Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter x

Kûm, March 23.

This so far is a delightful journey. All the circumstances are favourable. A friend who was sending his servants, horses, and baggage to Isfahan has lent me a thoroughbred, and with a trustworthy young soldier as my escort I do not trouble myself about the caravan at all, and get over much of the ground at a gallop. The roads have nearly dried up, the country looks cheerful, travellers are numerous, living and dead, the sun is bright but the air is cool and bracing, and the insects are still hybernating, Mirza Yusuf is getting into my “ways,” and is very pleasant. I did not think that I could have liked Persian travelling so well. A good horse and a good pace make an immense difference. It is not the custom for European ladies to travel unattended by European gentlemen in Persia, but no objection to my doing so was made in the highest quarters, either English or Persian, and so far there have been no difficulties or annoyances.

I left the British Legation at noon four days ago. The handsome Arab, with a sheepskin coat rolled on the front of the saddle, holsters, and Persian housings, looked like a life-guardsman’s horse. I nearly came to grief as soon as I got out of the Legation gate; for he would not stand my English snaffle, and reared and threw himself about, and my spur touching him as he did so made him quite wild, and I endured much apprehension all through Tihran, expecting to find myself on the rough pavement; but I took off the offending spur, and rode him on the sharp bit he is used to, and when we were outside the gate he quietened down, and I had a long gallop.

How different it all looks! No more floundering through mud! The trees of Abdul Azim are green. Caravans are moving fast and cheerily. Even the dead on their last journey look almost cheerful under the sunny skies. We did not reach Husseinabad till long after dark. It was so unspeakably dark that my horse and I fell off the road into deep water, and we passed the caravanserai without knowing that we were near it.

The usual disorder of a first night was somewhat worse than usual. The loads were mixed up, and the servants and charvadars were quarrelling, and I did not get my dinner till ten; but things are all right now, and have been since the following morning, when I assumed the reins of government and saw the mules loaded myself, an efficient interpreter making my necessary self-assertion intelligible.

Though the spring has set in, most of the country between this and Tihran looks a complete desert. In February it was a muddy waste — it is now a dusty waste, on which sheep, goats, and camels pick up a gray herbage, which without search is not obvious to the human eye, and consists mostly of wormwood and other bitter and aromatic plants. Off the road a few tulips and dwarf irises coming up out of the dry ground show the change of season.

I came for some distance on one day by a road which caravans avoid because of robbers. It crosses a reddish desert with a few salt streams and much saline efflorescence, a blasted region without a dwelling or patch of cultivation. Yet a four-mile gallop across one part of it was most inspiriting. As the two Arabs, excited by the pace, covering great spaces of ground with each powerful stride, dashed over the level gravel I thought, “They’ll have fleet steeds that follow”; but no steed or rider or bird or beast was visible through all that hungry land. We passed also close to a salt lake on the Kavir, seen in the distance on the former journey, near which are now pitched a quantity of Ilyat tents, all black. The wealth of these nomads is in camels, sheep, and goats. Though the camps, five in number, were small, they had over 200 camels among them.

Where four weeks ago there was deep mud there is now the glittering semblance of unsullied snow, and the likeness of frost crystals fills the holes. Miles of camels loaded with cotton march with stately stride in single file, the noble mountain camel, with heavy black fur on neck, shoulder, fore-arm, and haunch, and kindly gentle eyes, looking, as he is, the king of baggage animals, not degraded by servitude, though he may carry 800 lbs.

Some of the sights of the road were painful. For instance, just as I passed a caravan of the dead bound for Kûm a mule collided with another and fell, and the loosely-put-together boxes on its back gave way and corpses fell out in an advanced stage of decomposition. A camel just dead lay in a gully. On a ledge of rock above it seven gorged vultures (not the bald-headed) sat in a row. They had already feasted on him to repletion. I passed several dead camels, and one with a pleading pathetic face giving up the ghost on the road.

Yesterday I rode in here from the magnificent caravanserai of Shashgird, sixteen miles in three hours before lunch, and straight through the crowded bazars to the telegraph office unmolested, an Afghan camel-driver’s coat, with the wool outside, having proved so good a disguise that the gholam who was sent to meet me returned to his master saying that he had not seen a lady, but that a foreign soldier and sahib had come into Kûm.

