“My duty is well-defined. I exist to serve my wife. No one loves his wife as much as I do.”
I met Asgar Azizi all of ten minutes ago and already he is waxing poetic for the four visitors squatted before him.
The females in our group burst out laughing. One of them demands proof. “Talk is cheap,” she says.
Azizi doesn’t skip a beat: “I am declaring my love before her and she is silent. Doesn’t silence reflect agreement?”
All eyes turn to Kayhan, Azizi’s wife. She only giggles, her eyes twinkling. Yeah, she is in agreement. These two love each other and don’t hesitate to profess it.
And suddenly I realize I am very happy being here, of all places, in the home of a butcher in a tiny village in one of the least visited regions of Iran: Lorestan.
I am trying out what some call “alternative tourism”, touted as the fastest growing form of tourism. It comes in many flavors, but all involve travel that is personal and authentic and encourages interaction with the local environment and people.
Often alternative tourism is about locals hosting in their homes and serving as guides into their culture with home-prepared food, local trips, visits to homes of relatives. With the Azizi family, it’s obvious we’ve hit the jackpot. They are stubbornly social and transparent about everything, from their personal lives to the politics of being part of one of hundreds of sub-tribes that make up the ancient Lur people, the people of Lorestan.
I didn’t know it then that I would come to admire the unpretentious lives of Asgar and Kayhan and their children. Three days later I would drive back into the pollution and ruthless pace of Tehran with a heavy heart, after experiencing in Lorestan some remarkable examples of Iranian hospitality.
This late June day we left Tehran in the early morning hours, toward south, on the same bleak flat road taken by the vast majority of foreign tourists heading for the well-known sites of Isfahan and Shiraz.
But halfway to Isfahan, we take a right toward Saveh (famous for its unbelievably sweet melons, sold at the roadsides everywhere – we buy eight for the equivalent of $3 USD) and then Arak (infamous for industrial air pollution) and then unto Borujerd, the largest city of Lorestan.
Past Borujerd and a quick tour of its Jameh Mosque of Borujerd, the topography slowly turns undulant, first grassy hills dotted with occasional jagged rocks and the konar trees, a subspecies of the Diospyros. Then the plant coverage becomes denser and the hills gradually turn into ever larger rocky mountains. The flat areas along the road are covered with unirrigated wheat fields and herds of sheep and goats.
The sky is a gorgeous blue, dotted with fluffy clouds. The air is pure. As the road winds through the mountains, we face a picture-perfect scene at every turn, reminiscent of the southern Rockies of Colorado or northern Arizona.
And as drove deeper into Lorestan, we began seeing a new addition to the scenery: the summer camps of the Lurs who continue to live the nomadic life and their traditional black tents or siah-chadors. This is how the majority of Lurs lived, at least part of the year, only a few decades ago.
Besides me, there’s my wife, Saeideh, and our guide Ahmad Hosseini and wife Saba, both highly-educated 30-something Tehranis fluent in English. He has guided foreign tourists through Iran for 11 years.
When not getting out to shoot more pics of Saba, Ahmad tends to becomes animated when he explains why alternative tourism would do well in Iran.
“You know what many tourists tell us at the end their trips? They say, ‘Please don’t show me another mosque.’”
I know the feeling. I’ve said something similar about visiting cathedrals after a few days of being in Europe.
“But that’s exactly what every tour agency is giving the tourists over and over. You leave the hotel, go see another a mosque. Then you get into the bus and go to the next town, to lodge at another hotel and see another mosque.
“But when I bring tourists to people’s homes, when they get to know people personally and not just the hotel staff, that’s when they feel fulfilled. They thank me,” Ahmad says.
The Village Everyone Forgot
Kakareza is just a huddle of a few homes and farms next to the Karkheh river. Its claim to fame is a 94-year-old bridge, listed as a national monument because it’s the oldest bridge of this size that’s still functional – or so the locals claims – though the only traffic it handles now is just shepherds and farm animals leaving early for the mountains and returning at sunset.
There used to be four different villages nearby, each named some derivative of Karareza (kaka, Persian for brother, and Reza for Imam Reza) nearby, each home to a different sub-tribe of the Lur. But as with so many other villages in Iran, the other villages died out as people moved on to the cities.
When we arrived, 6.5 hours after leaving Tehran, we had planned to spend the day in the nearby historic town of Khorramabad. But Azizi would not have any of it. The Lur tradition, he declared over our objections, calls for him to treat us to a meal at his home before anything else could take place.
We ate skewers of chicken kabobs grilled over wood charcoal, a vegetable stew and piles of saffron rice, followed by mint-spiced dough, a yogurt drink, which brings on sleepiness.
It was feast I hadn’t expected. The Lurs “genuinely become happy to see guests arrive,” Ahmad said, “because they really truly enjoy watching people enjoy themselves.
