Stage 14 – Iran: Deserts And Borders [2/2]

Having explored the wild beauty of Iran’s eastern borders, and joined by new travel partner Maciej, I make a journey from the capital to the country’s western border in the freezing mountains of Kurdistan. Alone once again, I spend a few weeks in the capital and in Yazd, my favourite Iranian city, before slipping back into Pakistan, taking the Odyssey east once more and abandoning plans to head to Arabia.

Zagros Mountains, Hamadan Province, Iran

It’s the 4th February 2009, and Maciej and I, together with Slovenians Matjaz, Ana and their friend Manca with whom we had all stayed the previous night, leave a cold, grey Tehran. We drive west, up onto the frigid expanses of the Zagros mountains, now deeply covered in snow as we pass the city of Hamadan and enter the province of Kordestan (Kurdestan). Moving west, the towns become scruffier, with shabby, rough architecture and litter-strewn streets. At the same time however, the welcome is warmer; the Kurds are perhaps the warmest and most genuinely welcoming people in a region renowned for hospitality.

After dark we reach the freezing mountain town of Marivan. The Slovenians head to bed in a comfortable hotel, but Maciej and I, after finding cheaper digs in a rather seedy establishment, go out into town in search of some entertainment, soon finding a warm chaikhana (teahouse) packed with Kurdish men. The atmosphere inside is dark and thick with tobacco smoke, and warm thanks to a brazier burning wood and walnut shells. Rough-hewn Kurdish figures, whilst thumbing strings of rosary beads are engaging in heated conversations over endless cups of fragrant black tea and games of nard (backgammon). Despite being very obviously foreign, Maciej and I are not pounced upon with the usual string of questions, and spend a relaxing time with a huge, ornately turned wooden ghelyun (waterpipe) smoking wonderfully soft and fragrant unflavoured tobacco – far nicer than the rather artificial-tasting apple or mint tobaccos one usually finds in the region.

Tea House, Marivan, Kordestan Province, Iran

After a short time, we start a conversation with some of the local men, one of whom, Hadi, speaks good English. These are not farmers or wild mountain men, but teachers and engineers. The conversation soon turns to the issue of the repression of Kurds under the Iranian regime, and we are shown some truly shocking footage of the aftermath of attacks by the Iranian border forces on Kurdish smugglers – mutilated and pulverised corpses strewn in the hills around the Iraqi borders.

Kurds, like all of Iran’s repressed minorities, are Sunnis, and rather like their Baluchi cousins at the opposite corner of Iran, are a people who long for self-governance. Marginalised economically, farming and smuggling are a major industry, which belies the fact that many Kurds, despite being very traditional, are highly educated, worldly and forward thinking. One need only look at the great Kurdish diaspora throughout the West however, to see that these are a repressed people, desperate to live dignified lives. Our new Kurdish friends insist on giving us a ride back to our hotel; a warm welcome to a cold and rather bleak place.

Howraman-e Takht, Kordestan Province, Iran

In the morning we head out to our intended destination in Kordestan, the small, isolated Howraman Valley which lies right on the Iraqi border, and hosts the uniquely Kurdish mid-winter Pir Shalyar festival. Pir Shalyar was a (perhaps mythical) Zoroastrian magi (saint) whose marriage to a princess nine hundred years ago is celebrated annually by Kurds of the Hawrami clan, who speak an unusual dialect of Kurdish. The valley’s main town, Howraman-e Takht is a picturebook image of medieval-looking stone houses with large latticework windows of green or blue-painted wooden frames, which spill down the steep wall of the valley. It is also the site of Pir Shalyar’s shrine, and the centre of today’s festivities which see the town packed with Kurdish men from the surrounding villages. The older men can be seen wearing a very distinctive felt waistcoat with protruding shoulders, looking almost like the neck of a goatskin. Others wear the more traditional low-crotched Kurdish pantol trousers and kava, which is often rather unflatteringly translated as a boiler suit, held around the waist with a sash known as a peshtend, and almost all wear tasselled black head-scarves.

Hawrami Man, Howraman-e Takht, Kordestan Province, Iran

After making offerings at the shrine – the clearly pagan influences of the holiday hint at pre-Islamic roots – the men move up into the village where music on traditional daf drums begins, and the elders, arms entwined, begin a ritualistic dance. Two long-haired dervishes (Sufi ascetics) become the centre of the crowd, and feed from their frenzied energy, bounding into the air in a swirl of black hair, spitting razor blades from their mouths. Apparently the town clerics had requested the devishes to refrain from their wilder stunts such as pushing swords through their necks, or dousing themselves in petrol and setting themselves ablaze.

