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The International Writers Magazine: Iran

Into Dasht-e Kavir: Notes from the Great Salt Desert
Steven Tizzard
In Iran it is the year 1388, spring, a new year, the month of Farvardin. It is the celebration of Norouz, a Zoroastrian festival whose precise origins are lost, an unrecorded mix of myth and whisper from the time of the Prophet Zarathustra, from a time beyond.


Norouz has survived despite being usurped in this land by Islam, its heir; despite being turned outlaw during the most vigorous days of the Revolution. This protean reverence to the vernal equinox blossoms again, the most important holiday in ancient Persia and modern Iran, a rush of commerce and tourism. And so the awakening desert offers a refuge from the mob: the suffocation of gazers, greeters, new acquaintances.

With time before the two o'clock bus left Esfahan, hungry, I set off into the bus station. A face North Sea European watches me with Semitic eyes of onyx; a short man with delicate hair, dressed in tight stone-wash jeans, a belt with an elaborate Zoroastrian buckle, a slick shirt, a silver chain. He approaches. I recognise him from a bus ride earlier that same day, watching me then. He recognises my lack of direction and leads me to a fast food stand and we introduce ourselves.
He says, My name is  Y… . I am a rapper.  I live in Berlin.
Sprechen Sie Deutsch? I enquire.
No, no, no. My name is Y…..  Say it
I make an attempt.
Good.  He smiles.
Falafel bounce and fizz in the oil of ruby and copper, the cook crams a bun with salad.  As I'm handed two sandwiches, Y….  leaves with the flourish of a Shakespearean messenger.  Returning to the bus and my companions, it dawns on me that this guy could be a famous Farsi rapper I had read about.

A week later I see him again in Esfahan standing in the doorway of his father's dimly-lit men's clothing shop and follow him past suits of grey and brown hanging to the counter.  Zoroastrian first, Muslim second like many Iranians, he talks in admiration of the last Shah, shows a head-shaking hatred of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. He asks how I can help him against the regime, pleads for me to put him in contact with the British Embassy. His tone reduces to a hiss as he notices a stern face peering through a chardor cover; one hand clutches the black fabric beneath her chin, the other determines the quality of the suit material between thumb and forefinger. After attending to her, he withdraws with sacred reverence a photo from a leather pouch. With the Zayandeh River in the background, he stands with a woman, a former wife. Their expressions are neutral, a mood difficult to gauge. This was a contract marriage, a six month deal, as is sometimes the custom in this country where living in sin can be a capital crime. They are no longer together. He shows me another mobile phone clip involving nudity, and asks thirstily: You have in your country? I make my excuses and leave before I become an unwitting accessory to treason, immorality, or worse. This eccentric cameo is almost too contrived to be real. He is definitely not the real rapper, just an imposter, but I wonder who he is really; why he is playing a game of make believe. I walk along quickly as I feel him calling after me. Looking back, there is no sign of him, just a shopping street scene of Esfahan.

The Mercedes Benz, painted flaking red and cream with aluminium trim and zigzags of Farsi, is a veteran vehicle, well-taken care of, panting along the asphalt road into the Dasht-e Kavir, along a caravan route, tributary of the Silk Road that heads all through this Great Salt Desert to Mashhad, onwards further to Xian. I stare at the barren oatmeal, forbidding life, eroded by the elements, its own self-loathing nature. One sixth of the Iran is desert. The driver's young assistant lunges a pack at each passenger: dry wafer biscuit, hard boiled sweet, a foil bag of juice to harpoon with a straw, a plastic cup for water. The standard ration of bus trips in Iran. We supplement this with small tubs of paneer, stale nan falling like papyrus over our knees. Every seat is taken. It is a cramped, jolting ride. Night settles quickly greying and submerging the fulvous dust in dream-like mystery, the sultana hills become monstrous shadows. I sleep and wake to see a lightening storm raging over the east, over jagged hills an electric sky.

women travellers Getting off in the town of Khoor brings  confusion as a small crowd of the curious surround, trying to be helpful, allies of the road, passersby, everyone; bags are urgently unloaded – not because departure is imminent, but because the driver and his assistant want to make the most of the rest time before departure.