“I’ve known a lot of westerners who’ve been all over the world and have seen all kinds of hospitality but it’s not until they get to Iran that they truly comprehend the true nature of hospitality.
“In Lorestan, that hospitality is on display like no other place in Iran. For the Lurs, it’s like a duty; it’s in their blood.
Not surprisingly, after the heavy meal another Iranian tradition followed: the afternoon nap. We went to sleep on the same Persian rugs we had eaten on, there are no beds in the traditional Iranian home. Just wall to wall Persian rugs in every room. You just plunk down with a pillow.
When we woke, we thought we’d have the rest of the day to ourselves. Poor chance of that. The family marched in with bowls of fruit and cut slices of melons, as well as salty pumpkin seeds.
Now, as the sun begins to dim, we’re sitting on rugs on a giant terrace, sipping tea and watching the animals come home over the bridge.
The bleat of the lamb and the kid mix with the whisper of the river in the deep ravine below. On the other side, the land swells up into more mountains.
I asked myself if we would’ve been happier visiting another mosque. Yeah, I guess Ahmad has a point.
But I realize it’s the Azizi family that makes this visit most intriguing. Asgar, tall and lanky, has a habit of sitting squat on the carpet holding his 4-year-old son, Upteen, repeatedly kissing and caressing him.
I thought to myself how different he is from the stereotype of the Iranian man prevalent in the West: selfish, macho, even violent – thanks to movies like Not Without My Daughter.
The boy’s attention, though, is entirely on the new visitors. “Why are you here?” he asks often. We could be the first non-family visitors he’s ever seen.
One other unexpected thing caught my attention: in the kitchen, I saw the following English sentence pasted on the wall: “Paradise is where I am”
Closer to sunset, Asgar takes us to see the neighborhood, which is when I learn more about extreme expressions of Lur generosity. Separate article here.
Eventually, just before sunset, we end up sitting picnicking next to the river, in an area called Kaman and dig into a melon. The river, flowing from the newly melted snow from the mountains above, is icy cold.
Any place in Iran is not far from a historical site and so after a breakfast of dates and locally produced dairy, bread and eggs,
we took another drive through the mountains to Khorramabad, the capital of the Lur people and home to the 700-year-old Falak-ol-Aflak Castle (which itself is a replacement of earlier monuments going back to the 2500-year-old Achaemenian era).
The castle houses the Iran’s largest ethnography museum, filled with antiquities and exquisite life-size dioramas of how the nomadic Lurs live. See Gallery.
The museum is so large and well-done because “Lurs care so much about their history and customs,” Ahmad explained.
We viewed depiction of the Lur wedding (giant, multi-day feasts) and the Lur funeral, which also involves dancing because the Lur celebrate the loved-one’s life and God’s will.
We head out to the Bishe Waterfall, a two-hour drive through the mountains. The two hours turned into four and then five because we kept stopping to photographs the wheat fields and then the rocky mountains into which the road ascended. We visited the town of Bishe where trains from Tehran stop on the way to the Persian Gulf region.
And then we stop at the summer encampment of a nomadic tribe. The men still hadn’t returned from tending to the herd, but the women welcomed us into the black, hand-woven tents.
Life here is not easy, one woman told us. So much to take care of, the chickens, the milking of the cows, the cooking, the children. The men have it easy, she said. “They come home and don’t lift a finger. They just want to be served like kings,” she said.
Back at the Azizi home, another feast awaited us, this time skewers of charcoal-grilled ground veal and mutton.
Again Asgar challenges my stereotypes of the Iranian man. He and 14-year-old son Aryian did most of the cooking, furiously tending to the Persian manghal of wood coals.
Azizi then proceeded to set us straight on the nomadic life: “The woman’s work is never ending and is never noticed unless it is not done. If the dishes are done, you don’t notice dirty dishes. It’s only when something is not done that you notice.
“Yes, she works all day and does all kinds of little but critical work that collectively seems to not to amount to a whole lot.
“But consider what the man goes through. He had to leave with the herd at sunrise and spend all day outside, under the elements, walking and watching and worrying all day. When he gets home at dusk, he is totally drained. Every single daylight hour he was working and now all he can do is to go sleep until sunrise.
“It’s a terribly difficult life for the nomads. But it’s hard for both the men and the women. It’s just that you notice the man’s work more. He’s got all these animals to show for. The woman, if she’s done her job, can only show the same tent, exactly as it were the day before.
Another giant breakfast of local dairy – nothing is pasteurized around here – and bread before we packed for trip home. By now, we felt part of the family. Upteen kissed me as i promised to visit again.
We drove home sad to leave so much wealth behind: the mountains, the crisp air, and kindness of a Lur family. Was it better than visiting another mosque? Yeah, infinitely more rewarding.
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Also published on Medium.
Also published on Medium.