After the daytime festivities, Maciej and I are invited by a tall, wiry Kurdish man to the home of his friend, Mr Jamal, who without a moment’s hesitation welcomes us into his home and tells us we should make it our own for as long as we wish. His wife serves us a wonderful lunch of rice and chicken, which we take in typical Iranian style sitting on the carpeted floor. Mr Jamal speaks good English, and tells us his story. Six years ago he flew to Bishkek where he purchased a fake Greek passport, with which he flew to Germany, making his way then to Calais where he ditched the passport and entered the UK hidden beneath a lorry. In the UK he sold cigarettes illegally posted to him from Greece for five years until he had enough money to return, when he met his five year-old son for the first time.

Darvish, Howraman-e Takht, Kordestan Province, Iran

Mr Jamal praised the justness of the British police, by whom he was detained more than once, and I could see that, far from being a criminal, Mr Jamal was a man who was a victim of circumstance, and went to extreme lengths to do what he needed to do to have a normal life in his homeland.

In the evening, as wolves howl from the surrounding mountains, the festival action moves to a large, stonewalled barn, said to be the former home of the Pir himself, which is utterly packed with people sitting on tiered shelves as bowls of a soupy stew consisting of wheat and beans is passed round from an enormous cauldron. I feel like I’m in the pages of some medieval banquet. Indeed, I come away from the festival feeling I have glimpsed a rare and fascinating insight of this most traditional region of the Kurdish world.

The Slovenians leave on the first evening, with Matjaz and Ana heading back to Europe and ending their journey, which has now twice intersected with mine. Maciej and I spend three nights with Mr Jamal, spending one day with a Persian film crew on the Iraqi border along with Giovanni, an Italian photographer, and the second just wandering the friendly streets of Howraman-e Takht, enjoying cups of tea in the local chaikhana. Kordestan really is a magical and endlessly welcoming place.

Nightscape, Tochal, Tehran, Tehran Province, Iran

We leave on a Sunday morning, retracing our steps to Sanandaj and having a run-in with the irksome Iranian authorities who wish to dismantle the car’s luggage (Toyota pick-ups are a favourite tool of the smuggler). We drive on eventually, through the bleak mountain town of Bijar, dropping down to join Iran’s main artery at Zanjan and heading east through Qazvin back to Tehran, where Maciej has to catch a flight home. We’ve travelled together for over two weeks, and I’m sad to see him leave.

I spend a month in Tehran, during which time I obtain a Pakistani visa, and have some rest time. I’ve been travelling for around 18 months and I’m starting to feel I need a break. Although Tehran is not an appealing city in any conventional way, it does have some hidden charms. One is the two-part National Museum, of which only the building covering the pre-Islamic era is open. The museum covers a considerable span of history; from the earliest signs of human culture; 9000 year-old shards of pottery, which by the 6th Millennium BCE bear the mark of artisans, and by the early 1st Millennium BCE had become highly stylised and decorative ceramics. The influence of neighbouring Egyptian and Baylonian empires becomes apparent during the magnificent Achamaenid Empire, a fascinating demonstration of how interconnected the area was during this remote epoch. Then comes Alexander the Great and the Seleucids, the Parthians, and finally the Sassanians, the second great Persian Empire, and the last before the arrival of the Arabs and Islam. Coming from northern Europe, it’s deeply impressive to find a museum full of the earliest artefacts of man which come not from plunder, but from the same country and same people as inhabit the place today.

Tughrul Tower, Rey, Tehran Province, Iran

For the capital of a country so magnificently rich in history, Tehran is purely drab and modern. With some determination however, one may find some hints of history in the vicinity, such as the ancient city of Rey, now wholly absorbed into the capital. Known to the Romans and Greeks, Rey still has hints of past glory, such as the dome-less, fluted Seljuk Tughrul Tower, a typically Turko-Persian structure of brute-force and elegance, though the relentlessly ugly modern sprawl of south Tehran makes it rather hard to appreciate.

