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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Iran Revisited

I'm sure that you've been to places that have ingrained themselves in your mind and heart. Iran is one of those places for me. Since 1997, when I was there in May and again in September, the memories have beckoned me to return and explore more.  Alas, I've not been able to do so, but I do enjoy revisiting it via my photographs, and am amazed at how sharp those memories are. I hope you will enjoy this armchair journey too.

My first trip began in Mashad, in the northeast near the border with Afghanistan, and home to Iran's best saffron. We arrived the day before a major election - the one that a moderate, soft-spoken contender named Khatami won. For some reason we spent election day climbing a mountain outside of town which overlooked a military training camp that we were not supposed to look at or photograph. But someone in the group did and we were accosted, with some cameras being confiscated (I recall hiding my Leica down the front of my abaya, thinking I'm not losing my pride and joy for this!). Thus began our adventure, but actually it was downhill (pun intended) from there. A day was wasted with our guides going thru official channels to explain and redeem the offending cameras. Nobody was locked up and the rest of the group was free to wander around Mashad, which is also known for its roses that were proudly on display in numerous small parks around the city. Me... I came for saffron! To this day, I have a small stash in my freezer, and tho it is not as potent as in 1997, it is still better than what I can purchase new here.

Spice store in Mashad
 From Mashad we headed west, not too far south of the border with Turkmenistan, in search of some nomads that our guide had previously found in the area. On the move from lower pastures to higher ones, they took a while to find. Our little bus went through a few remote mud brick villages along the way and occasionally we got out and stretched our legs. Below was one such village. In one of these villages we discovered through our guide that only a teacher there spoke Farsi, with the rest of the village speaking the local dialect. We were also surprised to find out that they had never heard of Americans(!). So much for stereotyping a nation and its people. These villages have probably not changed much over time: there was minimal electricity, but no satellite dishes or cars. A few motorcycles were seen, but not even the ubiquitous 4 cylinder Land Rovers that we saw elsewhere in Iran. Fields surrounded the village and we saw sheep, but there was little evidence of any other activity.


Villagers with election posters on doors- Khatami is on the right-hand one.







This was in another, slightly less remote village where chadors were worn


Finally, the next day, we caught up with the nomads! They had a small settlement with one rock building and some tents, one of which was over a space dug into the ground which served as a kitchen of sorts. This is where the dough for our bread was made. No weaving was in evidence, but they did have floor coverings of felted wool. Consistent with the unspoken rules of nomadic hospitality , we were treated like long lost friends. They made us freshly baked bread in a tandoori-like oven in the ground and also served a yoghurt drink flavored with fresh herbs. We were entertained in the block building: a plastic-covered tablecloth was put on the floor and bowls of fresh yoghurt, butter (homemade of course) and honey accompanied the long, flat rafts of bread. It was a feast!

The nomad's encampment is on the left, with a beautiful valley filled with flowers between them and our camp


The oven was a hole in the ground, seen between the women


Our feast!







 The following day we headed out and found more nomads with their flocks. A proud shepherd kindly allowed his photograph to be taken. Here you can see the source of that lustrous wool out of which their rugs and trappings are made.



Later in the afternoon we camped in an area with rich, dark soil and rolling, barren hills. A short walk away was a Kurdish encampment of black goat hair tents (not in the photo). We provided them with the night's entertainment: I was elected to be dressed up in Kurdish fancy dress and then to help make yoghurt. I could have 'kidnapped' the baby lamb in my arms!







More memories of Iran later... it's a rich feast, best to be savored slowly!

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