Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I need to preface this post with two things (in no particular order):

1. I get giddy as a school girl when I see flocks of sheep. Maybe the reason is simple, like, I just love animals. Maybe it’s because when I was a child and we’d go from Mashhad to Neyshabur, my favorite thing was to spot flocks of sheep along the way. Maybe it’s because there’s no sound I love more than the sound of their bells as they graze. In fact, when I’m in my dad’s hometown of Taleghan and hear the bells, I drop everything and close my eyes to take it all in. If I’m being honest, ‘flocks of sheep’ was almost my letter ‘F’ in this series. Seriously. But I thought you, reader aziz, might get bored of my many, many, (many) pictures of flocks of sheep. And so, as you may know, I made it ‘F is for Farsi’ instead.

2. Have you heard of yârâneh? In a nutshell, it’s a subsidy of around 450,000 Rials (45,000 Tomans) granted by the government to every Iranian citizen. Many claim theirs. Nobody I know does. This last presidential election in May saw two main contenders (there were others, but it basically boiled down to these two): the incumbent Hasan Rouhani and cleric Ebrahim Raisi. One of Raisi’s campaign promises was to raise yârâneh to 2,000,000 Rials (or 200,000 Tomans). President Rouhani is now serving his second term. 

(Ok, maybe I need to add a third):

3. While I was in grad school for TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages- yes, that’s a degree), I didn’t have any actual teaching experience, so to remedy that, I started out as a volunteer teacher… for Persian. It wasn’t so much the language that counted as it was actually standing in front of a group of people, trying to put into practice all that theory I was learning. Not to digress too far, one day, I heard that there would be a free screening of the documentary The Bakhtiari Alphabet at one of the universities, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for my Persian class to learn about some Iranian culture (not that there was a lack of opportunity otherwise in the DC area, but still, this one was unique). After watching the trailer on YouTube, I was personally super excited to see it and told my class the date and time all too enthusiastically.

None of them showed up.

But that wasn’t about to put a damper on my time. To say that I enjoyed the film is putting it lightly. It was an extremely well made, inspiring, and fascinating account of the life and seasonal migration of the Bakhtiari nomadic tribe, from the landscapes to the hardships to their education. I bought a copy of the DVD for future reference and went on my way thinking my class totally missed out. 

(Aaaaaaand now we can finally get to the story.)

It was some 17 years ago that I visited the Qashqai tribe near Shiraz, and that was an unforgettable experience. But I remember that they were there specifically for tourists to learn about their lifestyle, have dinner with them, see their clay oven where they artfully popped in one round piece of dough after another.

In my opinion, the Bakhtiari seem less accessible, maybe because fewer tourists visit that region than somewhere like Shiraz. So when a holiday was coming up in Iran, I decided to head to the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province in southwest Iran and join a tour to visit the Bakhtiari nomads, a subgroup of the Lurs. After leaving our base in Shahr-e Kord, the bus wound its way through Zardkuh mountains in the Zagros Range. It was truly one of the most spectacular and breathtaking landscapes I’ve seen in Iran to this day: vast open plains, rolling green hills, snow-capped mountains, and a cool breeze, relieving me from Tehran’s scorching sun. Stone lions symbolizing the bravery of these people dotted the hillside. And to top it all off, there were all the flocks of sheep I could have possibly asked for. And I knew the Bakhtiari had more a-waitin’! 

Stone lion | Bakhtiari | nomad | Chaharmahal | Iran
Stone lions of the Bakhtiari 

We were on a mission to find them post-kooch (migration). Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari has harsh winters, so during this time, they kooch to the Khuzestan province where temperatures are milder. These winter quarters are known as their gheshlâgh. During the summer when Khuzestan becomes entirely too hot, they kooch to Chaharmahal o Bakhtiari, their yeylâgh, or summer quarters.

Soon enough, tents and people also entered into view. Only, the women were in all black. This was contrary to their usual bright scarves and colorful sweeping skirts I had seen in the film and in pictures. Maybe it was just the women from that tent, I thought to myself. But tent after tent after tent, I noticed the same thing. We finally stopped at one and unloaded off the bus, to what I imagined was the horror of the older gentleman who was tending to his (OMG!) flock of sheep. He came towards us, as curious about us as we were about him.  

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Bakhtiari man and his sheep

Khaste nabâshid,” the tour guide said.

Salâmat bâshid, befarmâeed,” he replied. He was wearing a blue button down shirt (how very un-Bakhtiari-like), but he did have the round skull cap made of wool (now we’re talkin’).  

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Bakhtiari home

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Bakhtiari sheep

No sooner were we uninvited city-dwellers off the bus than we were welcomed into this Bakhtiari nomad’s tent for some (what else?) tea. The tent was not so much a tent as it was stone walls covered with a thin tarp to let some light shine through. The living room area was covered in different rugs, and poshti (thick pillows used to lean back on when you are sitting on the floor) were spread against the walls. Colorful tassels hanging off of blue beads handwoven onto a ribbon were strung around the walls like streamers. A small kitchen area was curtained off to the side.

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Tassels inside the tent

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Yeylagh of the Bakhtiari

Once people started making their way inside, I escaped back out to take pictures of the sheep and goats. While I was busy with the animals and stalking one adorable black and white goat in particular, I heard the answer to my question. 

“Why are you all wearing black?” a tour mate asked one of the women.

“One of our elders passed away recently,” she replied as she watched her son run over to a baby goat. “We’re still in mourning.”

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
The women were in mourning, so they wore black

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
The goat I was stalking

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
A close-up of said goat

To the side, some of the men were talking to the older gentleman who welcomed us. He was explaining their migration, when one of them suddenly asked, “Do you get your yârâneh?” I was shocked by question so much that I forgot about the sheep…but then again, Iranians are curiously very open when speaking about financial matters (something the American in me still has a hard time grasping). 

Baleh (yes),” he answered.

“Who did you vote for?” the same man asked.


“How ya like that, huh!” exclaimed one of the women with a big smile on her face.

We eventually all gathered in the tent and shared some piping hot black tea and simple, good company. It was around this time when I heard a motorcycle park outside and a younger Bakhtiari gentleman walk in to the surprise of these unexpected guests. He was donning the traditional clothes: a wool cap, wide-leg baggy pants, and a long, cream-colored wool vest with black stripes at the top, almost resembling piano keys. This vest, as I learned, is actually rather pricey, starting at upwards of 10 million Rials (roughly $250-$300, but in Rials it’s quite a hefty price). What really got me, though, was that out of his left shirt pocket, his giant Samsung (Galaxy? Note? It was big enough to be a Note) was sticking out…in a case and all. I guess despite their traditional lifestyle, even the Bakhtiari have kept up with (or maybe can’t escape from) technology in the 21st century. I don’t remember any cell phones in The Bakhtiari Alphabet. 

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Bakhtiari man

Bakhtiari nomads | Iran
Bakhtiari man in traditional clothes inside the tent

This yeylâgh area was incredibly peaceful, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. I wandered away from the group deeper into the plains to be in the presence of the sheep and goats and surround myself with nothing but the sound of their bells and bahs. How amazing that there are still people like this in the world who live on the move. As a westerner and someone who has pretty much always been in an urban area, it’s easy for me to become absorbed in that lifestyle (which I wonder what they think about). In many ways, I think they are the lucky ones. 

If you can get your hands on a copy of The Bakhtiari Alphabet or just see it somewhere, definitely do. In the meantime, check out the trailer. 


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Bakhtiari Nomads | Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari | Iran

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