My First Encounter with the Persian Nomads in the Eden of Zagros Mountains: A Memoir

Iran Nomad ToursstoryMy First Encounter with the Persian Nomads in the Eden of Zagros Mountains: A Memoir

I observe Muhammad and Moshtaba through the windshield from the inside of the car. They greet each other by a handshake and kiss on both sides. Even though in the dusty town of Aligudarz is over 35 degrees Celsius (feeling at least 40), Moshtaba is wearing traditional black wide trousers and a long-sleeved dark shirt. All its tightened by a leather belt. He is the first Bakhtiari nomad I will meet in Iran. After a while, both, Muhammad and Moshtaba get to the car. Moshtaba turns to the Sahar, Homayoun and I as we seat on a back seat of the car. Muhammad introduces us to him. Sahar is a modern Iranian woman from Tehran who has lived in San Francisco for several years. Moshtaba observes her outrightly. Homayoun is an experienced mountain guide. I sit drown into this unusual situation and quietly try to catch every bit of this new and unknown which will slowly unfold in upcoming days. From now on we drive for about two more days into the Zagros Mountains where we will meet Moshtaba’s family and join them during their autumn seasonal migration to the Khuzestan province.

on the way to see Iranian nomadic people

Moshtaba often calls loudly to some relatives trying to figure out where exactly is his family in the migration. He speaks in Lurish language which makes it harder to understand everything for my Iranian companions as they say. If he is not on the phone then he repeatedly plays a few traditional songs from his smartphone. As I learn later on after joining his family, nomads may use certain achievements of the modern world as phones or small solar panels while most of their everyday way of life stays untouched by modernity.
I give a lot of questions to Mohammad about migration, nomads, history, region, traditions. I have read about nomads before coming to Iran but it is always more valuable to learn from the field. He is remaining very patience responder.
We will drive Mohammad’s 4×4 Pajero through the land where we meet a lot of those who will refer to the Bakhtiari origin or ancestors. Those who did not move to the cities and instead settled down remain “scattered” in small mountain villages. “Wherever you can find water, you will also find a village”, Muhammad explains.

We talk about reasons behind the shrinking number of nomads in Iran and as everywhere in the world, we come to the political history and political representation of nomads among society. From what I have read before coming to Iran I know, that Bakhtiaries represented a big and politically strong group from the Middle Ages until approximately beginning of the nineteenth century. Nomads with the highest status were strong enough to maintain tribal groups and guarantee the order among them. As many nomadic and indigenous people, Bakhtiaries chiefs were aware of the need to coordinate migration in order to avoid overuse of pastures and water resources. (I believe this is a type of knowledge which is naturally embodied in tribal societies. Because of the attachment to the land, their understanding of the natural process is better than the understanding of those in the ties. Not without reason, we hear more and more voices of indigenous people’s wisdom in a quest to solve our environmental problems.) From about 50% of nomadic population at the 20th century the number of nomads shrinked at currently less than 2% in today Iran, however, to my surprise, nomads in Iran still represent the biggest number of nomadic population in the world.

Bakhtiari boys in Zagros mountains
stay with a nomadic family in Iran

The image of the desert, which I was confronted by my family and friends before coming to Iran ends in Zagros. To my surprise, water can enrich dry soil even when the sun is shining strong over the land here. That is how false imaginations are deconstructed when you find yourself in the territory you only heard about but never visited. The landscape we are passing by and the Zagros Mountains sometimes reminds me of the Eden I have heard about like a kid at the religion classes. Beautiful trees alleys and tall hills surrounding our way. The Zagros rightly feels enormous. Coming from tiny Slovakia, which is only 429 kilometres long from the west to the east, Zagros in its 1600 kilometres range unlock a completely new senses one can feel.
Bazoft is the las small town on our way to the mountains. We stop there to buy some food. A little square is full of men and women. They talk, observe and simply share this common space. Men are wearing long wide trousers (tombūn or šawlār) and some, mainly older ones, have a striped black and white woollen vest (čuqā) over their long sleeves shirts, despite the burning sun. Some are wearing a felt cap (kola) too. They declare their Bachtiari background, by wearing these traditional clothes. After about an hour and quick tea invite to a local man, we are leaving the town behind us (and internet connection too). We will drive for about two more hours from Bazoft to finally find ourselves in front of Hosain’s and Shahin’s house. From here we will continue only on foot. Hosain and Shahin have Bachtiari’s heritage, as I understand and they like living in this remote place. They moved here with the big state project around building the dam on the Dez river. Eventually, the project was never realized but Hosain and Shahin stayed since their kids were already grown up. Shahin never liked living in the town, but I guess she misses her kids and grandkids a lot, as she speaks about them beautifully.