On the pavement with me are my New Zealand girlfriend and a Slovenian couple: Borut and Ivana, both towering lean and tanned from months in the Middle East, months of dust and sun.  A woman in a small shop knows a fragmentary English and there is rumour of a hotel in town. A man takes us in his car a short distance away down shadowy alleyways into a courtyard, surprising a group of men. He waits while we agree a price for a room: money is not the issue, language is. The storm catches us, the first wave of atmospheric assault, a flash of threatening palm trees, triffid-like, ghostly houses, blacked out windows, and white tridents, then blankness and the sound of thunder, wind, rain.

Early start, an indigo morning, headlights smear the adobe walls before abandoning them in the dark until we reach the main street and pick up speed passing the pink shop-fronts; pink is the mayor's favourite colour, the paint his gift, his directive. My friend M. drives us ten, twenty, thirty kilometres at speed in his American four-by-four, the ink sky diluted by grey clouds denying the sunrise. We stop by the road side. The momentous rain of last night is evident. The salt encrusted desert, ordinarily a mosaic of saline veins, is transformed into solid bog, brown waves stopped in their tracks. Huge puddles, rivers that do not flow, only seep. The mountains are hazy cocoa beneath a lavender sky beginning to brighten. At intervals the oil lorries blare by, horns wailing; chunky cream-coloured Paykan cars with over-loaded roofs rush. The return drive is silent.

Months before, Khoor's four hundred year old oasis pride was an orchard of date palms. Children fooling with fire brought disaster and everything was lost in a single night. The clean up is taking place, a yellow bulldozer, two steam rollers, clearing the final debris, charcoal twists of logs on russet mud as puddles glint.

A mosque, with the ribbed frame of an unfinished cupola, lords over the town. From a distance it reminds me of the balsa wood model of a galleon and competes for dominance with a wind tower. Khoor is a clutter of walls and blocks, a jumble of palm trees, hidden gardens. We walk through what seems to be an abandoned edge of town along narrow irrigation channels, the vital arteries. There is a small bath house, green water a dockland dank, red spray swirls on the walls.

Given last night's storm, it is no surprise. The road to Garmeh is ripped in two, lost in the dirt and stones, impassable. Washed away, but the water is gone. Onlookers stand not quite comprehending, but in slow awe drive on, seek another way.

Garmeh As do we.  Mentioned in Safarnama, the poet Nair Khusraw's Book of Travels, Garmeh is old, wise, nurturing human life for several thousand years, staying in reach but out of touch. It is time for tea in a 400 year old house, a honeycomb of secret stone passages.

We drink cross-legged on a carpeted platform overlooking the garden of date palms and pomegranate trees. Nearby is a mud citadel of the Sassanian period, old even when Khusraw stopped in this haven on his meandering seven year pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca; ruined steadily over one and a half millennia. There is a place of worship, an elevated chair for the mullah, all built of sand. Camels in a pen limber over, hopeful of food, disgruntled that they receive none. Like Khoor there are scorched trees, ashen stumps with palm leaf stalks black and flocculent like giant spiders' legs. Heavy winter snow rotted the trees, caused disease that could be purged only by flames. It is a brief walk to the town's water source, a stream streaking through powdery soil from a hidden spring in a hill of paprika. Tiny translucent fish spark beneath the shallow surface.

