Journey Into Kurdistan

Eva Bell    

Copyright 2021 by Eva Bell 


Photo by kimia rezaie on Unsplash
                       Photo by kimia rezaie on Unsplash
In January 1977, the Shah of Iran was still on his throne and entry into the country was not as difficult as it is today. I was on my way to a small Mission hospital situated high up in the Zagros ranges, which catered to the health needs of the Kurds of Iran. I was advised to stay in Teheran for a week with American friends of the hospital and enjoy the sights and sounds of this fabulously rich city, while preparing myself for the cultural shock that awaited me at Ghorveh, a village at the height of 7500 ft.

It was the thick of winter when I landed at Mehrabad Airport and was surrounded by a group of noisy porters pressing around me on all sides and shouting “Madam,.. Madam.. Three hundred rials only, to take luggage to taxi.” It took some courage to move towards the exit, dragging my suitcase along. Three hundred of anything seemed too expensive and I wasn’t going to be taken for a ride.

Amidst the din of the Farsi language all around me, I heard a voice in English ask, “What are you doing in this country? This is no place for a single woman. You better go back to where you came from.” It was the Captain of the aircraft that had flown me in. But my American host was beckoning from outside the gate, and I heaved a sigh of relief.

Iran was fabulously rich and Tehran was the Shah’s showpiece. It attracted many foreigners who came to work for lavish salaries. I was privileged to stay for a week and enjoy the sights and sounds of this city.

The Shahyad Monument was the first imposing building I saw as I was driven into the city. It was a monument built in 1971 to commemorate the 2500th year of the Persian Empire. There stood a large white arch with two white phalanges made of Iranian stone. The architect had combined several forms of architecture and produced a thing of rare beauty. From the tiled turrets that sat atop the archway, one could see Tehran spread out in all its splendour against the backdrop of mountains. Below the ground level of the arch was an archaeological museum.

The Golestan Palace was one of the places I visited. It stood in the middle of a floral park and had many interesting exhibits. But for me, the main attraction was the Peacock Throne that had been looted from Delhi by Nadir Shah. The throne should have remained at the Red Fort in Delhi.

Tehran’s proudest possessions were the Crown jewels safely displayed in the vaults of the Bank Melli on Ferdowsi Street. I felt disoriented seeing the glittering sparkling precious stones set in crowns, belts, swords and other trinkets

The elegant Safavid Supermarket on Pallavi Road was something out of this world. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, walking under those lovely arches inlaid with hand painted tiles. There were expensive boutiques, a big mirrored dome and a stone fountain.

The northern suburbs where the rich families lived in their fashionable bungalows, extended right up to the slopes of the mountains. But southern Tehran was the poorer quarter of town which housed the industrial suburbs. Lydia, the lady who came to take me to Ghorveh showed me this crowded area of the city. “You’ve seen the rich part of Tehran. But before we begin our journey, it would be good to see the rest of the city,” she said.

The Tehran Bazaar was where trade was centered. It was a veritable maze of narrow lanes and gullies, with domed brick roofs for protection against sun and rain. Merchandise of every description was on display, from colourful velvets and silks to brass decorations, woodwork and even spices. Wind whistled through the narrow corridors. Every shop had a kerosene petromax called ‘Alladin’. People warmed their cold hands over the Alladdin.

The traffic in Tehran was chaotic. I had never seen such madness. There were no lanes to speak of. In their race to speed ahead, the large Paykans (cars manufactured in Iran) created roadblocks, and small vehicles had to inch forward, their horns blaring all the time. “There is no method in their madness,” said Lydia, “Once they get behind the wheel they become maniacal. Most foreigners travel to work by taxis. It’s their only way to reach their offices on time.”

