, but most are what you would expect of a class discussion about viewing and reading materials, except in a blog space which allows for a little bit more of an informal written conversation.

Glad to have you and your class visiting, and the longterm hope is that a blog where pro wrestling is discussed might continue on even past a month or so from now when the class starts to wrap up.

Michael Wehrman said...

If asked to provide a phrase to summarize the kind of person I would least expect to watch professional wrestling, I would surely come up with a phrase very close to "feminist Muslim activist scholar."

Thus far, if I'm to be surprised by anything, it would be how most of us here, scholars and the like, don't seem to be bothered by the sorts of storylines and visuals in pro wrestling. If a self-described progressive feminist can enjoy wrestling as escapist entertainment without worry as to how women are being degraded day in and day out, then anything could be possilbe

I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on pro wrestling. Welcome to the board!

Laury Silvers said...

Mucho Jazaks (thanks), Sam! I'm going to talk to the kids about the blog today. Get them commenting!

Michael, I wrote a blog a while back when I first got into wrestling. It is a bit naive in its own way...but I think it answers your question about the muslim feminist business....

My views have changed since then. Wrestling has deeply affected my feminism. I now focus on how both women and men are harmed by gender injustice.

There is much more to say....but in the end, what I love most about wrestling is its brutal honesty. For me it is humanity in all its beauty and ugliness laid bare.

Laury Silvers said...

Whoops, the link is too long.

I posted it again as the link to my name to this comment, that should work. Just click on my name.

Michael Wehrman said...

C&P the link and it worked fine.

You're a more rabid fan than I am. I used to scream and shout, but, alas, my analytic side takes over at wrestling events anymore. I prefer to notice how a crowd of "smart" fans seem to consistently and (possibly) hypocritically snap photos of any and all women in the ring using their cell phones (at ROH and OVW events).

I prefer to pay attention to how ethnicity matters to wrestling fans; that any wrestler from Japan is to be lauded and praised as amazing and authentic (I personally think current ROH champ Takeshi Morishima is a lumbering buffoon).

But your remark on Sabu pointed out something so glaring and so obvious that I'm ashamed I'd never really thought of it. Namely, Sabu's ethnicity has never mattered. It's part of his identity, but it never (as far as I know) entered into any fans' mental equation for determining whether or not they liked him or hated him. He dresses the part, and he pays homage to his late, great uncle...and that's it. It could be a product of the fact that he never talked, and thus had much fewer opportunities to make it part of his persona.

I dunno, really. It is fascinating, though. How can a wrestler who doesn't present himself as a caucasian Hulk Hogan/Lex Luger/John Cena archetype avoid ethnic categorization?

Does Sabu "pass" for white? I think it would be far easier to argue that Batista does than Sabu, but I don't think that Sabu clearly does or does not pass.

Perhaps what he shows is that wrestling fans, even in the present, want to be dazzled and entertained by great wrestling matches. As I was driving from rollerderby practice the other day, I was thinking about whether or not wrestler entrances have killed the excitement of matches themselves. In short, a number of wrestlers have ornate entrances with derivative and clappable rock music, big pyro, lots of lights...and when the match starts, they stink up the ring. Like Mick Foley's cheap pops, they serve to distract from the "heart" of wrestling.

Sabu certainly isn't one of those wrestlers. His entrance isn't ornate, his music more unique than others (and thankfully his authentic ECW theme)...but I don't think of Sabu's entrance as "awesome." It's just that: an entrance. (Compare that with the Sandman, who is all entrance and zero wrestling).

Unrelated to the question of his ethnicity, Sabu's an interesting person because he's so frequently forgiven by fans when he royally screws up a move. He does so often...but when he does it right, as he did with his springboard legdrop onto John Cena on Raw many months ago, it's a clip for the ages, and one we'll continue to see for years and years.

One last point: I think you're wrong about Hassan's departure from WWE. It may have been somewhat related to the London bombings and a poorly-timed Tuesday taping before the London incident. I think, however, that he was known to have a bad attitude about being a wrestler, and looked at WWE as a stepping stone to acting; the sm of the parts is that, yes, WWE had a very controversial character on their hands, but also one who wasn't interested in being there. So he left or was let go. I could be wrong, however.

Italian-Americans are interesting in wrestling; on one hand, you have someone like Copani, who passed 100% for a Muslim in the role of Hassan; on the other, you have someone playing a very passable Russian expatriate in OVW under the name of Boris Alexiev. Truthfully, the only thing that makes him look inauthentic are his many and myriad bad tattoos.

Thanks for the insight. Do you keep up with the wrestling blog there?

Laury Silvers said...

I think you've caught onto an important point about ethnicity and gimmicks--important for me, anyway.

I used technical terms in the blog denoting authority gained by the transfer of tradition from one teacher to another. "Silsilla" is a chain of authority from one teacher to another going back--it is claimed--to the Prophet. Thus the person who is attached to a particular silsilla carries the baraka or blessing-power of those who came before, acts in their name, and manifests character traits understood to be particular to that silsilla. "Ijaza" is a similar idea but more like a degree indicating permission to teach or perform one or more particular subjects, books, actions, etc.

To me, Sabu's ethnicity is constructed by means of the heritage of his Arab and Muslim gimmick. The gimmick is his ethnicity. I'm a bit taken up by this idea of gimmick as identity.

