On my numerous visits to Iran during the last decade I have rarely come across nomads. Once, when being on trips from the southern city of Shiraz to Pasargadae and the Margoon waterfalls in the Zagros mountains, my young companion pointed to migrating ‘gypsies’ as the Qashqa’i people were sometimes called by ordinary Iranians. They were on the move north to escape from the scorching heat during the summer months, I was told. It wasn’t clear whether he wanted to express his respect for the free will of the free people in a theocratic dictatorship who won’t be in need for the accomplishments of modern civilization; or rather a slight contempt.
What I came across of, however, were their beautiful products, textiles and rugs, which frequently added to my growing collection of tribal art of the Middle East. In retrospect, one had to concede that my craving for high quality pieces only intensified when returns to the Middle East became more difficult. And, as I was told recently, those pieces won’t be found anymore in Persia these days. Nomadic life in the Islamic Republic of Iran of the 21st century may not have a future, though the tide of events (conquests, wars, famine and plagues) has only proved the resilience of strong people living in harmony and peace with Nature.
I have recently written about the frontier nomads of the Shahsevan in Azerbaijan and their beautiful soumakh weavings used for mafrashs and khorjins, larger and smaller bags and cradles, a sort of furniture of people on the move. People who hardly exist anymore. Their colorful and ornamental, painstaking weavings is the art of their womenfolk. They are rare nowadays and highly sought-after collectibles since they are pretty small and often wonderfully composed of geometric and/or highly symbolic designs which may or may not be open to endless interpretations about their meanings.
Richard Tapper, an emeritus professor of Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, is an expert of the Shahsavan and has written a political and social history of these frontier nomads in the northwestern corner of Iran. He and Jon Thomson, a visiting fellow at St. Cross College, University of Oxford, and Director of the Beattie Archive in the Department of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, have collected a large number of essays of the different nomadic tribes in Iran which are supplemented with wonderful photographs of the people by Nasrollah Kasraian. They were ‘taken’ as Thompson explains in the preface, during the 1980s, a time when Iran was in a murderous war with arch foe Saddam Hussein, then dictator in Iraq.
“We speak of ‘taking’ a photograph, and faced by a camera, many people intuitively sense that the photographer is taking something which in essence is for his own use. Even though a promise may be made to send prints – a promise often broken – the feeling remains that there is a predatory aspect to his work. This is especially the case when pictures are taken without a person’s permission or knowledge. The situation becomes abundantly clear to anyone foolish enough to use a Polaroid camera in the field. As soon as the subjects discover that they can get hold of the image and keep it for themselves, and furthermore they can control the image they present, all resistance vanishes and the clamour to be photographed is unending.”
The pictures are indeed breathtaking. My first impression was that they mainly portray old, middle-aged and young women with their children and grandchildren, not men: beautiful women with striking features. It is mentioned in the book and crystal clear when watching the pictures: “[they] are visibly tougher and freer than their settled sisters, yet their life consists of back-breaking work fetching huge loads of fuel and water and long hours at the loom.” One may instantly feel a desire to get to know them personally, talk with them and share so different experiences in life.
