Heading for the Lurish Hills
I was prepared for extreme heat in Ahvaz, but my acute relief at having escaped the wet density of Bushehr’s climate meant the scorching dryness of Khuzestan (the south-western region of which Ahvaz is capital) felt almost pleasant by comparison. Arriving at 12pm, not yet the height of the day, my metal-framed glasses—forgotten for some minutes on top of my head—seared the skin. The heat was akin to that experienced when walking past a kebab shop in Istanbul, the concentrated, radiant energy of the grill momentarily licking at exposed skin. For those who don’t regularly saunter through the Turkish capital: you know how your face feels when you open the oven door and peer in to check a casserole? The heat in Ahvaz is like that, but constant, and all-encompassing.
This kind of weather is constraining. With an average afternoon temperature simmering in the high 40s, denizens of Ahvaz tend not to leave the house for much of the day. Luckily, I am staying with locals, so am not relegated to lying alone in a hotel room in the heat of the day. Mohsen and his wife Fereshte (meaning “angel”) are ethnically Arab rather than Persian, like many in Ahvaz, and speak both Arabic and Farsi. They live with their two small children in the lower floor of a house in a suburb called “Pardis” (paradise, or garden). This is a misnomer, since Pardis, like much of outer Ahvaz, is an oddly barren place: stretches of cracked tundra interspersed with pockets of suburbia (dusty houses and garbage bins). It is the flattest city I have yet visited in Iran, with no mountains visible over the urban sprawl.
When I arrive, the small home is packed full: another family—comprising of Dr. Abdoosti and his wife Alham, along with their two lovely daughters—is in town from Tehran. The “Doctor” (who is always addressed as such, despite no longer practising medicine) is a tall man with small teeth, while Mohsen is a small man with large eyebrows (“leg of a goat,” I’m told such brows are called, with glee, by the wives).
As soon as I arrive, both Alham and Fereshte set about preparing a feast: spiced, herbed rice dotted with lentils is served alongside tender chunks of lamb, sautéed spinach and extravagantly delicious roasted eggplants (split down the middle and basted in some sort of spice mix for a crackly, piquant surface and melting interior). Yoghurt and doogh complete the meal. We eat seated—as per usual—on the floor. Alham (whose name means “divine inspiration”) is a famously excellent cook. Throughout my stay in Ahvaz, I will be a beneficiary of her tireless toils in the kitchen—whether preparing pancakes for breakfast or flash-fried aubergine or Iranian “spaghetti Bolognese,” made with a mix of noodles and pasta and complete with crackly tahdigh (a crusted “bottom of the pot” that I thought was reserved for rice dishes).
Arab-majority Ahvaz feels immediately different from the other cities I have visited. Men stalk the streets in flowing white robes and monochrome keffiyehs (chequered headscarves), while old women’s faces are etched with fading blue-black tattoos. Mohsen owns a language school, and I drop in on several classes—ostensibly to help with English conversation practice, but most of my time there is spent showing pictures of New Zealand to an appreciative crowd of teenagers. At one stage in a stilted conversation about family life, the small boy next to me informs me he has two mothers. My first foolish thought (ah, lesbians!) is quickly replaced by the obvious (bigamy). The boy seems quite pleased with the situation, although aware that it is not entirely the norm.
The bazaar, set beside a sweltering river and punctuated with huge blocks of ice slowly sweating their usefulness away, drips with figs—fat, juicy, deep purple, and bursting at the seams—and dates. Of the latter, several different types are available, and the Doctor (braving the insane mid-morning heat to please his friend’s guest) breaks down for me the stages of ripeness: kharak (when the fruit is bright canary yellow, the sugars still trapped in smooth ovals of starchy crunch, leaving an almost dusty feeling on the teeth), ratab (once the fruit has melted slightly into half crisp yellow, half squidgy pale brown), and then the hurma (date) that is common throughout the country (entirely fudgy and darkly delicious. These also come dried into pale, chewy capsules or shmooshed together into sticky sun-dried blocks that must be pried apart to render individual dates).
An entire road of Ahvaz is given over to felafel stores—the deep-fried morsels sold either by the piece, or sandwiched into hotdog buns stuffed to taste with various pickles and vegetables and sauces. Burnished, crunchy golden balls of chickpeas, the felafel are well-spiced and (the version I sampled, at least) sprinkled with sesame seeds, striking the perfect balance between moist and light.
The prevalence of felafel is presumably due to the proximity of Iraq; this geographical factor has not always manifested itself so benignly. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988, known by Iranians as the “Imposed War”), Ahvaz was heavily bombarded. But the damage the city suffered pales in comparison to the fate of Khorramshahr, a small town that hugs the Iraqi border southeast of Ahvaz. Khorramshahr was captured by Iraqi troops in 1981, instigating the first major military engagement between Iranian and Iraqi forces and becoming a flash point in the conflict. Alham’s family lives nearby, in a small village, and one night we drive down to visit them.