At M.'s family home back in Khoor we are greeted and seated on the sofa, handed scalding glasses of tea, proffered ghand. Guests are a gift from God and we are accorded this honour. The women sit along the far wall of the living room or work in the kitchen. There are sisters and cousins, mothers and aunts of every generation, who fuss, and busy themselves, share private jokes, and sometimes sit just to watch us. It is hard not to stare back, as they adhere to the dress code of Islam, the hijab reminiscent of a nun's wimple. The face is our focus, the only measure of personality when spoken language is lost. I seek the family resemblances, try to make connections. One of M.'s uncles, a teacher who understands English, talks to us, small talk. I answer politely, questions about my job and how much I earn. On the living room wall are pictures of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the wily, grinning President of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, the spiritual and supreme leader of Iran, whose soft bespectacled eyes and white beard belie a steely devotion to the ideals of 1979, a ruthlessness that matches his predecessor.
M. asks softly: What do you think of him? Ahmadinejad.
I ponder and take the diplomatic approach, a partial truth: I don't know much about him.

I don’t know much about M. either but over the next weeks I discover that he is scholarly, a progressive; a bearded wise man in the making, a preacher of peace. He is slow to fury, his only intolerance is intolerance in others. His eyes crackle as he tells of his Austrian friend Angelika being denied access the shrine of Iman Reza in Mashhad: He said, he would not let her in because she is foreigner, she is dirty. What does that mean? This man is a disgrace. He is the dirty one. And I tell him this. I get very angry and I shout at him. You are not a good Iranian, not a good Muslim. And I tell her, you go in, and she does.

The meal is served on the floor on a cloth as is customary. M.'s grandfather and uncles speak in the local language of the desert, an ancient Zoroastrian murmur that fades with each generation, between bites of barbecued chicken, legs and wings saffron-coloured, white rice, salad of chervil, coriander, wild mint and rocket, yoghurt and nan; betweengulps of fizzy drinks or doogh.Afterwards, outside on the concrete forecourt next to the house, Farsi techno clamours from the speakers of a car radio. The women of the family form a semi-circle of clapping. The men dance, perform subconsciously, limbs fed by the quivering sounds, a rhythm of upper bodies, arms and high up hands undulating, hips and leg motion understated, ingrained. Their movements are swift yet somehow linger, luxuriate with Turkic hints, Egypt, and secret casbah dens. Pulled into the scene to join, Borut and I resist politely, but succumbing is easier, refusal no option, too ungracious. We are clumsy, causing merriment that is only gently mocking and we laugh at ourselves. The other men encourage, dance up close to us, almost flaunting. We try to mirror, but only parody. The women, our own included, continue to laugh, heads back, continue to clap. Somehow it reminds me of Purim parties in Israel. Next day, S?zdah be-dar is the thirteenth and final day of Norouz.

Tower In the desert, by a breeze block house close to a marble quarry, before another feast, there is more dancing. It is the turn of the young women and girls of the family. The male relatives and friends including M., have to go away. They cannot watch. But we are permitted the privilege of remaining; voyeurs of the reserved motions, the concentrating smiles, the understated fun.

We head further into the desert as if seeking its heart. There is an anomaly of grassy dunes, stubble of green, steppe-like, and there are camels, fields of sprouting wheat, a startled sand grouse leaping from a tree. Lonesome living in a mess on a hillside, a shepherd, with a scrawl of red hair, tough cobalt eyes and corpulent Tajik cheeks, sells goat's milk to us. We press on to Mesr, a cluster of small adobe houses which, like Garmeh, turns to the trickle of foreign tourists, mostly French, for sustenance: offering camel treks and dune surfing and camp fire nights beneath the Milky Way. Another town, another stop. M. buys a scorpion and a small brown snake from a child then leads us to a guest house for tea with the owner, his friend, and other travellers: Ahbed, a white-robed caricature of an Esfahani T.E. Lawrence with perfect accent of the North London streets, despite having never left Iran; Louis, a young travelling man of France, a Nicholas Bouvier, and his compatriot, Clotilde, another scholar and teacher, a few days later our hostess in a flat around the corner from Naghsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan; more than a year later, after a show trial and verdict of guilt, she returns home, meets Sarkozy. By now the shadows are booming, the rocky hills turning bronze. It is the time of day where everything is shadow or light over the endless dust and stones and mugwort, everything takes sides.
© Steven Tizzard  June 2010

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