17 April 2010
A 3 ½ hour drive from Shiraz brings us to Bavanat, a small town on the edge of the desert dotted with mud houses and tiny streets; it’s more conservative than Tehran or Shiraz and nearly every woman wears her chador here. A group of 11 Aussies (including a partner at Blakes – wouldn’t you know it?) stays at the same hotel I am at; they are on a 3 ½ week tour of Iran.
We are at a traditional house, where we women may remove our head scarves, and huge wooden beds covered in Persian carpets surround an open area under shady trees. A pen of chickens and ducks squabble behind their wire fence, and screech as eggs are collected from their proud stash. Behind them, a fire warms guests who are fed nougat and tea to the sound of Persian music.
Ariya asks me if I want to go on a walk to see the surrounds, but I prefer to recline on one of the large beds and read. At 4.30pm, we head off with the owner of our traditional hotel to visit one of the local nomad tribes who migrate to this area each spring in time for the coolest version of the long, hot Iranian summer. Incredibly, Iran still has around 1.5 million nomads.
We drive up and up, passing arid hills flowing up from valleys that are part fertile, and part dirt. This is a harsh landscape. After 45 minutes, the camp appears, just a handful of tents erected now, with more to come as the spring migration completes.
The car pulls up to a dark tent, and people in traditional dress stand at the doorway. We remove our shoes, and enter the tent, stepping onto Persian carpets. The nomads enter one after the other, and gather around a fire which leaps upwards, casting the children’s faces in orange light. A goat hovers at the doorway, and it begins to rain. The dark tent, made of goat’s hair, light shining through holes, protects the tribe even from heavy rain, while smoke exits easily though its roof. It takes 20 days to make a new tent, and 2 hours to erect it once they have arrived for the season.
More and more people gather, greeting me with a handshake and a “Salaam” (Hello), and we sit on the floor smiling and talking – the number reaches around 20 by the time I leave. I cannot get over how good looking these people are: I’m talking Hollywood stunners here. But they sit in simple clothes and apologise for there not being more facilities, so gracious. They migrate 500 km twice each year so they can spend the season in the most favourable conditions possible; most of the tribe is still to arrive here in the spring migration.
Men in the tribe have more than one wife, and they have numerous children, essentially so they can build their own workforce, but more and more tribal people are migrating to the cities instead of staying on the land.
They ask my age, then try to guess; one gets it right but the others hover between 20-30. I wonder if this is because they are incredibly diplomatic, or whether I have not spent a lifetime exposed to the elements like they have mean that, to them at least, I appear much younger. When I tell them I am a lawyer, they ask questions about what happens if someone is killed in Australia – in Iran this is almost certain death, and I must try to explain nuances of self-defence via Ariya as my translator. They ask about our marriage age and rituals, and whether bribes are part of our culture (they seem impressed that they are not).
It’s time to leave, and everyone gathers outside the tent to say goodbye. There are no stalls selling tribal rugs; no stands flogging fresh pomegranate juice; no postcards with photos of smiling nomad children. There are no tickets for sale here, and no bookings taken. My hotel owner calls ahead and asks if we can visit. The “price” of entry is a box of sweets for the children and some small glasses for the family.
I wonder how long this way of life will continue, and when some entrepeneurial nomad will catch on to what they have and set up a souvenir stand and make something real into an homogenised stop on a tourist trail.
On the drive home, I consider how blessed I am. While all of you are working hard, solving problem after unnecessary problem, I drink tea with nomads in the hills of Persia.