Journey to Iran, Part Two….Smoking with Nomads
Posted on November 29, 2009 at 6:55 am
The small Pugeot, gears grinding, wound its way into the high desert mountains. Leaving Shiraz, the City of Poets, of Sadi and Hafez, we were headed to Yasuj, the half way mark to Isfahan. The scenery had changed dramatically, from dry rolling hills to snow capped peaks and as Ali, my new guide and driver, sped along the narrow roads, sheer vertical drops only inches away, I looked across the landscape and imagined the armies of Alexander and Genghis Khan passing through these narrow valleys, camped along the powerful rivers below, then perched above, on the high ridges, waiting in ambush. I sensed the ancient footsteps of a million men and women.
I had heard that there were nomads in these mountains and that they were now on the move, leaving the summer pastures that fed their flocks, heading for the warm plains below. The tribes, Bakhtiari and Qashgai traveled with their goats and sheep, and while many had abandoned their camels and mules for old beat up American trucks with u-haul attachments, they still followed the seasons, pitching tents in clearings near streams, hunting in the forests, collecting fruits and nuts, the women cooking and weaving, the men tending to the world beyond the camp.
Ten miles before Yasuj, I noticed a grouping of tents in a clearing a few hundred yards from the road. I asked Ali if it was a nomadic camp. He nodded and pulled off the main highway onto a dirt path that brought us close to the encampment.
“Stay in the car Ricky. There are some wild dogs here”.
Ali got out, took a few steps forward and exchanged some words with a rugged looking man who was holding a very large knife. After a minute of conversation, the two of them walked toward the car and Ali signaled for me to get out, the man waving his knife in greeting. We walked toward a large open tent. A wood fire burned in the middle of the floor. Two young girls stared at me, one whittling a piece of wood, the other feeding the fire. An old man sat in one corner inhaling deeply from a hookah and two women, I guessed in their twenties, greeted me shyly with quick smiles and started moving busily around the tent. I was directed to sit next to the old man. After another minute of smoking, he looked up.
“Where are you from?” (Translation by Ali)
“Ah. America is good. I used to work with Americans. In the Shah’s time. I worked with them in the oil fields. I knew many English words then. I liked them. Good people. Why are you here?”
I told him that I lead groups of Americans to visit other countries so that the people from the different places could learn about each other and become friends and that I want to bring Americans to Iran, so that we could all speak directly to one another.
“Inshallah (God Willing).”
The hookah was passed around. I pulled hard to draw in the sweet smoke. The tobacco was strong and I coughed. One of the women laughed, quickly averting her eyes as I turned toward her. After a few more puffs, I felt a swirling dizziness, a combination of altitude, the pungent fumes, and a jolting awareness of being so far from my world. Tea was served. Strong and black and sweetened with clumps of yellow candy sugar. A plate of dates and freshly roasted chestnuts, pickled tomatoes, yoghurt, and warm flat bread. One of the women took the hookah. It was her turn to smoke. Deftly refilling the bowl with tobacco and hot ash from the fire, she drew fully, relaxing, exhaling. I noticed her colorful clothing, flowing, a traditional patchwork, in stark contrast to the black chodor and hejab of the cities. The old man motioned with his arm, sweeping up the scene—the tent, the fire, the goats, the mountains.
“This is our life. This is everything. It is a simple life. Everything we need is here. And whatever we have we share…except the women. No, we do not share the women”. He made the point firmly, looking into my eyes.
The younger man, the husband of one or both of the women, still wielding his knife, said goodbye. He had to take the goats out for grazing. After he left we sat, drinking tea, smoking, and talking the small talk of people who have just met until we finally said that we must leave. We knew that they had work to do. After all, we had just arrived, unannounced, and were taking up their time.
“Please stay for dinner. We are cooking a sheep.”
But Ali and I felt it was time to go. We could have spent the night and, most likely, would have been given the warmest spot in the tent. These people, who had never met us, were going to share whatever they had. And they had very little. Nothing hung on the worn tent walls except a few pots and pans. Loose plastic sheets covered holes in the canvas. The children were covered in dirt, but I supposed that was the nature of life lived in tents, of subsistence, scraping the ground, shaking the trees, and tending to animals. Blankets on the ground were their beds and where they camped was their home.
So we thanked them for their hospitality and drove into Yasuj, as the days last light reflected off the icy peaks. And as I lay on my hotel bed, I thought about this nomadic family that took us into their home without question, who stopped everything they were doing to make us welcome, to share whatever food they had, to smoke with us. Yes, the old man spoke of their simple life, of a life without too many “things”, but what they had in abundance was generosity of spirit. They had the deep sense that what was most meaningful was to sit together, to honor guests, to recognize the God within each person, with talk, with food, with laughter, and to know that whatever might be happening in the world beyond the fire warmed tent mattered little compared to the perfect simplicity of sitting around the hookah. Then I thought of my life of material abundance and comfort, of endless choices, aisles of toothpaste and chips. I thought of how, in the end, these choices so often serve to isolate us, as they become projections of who we want to be, objects with which we identify and to which we attach, mixing and matching. Brittle constructions, we become separated, disconnected from genuine, loving community, bound only through superficial purchase, alone and afraid. Would we open our homes to someone who showed up at our door? Or would we recoil, terrified of what they might steal, leaving us with nothing to remind us of who and what we are.
As I sat in the tent, drawing the sweet smoke into my lungs, I felt a heat rising in my chest, a smoky warmth that moved through tissues and across membranes, then into the deep recesses of my brain/mind. And in the stillness of that moment, surrounded by strangers and staring through the canvas flap opened to the elements, I smiled the giddy smile of having found this place of ease and joy, so very far from home.