Moving further out, but still not leaving the crush of the endless suburbs, I visit the town of Varamin, once no doubt a pleasant place when unconnected to Tehran. Varamin hosts the glorious Ala-e Din Tower, another example of the intriguing tomb-towers which dot the north of Iran, as well as the slightly decrepit, though glorious Azari-style Friday Mosque which was photographed by Robert Byron in his overland epic The Road to Oxiana in 1934. In the mosque however, I’m reminded of everything I hate about Iran; my passport is checked, and I am watched continually by suspicious guards and prevented from taking photographs, while Iranian visitors openly do so, as if this were an object of national security rather than a relic of a bygone age of perhaps higher culture.

Ala-e Din Tower, Varamin, Tehran Province, Iran

Much more than the ancient however, it is the modern Iran which one can see perhaps best by spending some down-time in the dowdy capital. Elections are due this summer, but the atmosphere on the streets is down-at-heel, with worries of unemployment, inflation and rises in commodity prices seeming to take precedent over the long-standing longing for greater freedom. Memories of the Revolution and war that followed are still fresh, and these temper demands for change. The Iranians are a deeply troubled nation, surviving under one tyrant after another, trapped equally by a history of in-fighting, and then taken advantage of by the intervention of foreign powers. Now the ayatollahs are talking of removing the subsidies on public services; one of the key pledges of Khomeini during the Revolution. One wonders how the regime might weather the backlash from such a move.

I spend my month in Tehran in the company firstly of Karim, a British-Iranian who lives a hermetic and nocturnal life living with his father in a large, old-money house in a nice part of North Tehran, which Karim manages to set on fire one afternoon. The house is full of reminders of a past age; an old American Dodge camper which lies rotting in the garden hints at the freedom of pre-revolutionary Iran, which today seem a world away. My second host is Pezhman, a nineteen year-old student from the Caspian region of Iran, with whom I eventually leave Tehran, after a month of wonderful lassitude and reading.

Desert Road, near Ardakan, Yazd Province, Iran

Pezhman and I head east out of Tehran late one night, on the road back towards Mashhad. At daybreak we are in the town of Damghan, where we turn south into Iran’s largest desert, the Dasht-e Kavir, a vast, barren salt waste. We drive along an endless desert road, through barren plains, passing banded pink hills and a vast salt pan where a dust storm blasts across the road, reducing visibility to just a few metres. Desert towns such as Reshm and Jandagh seem trapped in glorious, timeless isolation, but nowhere is the desert as attractive as the abiotic void of the Dasht-e Lut. In the late afternoon we begin to see some distant mountains, and when we reach the town of Ardakan we are back on the Great Eurasian Overland route to India.

We are heading for what was, on my first visit to Iran in 2003, my favourite city in the country. The desert city of Yazd is a jewel of unique architecture, Zoroastrian culture, and magnificent, winding mud-brick bazaars. Yazd’s fourteenth century Jameh Masjid (Friday Mosque) is an architecturally unique structure; one of the most striking in the Islamic world. Its soaring rectangular iwan (portal), covered in exquisite faïence and lines of Kufic tile-work is supported on one side by what looks to be a flying buttress, and topped directly by two closely set, needle-like minarets, which are said to be the highest in the country. The mosque was an iconic image of my 2003 journey, and may well have inspired my great love of Islamic architecture.

Friday Mosque, Yazd, Yazd Province, Iran

Yazd is a city in which to wander; through mazes of adobe back-alleys dotted with ancient doors, set below street level and with separate knockers for men and women; past tall and elegant badgirs (wind towers) which cool the clustered houses of this desert city; past large, domed water cisterns with their own badgirs to act as vast, ancient water coolers; and shrines and other charming relics. It’s one of those cities which exemplifies long-standing urban civilisation, suffused with oriental charm from the ancient and time-worn alleys to the evocative scents of spices brought from across the continent, which waft from the stalls of the bazaars. The ubiquitous modern squalor of snarling motorbikes and ugly charmless architecture hardly seem to penetrate this rich and timeless heart of the city.

The city is also a modern centre of Zoroastrianism, a religion which is thought to have evolved from ancient Indo-Aryan beliefs almost 4000 years ago, to be formalised most likely in the sixth century BCE. It was the state religion of the pre-Islamic Achamaenid and Sassanid Empires, and although heavily replaced by Islam, it retains a significant number of followers in Iran, and also India. Often mistakenly called ‘Fire-Worshippers’, Zoroastrians believe in a single, non-immanent God, Ahura Mazda, and worship in the presence of fire, which is seen to be a medium through which spiritual insight and knowledge may be gained. Yazd hosts the country’s only Atesh Behram, the highest grade of Zoroastrian Fire Temple, containing the ‘Fire of Victory’ which has been drawn from 16 types of fire, and is the most consecrated in the religion.

