My Birthday in Iran — Legendary Hospitality
On the day before my birthday, we were in the city of Kermān, very close to one of Iran’s major deserts. There we stayed with Minā, one of Fleur’s close friends from university days. She opened her home to us warmly. She and her sister Homā showed us around the sights of Kermān, including ancient buildings, the peaceful Friday mosque, a huge and lively bazaar and several Sufi gardens.
The two sisters are a real contrast. Minā talks fast, and is frequently on her cell phone. Homā is one of the most easy-going people I’ve ever met — and very well organized and thoughtful. Both partake of a quality of laid-backness that is said to be characteristic of Kermānis.
Homā told us there was something we must see, out in the desert. I couldn’t quite picture it — she described huge patterns in the sand, created by the wind and constantly shifting. Kaluts, they are called. The best time to see them is at sunrise, since that’s when the play of light and shadow is best.
The place is several hours drive from the city, so they had arranged a place for us to stay overnight.
Early in the evening we piled into Homā’s car, laden with food and camping gear. She drove us out through a valley and then up into the rocky mountains that separate Kermān from true desert. The rocks were reddish brown, and very jagged. At one point we went through a long tunnel. When we emerged, the scenery was very different — a big green valley opened before us. The weather became much warmer, and, as we descended, darkness fell. We were in Shahdād, a small city right on the edge of the desert, but still well supplied with water.
It took some time to find the caretaker who could open the gate to the place where we would stay — I still didn’t have an idea if we would sleep indoors or out. The wall was a high one, so there was nothing to see as we waited, but the scent of jasmine wafted our way. A passing motorcyclist finally located the caretaker, who cheerfully let us in. In the midst of an overgrown garden was a nondescript building. It was hard to tell what it was used for. There was a large entryway with a fridge and a table, a large bedroom off to one side and a smaller one, plus a bathroom to the other. It was all a bit grubby and very hot. Mosquitoes soon discovered us.
I felt discouraged by the prospect of a miserable night. But our crew set to work, cleaning the table off, unloading our food and tea, finding an old carpet which we lugged out onto the concrete porch, and at last settling down on the carpet to eat. Apart from the mosquitoes, the scene was now very pleasant, surrounded by date palms and a garden stretching off in a direction we’d need to explore in the morning light. I was about to crawl into my sleeping place when one of Minā’s many cell phone conversations alerted us that her son Ehsān was on his way with a couple of friends and the makings of kebabs. Sure enough they soon arrived, built a fire and in record time we were eating tasty chunks of chicken and a big salad.
The young people had brought a boom box and before we knew it we were all up and dancing. What a pleasure, with all the laughter and good will. By the time we went to sleep the time was very short until our 4 AM wake up call. Homā had brought an alarm clock.
It turned out to be another hour on the road, from the well-watered town into endless sand. In spite of construction delays and one missed turn, at last Homā declared we had arrived. She turned confidently off from the paved road onto sand. My heart lurched. Did she know what she was doing? She did. A short distance later the car stopped and we stepped out just in time to see the sun rise between two enormous …… well what were they? Statues as tall as ten-storey buildings, hills, or ….. yes, kaluts.
Kaluts in Iran are limited to this area which is about 150 km long. Nobody seems to be quite sure how they are formed, but the basic structures may be the result of the movement of various salts and soils under the sand. The wind then erodes them in fascinating ways.
The shapes are many, and some seem to have columns, others resemble mountains. Later we wondered if they had inspired some of the architecture of the great mosques. We took our shoes off and walked for hours among them, relishing their beauty and the increasing warmth of the sun, calling to each other across great distances, in my case, wondering where I’d left my shoes. Of course, Homā remembered.
At last the sun flattened the shadows and we got back into the car. Back at our overnight spot we explored the garden with its irrigation channels, date palms and various vines and flowers. On the way back to the city we stopped to walk beside muddy salt flats, to see a giant cypress tree growing where a famous writer had lived, then back through the tunnel to Minā’s house, showers and naps.
It had been a breathtaking birthday gift, an auspicious beginning to a new year.