The week in Tehran had sped by so fast. Now I was to make my trip through the mountains. Early next morning, Lydia and I made our way to Auto Hamadan, the office from where we had to catch a bus. The bus was already packed with tall burly men in heavy coats and massive turbans. Women were covered with black chadors (burkas). It was a length of cloth draped over the heads and bodies, and the two ends of the upper width held between their teeth. These were Iranian women. But there were others in colourful tribal attire who didn’t cover their heads. Their baggage included food and drink. There were hens and chickens. One woman even had a goat tethered to the leg of her seat. The odour was something awful and I hoped that I wouldn’t puke. “You’ll get used to it,” said Lydia, digging into her bag for a lemon. She made a hole on the top with a knife and handed it to me. “Here- suck on it. It will prevent nausea.” But I only felt worse.

An Alladin was placed in the passage between the seats, and men huddled around it and lit their cigarettes from the flame. “I’m sure the bus is going to go up in flames,” I said. But Lydia scolded “Don’t get so paranoid. This is how they travel. So sit back and hope for the best.”

Before the ascent into the mountains, the bus halted at a roadside restaurant. It was a large hall with several chairs and tables. I sat at one corner from where I had a good view of the entire hall. People were tucking into paper thin bread called ‘nun’ with a generous helping of carrot murumba. There were boiled eggs, onions rings and tomatoes too. Black tea was served in tiny glasses. Lump sugar or candy was supplied with the tea. I watched them place a piece of candy in their mouth. Then the glass of tea was tossed in. It seeped through the candy and was swallowed. Each person drank at least ten glasses of tea.

The driver had taken this interval to fix chains on the wheels of the vehicle. We now began our ascent into the Zagros Ranges. The temperature outside was – 6 degrees C. White walls of ice loomed on either side, giving me a feeling that I was passing through a tunnel of ice. Falling snowflakes made visibility difficult. Progress was at snail’s pace and the bends in the road became more treacherous as we climbed higher into the passes. The stench inside the bus was unbearable. Passengers had come prepared with food and drink. They were constantly eating and drinking and chattering among themselves. I had not eaten anything since morning and my stomach had begun to rumble. Luckily I dozed off on an empty stomach.

Lydia shook me awake when we reached Hamadan – The Gateway to Kurdistan. It was at a height of 5000 feet and had taken us six hours to travel 337 kilometres. This was a fairly large town and Mount Alavand loomed over it. The bus stop was crowded. The men were tall, strappy and fair complexioned and were dressed in baggy pantaloons and large turbans. Their speech was rough and their eyes unblinking as they looked me over. I had only seen such men in bandit movies. The women were like gypsies in colourful voluminous skirts that fell to their ankles. Heavy beads and coins hung from their necks. Gold teeth flashed as they talked. Their heads were encased in elaborate gear. Lydia mentioned that these were Kurds-the type of people among whom I would be working.

Meanwhile the hospital vehicle had arrived to take us to Ghorveh which was at a height of 7500 feet. Temperature now dropped to – 4 degrees. We were now in the heart of the Zagros ranges. I was to learn that Kurds of Iran represented one third of the entire population of Kurds. All of them were concentrated in these mountains. The rest were spread over Iraq, Turkey, Soviet Union and Syria. The Iranian Kurds have given up their nomadic existence since the Sixties and settled in these mountains. The Shah had given them agricultural land to cultivate and had promised to bring in social and economic reforms.

Here and there in the valleys of the six ranges, were villages comprising small clusters of fifty or hundred huts. They were flat-roofed windowless constructions of wattle and daub, spread over the flanks of the mountains. From a distance they looked as though they were built on top of each other. Partly hidden by the snow, this landscape would have delighted any artist. The mountains stood like sentinels insulating these people from the rest of Iran. Though they had sworn allegiance to the Shah since 1922, they were a law unto themselves and lived unfettered by the laws of protocol. They were of Indo-European stock and claimed descent from the ancient Medes. To a large extent they had preserved their racial purity, language and customs.