Atash Bahram, Yazd, Yazd Province, Iran

It is outside of the city however, that the most evocative testament to this ancient religion is found, at the Dakhmeh, or ‘Towers of Silence’. Believing a dead body to be unclean, Zoroastrians will neither pollute the Earth by burying it, nor pollute the air by burning it. Instead, the corpse is lain out on a dakhma, and allowed to be picked to pieces by scavenging birds. Although disused since the early twentieth century, the two simple, stone-walled towers are wonderfully peaceful and poignant, sat on outcrops of dark basalt at the desert’s edge.

After a couple of days Pezhman leaves for Tehran once more, whilst I indulge in days of nostalgic walks in this wonderful city. I must however pull myself away eventually, as my visa – extended as far as possible – is due to expire soon.

Towers Of Silence, Yazd, Yazd Province, Iran

The small, searing desert city of Bam used to be one of Iran’s wonders; perched at the edge of the country, a massive, mysterious mud-brick arg (citadel), surrounded by an oasis of verdant palmeries. A node on the Great Eurasian Overland, it represented the end of Iran, of her romantic cities of faïence and vast domes and dusty bazaars. It was a final, glorious burst of magnificence before the 1000 kilometre void of Baluchistan; hot, unforgiving and lawless, before entering the colourful melee of the Sub-continent proper.

All the romance came to an end, tragically, on the 26th December 2003 when an earthquake levelled the poor city of Bam, killing more than 26,000 people, and totally destroying the arg. Bam is now a sorry shadow of itself; the citadel, more than five years after the earthquake remains a largely unrecognisable pile of rubble, whilst the city, though largely reconstructed still shows the obvious signs of destruction, and has lost its timeless desert charm of old. I wrench myself away, not wishing to overwrite my previous memories from the summer of 2003, memories of the glorious arg and chaotic, palm-lined streets; memories I truly cherish.

My visit to Bam is not all sad however, as I have an invite to stay in the Arg-e Jadid, the ‘New Citadel’, which although not in any way a citadel, is intriguing in its own way. Set on a large desert lot about 15 kilometres out of Bam, it has the look almost of an American out-of-town mall. It’s an industrial free-trade zone set up by the Rafsanjani government in the 1990s, and seems to have been forgotten. Reza, my host, lives here in a closed community which feels a world away from the rather lawless surrounding desert (where he tells me there were 7 kidnappings last month). It also feels rather distanced from urban Iran, with quiet streets, empty parks and modern amenities. It’s a comfortable bubble of freedom, and we even manage to drink a little vodka – which Reza sneaks into a restaurant – openly in Iran: unthinkable anywhere else in the country.

Nowruz (Persian New Year) is coming, and I am lucky enough to spend Charshanbe Suri, the last Wednesday before Nowruz, with Reza and his family. Outside, Iranians let off firecrackers and observe the ancient purification ritual of jumping over fires. Like many non-Islamic rituals in Iran, the participants are largely the young who, despite coming from Muslim families, revel in their Persian identity by observing such ancient, pre-Islamic festivities, which the clerics tend to disapprove of. Later, Reza and I join his father and observe another non-Islamic Persian ritual; smoking the bofoor, which comes with an elaborate, octagonal charcoal brazier and fine tea service. It’s a wonderful end to my trip in Iran.

Camel And Calf, near Nosratabad, Sistan and Baluchestan Province, Iran

Two days later, on the eve of Nowruz, I set off east once more, to make my third crossing of Baluchistan. I pass Zahedan in the afternoon, and arrive at the grim border town of Mirjaveh, where I find the border crossing is closed. I elect to stay at the border, and am luckily given tea and food by a group of Turkish truck drivers who are similarly delayed. In my three months in Iran, I’ve seen not only a different side to the country, around the deserts and borderlands which separate the magnificent cities, but also a different side to the people. Iranians have suffered a tragic hand from history, caught up somehow – through their own actions and through those of others – in a tyrannic, repressive police state. My tiresome run-ins with the police have shown another side to the Persians; a deep-rooted mistrust, insecurity and xenophobia which must stem from centuries of backstabbing, invasion and intervention.

My thoughts however are of upcoming freedoms in Pakistan, away from the Iranian authorities and grim regime of Tehran, of staying with Aly and his family, stopping my travels for a few months and regathering my perspectives and plans. An interlude in my odyssey.


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