We enter their modest house. We are invited to have a sit and Hosain immediately gives are fresh and cold water. The TV is on and adjusted air condition is making this midday heat somehow bearable. Shahin starts to prepare something so Sahar and I offer to help her, but she prefers us to sit. “First we will eat from mine”, Hosain says when Muhammad is about to take some food we bought in Bazoft. Shahin puts tiny bread (sangak) and wild honey in front of us. The black tea is served after lunch. We start talking about the few days of migration which are in front of us. Sahar translates Shahin’s words for me. She says the journey is more difficult than we may expect. Shahin thinks we are a bit crazy if we are voluntarily joining nomads. She is right, the migration will be a challenging experience when we actually find ourselves in the ground with nomads (but also experience of the most memorable one). Shahin points to the entrance to the next room offering us to have some more rest before meeting nomads. Sahar and I lay down and shortly after we are joined by Shahin. Suddenly, even still some kind of strangers for each other, we share this intimate situation while laying on the carpet together… (I often feel deep humanity in such situations with unknown people). After about an hour or so we hear some undefinable sounds coming from far away. We run outside quickly from the house. After a few more minutes we have finally seen a little herd dots moving in the distance. Nomads are following shortly after.

nomadic shepherd of Iran

Moshtaba accompanied us for two days before we finally met his family in the Zagros mountains. He was some kind of “transmitter of informations” between the world we were coming from and the world of his family which was already in the migration in the mountains. I still do not know exactly how you can track down someone in such a big area, but I believe nomads who know mountains better can also guess better.

Moshtaba’s family migrate with three more families. They all are connected by kinship. Moshtaba is the oldest son. He is 20 years young and as I will be told the next day he is supposed to be married with a girl from a related family. Besides that, he should continue in this way of life, but I am not convinced he wishes to.

iranian nomadic family on the move, seasonal migration koch

Moshtaba is Hosain’s (55) and Johan’s (40) son. They are parents to four more kids. Morteza (17) is Moshtaba’s younger brother. We will meet him after sunset when he returned back to the camp. He is responsible for herding the herd during the day. He will take different paths to find as much green grass as possible for the sheep and goats. I will ask him another day if he takes some food with him as I did not saw him a whole day. “Only spring water”, he answers. He will wake up a bit earlier every morning that the younger kids and us, so he can check the herd with his father and move even before the rest of us. Afsaneh (13) is the only daughter in the family. She mainly helps in the “kitchen” but is a big help with loading and unloading everything that is carried by the horses, mules and donkeys. Among her other responsibilities is a water refilling from the natural streams. She knows without reminding that she should help her mother with tea preparing or kneading the dough for the bread (I am guessing she uses about 2 to 3 kilograms of the flour).

Another day she knows how to dissect the birds her father caught. She also is very dexterous and swift in her simple plastic sandals when we are passing through a stone mountain area that might envy her either of a mountaineer. Here I understand that as much is walking natural for any of us, mountains with their difficulties are embodied in the technic of nomads’ walking skills. They are like a chamois in the mountains.
The youngest in the family is Kianoush (10) and Kiamars (7). More than responsibilities they are engaged in just having fun during the migration. Farshad (9) concludes their companionship. He is their relative cousin from a father side who spends most of the time along different pathways with the herd. Only two of them are migrating.
All four families will make their camp in the same area at the end of the day, but still, keep the distance for some kind of “open area privacy”. “If you separate even five sheep or goats, the rest of the herd will follow. Therefore it cannot happen that our herds will ever get mixed”, Hosain explains to me. The herd will loose few kilograms, same as nomads, during the autumn migration because of a lesser amount of the green grass. This factor accelerates the tempo of the group too.

nomadic shepherd with her flock of sheeps
on migration_ a nomad family on the move

Migration means walking
“A nomad is as an eagle. Free and independent. He is not meant to be in a cage. And when he is entrapped in a confined building – where he cannot see the whole shinning sun, smell the whole gentle breeze, hear the whole familiar and unknown sounds of the desert – he will be stricken by an unbearable sorrow.” Kelider, Mahmound Dowlatabadi
We pass a variety of landscapes in the Zagros Mountains when walking beside beautifully alive alley of wild almond or pomegranate trees in a lower altitude or higher, where the land is drier and covered by different shapes and sizes of stones, dry bushes and dust. While we feel how our backs are warmed up by the warm soil during the first night, next days I must use one more blanket to keep myself warm. We cross the territory of the Zagros Mountains where nomads are coming from to enter the dry and warmer Khuzestan province where they stay for the winter period. Later, when I am back home and read more about Bakhtiaries, my experience is confirmed by anthropologists’ words who say, that nomads simply use only this type of natural environment, which could not be used by other economic systems because it is in hard-to-reach places.

