A Fortnight in N.W. Luristan
In the wastes of civilization, Luristan is still an enchanted name. Its streams are dotted blue lines on the map and the position of its hills a matter of taste. It is still a country for the explorer.
He finds out what he cannot do
And then he goes and does it.
I did not do it, for I penetrated only a very little way. But I spent a fortnight in that part of the country where one is less frequently murdered, and I saw the Lurs in their own medieval garb—the white tight-waisted coat with sleeves hanging in points from the elbow and white felt caps over the curls that hide their ears. As the aim of the Persian government is to have them all dressed à la Ferangi in a year’s time, with peaked képis and the Shah’s portrait stamped on the lining, it is worthwhile perhaps to give a picture of them as far as possible before too much tidiness spoils them.
Behold then Hajji and me, climbing on very scraggy ponies up to the Varazan Pass. Behind us is the town of Nihavend and the nearer mound of Gian where French archæologists give kind hospitality and press Bovril and ham into one’s saddle-bags—the latter not to be touched, alas! because of religion, which is always interfering with the pleasant conduct of life. Hajji looks gloomy. Friends have told him he is going to be killed. Lessening under our feet, the grassy slopes of Kuh Garu shut in Luristan as with a wall. This climbing into a country which is not considered safe is exhilarating, though no sense of peril is possible in so bright sunlight, such radiant solitude, such breadth of mountain ranges under the pale October sky. As a matter of fact, it is only the other three passes over Kuh Garu which are presumed to be held by robbers at this moment: our Varazan has been in the hands of government for the last six weeks. It is as well to know this beforehand; otherwise one might take the garrison for bandits instead of policemen. They come tumbling out of a round stone tower, their guns polished and clean among the débris of the rest of their attire. They take a toll of eight krans (1s. 5d.) for every pack animal across the pass. When the robbers held it, they took only sevenpence more, and might have gone on making a regular income for a long time if they had not lost their tempers one day with two merchants who thought to bargain fivepence off the tariff and whose death caused a stoppage in the charcoal trade which comes out of Luristan by Kuh Garu; whereupon government dislodged the bandits, handed over ten guns to some Lurs of Khava who are on the side of law and order for the time being, and left the pass and its revenue in their hands.
These volunteers were friendly people, delighted with conversation and chivalrous enough to forgo their eight krans in honour of their first Ferangi from the plain.
They brought little glasses of tea into the sunshine, spread a felt rug, and began to talk about the present security of Persia with the enthusiasm which is general there among the poorer sort. One of them had a wounded leg which I doctored with brandy, while the chief of the post, pushing his long hair out of his eyes and leaning on his gun, slowly read the address on my letter of introduction to the Governor at Alishtar. This letter was an “Open Sesame”: its quite insignificant contents were luckily sealed up, but the name on the envelope had already served to get me through the entanglements of the Nihavend police: its mere production gave the impression that I travelled with the authority of governments behind me and when I handed it to anyone, I tried to cultivate a manner to correspond. I had another letter to the brother of the Keeper of the Varazan, which produced more friendliness and promise of a night’s lodging in the plain of Khava below. The Ten sat in a row looking at me: so did two menials who, they explained, came to do the sweeping, though there was nothing to show for such domestic efforts among the rocks. As the caravans of tribesmen climbed up to the pass, one of our group would stroll across to waylay them and exact the toll: the small black oxen, scarce visible between enormous sacks of goatwool filled with charcoal or grain, strayed on, surefooted, while the men stood counting out the money and brought news of the jungle or the town according as they came from south or north. Their road lay like a ribbon far below us across the plain of Khava whose southern edge, fringed with small pointed hills and further wave-like ridges, vanished into a gentle distance. Very few Europeans travel in this country. Sir A. T. Wilson has been there, and perhaps half a dozen more: and in 1836 Sir Henry Raw- linson marched his Persian regiment across it, locating in his mind as he went the vanished nations whose horses grazed over these open downs.
We parted from the garrison and proceeded with difficulty owing to the jagged steepness of the southern slope, which is scarce practicable for horses. The way from the pass runs down a stony cleft. The whole range is like a wave whose gentle slope we had been climbing from the Nihavend plain, and we now had the sheer side to negotiate: and as we slipped and stumbled among the sliding surfaces of the limestone, Hajji forgot that he had come to me pretending to know every inch of the road, and complained in a pathetic voice that this was no place for anyone but thieves.