But it seemed the celebration was not over. Homā called and invited us to her house for supper, since we planned to leave for Shirāz early the next morning.
Being somewhat innocent about the meaning of “supper” in Iran, I assumed she would have spent the afternoon napping as we had, and would offer us a bowl of soup and an early night.
Any Iranian would know that this was not to be. We arrived at 8. Her house is large, with many rooms and a garden in the back — all surrounded by a high wall. We exchanged greetings, divested ourselves of coats, and made our way into “the room”. I’d noticed it in other Iranian homes. The living room is set up with the clear intention of entertaining guests. In Homā’s room there were about 30 chairs — all alike, padded and upholstered for comfort, and yet straight backed to encourage sitting up and partaking of snacks and conversation.
This hospitality has a long history. In the homes of wealthy 19th century merchants in Kashan there were whole courtyards and buildings for entertaining and negotiating trade deals with “outsiders” to the family. Hundreds of years before that, the great palaces of Persepolis were built not for living in, but for ceremonies and for entertaining those who came from afar to offer tribute. These places were all elaborate, but the grandeur spoke of hospitality as well as the desire to impress.
At the house of a wealthy 19th century merchant in Kāshān
Bringing gifts to the kings at Persepolis
We were not the first to arrive. Those already there stood up and we made the rounds, greeting them with handshakes. This continued every time someone else arrived. At one point we were bouncing up and down from our seats every minute or so! I was particularly struck by the appearance of one couple, he in a gold satin shirt and bow tie. His very pregnant wife was wearing equally shiny and colorful dress. She was the first pregnant woman I’d ever seen wearing a belt buckled right around the widest part of her belly. She was also the only woman there who kept her scarf on for the whole evening.
Once in place, the guests were offered sweets by the daughters of the family. Cookies and candies to start the evening, perhaps to sweeten the conversation? The guests included both adults and children, local people and an Italian man who was working in Kermān with the UN Refugee Commission. Like me he was getting used to Iranian hospitality and enjoying it hugely.
After sweets and tea came a round of fruit. Each guest was given a small plate with a banana, a kiwi, an apple, and a cucumber — plus a knife for peeling. Generally no one eats more than one piece, probably because they have an idea what’s coming. Next was nuts.
Time passed. Fleur read poetry of Hāfez aloud. Conversation whirled. Because my Farsi was so patchy, Homā entertained me with a lovely book of desert photos by a well-known Iranian photographer.
A man arrived with a musical instrument case. He sat down like all the rest. But after a decent interval he opened the case and took out his santur, the lovely Iranian hammered dulcimer. He tuned up and then played most hauntingly. At a certain point the man in the gold satin shirt began to sing with him. I could have listened all night, although by this time my stomach yearned for something more substantial, and I noticed Hossein looking at his watch, probably thinking about our 6 AM departure the next day.
At last we were invited to the table, truly a groaning board. There were dishes of chicken, meat, fish, and vegetables, most seasoned with delicious sauces, and of course rice. There were pickled apricots and other delicacies to try. I chatted with the singer, who emphasized the fact that he loves cheerful songs the best. This is interesting since I would have guessed his songs were sad, based on my sense of the melodies and the style.
The big surprise of the evening (for me) happened when we had all returned to our original seats in the room.
A cake arrived, candles lit. It turned out the singer with the gold shirt was also celebrating his birthday but the cake was set in front of me. I wished and blew, but here the familiar ritual took an unexpected turn. Although of course I was the only one who didn’t expect it.
Ehsān danced into the room holding a large knife in his two hands. He danced in my direction, turning the knife in a tantalizing way. Fleur practically shoved me out of my seat. “Dance!” she whispered. And so I danced with him, still unsure where this was going. He passed the knife to another young man. I was getting the idea that I should get the knife from them, in order to cut the cake, and at last the dancer conceded the knife to me.
And so, full of cake and unforgettable memories of Kermān, we went back to Minā’s for another very short night’s sleep!
Continue the journey as I experience wearing the chador in Iran.
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