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Thralls and Flirtations

by MICHELLE MAY

23 Sep 2010 20:494 Comments
stackedhomes.jpg[ passport ] We made an unlikely road-trip crew: an effeminate Iraqi arts dealer named Ali; a handsome, devout, married Sufi named Karim; my Kurdish translator, Leyla; and me -- a random tourist in Kurdistan. We all met at an art museum, and on the surface it seemed the only thing we had in common was that we were all in our 30s.

We hatched a plan to spend a week road-tripping the Howraman Valley, a scenic, isolated area near the Iraq border. Our ultimate destination was a Sufi shrine, an auspicious place to make prayers, in a mountainside village where a famed sheikh who performed miracles lived.

Karim had made pilgrimages to Howraman at least once a year and was able to speak the rare dialects needed to get by there. He wanted to accompany us to work on his English. Ali, a quiet man who always seemed to wear a pressed suit and kept his hair and mustache meticulously groomed, had other aims. He was hoping to buy art.

Leyla and I had touristic ambitions: We wanted to visit the tiny villages in Howraman Valley, which were so isolated and untouched that my guide book said it was like stepping back in time. My book also cited Howraman as one of the most naturally spectacular spots in all of Iran, albeit nearly impossible to get to.

Karim manned the music as we blazed through the countryside blaring a mix of pop Kurdish tunes. Occasionally he threw his religious music into the mix. The rest of us, less than religious, urged him to hit the fast-forward button. Karim responded by cranking the volume and praising Allah for the beauty all around us.

Even though Karim was a religious man, I suspected he was playing it up just to give us a laugh. We had spent some time together in the days leading up to the road trip, and although there was a language barrier, his humor reminded me of the dry sarcastic stuff I am drawn to back home.

As we neared the Iraq border, there was a palpable tension in the air. Refugees and dodgy characters hung around. I insisted that we drive a different way when we passed the carcass of a burnt-out car.

We turned around and entered a small village lined with cars, wooden shacks, and countless plastic containers full of yellowish-brown liquid. Leyla explained that it was gasoline to be smuggled into Iraq by foot through the mountains, since gasoline in Iran was so much cheaper.

"Ali wants you to know that people risk their life to make a living this way, but the problem is they have no choice, there are no jobs in Kurdistan." I had seen the shells of buildings and other remnants of the Iran-Iraq War in Kurdistan. The infrastructure and development in this part of the country was far less than what I had seen in other regions.

Through the rearview mirror, I had a perfect view of Karim. He occasionally gripped the steering wheel while flashing me a toothy smile. His efforts to make me feel comfortable were endearing.

When we entered the dry, brown Howraman Valley, the paved, potholed roads abruptly turned into rocks, gravel, and dirt -- dust flew everywhere. We probably needed a 4x4, but we were in a rattling old compact.

Though my mind was still on the border situation, Karim changed the subject: He couldn't quite wrap his head around the fact that I lived alone, unwed, and without child at 35 -- wasn't I worried? Of course I was worried, but I was embarrassed such a good-looking man was the one to point out the obvious, especially when we had just seen something so much more disturbing.

I pretended that it was a brave and independent choice to be single, having Leyla translate that if I was married or had children, I would not be able to travel. "He said that if he grew up in your country he would travel like you, but here...it's different." I told him that I hoped to one day have what he has -- a happy marriage and a beautiful child. He shrugged.

I attempted to explain another reason I'm single -- I live in San Francisco, the gay capital of the world. Ali curiously asked what my government does with gay people. It was a new concept to them. Ali, in his high-pitched, sing-songy Kurdish, asked Leyla to reconfirm if it was true that gay people are not killed or sent to prison in America.

Leyla laughed. "Karim said that he will marry you, Michelle. He said he will take you as a second wife so you do not have to suffer." Karim gave a broad smile in the rearview, his deep brown eyes sparkling. "Michelle, I love you," he said. It was one of the few English expressions he had memorized before our trip, and it secretly tortured me on some level.

We stopped at a shaded area for lunch, over which Leyla took charge. She gave Karim and me the job of washing the vegetables in a nearby reservoir, while she and Ali set up a picnic area. Karim led me through a field of grass and up a hill. Although when I first met him, he was so devout that he would not even shake my hand, he now turned to offer me his help up not-so-steep inclines, occasionally laughing and saying, "Michelle, you are my friend," in overenunciated English.

Karim threw the tomatoes and cucumbers directly into the reservoir to soak, took off his shoes, pulled his trousers up to his knees, and submerged his calves in the water. I tried not to watch, splashing my face with freezing-cold mountain water instead. "Michelle," he said, motioning for me to pull up my sleeves and get my arms wet. I did.

Karim motioned for me to pull my pants up and dip my legs in like him. I hesitated, sure it was not appropriate. He motioned, Go ahead, and looked away, tending to the vegetables. I dipped my legs in. I thought about the bad karma I had just created.

As we walked back to our picnic area, Karim lifted his arms to the sky and said something about Allah. I imagined, Thank you, Allah, for this beautiful day. Still, I sensed that his demeanor might not match what he was really feeling inside. I guessed that he was like a lot of religious people I know -- pretending his faith made everything perfect in his life, when really it hadn't.

After lunch, we continued driving. Rounding a hairpin curve, we came on an incredible view of about 40 tiny, square brown houses stacked on top of one another on a steep mountainside. It was beautiful. Karim explained it was the village we would stay in that night. All of us were excited.

