People of the Wind : by John Kellie
  

This article was previously published in the Sunday Herald 26th November 2000         


Mr. Buri totters as the bus-driver hits the brakes. He clutches the nearest seat, microphone temporarily forgotten. When we reach a complete standstill, he looks over his shoulder to find out the reason for the abrupt stoppage. Then Mr. Buri faces his audience, raises the microphone once more, and announces "Nomads are migrating!"

The month is April. Our bus has been chugging uphill out of the city of Shiraz in southern Iran on the road to Persepolis, the ancient Persian capital. Mr. Buri is my group's schoolmasterish local guide. Frowning with irritation, he checks the time as we get off the bus to watch.

Traffic is at a standstill. A stream of animals is flowing across the road, raising dust from hundreds and thousands of cloven hoofs. Dusty boys harry sheep and goats which trot together, mothers bleating to their young. Mules and donkeys walk amongst them, some saddled and laden, while others bear wooden tent poles. One donkey supports a ewe, unable to make the migration herself. Grim-faced shepherds swing heavy cudgels, anxious you might imagine to be clear of the road where horns are blaring impatiently. The nomad women ride past unveiled, looking neither left nor right. Finally the camp dogs bring up the rear, tongues lolling and coats powdered with dust. And then it's over. Men and beasts have retreated up the hillside, haloed in dusty sunshine. We climb aboard the bus as the front vehicles edge forward and Mr. Buri lifts the microphone: "There will be no more delays. We must make up time before reaching Persepolis."

As we bowl along, I sit back and talk to some of the other tourists in the bus. Why Iran? It's a country with a undeniably difficult reputation, and a bit of an image problem in the west. It's no surprise perhaps to find that Iran has been clasped in the firm grip of absolute despots for two and a half millennia - from Persian Emperors through Shahs to present-day Ayatollahs. But as its government tentatively seeks closer ties with the international community, a trickle of tourists has started to arrive. My fellow passengers explain that they're here to experience Iran's age-old culture whose monuments date back to the Persian Empire - we're off to visit its most famous city today. A thousand years after the Empire's downfall, Arab invaders swept through and Iran promptly absorbed their religion and itself became a centre of Islamic learning. Art, literature and the sciences flourished under the new religion, and devotion was expressed in architectural wonders such as the blue-tiled mosques of Isfahan, on every visitor's itinerary. But if most tourists come seeking the splendours of ancient Persia, it is the tussle between past and present - between tradition and change - that is the key to understanding modern Iran.

Past and present jostle constantly in a quirky interplay. Today's Iranian male sports designer jeans and shades, just as his forefathers were devoted to the turban. But young Iranian girls are obliged by law to wear traditional Moslem dress, hejab, though their own grandmothers followed western fashion. In Isfahan the blue mosque of Shah Abbas gleams like a new pin - your guidebook tells you that the final stone was laid in 1638. Fast desert highways by-pass crumbling mud-brick walls of the great caravanserais of the past. But nomadic shepherds still follow ancient migration routes which parallel the modern carriageways, choked with speeding Toyotas, Mitsubishis and Mercedes.

We're still chatting as the bus rolls up to Persepolis, where we are shepherded through the Gateway of Xerxes to enter the city. With finger wagging and lips moving soundlessly, Mr. Buri counts his flock. Then he clears his throat ostentatiously and launches into his lecture on the Achaemenian dynasty, rulers of the Persian Empire five centuries before Christ. Persepolis, he announces, was built on the order of Darius I as the spiritual centre of his empire. The city met its end, Mr. Buri continues, when it was sacked and burned by the forces of Alexander the Great, en route to India two centuries later. But my own thoughts are with living nomads rather than long-dead tyrants. Somewhere in the Palace Of One Hundred Columns I detach myself from Mr. Buri and find myself alone among the silent stones. I stroll among ancient columns, henge gateways, and strange creatures frozen in stone and time. A craggy hill, criss-crossed by the sheep paths of centuries, forms the city's backcloth. Climbing its slopes, with a twinge of excitement I spot an encampment of black tents, set in the fold of a green glen.