The village, which the clan was forced to flee during the war and to which they have now returned, nestles beside the river that is the culmination of both the Tigris and the Euphrates: a broad, mythic swathe of water that terminates in the Khalij-e-Fars (Persian Gulf) to the south and functions as the border between Iran and her western neighbor. The proximity to Iraq is such that my phone had jumped to an Iraqi carrier.
Arriving late at night, we could barely see the river: only the bright lights of ships twinkling across the dark expanse, as they made their way to the Gulf. Ushered into the family’s large home, I greet the matriarch (wrinkled, diminutive and bed-ridden but bright-eyed and with a powerful grasp) and am promptly given a trial by kharpoze (yellow melon)—during which the family carved up an entire melon and eagerly waited for me to finish it. Luckily, kharpoze (a name that literally translates as “donkey-goat”) has become one of my favourite fruits, and I made a valiant effort.
In Khorramshahr itself, each traffic circle is dedicated to symbolic memorials of the war: statues of military naval vessels and fighter planes reference the sacrifice of their slaughtered captains, while billboards of these lost soldiers watch mournfully over the town. Memories of the conflict are concentrate in the War Museum near the center of town, whose courtyard is littered with cars resting, surreally, on their noses or tails (“This was done to shame us,” Mohsen says later, when I later question him about the significance of the vertical vehicles. Presumably Iranian cars were used as a taunting ordinance by Iraqi troops, but I have been unable to find information about this strange monument).
Khorramshahr is still in the process of being rebuilt, but at night, bright lights reflected in the river that snakes through the town, it seems charmingly rehabilitated: a dove constructed out of fairy-lights twinkles its message of peace; bridges shimmer in a wondrous array of colors, the whimsical lights illuminating colourful mosaic decoration; people stroll through waterside gardens. Driving along the river, we stumble across an Arab wedding ceremony, and my hosts wrangle us an invitation from the laughing young groom. The large hall is an ululating, heaving mass of male bodies; women and men are typically segregated in such celebrations, and I was the only female in the room as the men leaped and hollered in a call-and-response victory dance routine.
The next day, I leave Ahvaz—taking a short minibus ride north to Shush, the site of Ancient Susa, winter capital of the Achaemenid kings ie. the cold-weather equivalent of Persepolis. Shush may indeed be pleasantly mild in the winter months, but in the middle of summer the city’s searing heat is complemented by humidity malevolently provided by a narrow, sluggish river. A wilderness on the southern edge of town is all that remains of the once-presumably-glorious ancient city: a rolling, expansive dirt patch with unspectacular excavations—mostly foundations—presided over by a fortress built by the French Archaeological Service at the start of the 20th century to defend excavators against tribal raiders. Nearby, a spiky-topped shrine is believed to contain the remains of Daniel (he of the Biblical lion-wrestling).
Despite the sweat-inducing climate (the weather forecast when I arrived predicted a high of 50 degrees Celsius in the coming days) and fairly uninspiring ruins, Shush is an appealing little town, with a bustling covered vegetable bazaar peopled by remarkably friendly vendors. I spend my time alternatively prostrating myself before an AC unit, and wading slowly through the humming streets—rewarded, in the evening, by a blazing sunset.
Leaving the sweltering plains of Khuzestan is a slow and sweaty process that begins the next morning with a several-hour wait for a minibus to Andimeshk, a small transport hub to the north. The bus fills at a glacial pace, but the ride is relatively short. Once in Andimeshk, I process slowly through the town in the heat of the day, rebuffing offers of taxi-rides in the mistaken belief that the minibus terminal will be within walking distance.
After an hour or so of sun-baked rambling, I find myself precariously skirting the edge of a highway and finally succumb to a taxi. The next bus, bound for Khorramabad, the capital of Luristan, again fills in dribs and drabs. Our vehicle, when we are finally ushered aboard, is a typical Iranian minibus: a tastefully tasselled interior, replete with depictions of Ali and Quranic verses but devoid of AC. Winding slowly upwards, through the arid spine of the Zagros mountains, I am soon drenched with sweat: the hot air rushing in through open windows doing little to assist. We stop, as per usual, at each police checkpoint, the driver busily bustling off to give the officers a break-down of his cargo.
