Sunday, March 06, 2011

Kurds Away

Our last stop on our little road trip was the Howraman valleys in Kurdistan close to the Iraqi border. From the mountains of Luristan the route wound northwards to the mountains of Kurdistan. Finally, as opposed to most of the mountains in Iran which are separated by wide, flat valleys, here they were squeezed together to form proper, vertiginous mountain valleys more reminiscent of the Hindu Kush.

The mountain road from Nosud to Nodesheh rises to over 2000m with stunning views over the nearby mountains and the Iraqi border just down the valley.

My reason for coming was to visit the Howraman valleys, known as a picturesque idyll and bastion of Kurdish culture. However, completely by chance, whilst talking to the Kurdish busboy at a hotel, we discovered that the main pilgrimage site of the Ahl-e Haqq's was along the road we were planning to take the next day. The Ahl-e Haqqs (aka Yarsans) are, like the Yezidis, one of the 3 Yazdani Kurdish religions, and perhaps the least well known. Although the regime doesn't overtly persecute them followers find life in the Islamic Republic very difficult*. To make life easier on themselves many aspects of Islam have been incorporated into the outward manifestation of the religion to try and blend in. Indeed, many Iranians, even non-Ahle-e Haqq Kurds, don't realise that it's a very distinct religion. If you didn't know what you were looking for you would miss the turn-off to the shrine completely as it disappears down a steep mountain slope from the main road as it hairpins high up the valley; a small, hand-written sign is the only indication that there is something at the end of the dirt track as it careers down to the fast river beneath. A bumpy 6km later and we reached the valley floor and a haphazard collection of rather tatty tombs that are the focus of the Ahl-e Haqq faith. Initially the caretakers were (justifiably) wary of us and rather curt, but when they saw that we were not only foreign but that I actually knew something about their religion they opened up and told us something of their troubles living in the Islamic Republic. Despite the rundown air I found the place charmingly relaxing. Apart from us there were only a handful of local pilgrims, almost certainly due to the remote location and shocking road that leads there. Dad was not impressed with the poor access road and asked whether they were planning to asphalt it, to which the man gave a reply I completely adored: "we don't want to turn the place into a tourist attraction; if people really want to visit then they will come regardless."

The tomb of Sultan Sahak looks rather underwhelming as the epicentre of a religion.

Due to their remote location, both topographically, but also right on the border with Iraq, the Howraman valleys have remained relatively untouched by outside influences and so the Kurdish culture is more evident. This is seen in the clothes people wear, both the colourful dresses of the women and the typical patol jumpsuits of the men, and even, in some places, the unique "horned" leather waistcoats worn by older men. The landscape is stunning, but harsh. Snow was thick on the ground, whilst only 100km to the south the weather was balmy; and without a single flat piece of ground it's hard to eke out a living farming. The villages climb the steep mountainsides, the roof of one forming the yard of the one above, whilst the lower reaches are terraced with orchards of walnut, pomegranate and apple and small fields for wheat and potatoes. Despite the cold the welcome was warm and although we arrived in Howramanat Takht late in the evening and finding no room at the town's only inn it was relatively easy to find a local who rented out his own house to us (whilst he and his wife decamped upstairs to his parents' for the night).

These "horned" leather waistcoats are unique to the Howraman valleys and look absolutely amazing. No evil supervillain wardrobe should be without one.

Two Kurdish men in traditional patol costumes overlook the town of Howramanat Takht, camouflaged in the steep mountainside.

*For the mullahs there are only 3 permissible religions: Judaism (interestingly, despite belligerent, anti-Zionist declamations by the current president, Iran has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel, and the oldest unbroken Jewish community in the world. A few years back Israel offered the Iranian Jews $10,000 to relocate to Israel, an offer that was flatly rejected by the community leaders who said that the Iranian Jews were not for sale.), Christianity and Islam, the latter being the last religion to be founded and therefore the most perfect. If you happen to mention to a Believer that there have, in fact, been religions founded since Islam, most notably Sikhism and the Baha'i Faith, they dismissively reject them as cults and unworthy of discussion. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of religious dogma!

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