Marzieh Avari, 59, is the sole resident of the abandoned village of Aliabad (ALI-awe-bawd), inside the Naybandan (nai-ban-DON) Wildlife Refuge in central Iran. The nearest population is in Naiband (NAI-band), 35km away by road or 15 km on foot through the wilderness.
Her home sits in the shadow of a disintegrating 400-year-old caravanserai and the 3,009-meter Naiband Peak, overlooking breathtaking views of the infamous Dasht-e Lut, known for being one of the hottest places on Earth.
From sunrise to sunset she tends to a few dozen sheep and goats, with the help of a daughter and 14-year-old Ali Mohammadzadeh. There’s no electricity or telephone. Water comes from a well.
In her own words:
“I come to Aliabad three months of the year because this is where I lived with my husband. Here my heart lights up because this is land I walked with my husband.
“I constantly remember him. He was totally illiterate but he was kind. Never ever spoke harshly to me. Never ordered me around. Never criticized me. Taught me to do as much good to others I possibly can.
“I was 13 when I married him. He was 18 years my senior. I brought him two sons and four daughters. One died at childbirth. Got about a dozen grandchildren now. The oldest one is over 30.
“I didn’t ask his age before I married him. At first, I didn’t like him. I refused to even sign the marriage certificate. The police chief [who registered the marriage] signed for me.
“He died 27 years ago, the night after one of my daughters got married. I cried all night. So many busloads of people came to his funeral, the town people were surprised.
“He never married another woman. Some men who have the means marry more than one woman. But God has given you one pillow to put under your head. Doesn’t your head hurt when you put multiple pillows under your head?
“I went to school until fifth grade. I was still in school when I got married. When I went to the city for my final exams, they said: ‘Look, what pretty eyebrows Naiband girls have.’ I didn’t tell them I was already married [and that was why the eyebrows were trimmed].
“All my kids are married, thanks to God. And I gave them jahiziye [household items bought by the bride’s parents to give the newly married a head start]. I bought on loan and paid little by little. But I paid it all off and sent them on their way.
“As long as you’re alive, you should thank God with every breath. He is in the heavens but also everywhere else.
“The pictures you just took of me – God was there, looking down.”