When my visit was over and I had received from Mr. Lyne the route to Isfahan, and such full information about rooms, water, and supplies as will enable me to give my own orders, and escape from the tyranny of the charvadars, having sent the horses to the caravanserai I disguised myself as a Persian woman of the middle class in the dress which Mrs. Lyne wears in the city, a thick white crêpe veil with open stitch in front of the eyes, a black sheet covering me from head to foot, the ends hanging from the neck by long loops, and held with the left hand just below the eyes, and so, though I failed to imitate the totter and shuffle of a Persian lady’s walk, I passed unnoticed through the long and crowded streets of this fanatical city, attended only by a gholam, and at the door of my own room was prevented from entering by the servants till my voice revealed my identity.

Twice today I have passed safely through the city in the same disguise, and have even lingered in front of shops without being detected. Mr. and Mrs. Lyne have made the two days here very pleasant, by introducing me to Persians in whose houses I have seen various phases of Persian life. On reaching one house, where Mrs. Lyne arrived an hour later, I was a little surprised to be received by the host in uniform, speaking excellent French, but without a lady with him.

He had been very kind to Hadji, who, he says, is rich and has three wives. The poor fellow’s lungs have been affected for two years, and the affection was for the time aggravated by the terrible journey. He talked a good deal about Persian social customs, especially polygamy.

He explained that he has only one wife, but that this is because he has been fortunate. He said that he regards polygamy as the most fruitful source of domestic unhappiness, but that so long as marriages are made for men by their mothers and sisters, a large sum being paid to the bride’s father, a marriage is really buying “a pig in a poke,” and constantly when the bride comes home she is ugly or bad-tempered or unpleasing and cannot manage the house. “This,” he said, “makes men polygamists who would not otherwise be so.

“Then a man takes another wife, and perhaps this is repeated, and then he tries again, and so on, and the house becomes full of turmoil. There are always quarrels in a polygamous household,” he said, “and the children dispute about the property after the father’s death.” Had he not been fortunate, and had not his wife been capable of managing the house, he said that he must have taken another wife, “for,” he added, “no man can bear a badly-managed house.”

I thought of the number of men in England who have to bear it without the Moslem resource.

A lady of “position” must never go out except on Fridays to the mosque, or with her husband’s permission and scrupulously veiled and guarded, to visit her female friends. Girl-children begin to wear the chadar between two and three years old, and are as secluded as their mothers, nor must any man but father or brother see their faces. Some marry at twelve years old.

“La vie des femmes dans la Perse est très triste,” he said. The absence of anything like education for girls, except in Tihran, and the want of any reading-book but the Koran for boys and girls, he regards as a calamity. He may be a pessimist by nature: he certainly has no hope for the future of Persia, and contemplates a Russian occupation as a certainty in the next twenty years.

After a long conversation I asked for the pleasure, not of seeing his wife, but the “mother of his children,” and was rewarded by the sight of a gentle and lovely woman of twenty-one or twenty-two, graceful in every movement but her walk, exquisitely refined-looking, with a most becoming timidity of expression, mingled with gentle courtesy to a stranger. She was followed by three very pretty little girls. The husband and wife are of very good family, and the lady has an unmistakably well-bred look.

Though I knew what to expect in the costume of a woman of the upper classes, I was astonished, and should have been scandalised even had women only been present. The costume of ladies has undergone a great change in the last ninety years, and the extreme of the fashion is as lacking in delicacy as it is in comfort. However, much travelling compels one to realise that the modesty of the women of one country must not be judged of by the rules of another, and a lady costumed as I shall attempt to describe would avert her eyes in horror by no means feigned from an English lady in a Court or evening-dress of today.

The under garment, very much en évidence, is a short chemise of tinselled silk gauze, or gold-embroidered muslin so transparent as to leave nothing to the imagination. This lady wore a skirt of flowered silver brocade, enormously full, ten or twelve yards wide, made to stand nearly straight out by some frills or skirts of very stiffly starched cotton underneath, the whole, not even on a waistband round the waist, but drawn by strings, and suspended over the hips, the skirts coming down to within a few inches of the knee, leaving the white rounded limbs uncovered. The effect of this exaggerated bouffante skirt is most singular. White socks are worn. Over the transparent pirahān, or chemise, she wore a short velvet jacket beautifully embroidered in gold, with its fronts about ten inches apart, so as to show the flowered chemise. Her eyebrows were artificially curved and lengthened till they appeared to meet above her nose, her eyelashes were marked round with kohl, and a band of blue-black paint curving downwards above the nose crossed her forehead, but was all but concealed by a small white square of silk crêpe, on the head and brow and fastened under the chin by a brooch.