Stiff and frozen from the long journey, my heart sank when Lydia pointed to a small blue gate in a fortress of stone. Embossed on it was a four-leaf-clover - a symbol used by all Christian organizations in Iran. “This looks like a prison,” I said, barely able to suppress my tears. “High walls are for our protection,” she explained, “They keep unwelcome visitors out and ensure privacy. People here can be quite inquisitive. The walls also keep out hungry wolves and bears that prowl around at night.” What had I led myself into, I wondered.

The pressure of living in a different cultural milieu could be quite stressful and exhausting. But this was also a time to learn about a different culture every few outsiders had the privilege of experiencing. I considered myself lucky.

There was no poverty in these parts. It was their way of living, with scant attention to appearance or hygiene. Their wealth lay in their sheep and cattle. They were agriculturists too. They grew corn, wheat, and tobacco for their own use. In warm weather they grew peaches, plums, pears, apples and walnuts. Women wove carpets of rich hues. Whenever they needed money, these carpets were mortgaged to the banks.

But literacy had been slow in coming to these mountains though the drive against illiteracy was launched with much fanfare and the Imperial decree proclaimed free education to the masses. The lone Education Officer had a tough time to see that every isolated village had a school. But it was not easy as education was not the priority of the Kurds.

By early March, Spring was slowly creeping into the mountains. With melting mountain springs trickling down, the valleys grew lush with greenery. Spring began with preparation for Now Ruz which was celebrated on 21st March, the day of the Spring Equinox. Annual spring cleaning threw up clouds of dust into the narrow lanes as carpets and eiderdowns were dusted and dragged out to the rivulets for an annual wash. The nights echoed with the sound of drums and flutes as men and women sang and danced late into the night. The women were turned out in resplendent colours, their flowing gowns in red velvet, their heads held aloft encased in yards of turban, their brown eyes enhanced by mascara. The men were equally impressive in their heavy costumes with knives stuck in their waistbands. Nowruz was the only happy festival in their calendar of events.

For the duration of the festival, women forgot their hard lives. Given in marriage at puberty, they begat offspring in quick succession. By mid-twenties they looked jaded, the blush in their cheeks long gone. They accepted their destiny with docility, praising Allah for the fertility of their wombs. Polygamy was a part of their culture. The bonhomie that existed among co-wives was incomprehensible to an outsider. Sharing their husbands with other wives was a small price to pay to pay for extra hands to help with housework that was never ending.

Summer was a difficult time as it brought in a crop of diseases that shot up Infant mortality. Summer was also a time when shortage of water led to fights among the men. Irrigation was through an ancient system of aqueducts. Farmers would divert water from a neighbour’s field into their own. The matter was dealt with on the spot with knives and staves. They went to the House of Arbitration only after a good fight.

In Autumn the leaves did not turn to gold but to a dirty brown. The land lay dry and fallow. The fawn coloured mud huts merged with the brown of the mountains. There were hardly any birds at this height except for storks that built their untidy nests on electric poles. Even the crows were not jet black but an ugly greyish white.

Men rested from their labours. They frequented the ‘tea houses’ where gossip flourished, as the pipe of the hookah was passed around. Opium was legally available to those above fifty.

I had decided to visit a couple of interesting places in Iran before I left the country. As a woman I could not travel alone. The hospital vehicle was put at my disposal with two male staff members as chaperones. Ali was the laboratory technician and Jamaal, the driver. Isfahan was the first city on my list. We had to descend from the mountains to the plains where the heat was killing.

During the time of Shah Abbas the Great, Isfahan was the capital of Iran. It lay on the banks of the Zendah-Rud river and was famous for its two hundred mosques, each one more beautiful than the next. The double-domed Royal Mosque was covered inside and outside with enamel tiles in turquoise blue. The ceiling was like an intricate honeycomb. The entrance had two peacocks in blue faience. In the courtyard of the main mosque several mullahs were wandering around. “I want to pose with one of the mullahs,” I said to Ali. The mullah he chose was a grim unsmiling man, his right hand fiddling absentmindedly with his rosary. “This lady would like to be photographed with you,” said Ali. “Why?” he demanded. “It’s for her album. She would like to show her relatives back home that she had visited this famous mosque and the mullahs were very friendly.” The cheeky fellow demanded 100 rials for his cooperation. “Bad men!” muttered Ali, “They are not holy under their clothes.”

