Kurdistan has been calling my name since before I entered Iran, and—as if the feeling were mutual—the Kurds’ mythic hospitality is extended to me even prior to exiting Kermanshah. Searching for a savari (inter-city taxi), I am promptly scooped up by a young Kurdish soldier who, shouldering his pack and tilting his head back to look up from under his mandatory cap, tells me earnestly that he is headed to Paveh, too, and will escort me to the proper terminal. He strides off purposefully, and I scuttle after him.
Properly speaking, “Greater Kurdistan” is a swathe of land bound by a common ethnicity that includes sections of Turkey (in which I have spent time), Syria, Iraq and Iran. In the latter, Kordestan province is a small chunk carved out of the mountainous Western borderlands (although ethnic Kurds exist well beyond this official region). Kurds have lived here for centuries—in fact, at a Kurdish language class I attend in the capital of Sanandaj, the teacher claims that Kurds are not Aryans like the Persians, thus not intruders from northern climes but rather original inhabitants of this land, or as close to original as could now be found.
The Shahnameh—Persia’s epic Book of Kings, composed by the poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi at the turn of the eleventh century and reaching back into a mythic Persian past—tells a different story. An origin myth, of sorts, is provided for the Kurdish people. The tale goes like this: devilish king Zahhak, who rules for a thousand years, is plagued by two black serpents that have attached themselves to his shoulders and refuse to die or be removed. Searching for an antidote, the despot nonsensically decides to feed the snakes on human brains—a diet that requires the sacrifice of two young men each day. But a couple of noble Persians decide to intervene; masquerading as chefs, they gain access to the grisly culinary task, and manage to rescue one unfortunate victim out of each pair. The reprieved men are told to flee to the mountains. “The Kurds,” the story concludes, “who never settle in towns, are descended from these men.”
Each explanation—an autochthonous ethnic group or an outcast motley tribe—lends the Kurds a tragic romanticism: as an ancient people authentically connected to the land yet denied a nation, or as innocent, victimized scapegoats, banished from their rightful place in society. Yet Kurdish angst, a constant loud roar in Turkey, is almost imperceptible when travelling through Iran’s Kurdish region—manifesting itself in quiet, impassioned conversations rather than public rallies or violent resistance.
Iran’s Kurds, I will discover, are inflected by their context: quietly proud, they occasionally exhibit the cultural snobbery common to many Iranians—even when considering their Kurdish brothers in other nations. “The Iranian Kurds have benefitted from their contact with Persian culture,” one man tells me, referencing Iran’s rich history. “Our culture is higher compared to other Kurds.” This is not to say that the Sunni Kurds are fans of Iran’s current Shia regime—far from it.
When I reach Paveh (also known as Pawa), a fast-expanding town snaking along a couple of mountain ridges, small differences are immediately apparent. Moustachioed men stroll along the city’s narrow main drag in their trademark uniform of tapering Kurdish pants with matching jacket and thick cummerbund. Occasionally, a knife (presumably intended for some sort of agricultural activity) is stashed in the wide sash. Vegetable stalls sell baskets of small cherry tomatoes—something I have not seen in any other region—and the conversations I overhear are conducted in Hurami, an ancient language.
(From what I can gather, Hurami is part of the Zaza group of languages, which is in fact linguistically distinct from other Kurdish languages [although the people of this region are considered ethnically Kurdish]. In its most archaic variant, Hurami apparently bears similarity to the extinct language of Avestan, the language used to record the first Zoroastrian texts.)
Given that I speak no Hurami, and only a smattering of Farsi, trying to find a cheap place to stay in Paveh is a somewhat farcical task. On the strength of my Lonely Planet’s recommendation (which I by now know to be entirely out-of-date and essentially useless), I wander along Paveh’s undulating main street, in search of “khanum mo’allem”—a hostel for female teachers. In typical fashion, everyone I meet either has no clue what I’m saying, or gives directions that directly contradict what my previous interlocutor had advised. I plod the street one way, then—reaching a final square—plod back. At which point a frustrated man puts me in his pick-up and drives me 50 metres back the way I’ve come, pointing up an alley that curves into the mountains.