Had she been in another house she would have worn a large square of gold-embroidered silk, with the points in front and behind, and fastened under the chin. Under the crêpe square there was a small skull-cap of gold-embroidered velvet, matching her little zouave jacket, with an aigrette of gems at the side. Her arms were covered with bracelets, and a number of valuable necklaces set off the beauty of her dazzlingly white neck.

Persian ladies paint, or rather smear, but her young pure complexion needed no such aids. Her front hair, cut to the level of her mouth, hung down rather straight, and the remainder, which was long, was plaited into many small glossy plaits. Contrary to custom, it was undyed, and retained its jet-black colour. Most Persian ladies turn it blue-black with indigo, or auburn with henna, and with the latter the finger-nails and palms of the hands are always stained.

Her jewellery was all of solid gold; hollow gold and silver ornaments being only worn by the poor. She wore a chain with four scent caskets attached to it exhaling attar of roses and other choice perfumes.

She was a graceful and attractive creature in spite of her costume. She waited on her husband and on me, that is, she poured out the tea and moved about the room for hot water and bonbons with the feeble, tottering gait of a woman quite unaccustomed to exercise, and to whom the windy wastes outside the city walls and a breezy gallop are quite unknown. The little girls were dressed in the style of adults, and wore tinselled gauze chadārs or chargats.

After seeing a good deal of home life during some months in Persia, I have come to the conclusion that there is no child life. Swaddled till they can walk, and then dressed as little men and women, with the adult tyrannies of etiquette binding upon them, and in the case of girls condemned from infancy to the seclusion of the andarun, there is not a trace of the spontaneity and nonsense which we reckon as among the joys of childhood, or of such a complete and beautiful child life as children enjoy in Japan. There does not appear to be any child talk. The Persian child from infancy is altogether interested in the topics of adults; and as the conversation of both sexes is said by those who know them best to be without reticence or modesty, the purity which is one of the greatest charms of childhood is absolutely unknown. Parental love is very strong in Persia, and in later days the devotion of the mother to the boy is amply returned by the grown-up son, who regards her comfort as his charge, and her wishes as law, even into old age.

When tea was over the host retired with the remark that the ladies would prefer to amuse themselves alone, and then a Princess and another lady arrived attended by several servants. This Princess came in the black silk sheet with a suggestion of gold about its border which is the street disguise of women of the richer classes, and she wore huge bag-like violet trousers, into which her voluminous skirts were tucked.

She emerged from these wrappings a “harmony” in rose colour — a comely but over-painted young woman in rose and silver brocade skirts, a rose velvet jacket embroidered in silver, a transparent white muslin pirahān with silver stars upon it, and a chargat of white muslin embroidered in rose silk.

She and the hostess sat on a rug in front of a fire, and servants now and then handed them kalians. The three little girls and the guest’s little girl were in the background. The doors were then fastened and a number of servants came in and entertained their mistresses. Two sang and accompanied themselves on a sort of tambourine. Tea was handed round at intervals. There was dancing, and finally two or three women acted some little scenes from a popular Persian play. By these amusements, I am told, the women of the upper classes get rid of time when they visit each other; and they spend much of their lives in afternoon visiting, taking care to be back before sunset. After a long time the gentle hostess, reading in my face that I was not enjoying the performances, on which indeed unaccustomed English eyes could not look, brought them to a close, and showed me some of her beautiful dresses and embroidered fabrics.

Putting on my disguise and attended by a servant I walked a third time unrecognised and unmolested through the crowded bazars, through the gate and across the bridge, when a boy looked quite into my shroud, which I was not perhaps clutching so tightly as in the crowd, and exclaiming several times Kafir, ran back into the city. I did not run, but got back to the “hotel” as fast as possible.

It is very noisy, and my room being on the ground floor, and having three doors, there is little peace either by day or night. Thirteen days from the No Ruz or New Year, which was March 21, are kept as a feast before the severe fast of the Ramazan, and this city of pilgrims is crowded, and all people put on new clothes, the boys being chiefly dressed in green.

To-morrow I begin my journey over new ground.

I. L. B.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31