The Shah Abbas Hotel was famous for its rich and famous clientele. It was far too expensive for my pocket but Ali convinced me that we could have just a cup of coffee and while we waited, we would see some royal folk or Iranian VIPs who patronized this place. Sure enough I did see Princess Fatimeh the sister of the Shah.

The Chashmeh Bridge divided the city into two parts. The bridge itself was an architectural marvel with its galleried arcades. But on the other side there were no opulent mosques and the cry of the muezzin was never heard. I visited a 17th century Armenian Settlement. There were a number of churches decorated with oil paintings and gilded ornaments of Russian design. There was also an Armenian Museum built in 1905 and a library with 700 manuscripts, the oldest dating to the 10th century.

Isfahan with its numerous mosques and mullahs was probably an important centre for Islamic fundamentalist activities. They were being remotely controlled by the Ayatollah who was sitting in France. If the Shah was dethroned there would be no religious tolerance in the country. The Christians and Christian institutions had already been targeted in this city. Many were put in prison on trumped up charges and some were executed. We were warned that our little hospital hidden away in the Zagros ranges would not be spared.

Next morning saw us on our way to Shiraz. Temperature had soared to such heights that perspiration trickled down our bodies and evaporated with speed, making our clothes stiff like cardboard. The roads on either side were brown and dry and the hillocks were bare, with hardly any vegetation. We stopped at a caravanserai to refresh ourselves. The tribals here were Quashquais and looked quite different from the Kurds. The men were not so stocky and the women were shy. Their costumes were not so cumbersome. They wore no veils but their heads were covered with scarves.

Just before we entered Shiraz, there was an arch. Jamaal said that somewhere high up in the arch was hidden a copy of the Koran. Shiraz was known as the city of Roses and Poets. It was very different from Isfahan. Here the dominant colour of the mosques was pink instead of blue. The tombs of the poets Hafiz (13th Century) and Saadi (14th Century) was where Ali and Jamaal paid obeisance. A walk through the Eram- Bagh- Pallavi a garden flush with flowers was invigorating. Here there were 17000 rose bushes and 257 varieties of other flowers and at one end stood another palace of the Shah. Rose water perfume came from this garden.

But the highlight of my visit to Shiraz was a visit to Persepolis, the once royal city of the Achaemenid kings. It was the ceremonial capital of Darius the Great and his successors. It was destroyed by Alexander the Great. The excavations had revealed the grandeur of that city, with its private palaces, its monumental staircases and its lavish audience halls. Persepolis overlooked a fertile plane called Marv-Dasht and at its further end was the Mountain of Mercy.

Our next stop was at the Necropolis – The City of the Dead. It had four vaults hewn into the hillside which held the tombs of Darius I and II and Artaxerxes I and II. King Cyrus had his own tomb a few kilometres away. We returned to Ghorveh the next day leaving behind the hot sultry plains for the pleasant climate of the mountains.

The last of the autumn leaves had fallen and the mournful mood of Moharrum was upon the people. All festivity had ended. Prays and plays about the Karbala were staged for forty days. The rumblings against the Shah had grown louder. News reached Ghorveh that hundreds of supporters of the Shah had been killed. Many in the Army turned against the Shah, and the Prime Minister was compelling the Shah to leave the country or be arrested. The Islamic Revolution had begun in earnest. All one heard on the radio or on TV were speeches of the Ayatollah, who was soon to return, to form the Islamic Republic.

It was time for me to leave the country. It had been a rare but exciting experience among the Kurds of Iran. I had lived there through the cycle of seasons and had the opportunity to acquaint myself with a different culture and even enjoy the hospitality of a simple people. But I was glad that I could be home before Christmas.

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