Visible race is a complicating factor. Can African American or Asian wrestlers take on a gimmick ethnicity outside regional expectations?

Right-o on Hassan, I didn't know any of that about him.

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

Glad to have you reading, Laury. (Dr. Silvers? Appropriate formality isn't always clear out here.) It occurs to me that "gimmicks" carries with it a somewhat pejorative connotation for a behavior that seems to permeate much of our lives. It seems to me that anything consciously designed to demarcate oneself as a member of a specific group, ironically or not, would be a gimmick of sorts. This would apply to all kinds of cultural and subcultural markings.

One Ash Wednesday, one of my roommates returned to find me sitting in the common room with the requisite ash on my forehead. He hadn't known I was Catholic, and in all honesty, I wasn't sure myself, but I had gone to church that morning, and hadn't washed it off.

He asked me if I was Catholic, and I answered in the affirmative. This prompted him to ask again, apparently thinking I was joking. Again, I said yes. The questioning continued, and finally I told him "no, it's just a funny joke I came up with." And that seemed to satisfy him.

I'd walked around all day with that ash on my forehead, and it occurred to me then that my decision to leave it on changed how I was perceived, but not always in ways I would have predicted. Some people no doubt took it at face value, some intepreted it as a gesture of solidarity, and at least one seemed to think I was joking. I wonder, then, if what constitutes a "gimmick" has a much to do with the audience as it does with the bearer of the supposed gimmick.

Laury Silvers said...

I never thought of gimmick as negatively-toned. Maybe we could call it honestly-toned? I do not think gimmicks are ironic. To me, wrestling is not ironic. Neither is wrestling cool. To my mind, wrestling will never provide the wink that lets us take it as anything less than the brutally complex human performance it is.

Your point about gimmicks and the audience is well observed, to my mind. How is identity constructed in any context except for through a myriad of dynamic relationships?

Just call me "Laury." I only use "Dr." at hotels, they give me better service.....well, and when cutting promos against "Mister" Matt Striker, mere high school teacher.

katejames said...

'To me, wrestling is not ironic. Neither is wrestling cool. To my mind, wrestling will never provide the wink that lets us take it as anything less than the brutally complex human performance it is. '
Laury- I think this is extremely well-put... I thought about wrestling in relation to kitsch at the beginning of this class, with its melodramatic connotations and over-the-top, formulaic bad taste. Gimmick does seem to play a role in the realms of production and reception.
But I think wrestling is indeed more complex than this analogy I had going- it lacks the self-consciousness that would make it operate on the level of irony.
I do think that in the same way kitsch has a relation to high art, a lot of high art (especially body art from the 70s and 80s) attempted to get a the same performative ambiguity that wrestling achieves so successfully- a sense of corporeal permeability, self-maintenance and destruction, etc.
But these art projects had the 'wink' you mention loud and clear. I can be a fan of wrestling while having fundamental difficulties with relationship to what that fandom 'means' becaus of the complete immersion into the world in many ways diametrically opposed to the one I hope for. The evocation of this performance is something to react to. We are given an ambiguous, complex explosion of entertainment and violence, and question ourselves as a result.
I'm really interested in your training (even if you hesitate to call it that) Laury... do you feel like you crossed a big boundary in getting into the ring, or did you have a sense that the physical wrestling performance was just an extension of who you were as a fan? What does the actual wrestling do to resolve or complicate your relationship to wrestling?

Sam Ford said...

And, to follow up on Kate's question, have you read Sharon Mazer's work of the ethnography she did of Johnny Rodz's wrestling training school?

Laury Silvers said...

I don't think I have crossed any line. I am deeply a fan, a huge mark, even in class. When Bobby Fish works with one of the students I mark out with the marking out of a true mark who has always and ever will be a total freaking mark. One night he was trying out some new spots with JP, my trainer, and I stood transfixed watching the process. They asked me to comment on various moves as they developed them. I nearly died of the pleasure of it. When I watch Bobby's face screwed up in pain as he reaches for the ropes and hear him call the next spot in a perfectly measured and quiet tone of voice, I juswannadie!

I have a few fan gimmicks I use, so as a fan I am not sure I was not already part of the wrestling in my own way. I took my favorite gimmick from a woman I saw in the audience of an old memphis match. She was in her 60's, shriveled, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and she pushed out in her gravelly matter of fact voice the glorious words, "Kill him, Kill him." When I have been her as a fan, I find I typically have recourse to shake my boob at wrestlers who think they can insult me. I imagine it is her dried up old cigarette tit. It really disturbs the wrestlers. She is quite something. She disturbs me!

Maybe, maybe if I were willing to take a boot to the face (I won't) or get slammed in a t-bone (I won't) or chopped even (never), I could cross over.

But you know what....I am not sure any wrestlers ever do. Don't they all end up marking out for each other?

I think the only thing that has changed is that I am now unwilling to criticize the work of wrestlers without first speaking to their extraordinary gifts. Can I just say running the ropes and clotheslines really freaking hurt, a lot, Hindu squats are about as much fun as they look, and to be even a crappy wrestler you have to be really good at some things.

Sam Ford said...

Laury, I'm particularly interested in fan performances, and I'd love to talk to you more about this particular character..."She is quite something. She disturbs me!"

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