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Food, Politics, and the Iranian Way of Water | Part 1

by CORRESPONDENT

10 May 2011 22:38Comments
tumblr_l8n0xxvou51qzwk4mo1_500.jpgThe life and near death of the qanat system.

[ personal history ] It is hard to imagine that many are aware of such a threshold. Certainly, birth and death and certain events sprinkled in between are well recognized. In Persian, the final event is "giving age" -- age being an ordinal, singular entity, at the end of which you give it back and are thus relieved of your obligations. The equivalent of to age is "doing age," and to have done your age means you are done with your life.

A 20-billion-year-old mountain "has been there for a lifetime," and so has a cucumber patch. We understand life and lifetime by their context. A handful of decades for the patch; two pairs of handfuls of epochs for the other.

Thus, my coming of age occurred with no awareness that such a "thing" actually existed. Like the generation gap, teenage angst, middle age, and many other facile concepts, the process of "coming of age" has little to do with its conventional representation. There seem to be no ill symptoms from the lack of awareness of such things. Anyhow, this essay is about a political coming of age, which unlike in movies and novels is not about personal, but social development. In fact, it is about "giving age," or actually, "taking age" -- that is, taking life and giving it up, both political acts.

Date certain, my first memorable sense of life was at the sight of hitherto obvious forms, infants to grandmothers and then the more interesting types in between, which unlike on past occasions suddenly turned not so obvious one day in a bathhouse in the windy city of Damghan. A life jolt that started "age" ticking, soon after which I was weaned from female baths.

Similarly, a few years later, another moment of recognition, when after a restful night's sleep after having destroyed a bird picking at figs on my favorite tree with a single shot, I suddenly concluded that I didn't like to kill any more and immediately let my gun fly out the window. The window was open because it was hot. It was in a compartment in a train speeding through the desert. Later, a parallel feeling bloomed when I realized that that which had allowed the fig tree, the bird, the bathhouse, those in it, and me to exist was being destroyed and dying. The bathhouse, its occupants, and all other types of life were supported by it, as were their ancestors. They existed in a place, arid and hot, not conducive to higher forms of life. In this case, there was no window through which I could jettison the cause of death.

What allowed all this was the qanat system -- long subterranean tubes with holes drilled on top at regular intervals, like buried flutes magically delivering sweet water to otherwise desolate places hostile to life.

This essay is about politics, or life, food, sex, babies, smiles, laughter, music, and joy. It looks at these subjects from the perspective of the qanat, which allowed such things to flourish on the Iranian plateau, oh, from about four millennia ago. It is about abundant water and its sudden disappearance.

My knowledge of this ancient system comes from my involvement in my father's agriculture business, and then his work as general director of the Ministry of Agriculture, which turned into the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reform, and soon after, the Ministry of Agricultural Corporations.

My family's agricultural business started early last century, and per the ministry's 1989 classifications, the holdings had been medium-sized for much of the 1950s and '60s. They shrank to mere patches by the late '60s due to an imposed imperial "revolution." During this critical decade, I witnessed the death of two intertwined systems, agriculture and qanats.

In just over a decade, Iran's agriculture petrified from an environmentally harmonious organism into a brutally mechanized "man knows better" system, dependent on technological and chemical life support. If something analogous is done to a person, the perpetrator is jailed. Done to a nation, the culprit is good business. Tragedy in the former case, statistics in the latter.

Even if we adjust for population growth, Iran turned from a self-sufficient and net agricultural exporter to a net importer. Meanwhile, disenchanted young farmers left their land for shanties around Tehran in hope of industrial employment. Modernity had succeeded, nature was beaten, and for the unwitting victims the only savior seemed to be religion.

Water and politics have been inseparable in Iran's history. It was not surprising that the death of qanats lead to the destabilization of Iran's society and politics, and finally derailed its economic independence and any hope for autonomy and freedom. This land, mother of civilizations, was not prepared for the iron-fisted assault from the West -- a neo-Alexandrian cultural attack. Iran succumbed to the allure of steel-cast promises that then proceeded to bleed its veins dry. When the qanats that had kept Iran alive for millennia were stopped, it was the end of a culture. Iran's ravaged body writhes, but it will die. The basis of its culture is nearly dead, its way of life nearly gone.