It seemed right that the entrance to the forbidden country should not be too easy. Our expectation had been rising ever since Nihavend which, lying so close, yet speaks of Luristan as a region unknown, governed by laws and standards in which the peaceful townsmen have no part. Every day, from far in the southern jungles, the caravans of black oxen bring their loads of corn or charcoal across the mountain wall. The tribesmen, with uncombed hair and eyes frankly hostile, squat in groups of their own under the rampart of the old fortress and have no social dealings with the citizens. The guard on the Varazan, with its ragged clothes and shining gun-barrels, emphasized the point, as it were. When we came to them we reached the gate of a new country. No one travels here unless he has the freedom of the tribes or some other protection: there were no peasants or merchants among the climbers to the pass: only white-coated Lurs fixing us with suspicious, fearless eyes. They gave no greeting, but were ready enough, I found, to answer if one spoke to them.
And now, at a bend in our narrow gorge, the plain of Khava opened out below us, washing like a yellow wave to the rocks of Kuh Garu; dotted in an Arcadian way with black flocks and tents, and intersected from east to west by a grass-banked stream. Away on its southern side it was all pastoral solitude running to small hills; but in its centre were harvested fields of corn, tribesmen tilling, villages where the mountain sank into the plain, and mounds of buried cities here and there.
These must once have been populous places, with a beaten track winding over one of the easier passes from Nihavend or Harsin through the villages of Khava to Alishtar—mentioned in the fourteenth century as an important city—and so to Khurramabad and the eastern plains. Somewhere in this district the rebel Gautama is thought to have been vanquished by Darius: here possibly were the Nisaian pasture lands visited by Alexander on his way up into Persia, but famous for their horses under the Achæmenians long before him. One finds bronzes, flints, and earthenware in the lonely valleys. Wave after wave of people unnamed and unnumbered lose themselves here in unrecorded dimnesses of time.
This, however, was not what occupied our thoughts, but rather the problem of how to find our particular Lurs in a plain about ten miles by twenty in which no one knew the way. A weedy tall man with bushy eyebrows had come with us from Nihavend as a guide. He also, I soon discovered, had never been up before—and he was furthermore a wreck from opium, which takes people’s legs more completely than beer: he would sit down at intervals looking like a traveller in the early stages of a Channel crossing, and refuse to take any interest in our hopes for lunch among friends.
We reached the area of cultivation, and, riding gently through ploughed fields and melon patches, finally came upon people who directed us to our Keram Ali Lurs at the mound of Qal’a Kafrash in the west, where a few mud houses and a row or two of black tents combine to make a village. The mound, about eighty feet high by eighty broad, rises with that artificial regularity of shape which shows the buried work of man all over Persia and Mesopotamia; it gives the feeling of a cemetery incredibly old to many a landscape there. The Lurs of Kafrash, however, were not oppressed by their antique surroundings: they were as cheerful a lot of villains as you could wish to meet, and delighted with us for being, as they said, brave enough to come among them. In the absence of the Khan, his wife ruled the house. She was a lovely woman with a very narrow long face and arched eyebrows—a beauty fierce and strange, but with the most roguish smile imaginable. Her dark hair, with gleams of henna in it, was curled in two long ringlets on each shoulder and crowned with an immense sarband or turban of coloured silks aslant over one eye, which gave an absurd mixture of rakishness and dignity to her appearance. She wore an old red velvet coat full at the waist, with tinsel edges, over a loose cotton gown of yellow printed flowers: and she walked like a queen. She ruled her household also like a queen, with none of the submissiveness of Persian women in general. She seated me beside her, tried my hat and examined as much of my clothing as she could get at, embraced me, told me that I was her sister, and allowed me to hold the baby in my arms. Cousins, uncles, brothers, and brothers-in-law meanwhile sat in a half-circle on the opposite side of the hearth, waiting for these female amenities to end. They had furtive, long faces, with eyes rather near together, but strong, big-boned and healthy. They thought nothing of the people of the plain. “We smoke no opium here,” said they, glancing at my guide, who was just lifting a piece of lighted charcoal to his second pipe. Hajji too, who cannot conceal that he thinks a Persian town the only synonym for civilization, was being left in the cold as an alien. But I am a hill woman myself, and I travelled in Luristan for pleasure: they accepted me kindly.
