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Three Vignettes on Turkmenistan


02 Oct 2010 19:012 Comments

[ passport ] I met Nima, a driver, and Susanna, a translator, in the town of Gonbad e Kavus. As soon as we drove north of town we entered an other-worldly landscape of spiked brown hills that rippled past the nearby border into Turkmenistan. Although this peaceful, monochromatic region is often overlooked by tourists, curious artifacts emerge if you spend enough time looking: A fifth-century Nestorian Christian's shrine which draws Muslim Pilgrims; an American woman's farm which successfully back-bred the miniature Caspian horse; a thousand-year-old tower built for a poet; the rare delicacy of drinking horse milk; and of course, the chance to sleep in an authentic Turkmen reed-ringed tent, called an oy.

Another American in Iran

In the middle of nowhere we stopped in a desolate "village" called Gharra Tappeh Sheikh. From what I saw, it was not so much a village but one person's farm: an American woman by the name of Louise Firouz, who is world famous for reviving the population of the miniature Caspian Horse, once thought to be extinct. She'd lived in Iran since the 1950s with her husband, an Iranian aristocrat. Louise had not only endured the region's austerity, but served six weeks of prison time during the revolution. She'd paid her dues even by Iranian standards. I couldn't wait to meet her. However, on arrival to her farm, we received the very sad news that Louise had unfortunately just passed away at the age of 74.

Her staff now inhabited her farm with its few small houses and looked after her three dogs, who showed signs that they were better cared for under Louise's charge. The American love for dogs does not generally exist in Iran, and even this woman's legacy couldn't guarantee their proper care. It was sad to see a place that had obviously been built from the heart lose its soul in the absence of the spirit that had created it.

Still, I tried to coach the caretaker that the dogs need more than stale bread to eat. The keeper's expression said to me, "Crazy dog lady," more than, "Okay I'll try," as I hugged and petted the very friendly mixed-breed dogs. At least I could leave them with a little TLC.

The dogs followed closely as we toured the farm. The giant oy where Louise once hosted travelers was now empty, except for some scattered trash on the floor. The largest spider I had ever seen spun its web in a corner. We would not spend the night here as we'd hoped.

We were brought to the room where Louise used to sleep. The dogs congregated at her door, looking disheartened, perhaps remembering the woman who had once treated them with kindness. It broke my heart to see their despair, and Susanna suggested we launch an Internet campaign to find the dogs more suitable owners.

Pagan Cemetery

From Louise's farm we made our way to Khalid Nibi's green-roofed tomb. Khalid Nibi was said to be a fifth century Nestorian Christian from Yemen. Some describe him as a prophet, and others say that he spoke of Jesus' second coming. I could not get a consistent account as to exactly who he was, but no matter, his final resting place had become a Sunni Muslim pilgrimage site. I could see why the site attracts those seeking communion with God. The shrine rises dramatically above the sea of stark brown hills and is the only glimmer of life for miles.

We hiked from the shrine along a narrow dirt path that snaked down the peaks to the valley and led to a lawn browned from the sun. Large gray phallic gravestones rose from every which way like oddly stunted trees. Susanna explained that the spot is an ancient pagan cemetery from pre-Islamic days, and the phalluses indicate where a man was buried; a butterfly-shaped stone marked a woman's plot. The importance of the individual determines the size of their grave marker.

Several of the markers had been lopped off, supposedly by teen vandals. Of course, I kept thinking, I can't believe such a place exists in Iran.

The women's gravestones were close to the ground, usually dwarfed by even the least important men. On closer examination the women's butterfly-shaped gravestones reminded me of a set ovaries. They reminded Susanna of breasts. We had to assume that this place was rarely mentioned in tourist brochures for a reason.

The Search for a Horse Milking

After visiting the cemetery, we cruised the valley in search of horse milking, apparently not such a rarity in central Asia. Horse milk is said to carry fruity undertones, like the bouquet of a descent pinot noir, plus it is chock full of nutrients not found in cow's milk. It's a delicacy like caviar because it is so hard to get -- horses only have two mammary glands, and apparently they are not strategically placed.

People have been seriously injured while milking horses. We came across a tiny village made up of about five dirt-brown block-shaped homes and asked the first person we saw about horse milking. It turned out to be the mayor of the village. He invited us to his home where we sipped tea, and his wife insisted on our joining them for lunch. There was no horse milk, but instead the mayor took us outside to visit his two baby camels that were tied to a pole on a rope and baking in the oppressive afternoon heat as a few cows reclined beneath some nearby shade.

The mayor changed the subject from camels and horses to politics. He wanted to know who I preferred: Bush or Obama. He told us he admires Bush. He said that when there are dictators like there was in Iraq, a "strong hand" is needed. "A dictator needs to deal with a dictator," Susanna translated. Susanna and I spoke of Obama's talents, but the mayor swatted his hand at us like we were dreamy-eyed, idealistic young girls. "Obama only wants peace."

A Bush fan in Iran. He was not the first I'd met.

Back in the house, the mayor's young daughter made faces at me from across the room, sticking out her tongue, crossing her eyes. When I returned the gestures, she ran out of the room screaming and trembling. Her father pleaded for her to come back, but she ignored him. It didn't seem like the mayor ruled his household with the iron fist of his favorite world politicians.

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

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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Obama only wants peace- we can,t have that can we.

pirooz / October 3, 2010 7:46 PM

Ha! Good ending!

Here's some odd religious trivia. Though they are not always very kind to dogs, many Moslems have a soft spot for cats. Apparently Muhammad's wife owned a cat (or several), and so her husband was affectionate to them. In some Moslem countries I've visited, cats wait for choice scraps outside butcher shops while dogs prowl miserably through the trash. Strange to think of the Prophet as a cat person!

Jeff Greenwald / October 4, 2010 1:36 AM