Luristan, a mountainous region in western Iran, has long had a somewhat fearsome reputation. Visiting in search of treasure (or at least the region’s lucrative ancient bronzes) in the 1930s, adventurer Freya Stark cheerfully paints a picture of a hilly land peopled by charming rogues and dangerous brigands. “I spent a fortnight in the part of the country [Luristan] where one is less frequently murdered,” she writes, before calmly recording that “one sleeps on all one possesses in Luristan.” Stealing, Stark says, “is the national art,” and while the Lors “are very nice when they are nice, when they are not they are horrid.” (Later, I am told that such tendencies still remain in certain areas: one town in particular is apparently a legendary nest of car thieves. Whether this is true or not I have no idea.)
In the intervening century, the Lors seem to have mellowed out. Khorramabad, their capital, is a relatively large city nestled spectacularly into the ragged stone cradle of the Zagros. Striated rock rises, photogenically, on all sides. As soon as I arrive, I am intercepted by Sanaz, a young Lori girl with limited English, steely determination, a strong jaw and dramatic inclinations, who determines that a mosaferkhane is an inappropriate destination. “I have only two sisters,” she says, decisively. “My house is safe for you.” I am easily commandeered. We eat ice-cream, then attend a drama class at Ershad—the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance—where I join in the warm-up, then watch the rehearsal with interest (the class seems an unusually liberal space, where men and women are able to interact [act, I suppose] with relative freedom).
After a meander through a city park in the softly lit minutes after sunset, Sanaz bundles me home, where she does indeed have two sisters (Elnaz and Satayash) as well as a mother and father, an uncle and aunt, and several miscellaneous old women. I am, as per usual, plied with sharbat and fruit (the others eating nothing) before we lay a magnificent sofra (traditional Persian “table,” a cloth spread on the floor). Dinner is barbecued chicken, served with heaped plates of rice, crispy shards of tahdigh, dainty dishes of pickles and salad, fresh herbs, and roast tomatoes, all washed down with the ubiquitous doogh.
Over more fruit for dessert, I am interrogated by Sanaz’s curious uncle about the ways of the rest of the world: Do we have fat women in other countries? (The women in Iran, he earnestly complains, are so fat. He has clearly never been to middle America.) How much does meat cost in New Zealand? How much does a teacher earn? How much does a flight there cost? (Money is a hot topic with many Iranians, and the answers I provide never please.) Sanaz rescues me to show me photographs of herself—mostly modelling shots (she aspires to be an actress and has already participated in a movie about Luristan), in several of which her nose-job plaster is proudly displayed.
The next morning, after a breakfast of albaloo (sour cherry) jam with bread and cheese, Sanaz loads me down with lokme (snack foods or “little bites”) and gifts of scarves and nail polish, then whisks me off for a grand tour of Khorramabad—a Sassanian-era stone bridge where a father and son are fishing; an ancient tower; a traditional house with dusty displays of Lori handiworks; the city’s magnificent Falak-ol-Aflak castle—before placing me, with heartfelt entreaties for my swift return, in a savari (shared inter-city taxi) to Borujerd, Luristan’s second city.
East from Khorramabad, through the region’s endless hills, Borujerd is less overtly Lorish than the capital—less dominated, that is, by ethnic Lors (“Borujerd is a little Paris, we always say,” a local tells me at some stage, referencing the city’s cosmopolitan mix. The comparison is a slight stretch). But despite these diluted demographics, Borujerd is not devoid of regional spirit. Traffic islands are decorated with traditional Lorish drinking vessels on a monumental scale (pitchers, samovars, flasks), and the atmospheric old town retains a particular flavor: well-preserved historic houses demonstrate what life was like for the city’s ruling clans in the Qajar period, while several of the city’s ancient mosques are breathtaking in their stark, balanced beauty. The bronzes that attracted Stark to Luristan in the 1930s were produced in the Iron Age, but local craftsmen are still famed for their delicate metalwork and can be seen in their workshops, bowed over bowls and trays, painstakingly etching out designs.
I am lucky enough to be staying with a family, and am swiftly embraced by their extended clans. In the Iranian way, every meal becomes an occasion, and I am served an array of delicacies: chicken poached in a tart, well-spiced yoghurt sauce; a delicious, meat-studded herbed rice served with sweet-sour pickled garlic, black with age (seven years in the pickling jar); tangy homemade yoghurt; faludeh (iced vermicelli noodles soaked in albaloo syrup) and abgoosht (a lamb and tomato stew spiked with lime and turmeric and thickened with chickpeas and hearty sticks of potato). Fresh fruit and vegetables—deep purple figs, succulent nectarines, tart plums and crisp baby cucumbers—are always on hand for snacking. We sleep on the balcony every night, with the full moon tracing a path across a sky bordered by mountains.