The ineluctable march of history? A sinister plot? Or mismanagement by imperial marionettes? I will not hold my breath awaiting historians' verdicts. I believe what transpired was premeditated and orchestrated. Although a dust cloud still shrouds this recent period, I will try to guide you through it and point out circumstantial evidence to support my claim.

There is nothing sentimental about this presentation -- passages that ring so are provided to emphasize the effect of immersion in the ecosystem at a very young age. It is only later on that one realizes its value and uniqueness, which no formal education can afford. Descriptions from my youth are grounded in first-hand experiences and I have tried to stay as true to them as memory allows.

Bread and tea -- vanishing icons

Before coming to the United States to study, I traveled regularly from Tehran to Varamin, Semnan, Damghan, and Shahrood. We had family and farmland in these cities, spread between Tehran and Mashhad. Millennia before us, trade routes skirting the central desert had given birth to these cities.

I also visited dozens of other cities, where family, friends, and colleagues lived. I thus experienced all manner of farming around Iran -- in valleys and mountains, frigid, tropical, and sere. Mostly arid flatlands, mostly on the periphery of the central desert.

A desert's memory is indelible. A vastness that once experienced, forever absorbs everything. Words, music, images, and other art are not immune to this draw. If they rate, they will enter the imagination and find a place within the infinite memory of the desert. The memory is boundless -- a dome where the universe, represented by its stars, extends from horizon to horizon and all around. Infinity gets etched in the mind. Thereafter, all things get evaluated against that scale, subconsciously.

The two-lane semipaved road, flanked on the north by stoic mountains and by the vast, restless desert to the south, appears in that memory as a wavy gray ribbon. Under the mercurial force of winds of distant origin, the desert recasts itself. The mountains watch gracefully and tirelessly, even after the billionth variation. We can behold no more than a short episode of this ancient dance from that gray ribbon.

Whenever we stopped, to stretch our legs or allow rest for whoever was negotiating the road, I would bound from our metal-and-canvas desert dinghy of a World War II Jeep to enjoy the paired palettes that life has developed in that narrow stage between the nurturing mountains and the temperamental desert, the selfless, noble mother and its playful, thirsty child.

Beautiful animals, insects and reptiles, fly, bound, and crawl, filling a beige-to-gray palette festooned with dashes of brilliant color on wing and limb and body, to be flashed at the sight of an appealing mate. The other palette, assembled by native plants, flows from gray to green, also with dabs of brilliant hue in floral cups and chalices that invite insects to nourishing nectars. The insects in turn help to expand the gracious plants' gene pool.

My father, a deeply experienced agronomist, was addicted to the "plains," as he called that region. He showed me that just feet below the desert's crisp surface is sufficient moisture for all this life. The plants suck it up and pass it to insects as nectar. The reptiles dig into the damp soil, which loosens it and allows plants to reach deep for moisture. The reptiles are rewarded by the succulent insects the plants then fatten for them.

When noon strikes on a summer day, mirages shimmer over dry riverbeds. The undulating layer of heat above the searing stones is reminiscent of the hot air that hypnotizes the gaze into the oven of a baker of sangak -- that delicate, almost ephemeral flatbread baked in deep, gently sloping ovens lined with loose pebbles, heated as if to challenge the surface of the sun. The baker pulls off and puts down a fistful of whole wheat dough that has risen overnight onto a long-handled wooden paddle, spreads it with his palms and fingers, then glides the paddle, hovering just above the scalding pebbles, deep into the oven, flips it over, catches the far tip of the dough on the pebbles, and then with a steady motion pulls the paddle back, stretching the dough out like a thin, yard-long robe onto the hot pebbled bed. The dough transforms into bread in minutes. His apprentice at the ready stabs the now tanned robe with a long metal hook and pulls it out, in a rush of synchrony with the baker who is ready in turn to repeat the procedure for the next fistful of dough spread on his paddle.

People seldom disputed that Tehran's sangak was the best. I understood that it was due to the combination of the city's wonderful water and the special wheat used for the dough. This was in the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. During each subsequent visit home, it seemed there was an accelerating qualitative and quantitative deterioration of sangak. The delicacy was diminishing as the bakeries vanished.

Essays and entire books have been written about this bread. It has inspired works of art both classical and modern. It is a symbol of a culture that threads through layers of society. It is more ubiquitous in Iranian cinema than the baguette is in the French counterpart.

