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The Path to Hadi


26 Aug 2010 19:1610 Comments

Kurdistan Part 2.

[ passport ] A photojournalist in Tehran texted me the name of Hadi, a Kurdish man who helped him make a documentary about the Sufi dervishes of Kurdistan. The photojournalist's details of the mystical side of Islam stoked my curiosity. I had long been intrigued by the wild-haired, bohemian-looking dervishes as they sold their exotic goods in Tehran bazaars. I wanted to know what they were all about.

Apparently the dervish movement had become trendy not just with me, but also among the Tehran elite. I once attended a posh "dervish" celebration in a mansion in Tehran. It was co-ed and there were no men with hands full of rings and long hair, no spinning into ecstasy -- instead what I saw was make-up, Gucci purses, and stuffed mushrooms served on cocktail napkins. A party. I wanted the real dervish experience. Like the ones I had seen on YouTube.

Kurdistan is said to house some of the biggest dervish communities in Iran, which is why I set out in search of the true spirit of Sufism, armed with just the name of Hadi and a map of Sanandaj. It was the beginning of a wild goose chase.

I went to a museum where I was told I would be able to find him. "Hadi lutfan," I stated on arrival. Hadi, please. The man at the ticket office looked at me blankly. "Hadi," I proceeded, pronouncing it every possible way I could. I hoped that if I said Hadi enough times, sooner or later someone would understand. The ticket seller went to get someone else. "Hadi?" I asked as another man emerged. He pointed to himself and said, "No. Curator."

He took me across a busy street, past a Basij barracks, to a white mansion with a manicured courtyard. We walked down some stairs and into a basement. I saw what looked like the museum's storage: paintings stacked together, mannequins dressed in Kurdish costumes, glass showcases displaying giant chunky jewelry made of turquoise and lapis that made me drool.

We came upon a group of men wearing the signature baggy Kurdish pants covered in what looked like paint but was actually plaster. The curator cued me to tell them whom I was looking for. One of the older men understood. They sat me down and poured me a tea. A man who was smoking a cigarette out of a long strawlike contraption began making calls on his cell phone.

A few minutes later, a tall, skinny, girlishly handsome man sporting meticulously waved hair and a mustache entered the room with his head held high. He was dressed in a pressed short-sleeve button-down and black dress pants. He had a presence that I recognized -- regal, self-important -- something similar to characters back home. He looked way too polished to be a dervish, and the men informed me that this was not Hadi. It was the man who would bring me to Hadi's.

The skinny man barely made eye contact with me. He turned abruptly on his heel and walked toward the exit -- apparently my sign to follow. Outside, he flagged down a share taxi. I listened to him speak sing-songy Kurdish to the taxi driver. His cheekbones were sculpted, his lips puckered as if he was sucking his cheeks in like a model. He gave me sideway glances and seemed to enjoy catching me check him out.

The taxi dropped us off on the corner of the main road and a side street. Despite my feeling that I was an annoyance to him, the skinny guy would not let me pay. We walked down the side street at a brisk pace. I struggled to keep up with my impromptu guide's long steps. He said nothing as we walked past houses in ruins alternating with old mansions. Graffiti covered the walls of the dilapidated structures. "Fuak you" and "I love u r," it said on one.

Stopping at a tall green gate, we rang a bell and waited. Once we were let in, we walked across a courtyard with a defunct fountain now filled with ducks. It was surrounded by piles of dirt dug up from ditches, flanked in turn by white pipes bunched together with rope. Construction workers were installing new water pipes in the ground. A mansion with broken windows, regal arches, and stone bricks lay beyond a canvas of overgrown trees, giving the illusion that we were stumbling upon some undiscovered treasure. Workers' tools clinked in the ditches, leaves and branches rustled in the wind, and possessed chickens who seemed to own the yard clucked around us.

On entering a glass door, we went up a set of stairs, transporting us into an artist's studio. It was the real deal. Classical music played on a tape deck and a beefy salt-and-pepper-haired man worked on a oil painting on an easel, surrounded by busted sculptures of distinct faces in plaster and copper.

The painter was not Hadi, but he informed us that we should sit down and wait for him. We drank tea and I thumbed through a set of homemade English-Kurdish flash cards. I eyed dusty old photographs laying on a bookshelf, a pack of cigarettes, a box of sweets with tea cup stains on it, a near empty sugar bowl with a few dead ants, and lots of plaster and paint splattered all over. I was mesmerized by the authenticity of the place.

My tall, skinny guide was sitting in his pressed clothes, one leg crossed over the other, looking prim. He bulged his eyes out at me, looked at his watch, and motioned his head to the door: Let's go. I realized the painter we interrupted had probably made us tea just to be polite. I took one last swig of the sugary brew, as the skinny man stood straight, bowing slightly at the waist, speaking profuse niceties back and forth to the painter in Kurdish. It takes a long time to exit a room in Kurdistan.

A man with a dusty beard and big baggy trousers covered in white paint and plaster suddenly entered the room. His large eyes were set slightly downward, giving him an air of kindness and hinting that he was a survivor. There was a magnanimous presence about him. This was Hadi.

In broken English, he explained that he did not speak the language. I gave him the photojournalist's business card and said, "My friend. Dervish?" pointing at Hadi. "Dervish?" he questioned, searching my eyes for more information. He shook his head. We tried to phone our mutual friend to translate, with no success.

The skinny man bulged his eyes at me again, pointing his head at the chair: Sit down. He bit down on his bottom lip, trying to hide a giant smile from forming on his face -- it appeared that he was a fan. Hadi made another call and handed me the phone. It was a woman with a British accent. "Right. I am on my way to Hadi's -- wait there and I can interpret for you."