One day, I go for a morning hike through these farm-strewn nearby hills with a group of older Borujerdis. On the lower slopes we pass apple and walnut orchards. As we gain altitude the vegetation thins, and we come across somaq (sumac) bushes, blackberry brambles and spindly mountain fig trees; wild peppermint (pune) grows abundantly along the riverbank. Hiking in Iran, it seems, is as much an excuse for a picnic as anything else. We stop several times for food, and pass many families lighting fires for tea, as we wind up the river-valley to a plateau strewn with nut-orchards. A farmer drives a laden-down mule in the distance as we drink water from a spring, before descending into a village famed for its green beans and pickled cucumbers.
I have to wrench myself away from Borujerd, having become very comfortably ensconced in family life, for the short trip north (through golden hills punctuated by green and brown stripes of farmland, the descending sun shooting silver shafts of light through grey cloud) to Hamadan. Ecbatana, as the town was known in antiquity (and how I, with my studies in classical history, always mentally refer to it), looks not at all like it did in the time of Alexander, having been destroyed multiple times during successive invasions and finally re-developed in the 1920s. In a pleasant park, a lumpy block of stone (supposedly the remnants of a huge stone lion carved on Alexander’s orders to commemorate the death of his lover, Hephaistion) perches on a monumental plinth, young Iranians exercising experimentally on outdoor gym equipment nearby.
A little way south is the mausoleum of a man who would have applauded even such desultory attempts to exercise. BuAli Sina (known to most of the world as Avicenna) was buried in Hamedan after a life of itinerant thinking: a career that incorporated medicine, philosophy, poetry, and physics. The building housing his remains and commemorating his works is relatively modern—completed in 1954—and its structure represents the different pillars of learning BuAli Sina had mastered.
Sitting in the pleasant park outside, I quickly scroll through a Wikipedia digest of Avicenna’s thought. It soon struck me both that the ancient doctor had very sensible tips regarding general health (avoid sleeping during the day, sensibly regulate your diet, try to take some exercise), and that modern Iranians often flagrantly disregard this advice. But they also undeniably eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the Hamadan produce bazaar is a particularly thriving and lovely example of the genre. My mosaferkhane is located immediately beside it. Having climbed to the roof, I watch the sun set behind distant mountains, the energetic shouts of peach and eggplant vendors drifting insistently up to my perch.
Heading west, I stop briefly at Bisotun, an archaeological find of great historic significance but limited current viewing potential. The bas-relief carvings, cut high into a chalky rock face, were made by Darius, King of Kings, in 520 BC to commemorate a military victory. The self-congratulatory cuneiform inscription, recorded in three different languages (Elamite, Akkadian and Old Persian)—a fastidiousness that allowed scholars to eventually crack the cuneiform code—accompanies a scene of Darius lording over his defeated foes and greeting a Zoroastrian angel (farohar). Both the writing and the relief are currently almost obscured from view by scaffolding, leaving visitors to peer up from a great distance. Luckily the setting is quite impressive: a soaring cliff rearing up from a wide plain, with a beautiful Safavid-era caravanserai at its base.
A short ride further west brings me to Kermanshah, a sprawling city on the pilgrimage trail that snakes from Iran to the Shia holy sites in Iraq. My mosaferkhane is filled with extended family groups carting large amounts of luggage, presumably on a slow pilgrims progress to Najaf or Karbala. In the morning, as I plough my way through a plate of kharpoze, one of the matriarchs of the pilgrim families chats loudly with the mosaferkhane manager about Iraq: Saddam and Daesh (Isis) crop up, but the woman seems relatively unconcerned about the instability of her destination.
Such visitors render Kermanshah, already a city that combines large Kurdish and Lorish populations, an Iranian melting pot. The central city—packed with felafel vendors, stores selling nan berenji (saffron rice-flour cookies) and fig sharbat—boasts a beautiful Hosseinieh (a shrine-cum-theatre where plays commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hossein are acted out) and a bazaar, stuffed with gold jewellery and glittering fabrics, that slopes sharply up from the main drag.
At lunch, I am befriended by Ali, my restaurant proprietor, who speaks excellent English and soon settles himself beside me on the takht (raised wooden platform, covered in carpet, and acting as both chair and table) with a cup of his special brew—tea perfumed with cardamom, saffron and rosewater—and an elaborately thought-out qalyan. Ali explains to me that the dried leaves of tobacco, sourced from Shiraz, are washed thoroughly with Persian tea, then shredded and soaked in rosewater. Meanwhile, the water that bubbles away at the base of the pipe is ice-cold and flavoured with bidmeshk (a herbal distillation of pussy willow). We puff away, speaking of sanctions and Iranian ingenuity and Enrique Iglesias, until late in the afternoon.