At this point, a guy whom I’d previously asked assistance from swings by and takes pity. “Where are you going?” Makwan asks, with gleeful consternation. He’s small and skinny, maybe in his late 20s, with a gravity-defying quiff and a black-and-white striped t-shirt over practical Kurdish trousers—like a glorious cross between a bony, Kurdish Elvis and a monochrome Where’s Wally. Makwan walks me up the hill, talking enviously of the joys of legal marijuana (he apparently believes me to be from Amsterdam) in English that he’s taught himself, primarily by watching American movies and listening to music (he favours weirdos with a penchant for self-creation: Michael Jackson and Marilyn Manson are tops).
Having arrived to some sort of official building, the answer to my feeble “khanum mo’allem?” turns out to be a swift and resounding NO (they do have a hostel somewhere, I gather, but only for Iranians, duh), so Makwan promptly invites me home. He’s finished his work for the day he says (his job involves testing shops’ card machines, I learn later. I’m unsure what he is testing them for, exactly, but business is, to say the least, not brisk). After resisting the offer in a lacklustre way, unsure whether I should really just set off happily for a strange man’s dwelling, I finally give in. A short taxi ride, and a climb down below the level of the main road, through Paveh’s winding, vertiginous alleys, and we’re home.
Makwan does, as promised, have sisters. A small, shy, blue-eyed one in the kitchen (whose name, Shayesteh, means “acceptance” apparently), and a glamorous, whirling, bright-flower-clad, black-eyed one (Sahar, “dawn”) who storms in some time after we arrive, having rushed over from her husband’s house (I never meet the husband). Both are in their early twenties, and are a complete delight—and they’re only a fraction of Makwan’s extensive family, which contains another sister and two brothers (when it comes to family, the Kurds tend to go big).
With his parents currently away, Makwan’s sisters bustle about preparing lunch, which turns out (surprise!) to be delicious: a small mountain of fluffy rice accompanied by poached cherry tomatoes, a bean stew, small savoury kofte (meatballs), sour-sweet pickled garlic and fresh yoghurt. After lunch, we lie around in the afternoon heat, sipping tea and nibbling dried white mulberries (called t’fee in the local language) from the family garden.
At some point in the afternoon, it’s decided that we should all head to the garden itself—where Makwan’s parents are currently staying. The “garden,” in reality a small orchard / vegetable patch that provides the family with some income, is located outside the tiny village of Nowdeshah, some 40kms north. An older brother arrives with family in tow (his wife and their twins) and in possession of a vehicle, and we set off—winding into the mountains, and catching a glorious sunset as we descend into a deep valley, in which a dam is slowly being constructed.
Trundling slowly up the interior of the valley, slivers of small-scale agriculture line the narrow road. “The people here are so poor,” Makwan tells me, looking out. “Only they have gardens.” Makwan’s family’s section is perhaps a mile from Nowdeshah: a steeply sloping stretch of mountainous earth that has been painstakingly landscaped into a graceful stepped sanctuary. Partway up, Makwan’s father (a builder, sprightly despite his age) has constructed a small cabin, complete with an enclosed lower room, and an open balcony shaded by towering mulberry and walnut trees. We spend all of our time on this open-air balcony, Makwan’s mother and elderly aunt constantly fussing around the small cooking alcove at the back.
Their labours are very worthwhile. When we first arrive, it’s already dark, and dinner is immediately set before us: dolme (stuffed vegetables) made almost entirely with garden produce. Soft, tangy grape leaves and sweet onions are wrapped lovingly around richly-flavored herbed pilaf and served as a moist tumble of rice and vegetable-wrapper, studded with cherry tomatoes that burst in the mouth and tender chunks of chicken. This melange is scooped up with lavash and followed with melon from the garden.
Overnight, a pot containing white mulberries and water is set to a constant boil above the flames, reducing the mixture down to a sweet, burnt-brown molasses. The pot spits and hisses companionably throughout the evening as we snooze under the stars, filling the air with the scent of caramelized fruit. The next morning, the syrup is served with papery-thin Kurdish flatbread, butter, cream, cheese and jam.
