The old man of Kalardasht
From The Valleys of the Assassins by Freya Stark (first published in 1936 by John Murray Publishers Ltd; 1986 Century Hutchinson Ltd., London). Stark traveled to Iran in the early 1930s. This slelection relates to the Caspian region.
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... There is a remarkable feeling of old and prosperous civilization in the plain of Kalar Dasht. The buildings especially make one think that the people there are still doing in an incomplete way what once they knew how to do much better. The stucco ornaments and careful ceilings and pleasant wooden porticoes all speak of a "delayed gentility"...
Lahu: Our hosts were of the poorer sort, and our coming to their house was no end of an event. No sooner had we reached it that the younger woman volunteered to show me the view south of the village, where the Dakulad comes out of a forest bay, as it were, into the plain: this was merely as to show me off to the inhabitants, as I soon discovered... just as the distinguished visitor in an English village may be taken to call on people who will be "so interested to meet him," regardless of his feelings.
There was in all this a lot of drama which I missed. I noticed that while I was induced to linger in some places with an obvious effort to make me show off nicely, I was hurried past others inhabited, as I learnt that evening, by Ali Ilahis, whom the Kurds consider unbelievers. One would think that in a prosperous district full of villages, it would be possible so to arrange things that one would not have to live door to door with one's enemies; the mere discomfort of lifelong hatred would be too much for our weaker European nerves. The East does not feel this, or perhaps looks on the excitement of a next-door enemy as something to enliven life: you will find people in one place for generations and centuries, closely united as oil and vinegar in one cruet, and as incapable of mixing.
When we got back to the house, I found that a cloud had fallen over the geniality of the party. It was the fascination of either 'Aziz or The Refuge of Allah that was to blame. The master of the house had been asking his wife what she meant by inviting strange men. He would have nothing to do with us, and my escort, with very black brows, were preparing to camp in the courtyard. The blot of inhospitality was threatening our host, and through him the whole village, and perturbed Elders went to and fro between the parties, trying to save the name of Lahu in the mouths of strangers.
I sat aloof, on a sort of raised dais in the living room, counting the family belongings hung from rafters in the ceiling and watching the women, now thoroughly cowed and flustered, as they held up bits of chicken for my supper against the flame of an open fire. At the other end of the room, where there was another dais for the men, the peace overtures were being made. 'Aziz was accepting them with a haughty condescension quite remarkable in the mild little good-natured man.
The room had no windows, but round holes about a foot in diameter here and there: glass is not known in these hills. The inner room, into which the family retire when the winter cold really begins, had no window at all, but an earthenware oven let down below the level of the floor, which they fill with embers and cover with quilt and sit there with their legs tucked into the warmth and nothing to do but talk the winter through.
In spite of various dark sayings about the danger from Ali Ilahis, I refused to sleep indoors, and had my bed put up near the cows and mules in the moonlight. There I retired, after an evening of conversation with an old man called Said Ibrahim, who came to distract my attention from the discourtesy of our host and so to discuss Persian history.
He told me that the plain of Kalar still belongs to its peasant owners, and is more contented than the lands of Kujur and Khorramabad east and west, whose lord is the Shah. He was a charming old man, with that interest in life and affairs which distinguishes the hillman or tribesman from the peasant, and learning was to him a real divinity, however small may have been the crumbs thereof which could be gathered in Kalar Dasht.
If I were asked to enumerate the pleasures of travel, this would be one of the greatest among them -- that so often and so unexpectedly you meet the best in human nature, and seeing it so by surprise and often with a most improbable background, you come, with a sense of pleasant thankfulness, to realize how widely scattered in the world are goodness and courtesy and the love of immaterial things, fair blossoms found in every climate, on every soil. Read more First of 5 pages