Except that you can keep a baguette for a few hours. Sangak is like a kiss. It has to be tasted with its inherent warmth. You can't revive it by toasting it, like you can with a baguette. Sangak is ephemeral. A short delay and a kiss turns premeditated, without spontaneity. The sight of a child running in an alley to deliver a hot sangak to his family's table is a primordial expression of small fundamental pleasures.

The shimmers above hot riverbeds connect with the nation's favorite bread beyond imagery. They raise the inevitable questions: How have people survived in this ovenlike climate? And how did they manage to plant wheat in this parched land to make such amazing bread?

Agriculture in climates typical of most of Iran is not short of miracles. The prerequisite is a vast supply of water, equal to several times that of the Colorado River. Yes, the one that is diverted through hundreds of miles of manmade canals and pump stations into southern California to help feed millions.

Yet the 300-mile-long route we traversed each way, on the edge of the desert, was spotted with vibrant towns about 30 miles apart, with their attendant villages, cradled by substantial farmland. By late spring, rivers resembling sangak ovens suggest: pray for an early fall. Thick dust on dark tree leaves suggest no heavenly gifts either. Yet a bite into a peach there suggests an invisible abundance. These oases are lush. One couldn't squeeze as much water from a yard of local soil as there is in a single peach. Miracle indeed.

On these frequent journeys, we would stop at certain roadside venues. Teahouses mostly. The most popular one, about an hour east of Tehran, was at Sharifabad. It seemed that anything on that shimmering ribbon stopped at Sharifabad -- to fill apparently unlimited jugs and pots and containers of every imaginable shape, and of course, to drink tea made from the water streaming through the pair of oval mouths that one could barely make out on the sides of the nearby hills. The teahouse was on a small island between two streams of crystalline water. Even sheep flocked to drink and wade in the streams. A few local kids constantly shooed the animals from the streams' upper banks to keep the water potable, or at least give that assurance to their clientele. They were tipped almost religiously, as if they were mortal offspring of Anahita, the god of water.

Given that most become immunized by age two against whatever water natively bears, and which is in fact happy to coexist with us, the only reason to keep the sheep downstream is not to ruin the water's acidity and mineral content for good tea. Which is highly anti-bacterial and encourages the phobia instilled by modern medicine -- which by tackling harmless germs makes of them scourges -- to disappear.

Equally good water streamed into Tehran through a stone-framed rectangular mouth, seven feet by four with a constant roar. That was Qanat-e Shah. In fact, to ascertain that a person of my vintage is from Tehran, either Sharifabad or Qanat-e Shah must be in their recollections about water, tea, and the long crisp melons known as kharbozeh. Otherwise, they could not have lived in Tehran "back then." Shared pleasures of a place and its moments build communal memories. If you don't know of Sharifabad kharbozeh, you are not from Tehran of the 1950s and '60s.

I left for the United States in 1968. Afterward and until the change of regime in 1979, subsidized student flights allowed us to visit home each summer. On later trips, I would accompany my father not to the minuscule remnants of our "reformed" lands, but to agricultural corporations that he had help set up to heal the wounds of the reforms. He was in charge of them around Iran.

Nature is amazing, industry merely amusing. These trips could have been to Iowa, South Dakota, or Kansas, not that there is anything wrong with these places, only that there is nothing stirring about them. They produce. Huge amounts. Although I do recall a couple of remarkable things. These fields in Iran had few insects, just like in Kansas. Monsanto had taught the farmers not to waste time on old-fashioned organic pest control, but to adopt a scorched-earth policy. So, the earth had developed a chemical dependency there too -- just as in the midwestern United States.

They were also fed mechanically to cajole uniform products. In two decades, much of Iran had become Kansas. We didn't have Dorothy, but we did have Evin, our own Leavenworth. Presumably it entertained bodies whose souls didn't agree with the wholesale damage to agriculture and nature.

The vast green fields belied accelerating problems: damaged irrigation systems and degradation of land quality. Clearly the rapid drop in the quality and quantity of sangak was connected.

So how did we end up talking about Kansas in Iran? Why is it important if there is more yield? Let me step back and explain.

End of Part 1 | Part 2: Qanats -- natural harmony. | Part 3: What does nature know?

by the same author | The Perfect Water for Tea. Photo: Mahmoud Pakzad, Bakery, Sangak bread, Tehran, 1958.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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