When we came to a fork in the road, Karim confidently said that he knew where he was going. Six hours later, after the sun had set and the full moon was the only light, he stopped the car at the foot of a giant waterfall, admitting we were lost and that we would need to spend the night outside of Howraman, in a relatively biggish town of 17,000, complete with electricity and cell phone reception. Leyla found it easy to be annoyed with him. I found it impossible.

We were welcomed to the home of Karim's friends -- a man in a traditional baggy brown Kurdish outfit and his wife in a muumuu and earth-tone floral scarf over her head. Three young children played with a toy horse in an otherwise empty carpeted main room as the teenage daughter, also with her hair covered, helped her mother in the kitchen. The children and the dad sat casually as the teenage daughter and mom served us trays of rice, broth, cucumbers and tomatoes, and cold water.

I motioned for the wife and daughter to join us, but they refused. Instead, they meekly cleaned the kitchen. Until then, I had not experienced a wife sitting dinner out in Iran.

After we ate, Karim sat next to me and drank tea, asking Leyla to translate more stories of my travels to him. He wanted to know about Africa, Asia, America.

Karim's friend interrupted, asking him to play the daft drum and sing. Karim's voice, angelic earlier in the day, now sounded tired and worn. His closed eyelids wrinkled with effort as he sang to Allah. Leyla invited me to go outside to get our things from the car.

The full moon lit our way in a landscape more lush and green than the brown valley we had driven through all day. "I don't like to watch these ladies inside," Leya said in disgust. She continued, "I grew up with this -- my mom, I love her but she lives only to serve us. Once you get married here and have a baby -- life is over."

This was different from what I had seen in Iran up until that point, but maybe some obvious examples had been lost in translation and Leyla was right? I thought of Karim's wife at home alone with their child -- how did he get away with leaving for a week with us? Was she subservient in the way Leyla described? Did Karim take her for granted?

We went back inside where Karim was still singing. "I am sick of wearing this headscarf inside, and this ugly husband," Leyla said, glaring at the man sitting cross-legged as he called his wife for more tea. Ali looked strange sitting next to him in a business suit while three young children crawled all over him like he was a human jungle gym.

Leyla and I excused ourselves and went to the children's room, where we were staying for the night. Leyla ripped off her headscarf when we entered the room, sighing loudly as she massaged her scalp. Neither of us were used to wearing our headscarves inside.

There was a knock on the door. Leyla brushed her long, thick hair and let Karim in. He stood next to me. "Michelle, I love you," he declared, just as he had throughout the day. "Okay," I responded, washing my face with a hand wipe, not sure what to say, especially since he was supposedly a religious man and there I was not wearing my headscarf.

He said something to Leyla, who pretended to be engrossed in something in the corner of the room. She giggled. "If I was not married, I would marry you," she said in clear English. He sounded it out under his breath, and then repeated it. It was difficult not to look into his giant brown eyes, framed by long, curly lashes. I realized I might be just as much a forbidden tourist attraction to Karim as Howraman was to me. I was thankful that Leyla was there. I was not sure whom I could trust less, Karim or myself.

Four days later, we made it to the Sufi shrine in the sheikh's mountainside village. In the shrine, Karim stood and sang while Ali, Leyla, and I sat on the ground in silence. We tied strips of fabric to the bars of the shrine while making our prayers.

I knew what Leyla was hoping for -- to have a future different from her mother's. I was sure Ali's wish was for peace in his homeland. Karim claimed he had nothing to wish for -- his life was already perfect. Before we left on the trip I had a luxurious request to find the perfect romantic life partner. Now, my only wish was that my three friends' prayers would be the ones heard and answered.

When we returned to Sanandaj, Karim -- who had acted like everything was great and had invited us to meet his wife and son -- now had no time for us. Ali, Leyla, and I called him to join us on several occasions, but he never returned our calls. -- July 2008

Michelle May is a San Francisco-based travel writer and blogs here. Photos by Michelle May

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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4 Comments

"Thralls" -- shurely shome mishtake -- the article is distinctly lacking in Anglo-Saxon serfs... ;-) Otherwise very entertaining, of course. Sounds like any number of road trips I've taken with strangers and "guides", though I usually get fewer marriage proposals for some reason.

Ian / September 23, 2010 8:41 PM

I couldn't get past the "effeminate Iraqi arts dealer" statement...... What kind of strange code is that? What is this? Queer eye for the straight guy, Islamic version?

What a strange travel piece, from just about any angle.

Maybe the author thinks because she lived in San Francisco she should focus on the perceived "sexual identities" of her travel companions and those she encounters.

It also seems that the author is bragging a little about the reaction to her status as a single woman. I get the impression from the article that those who ask such questions, were pretty much directed into such questions. And their response was just being polite.

To be honest about a piece like this, there should be a picture of the author, and more of her background. This would enable the reader to form better conclusions from her statements.

Just from the article, I would think she's a rather unattractive, rather biased, rather ill-informed person. A picture and background would allow one to say "oh, ok. I get it." We've all met people like this......I think.

muhammad billy bob / September 25, 2010 12:53 AM

Muhammad Billy Bob,

Please refrain from personal attacks. This is a part of a travel series. Perhaps you've missed all the other installments. They may help you put it in context.

moderator / September 25, 2010 3:21 AM


Muhammad,

If you are not interested, don't read but do not belittle the article or the author. The travel series is more about a tourist's view of life and people in Iran than the personal life of the author. Yes, she is biased, and she rightly admits so. She never claims to be an expert on Iran. Just an adventuress tourist exploring and learning and adjusting/correcting her biases along the way. That is the whole point. Why are you so quick to judge people anyway?!!!!

kia / September 27, 2010 10:32 PM