Travel Essay: She crept toward us slowly and sat down some distance away with a kind of wariness. With a pile of sheep’s wool in her lap, she concentrated on spinning it around a wooden hand spindle into thread. Soon she moved closer and sat again. This time she peered out from her blue head scarf and kept her eyes on us while she continued feeding the chaotic mass of wool through her fingers onto the turning spool. It was made clear to us that she didn’t speak. Later Reza would explain that she had a severe illness in childhood and was a little “off” now. She would never marry and remained in her father’s care.
When I asked the travel agency to include the advertised available add-on of “a night camping with Qashqai nomads” in our itinerary traveling through Iran, I had suspected that my husband, Erik, and I would be set up in special “tourist” tents furnished with cots, or even beds, and coddled with amenities. I imagined the nomads would be performing their traditional chores for us more as a presentation than as part of their normal daily lives. I was interested to learn about them anyway, in spite of a scripted experience.
History books can tell us about the great Persian empire, but it’s not so easy to know much about the current lives of Iranians, shuttered away from the Western world. As American tourists, we needed special visas and could only travel with a registered tour company. We chose to hire a private guide, Reza, who contracted for Mr. Qajar’s travel agency.
This night was my birthday. Since reaching middle age, I’ve made a vow to always travel on my birthday, for it’s the one activity that invigorates me like no other, interests me, fills me full enough with wonder and appreciation to push out the depression over the pages turning so rapidly in my life. I was particularly excited about this birthday in such an exotic location.
We presumed Reza would drive us to meet the nomads. Instead, we went to the travel agency office and met the very professional Mr. Qajar in a gray pinstriped suit, argyle socks and shiny shoes. Reza told us we would now wait for him. Mr. Qajar left the room and to my great surprise, pulled up outside the office in a dusty Land Rover, while still impeccably dressed in business attire.
Mr. Qajar had called ahead to confirm that the Qashqai family had moved to their summer grounds outside Shiraz. (Yes, even nomads have cell phones.) He asked the patriarch, Hasan, what he would like as gifts in return for hosting us for dinner, and so as he drove us out of town, we stopped first by a pharmacy to buy a neoprene knee brace and then picked up his assistant, Farshad.
We drove for several hours, over a high mountain pass, deep into the Zagros mountain range. When we pulled into the seasonal nomad settlement, I was surprised there were in fact no tents, for the Qashqai were known as the “black tent nomads.” They are renowned for the exquisite wool Persian carpets they weave. I wondered which of the thatch-roofed stone huts clustered loosely together we would stay in.
Surprised again — Farshad and Mr. Qajar began setting up a three-man North Face dome tent for me and Erik. We were literally camping with the nomads. Precisely as advertised. There were no camping pads for our sleeping bags, just a couple layers of blankets.
The summer home of Hasan and his extended family lay in a broad grassy valley encircled by golden vertical cliffs that turned purple as the sun got lower in the sky. Once our tent was set up, Erik and I set out to explore the valley. We could hear the loud buzzing of bee colonies in a nearby orchard, where the bees fed on orange blossoms to flavor the honey.
The ground was littered with gray stones mostly the sizes of softballs and soccer balls. It would not have taken much effort to gather stones for the building of the huts. Ancient cypress trees dotted the land. Their trunks commonly split into a “V” shape, and their branches provided broad patches of shade.
Small herds of very woolly sheep with floppy ears grazed together in tight packs, moving like a combine moves through a corn field, munching down the grass as they walked in formation. Goats wandered around by themselves as if they were trying to spy on us, eyeing us casually, then standing perfectly still behind a tree. Chickens traversed the fields randomly in all directions, pecking intently at the ground.
When Erik and I ambled back into our camp, it now included three more tents for our companions, and most unexpectedly, Mr. Qajar in fleece pants and tennis shoes sitting on the ground industriously mending a tear in his tent with needle and thread. Reza told us the family was waiting to meet us and we should go over to them. We presumed he or Mr. Qajar would accompany us, but instead we found ourselves alone with Hasan and his two daughters for over an hour, sitting around their campfire. Alone with no common words to toss between us.
As his daughter the spinster eyed us with her unabashed curiosity, it was she with whom I soon felt the most comfortable … she who never had her own words to toss, so there was no expectation of conversation. She settled the atmosphere around the fire with her quiet engagement in her ancient task. How many women before her have sat spinning thread from wool? Perhaps she foremost in the family illustrated with her nimble fingers the continuity I hoped still existed in this land between the past and present.
Hasan’s whitened hair contrasted handsomely against his richly sun-baked skin, He still walked many miles each day to graze his flock of sheep and goats, though he was 69 years old. His birth certificate shows he is only 59; it took his nomadic parents ten years to go to a city where certificates were issued.