The garden (whose name, which sounds like “haré-bil,” literally means “dig mud”) is a paradise of fruit and vegetables. Pomegranate trees—with their not-quite-ready fruit—predominate, but they are joined by walnuts, quince, pear, apple, fig, and mulberry. Closer to the ground, the family grows tomatoes, strawberries, melon and zucchini. Bright sunflowers sway in one corner of the vegetable patch, and Makwan’s father is constantly cracking his way through bags of tokhme (sunflower seeds).
At one stage, a barbecue is prepared, and sheep’s testicles are slid onto a skewer and roasted on the flames, specifically for a young nephew (“Testosterone,” his mother explains to me, advising that this is one delicacy women shouldn’t try). Sitting in the cool shade under the pomegranates in the heat of the day, we smash green walnuts with rocks, and peel back the nuts’ bitter yellow skin to reveal their creamy white flesh—a process that leaves my fingers stained black.
In the mountains, everyone seems much more active than their flatland counterparts. Makwan’s father, the venerable Shah of the garden, is in almost constant motion—collecting water, nurturing plants, or constructing a neighbour’s hut. Makwan himself doesn’t balk at my desire to walk into town, and we immediately set off on the mile or so slog uphill, pausing only to pluck some figs from trees overhanging the road. Finally we round a bend, and catch site of the village.
Nowdeshah is a motley collection of houses, clinging for dear life to the edge of a mountain. Overlooking a gully filled with inhabitants’ gardens, the town seems to have chugged on in much the same manner for centuries. Men in the Kurdish pantsuit amble around town, while women sit outside, stretching dough over a drum before flinging it onto a concave metal pan to be baked to wafer-thin crisps in seconds. The town, constructed as it is of houses built on top of each other, seems somewhat impenetrable until you begin exploring its narrow backstreets, which wind, with the help of many steps, throughout the settlement.
The view from any point in town is of mountains upon mountains, receding hazily into the distance. As evening falls, Nowdeshah’s ghostly lights shimmer in the mauve gloaming, transforming the village momentarily into a painterly fairyland.
But life in Nowdeshah is hardly enchanted. Jobs are scarce, and Makwan tells me that many residents have taken to running black-market commodities over the nearby Iraqi border (a twenty minute drive away). Fuel, particularly, is a thriving business. It retails so cheaply in Iran, that the profit margins are relatively high, although the risks are not inconsiderable. At one stage, we run into one of Makwan’s friends, who drives a truck that looks as if it has been salvaged from a rubbish dump. The friend explains that several canisters of fuel were in the car when it happened to catch on fire. He’s still hauling the burnt-out shell over Nowdeshah’s precipitous roads.
Worryingly, that particular vehicle didn’t look so out of place in the village. Ancient, beaten-up Toyota trucks and decrepit Paykans are the norm, all looking as if they are a good decade beyond retirement age. At one point, Makwan nudges me excitedly in the ribs. “Look,” he cries, “Nowdeshah has a beautiful machine!” Following his gaze, I see a shiny black Toyota Prado.
But despite the village’s poverty and extremely dire automobile situation, Nowdeshah is renowned for the cleverness of its inhabitants (a fact proudly touted by Makwan, but verified later by unbiased sources in Sanandaj). Many villagers have attended college and a high proportion of them demonstrate excellent English skills, which they use in order to issue me all sorts of invitations, many of which I must politely decline. One elderly gentleman even professes to speak near-fluent Italian.
And it is with Monsignore’s help that I eventually, reluctantly, extricate myself from the mountains. Makwan and I were loitering on the mountain road overlooking Iraq, trying to catch me a savari to Marivan (the closest major town on the plains to the north), when a pick-up pulled over, and our Italian friend peered out. His wife was seated beside him in the small cabin, but a quick glance in the back revealed two squirming kids—a girl of perhaps 4 and a boy of 8—and a cool-box packed full of Nowdeshah figs. I jam myself in between the kids and the cool-box, say goodbye to Makwan, and we set off—careering over the winding roads with jagged rock rearing up on either side, Iraq spreading to the west below us, and black hawks coasting on thermals above.