Nomads have to rely only on what they pack with them and that is conditioned by the number of four leg animals which can carry their belongings. I feel desperately useless when I try to help to pack or unpack what animals carry. Any of my attempts to help only disrupts the rhythm of this smoothness process for the family I joined. So I better just observe them. Unfolding the carpet, first sips of delicious tea, milking the goats, baking the bread. Any of this became so much more alive experience in here.
I try to catch which kind of products they can make from the goat milk. Later, I was told that the reason behind milking only goats is the higher price of sheep meat so lambs rather fatten. Goat milk is not drank as we know it in Europe nor I did not see them make cheese. Nomads mastered the use of milk so nothing is thrown away. Firstly they heat up the milk on the fire to which they add a bit of yoghurt from the previous day.

nomadic boys put their stock on donkey for seasonal migration, koch

The Yoghurt has a full and balanced taste, I rarely ate something like that before. Next, when yoghurt is made they combine it with water. The final product is “dūḡ”. I feel that so-called “dūḡ” is the second most often drink after black tea. Nomadic family, I was part of drank down every meal with a dug. The rest of it was poured into a bag called “mashq” which is made of goatskin. Johan, and in general all nomadic women, strengthen the mashq in some kind of wood sticks tripod. They separate butter by moving it back and forth and warming the butter up they make it liquid ghee butter. The rest is whey which is dried on the sun and formed into a small balls “kask”. Kask is used for preparing a cold soup – whey soup – which is full of calcium and proteins. Kask balls are crushed in water to which walnuts, mint, garlic, turmeric and other spices are added.
Only few days with nomads make it clear, that rice, lentils, milk products and bread are what nomads eat during the migration. Johan is baking tiny bread almost every day. Afsaneh prepares the dough. When I ask her if I can try to knead the dough she agrees. She smiles and waits to see my hands poured in the flour. “You have to dive your fingers in and pull the dough out so one end joins it’s another half” and quickly shows me how to do it. After 20 minutes we are covering the dough to let it rise. Then Johan starts to bake the bread on a hot metal plate.

Solitude is unknown here

Bakhtiari nomads, as all nomads around the world, sit around the fire together. The carpet is where all of us sit at the end of the day no matter how big/small it is. Killim (the carpet) is space where we relax, drink tea, where men are talking about the migration while kids are quietly listening. Hosain with his family sleeps under the sky. We join them on the carpet too. One night I lay next to the Afsaneh other next to her mum Johan. Every night I am in my thoughts playing the movie of that day. Early morning wake up, packing, bread and yoghurt for breakfast. Then we move on. Walk, walk, walk until midday break. Then we move on again. Finally, I find myself in a horizontal position counting stars and falling asleep. Suddenly dogs start barking. Hosain and Johan are awake. Johan sits down and looks through the fire flames to the distance. Hosain turns a big light on and watched the herd, which was lying peacefully until now behind our heads. Johan is trying to show me by hands that I can continue sleeping and points at Hosain who is already warming himself up around the fire and watches the herd. Johan and I fall asleep very quickly and will wake up in the morning.

staying with a nomadic family
experience staying with Iranian nomads

Hosain and Johan continue to live the life that they got to know from their parents. They live this life voluntarily using the wisdom based on the tradition which is only in a few small aspects affected by modernity. Their kids were raised up during the migration and in just the same way of life as their parents did, but today, many of those kids are intrigued by life behind hill and valleys of the Zagros. As a result of political changes and the disruption of the notion of what it means to be a Bakhtiari even among nomads, their numbers are decreasing. “Although it may seem that the number of nomads is declining due to the difficulty of this way of life and low income, the main reason is the lack of confidence among nomads, they feel backward, not belonging to the modern world. Only then comes the financial problem,” Muhammad tried to explain to me while we walked exhausted towards the lunch break with one of the nomadic family who spontaneously invited us firstly for a tea and then rice with lentil and raisin.

old nomadic man wearing traditional dresses near her horse
TravelerZuzana Gogova
EventNomads Odyssey
DateSeptember 2019