A few minutes is all it takes. As I near the camp, a stocky grey-haired man emerges from the nearest tent and we trade salaams. Dressed in well worn trousers and jacket and dragging a stiff leg, the elderly nomad extends a leathery hand. A battered kettle is placed on the fire, while half a dozen chattering children gather round, the wide-eyed girls wearing colourful knitted pantaloons beneath their skirts. Unveiled women volunteer shy smiles as they continue with their chores: scrubbing pans, spinning wool, or in one case churning butter in a goatskin suspended from a wooden tripod. No young men are to be seen - perhaps they're grazing the flocks nearby. A few tame lambs scamper around, probably bottle-fed, and a single donkey nibbles at the grass among the goat-hair tents.

"Chai?" The old gentleman places a rug, decorated with geometric animals, on the ground and invites me to sit. His wife pours two glasses of tea, but it is he who passes my glass. The grandchildren hover closeby, whispering and squirming bashfully if my glance falls upon them. Smiles and expansive gestures are our currency as more tea, black and very sweet, is pressed upon me.

The province of Fars, centring on the city of Shiraz, has the highest population of nomadic people in Iran, and the majority are of the Qashqai tribe. Despite pressure to settle, many Qashqai still migrate as they have for generations without number. As the lowlands dry up in spring, the nomads take to the hills to spend the summer months. As autumn advances, they descend to lower ground before snowfalls blanket the Zagros Mountains. They are badi - people of the wind - whose migration takes anything up to six weeks twice yearly. Those Qashqai who have in recent years become farmers are known as khaki - people of the soil.

It is remarkable that these migrations still take place, even if much reduced in scale, in the face of colossal pressure that the authorities have exerted in recent times. Before the coup of 1979 brought his reign to an abrupt end, Mohammed Reza Shah settled the tribes as part of his "modernisation" of Iran. He viewed nomadic life as incompatible with his image of a modern state. Great hardship ensued which flared into virtual civil war when the military took up arms against nomads who migrated as they had for generations without number. Concessions were finally won, and limited migration resumed under strict regulation. The unkindest cut of all occurred in 1971 as the Shah entertained international society at Persepolis to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. A directive was issued compelling those Qashqai whose traditional routes passed the vicinity of Persepolis to remain in summer pastures until the festivities were over, in order to avoid embarrassment to the Shah before his western guests. Appalling suffering and hardship followed as the season advanced, and there are stories of hunger, loss of livestock and of tents pitched in the snow.

After my taking of tea, giggling toddlers tug at my clothes and I stand up. Grandpa looks on, eyes twinkling, as small hands slip into mine and I am escorted on a camp tour. My guides twitter shrilly and peal with laughter as two show-offs clamber on to the back of the long-suffering camp donkey. One lad scurries from his tent, smugly decked in a gun belt stocked with bullets. Others sprint off to bring treasures for the strange foreigner's approval: a battered cassette player and an old wristwatch, whose face is so badly cracked that reading the time is impossible.

The time! What exactly is the time? Am I already overdue at the car-park rendezvous? Is Mr. Buri at this moment glaring at his own watch and chewing his moustache in irritation? "Khodafez! Khodafez!" cry the children as I make to leave: "Good-bye! Good-bye!" Small figures are still waving when I reach the skyline.

Puffing down from the ruins, I catch up with my tour group. My absence has of course been noted. "Qashqai!" snorts Mr. Buri, striding across the car-park. "Pah! You must hold on to your wallet. Qashqai are rude, dishonest and they seldom wash!"


John Kellie is a freelance travel writer based in Western Scotland who likes nothing better than to rub shoulders with the peoples of the world.  Wild places are his passion, but teaching pays the bills.  He can be contacted at JohnKellie@mac.com

© John Kellie – 2001/2
Reproduced with permission.