When evening came, and the last mouthfuls of rice had been scooped off the round tray before us, they brought an enormous camp bed for me to sleep in, looted from the Russians. My host and his beautiful wife arranged themselves under a quilt in a corner of the room; and four brothers or cousins disposed themselves at my feet. As a last afterthought, they picked my shoes off the floor and put them under my mattress, for I had not yet learnt that one sleeps on all one possesses in Luristan.
Next morning might have been an autumn day in Scotland. A faint mist trailed in and out of the woollen roofs of the tents and along the ground, among sparse willow trees that followed the course of a little stream. While the women lighted the fire indoors, the men stood to get warm against a sheltered wall in the early sun. Mahmud, a shifty-eyed brother of our host, offered to take me over the pass to Alishtar. “Your man from Nihavend will not be necessary,” said he. “He can go home.”
Now I had been thinking this myself, but did not like the idea so well when presented by someone who might be planning unpleasantness. It meant risking a lonely pass in unprepossessing company with one’s escort diminished by half, and Hajji’s frightened looks and the assembled tribesmen coldly taking note of them, made matters worse. I thought, however, that a man who smokes much opium is very little use in a crisis: and if the Lurs meant mischief they had every facility for carrying it out whatever our arrangements. I said I should be delighted, and tactfully added that I would remember the tribe’s kindness to the Governor in Alishtar. Hajji tried some half-strangled remonstrance, cowed by the hostile eyes upon him. As for the guide from Nihavend, he burst into tears. “A man like that would bring bad luck to anyone,” our new guide said as we watched him lope away across the fields.
We followed our track of the day before, along the Badavar River, by the village of Noah, through cultivated land: then turned south, where there are no villages, but rolling downs for miles, covered with thorny bushes of gum tragacanth which the Lurs collect and sell in the towns: every plant has a small pit dug round it, the stem is incised thrice a year at an interval of a week or so, and the gum oozes out ready to be sold. These pits make the most irritating country to ride over, as bad as a rabbity bit of Dartmoor.
As we were going along in pleasant loneliness, talking of this and that, with only here and there a shepherd and his flocks to break the long lines of curving empty land, I began to notice that we were not keeping to our intended direction of the Gatchkah Pass, where a police post guards the track to Alishtar.
“Why are we going so far south?” I asked.
“The Gatchkah is not safe to-day,” said Mahmud with one of his furtive glances. “We are going round by a different way.”
“I thought there were police up there,” said I.
“So there are: but it is hilly country.” With which cryptic remark we had to be contented, and rode on in meditative silence, rather anxiously.
And now we came over a little ridge and saw before us a new settlement of tents and a few houses, the hamlet of Deh Kush. And a surprise was beyond: for there in absolute solitude wound a road, the unfinished motor road from Khurramabad to Harsin. Between us and it rode a policeman in pale-blue uniform.
He was more surprised than we were. He showed it more, at any rate, and came spluttering up to ask if I knew that I was in Luristan. I said that I not only knew it, but was on my way to call on the Governor: the famous letter was produced, with its usual impressive effect. It took a little time, however, to live down the shock of our appearance, and somebody had to be blamed. “One can’t travel like this in the middle of the wilderness,” said the policeman, turning on our guide. “Why are you off the road?”
This question has never been solved. The man looked so guilty that I felt my worst suspicions confirmed, and only later, when I noticed how every Lur looks guilty when confronted with the Law, began to think that perhaps he was innocent after all.
Meanwhile we were not to be allowed to go on. We should have lunch first, said the policeman, anxious coûte que coûte to make us do something we had not intended. It is tempting to give a soft answer when one knows that it will annoy, and we felt no great aversion to the idea of lunch. But partly so as to go on in the game of contradicting, and partly because it would be taken as a want of friendliness to the villagers, I refused to sit in solitude with my escort under a tree as arranged, and moved up into one of the tribesmen’s tents instead.
Excerpted from The Valleys of the Assassins by Freya Stark. Copyright © 2001 by Freya Stark. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.