Wind whipping at my hijab, we make our way uneventfully to Marivan—the ride punctuated only by fig-breaks and emergency dives under blankets to avoid the police (riding in the back of pick-ups is very illegal, apparently, although this legislation clearly fails to act as a deterrent). Once we reach town, my hosts insist on feeding me a chicken-rice lunch, then taking me to see the “sights” of Marivan (a large lake), before depositing me at the terminal where they attempt to pay my fare to Sanandaj. Declining firmly, I jump aboard the minibus, and settle in for another couple of hours puttering through Kurdistan’s rolling golden foothills (there is perhaps noting slower than a full Iranian minibus attempting to climb a gentle slope).
Sanandaj, Iran’s Kurdish capital, is a city of some 450,000 inhabitants, cocooned in a benevolent nest of bronze hills. Locals refer to the city by its ancient name of Senna. It is perhaps one of the more liveable cities I’ve visited in Iran, with very little pollution, great access to the surrounding mountains, and a lovely historic city centre replete with old houses, regional museums, and a bazaar stuffed with the vibrant materials Kurdish women require for their wedding outfits.
My fondness for the city may also stem from the fact that, upon arrival, I am immediately ensconced once again in an amazing family. My host Firouz is quickly swept out of town on business (he’s a university administrator who moonlights with a group of “modern day smugglers,” who have links across Iran, Iraq and Turkey, and also participates in an NGO to promote Kurdish culture), but his sisters gamely step into the breach and treat me like one of their own (but with special guest privileges).
All the occupants of the family home—two parents, who speak very little English but twinkle their kindness nevertheless, and three sisters, one a guest in the house while her own apartment is being renovated—are extremely bright and very hospitable. Even the teeny three-year-old daughter of the older sister, an adorable creature known as Nohod (“chickpea”—“because she looks like a chickpea”) and universally cherished, is whippet-smart and soon starts referring to me as “aunt.”
Although Sanandaj is ostensibly a Sorani-speaking pocket of Kurdistan, the people here generally speak Ardalani, a less formal dialect. Kurds, like the Azaris of northern Iran and the Arabs of the south, are required to use Farsi throughout their education, meaning that the use of Kurdish language is relegated to casual conversations. Farzaneh, one of Firouz’s sisters, is currently attending Sorani language classes to try to learn her native tongue more thoroughly. I attend a class with her, and am surprised to see the classroom packed full, with students ranging in age from perhaps 13 to over 60: people in Sanandaj are eager, it seems, to reclaim their heritage.
Indeed, the city itself has been transformed, as one of my hosts puts it “into a symbol,” through the use of public art that makes “Kurdishness” (the people’s history and culture) impossible to avoid. White statues of famous Kurdish figures—mountaineers, poets, philosophers, calligraphers, and ancient heroes—are dotted throughout the city, presiding over public squares and local parks. The person behind these ubiquitous works is a soft-spoken, middle-aged man by the fabulous name of Hadi Zia’-od Dini, whom Firouz happens to be friends with.
It is on the basis of their relationship that I manage to visit Hadi’s studio, which is situated in a beautiful stately house that once housed the town’s ruling Ardalani family. In the center of the studio sits a small, dignified bronze known as “Kobani’s Woman.” The woman, in military jumpsuit with hair casually pulled into a ponytail, sits atop a reclining lion. She represents a female Kurdish fighter killed in the Kobani siege, while the animal she has conquered, Farzaneh whispers to me, is Bashar al-Assad (whose last name means “lion”). Other impressionist works and monumental portraits surround the figure.
In Iran, the Kurds are not only ethnically distinct from Persians or Azaris—they are separated by religion as well. While Iran is a majority Shia nation, the Kurds are staunch Sunnis. Even for relatively secular Kurds, this is a point of contention. Makwan, echoing others I speak to, depicted the uneasy relationship as stemming from Shia antipathy. “They hate us,” he told me, with feeling. But the Kurds I spoke with almost universally expressed scornfulness for the mourning culture of the Shias (their preoccupation with shahid [martyrs] and days of mourning for the prophets), and resentfulness for what they see as Shia dominance, even of Kurdistan. Walking past a gated-off block, Farzaneh gestures towards the high walls and whispers, “Shia.” This particular community are mostly basij (militia) and sepah (Revolutionary Guard).