Hadi served me and the skinny man tea. Very hard to believe such an artist was humble enough to take a break to speak to some random tourist with the linguistic ability of a one-year-old who just showed up at his door asking about obscure religious groups. I could not imagine this happening at an artist's studio in New York.

Hadi quietly began to sculpt while we waited. He carved a long dimple on a man's face, as my skinny friend finally told me his name -- Hamed. He sat next to me and showed me a book of Hadi's work. It appeared that many of his sculptures were on display in intersections and roundabouts in Iraq, where Hamed was from.

The book had a few English captions, allowing me to learn that Hadi had not lived as a Kurdish artist without suffering persecution. Many of the busts he sculpts are of famous Kurds who strove for equal rights or independence. Just as in neighboring countries, the authorities in Tehran were not thrilled by any sort of Kurdish pride or celebration of their culture.

I watched Hadi study various photos of the man whose face he was sculpting, looking back and forth between the photos and the actual sculpture. A bust like the one that was in his studio must have taken weeks to create. Hamed pointed to a picture of a large sculpture in a roundabout, crossed it out with his finger and then pointed to a nonexistent tear in his eye. I looked up watching Hadi in his zone -- creating a work that captured his heart, mind, and soul. I thought about what it must be like for him to create something with so much of himself only to have it destroyed, and then to continue to build again.

An entourage of people entered the room with an accompanying mishmash of sounds -- Kurdish peppered with laughter and occasional English words. They were artists and intellectuals of Kurdish descent now living in Tehran, Canada, and England.

The British woman came over, giving me a hug. She lived in London, and explained that Hadi was neither a dervish nor a Sufi. We laughed together that I had come here looking for something that Hadi had nothing to do with, but that in my error I had stumbled on something great. I felt instantly comfortable around her -- she combined ease in my native language with the big-hearted kindness I had been enjoying in Kurdistan.

A Kurdish Canadian sat across from me and picked my brain: How did I get into Iran as an American? What did I think of Iran? Did I hate George Bush as much as he did? When I told him that I grew up only an hour from where he currently lived in Toronto, he could not believe it. A woman from a place like Buffalo decided willingly to come to Kurdistan. It blew his mind.

The British woman told me that she had something to show me outside. Ducks ran out of the way as we walked around piles of dirt from the irrigation project. A group of workers lay in the shade, listening to a portable radio on their lunch break. She told me that Hadi was one of the most talented artists in the Kurdish world, but that like all Kurds, his success came at a price. That's why she was living in England now. She spoke of what Hadi risked to do what he thought was right for his people. My mind flashed back to the young students I met when I used to work at an art college back home. I thought about what art means here and what it means there.

My British friend led me to the side of the fountain, where a giant white bust of a man was surrounded by scaffolding. This was one of the sculptures large enough for an intersection. She told me that it was a tribute to a 35-year-old Kurdish mountaineer who attempted to climb Everest, but did not make it back alive.

Hadi came out to join us. In English, he answered my questions about the mountaineer and his own artistic process. The British woman told me Hadi actually speaks good English, but that he is so modest he does not realize it. Self-consciously, Hadi said something back to her in Kurdish. The British woman informed me, "Hadi has arranged for you to go to a private dervish ceremony tomorrow night -- a men's only event." She raised her eyebrows. I felt ridiculous. Spending time in Hadi's studio was moving enough. It felt silly for me to be excited over something other than what was right before me.

Hamed came, offering us apricots he had just picked from a tree. "He is an Iraqi artist you know," the British woman informed me. Hadi added, "He will accompany you to the ceremony tomorrow night." I realized that Hamed was a Hadi groupie, happy to do whatever was asked of him on the chance that some of Hadi's talent might wear off on him. "You have good fortune," the British woman said to me. "You came looking for a Sufi guru -- you may not have gotten the Sufi part right, but Hadi is a definitely a guru of some sort. A guru covered in plaster." Even better, I thought.

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

RELATED READING Kurdistan Pt. 1 | Ardabil | Bam | Zahedan | Tehran

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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Thank you for giving us a bird's eye view of Iran! Such an interesting blog - I love it!!

tricia / August 26, 2010 10:29 PM

A lovely story, Michelle. And the video adds to it, bringing the people even more alive.

Nancy Bruning / August 26, 2010 10:34 PM

Love it! Thanks for sharing! YOu are becoming quite good at this, Meeshell!

Christine Garland / August 27, 2010 12:24 AM

I enjoyed this very much. Thank you.

Ahvaz / August 27, 2010 3:06 AM

Another fuaking great story! (However.... is it still a wild goose chase, if you actually catch the goose?)

Jeff Greenwald / August 27, 2010 8:29 AM

I am in love!

PersianTraveler / August 27, 2010 10:50 AM

Dear TB,
Thank you so much for making Michelle May's Iranian adventures a regular feature. I read and enjoy every single one. Keep them coming!

Catherine / August 27, 2010 11:36 AM

Thank you, Catherine. I'm a big fan of the Michelle series as well. I always look forward to the next installment.

moderator / August 27, 2010 7:48 PM

A naive and silly piece about going to Iran by someone who could've known a bit more about it, instead of simply going in search of a guru. I hope this isn't an ongoing series. It isn't anywhere near the level of informative writing one usually finds on this site. Mystery, shmystery.

michael black / August 29, 2010 11:28 PM

I'm finally finding time to read this after my exams. So interesting. I'm proud to have you as an ambassador in the middle east giving some Americans a good name.

Loreen / October 25, 2010 8:58 AM