A delinquent gang of baby goats romped around the courtyard – climbing, nibbling, bleating, they weren’t old enough to keep up walking with the herd. The tiniest one, born the day before, slept peacefully underneath a basket. I was grateful for their presence, as watching and photographing them gave me and Erik something with which to occupy many of the wordless moments. Otherwise we drank tea. And more tea. We tried several sheep dairy products they offered us, various roasted seeds and candies, and Hasan pulled some tiny weeds with his thick fingers and showed us they were edible.
Erik asked me, “So what do you think we are supposed to do?” I didn’t have any creative answers and I felt it would be rude to get up and go find our guides, so we sat. At last Reza showed up, and Mr. Qajar shortly thereafter, with no sign he’d spent the morning inside an office, now wearing a sweatshirt and fleece hat. Here was my opportunity to gush forth all the questions I had been posing quietly in my head to Reza for him to ask the family. But suddenly the guides and nomads were chatting excitedly and quickly in Farsi, and as other family members came in from the fields, I felt it was an imposition to thrust in my questions as non sequiturs. I kept waiting for a break in the conversation.
Hasan’s daughter was making rice over the fire; squatting down in a chaos of color and patterns — stripes, polka dots and checkers of red, white, blue, black and orange on her long skirt and shirt; a brown hijab with bright aqua and orange paisleys; and neon orange rubber sandals over pastel blue socks. Hasan’s wife was hit by a car walking along the roadside and died, so his daughter did the cooking now. She lined the bottom of the blackened pot first with oil, then with a thin piece of naan so the rice wouldn’t stick to the bottom. This bread, though made for the benefit of the rice, was delicious – all caramelized and crispy after the rice had cooked.
As I sat in silent observance, I worried I should be getting more out of this, prodding the nomad family with questions about their lives. Erik and I ended up slipping into a kind of shyness, letting everyone else converse among themselves in their own language. We drank our tea as the nomads did — from a deep saucer, sucking it through a sugar cube held between our top and bottom front teeth.
While we ate our dinner of rice and stew by the light of a kerosene lantern, sitting on the floor inside a stone hut, Mr. Qajar told jokes that made everyone roll on the carpeted floor with laughter. Reza translated some of these: “One guy bets another he can bite his own eyeball,” Mr. Qajar began, and the family fell over in stitches. “It turns out he has a glass eye, so he takes it out, puts it in his mouth, and wins the bet. Then he says he can now bite his other eye. The other man thinks there’s no way this guy can have two glass eyes, he can’t possibly win the bet. But the one-eyed man removes a false tooth and pokes his other eye.”
The moon had risen and the stars had sprouted in the sky when we left the family to go to bed. The mountains loomed above us in their ancient brooding silence. I lay awake on the hard, rocky ground feeling like a failure for not asking more questions, anxious that perhaps I had not taken proper advantage of this special opportunity to meet the practitioners of such a deeply-rooted lifestyle, predating civilization itself in the very land where empires were first built.
As I stared up at the moonlit dome of our nylon tent, I became acutely aware of layers of sound filling the night air. I could hear sheep and goats baahing and bleating in their night pen, cow bells ringing on some of the livestock, a donkey braying, crickets chirping, a pack of dogs barking and howling, counterpointed by Reza snoring in the next tent beside the Land Rover and the distant ruckus of a wedding taking place across the valley: modern techno dance music blasting through massive speakers, punctuated by celebratory gunshots and fireworks. The chickens had roosted amid this soundscape while the family fell into a timeless sleep, and the flickering edges of the dying campfire etched into the darkness the lines upon which this polyphony was scored.
At dawn, we stood by as Hasan let his livestock out of their nighttime pen. I held a young sick goat for him while he administered a shot of penicillin. I was fascinated with the feel of the little nubs where horns were starting to grow. These were the goats who had been bleating all night. Though I now had another opportunity to use Reza as a translator, I tucked away my pocketful of questions. I realized there was no veneer of a performance to tunnel through with words, perhaps they weren’t so important as I once thought. I could simply sit, listen, taste, touch and observe.
This morning I was one year older. I knew somewhere nearby a bride and groom were waking up in each others’ arms for the very first time. Soon Mr. Qajar would pull on his pinstriped pants to go back to the office, and Hasan would strike out in his neoprene knee brace to shepherd his livestock to the cliffs and back, across the grassy cradle of his forefathers.
BIO: SHARA SINOR says “”Mute Among the Qashqai” was first published in the Indian journal, “Phenomenal Literature” (volume 3). My nonfiction essays have been published in fifteen literary journals since 2005. I also maintain a narrative and photographic travel blog at https://skjtravel.net.