But this resentment never filters into the family home, and life at Firouz’s house is all kindness and generosity. A fig tree in the yard offers up small, chewy yellow-black figs—the best I’ve yet tasted—and reyhan, a delicate kind of basil we eat each day with our bread-cheese-vegetable breakfast. Firouz’s mother makes her own deliciously tart yoghurt, and buys fresh village milk, enriched with wisps of cream. Her husband strains doogh (churned sour milk) into a tangy cheese-like paste that we scrape onto bread, while shucking sweet pickled garlic cloves from their darkly translucent skins. Here, I try green nectarines for the first time, and am seduced by their sour-sweet taste and delicate perfume. Firouz’s father prides himself on his fruit-selecting ability, and rightly so. Stalls at the bazaar begin selling fresh pistachios—thick green-black bruised leather coats still on—as the season rolls around.
I would happily stay in Sanandaj for the rest of the summer, but the sands of visa-time are swiftly running out. I set off again—trundling north, once more, at minibus pace—past fields of tendrilled watermelons and mountains striped pink-brown-white as if by pastels. Arriving to Zanjan, an Azari-majority town slightly larger than Sanandaj, I am immediately rescued by the friend of a recent acquaintance. Mohsen is energetic and speaks excellent English. His father owns a carpet shop in the bazaar and a chemical plant outside of town. His mother buys village-churned sheep’s butter and makes albaloo jam. His very pretty, very giggly 19-year-old girlfriend has just had a nose job (“She had a very nice nose before,” Mohsen confides, in confusion).
Zanjan is a relatively liberal town, meaning Mohsen and Mahiya have no need to hide their relationship from their families. But she still asks her mother’s permission before accompanying us to Takht-e Soleyman, a breathtaking archaeological site two hours from the city. The drive covers few kilometers, but winds slowly through the region’s Neapolitan ice cream-colored hills, past a giant zinc factory and sleepy villages whose mud-houses jauntily wear conical hay-bale hats. The Takht-e Soleyman complex, which was once the spiritual centre of Zoroastrian Persia, perches high on a grassy plateau, the surreal hollow peak known as “Soleyman’s Prison” rising scenically in the distance.
Neither site actually has anything to do with the biblical King Solomon. Rather, Persia’s inhabitants conducted a sneaky act of synchronism, bequeathing their holy places with a veneer of Biblical heritage to persuade the conquering Arabs to leave such wonders intact. And Takht-e Soleiman is truly wonderful, with an astonishingly blue “bottomless” central lake, surrounded by the ruins of temple complexes and dining areas. Several structures—soaring vaulted rooms—are still a mystery to scholars.
The hollow peak (or “prison”) nearby is equally odd: a small mountain completely devoid of its innards, as if they have been scooped out by some ravenous bird of stony prey. Leaning over the edge, noxious vapours spiral upwards. A passing geologist tells me the peak is the site of an ancient spring. But it looks, more than anything, like the haunting Towers of Silence outside of Yazd.
Another short drive away from Zanjan, the town of Soltaniye boasts a magnificent monument from a different period entirely—a mausoleum of massive proportions built under the Mongols in the 14th century. Scaffolding seems to be entirely propping the structure up from the inside, but the modern rehabilitation work does nothing to dim the building’s splendour.
Nearby, carved into a distant hillside, a stranger monument to the Mongols remains: a frieze of a twisted dragon, remnant of the Mongol’s shamanistic leanings prior to their conversion to Islam, chases its tail in stony isolation.
I am, in a way, chasing my own tail—my circuitous path through Iran leading me eventually back to Tabriz, where I spend two nights (relishing the buzz of the bazaar and squeezing in a visit to the fascinating “Constitution House,” a museum dedicated to Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907) before taking a bus north.
I go first to Jolfa (a typical border town rubbing shoulders with Azerbaijan, with a dusty strip of shops leading up to the customs area), then use the last of my tomans to take a taxi east, through the beautiful Aras river valley, and finally—early morning light blushing the mountains behind me—walk over a bridge, into Armenia.