In his political and social study Richard Tapper documents also some voices of the Shahsevan. He recorded a few stories of elders of the Geyikli tribe in 1966. Here comes an example:
̉Emran Imani of Geykili on Nurollah Bey Qoja-BeyliIn the time of Naser ad-Din Shah, the Shah summons Nurollah Bey Qoja-Beyli to Tehran to account for his misdeed. In those days there were no government representatives in Azarbaijan, though there were in Araq. People say to Nurollah Bey, ‘The Shah may have summoned you to Tehran, but don’t go, he’ll kill you; he wants you to account for your misdeeds.’ ‘Even if the Shah has summoned Nurollah Bey Qoja-Beyli to Tehran to die’, he tells them, ‘Nurollah Bey will not pay any attention to your warnings; I am going.’So he takes one servant and sets off from Moghan for Tehran. In those days there were no cars nor even proper roads, so they go by horse; and it takes them twenty days or a month to get there. He arrives in Tehran and rests for a little, then after a couple of days he has a letter written to the Shah, as follows: ‘God save Your Majesty! Nurollah Bey Qoja-Beyli, whom you sent for is here, come to your feet, ready, at your service.’Taking the letter, he approaches the inner court and says to the sentry, ‘May I have permission to deliver a letter to the Shah?’ The sentry tells him, ‘I’m afraid I can’t give you permission, but if you’ll hand me the letter I’ll take it and deliver it to His Majesty myself.’ But it seems that the Shah has heard this conversation, since he immediately orders the sentry to let Nurollah Bey come in.He passes through the courtyard door and enters the inner court. The Shah comes out onto the balcony, and Nurollah Bey finds himself in the royal presence. He takes out the letter and presents it to the Shah, who reads it and sees that this is indeed the Nurollah Bey whom he had summoned on such-and-such a date and at such-and-such a time.‘Nurollah Bey’, he says, ‘Weren’t you frightened of coming here to see me?’‘No’, replies he, ‘God save Your Majesty, I wasn’t frightened.’The Shah is most surprised at this boldness, and goes on: ‘Nurollah Bey, I’m going to ask you three questions; if your answers are satisfactory, I shan’t harm you; but if not, I shall have one of your wrists cut of and one of your eyes put out.’Well, if a man gets such an order from the Shah, he must be very bold indeed to remain unafraid! Nurollah Bey says, ‘God save Your Majesty, go ahead.’‘Nurollah Bey’, says the Shah, ‘Where is strength?’‘Sire’, replies Nurollah Bey, ‘Strength is in gun-powder!’‘Bravo, Nurollah Bey!’ cries the Shah. ‘Nurollah Bey’, he goes on.‘Sire?’ replies Nurollah Bey.‘Nurollah Bey, where is pleasure?’‘Sire’, replies Nurollah Bey, ‘Pleasure is in meat!’‘Bravo, Nurollah Bey!’ cries the Shah. ‘Splendid! Nurollah Bey’, he continues, ‘which are prettier, your women or ours?’‘Sire’, replies Nurollah Bey, ‘Our women are prettier!’‘Eh?!’ cries the Shah.‘Yes’, says Nurollah Bey.‘How’s that?’ asks the Shah.‘Because, Sire’, explains Nurollah Bey, ‘If it rained cats and dogs for twenty-four hours and we put all those women out in the rain, then the rain would wash the rouge and powder off your women, and the dirt off ours, and then you’d see which of them were prettier!’‘Bravo, bravo!’ cries the Shah. ‘Nurollah Bey, I shall grant you a boon, just ask me whatever you like.’At first Nurollah Bey – who was very smart, a really cunning fellow – says, ‘Sire, all I want is good health for Your Majesty.’‘No, Nurollah Bey, you must ask me for something.’‘Sire’, says Nurollah Bey, ‘Since you’re so kind as to grant me this boon, give me all the land between Taulan and Lakiwan for my horses to graze.’ (This was Taulan on the Dara-Yort, and as far as Arshaq.)So the Shah writes him out a Royal Farman, and gives it to him, saying, ‘Nurollah Bey, take your leave if you want to, it’s up to you; if you like, you may stay here.’Nurollah Bey takes another few days’ rest, then comes back to see the Shah and ask permission to leave. He enters the Royal Presence once more and says, ‘Sire, your servant requests permission to take his leave.’The Shah replies, ‘You're very welcome, Nurollah Bey, have a good journey and come again.’At the time Nurollah Bey was paramount chief of all the Shahsevan, the Shahsevan delegate, as it were. The thirty villages he acquired are still in the hands of his descendants; the Shah had no idea where ‘the land between Taulan and Lakiwan’ was, he thought it must be one village, or something like that. Nurollah Bey was a very clever chap, and scored quite a triumph there, getting the Shah to write him a Farman for all that land.”
First published at Freelance.