Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xix

After that uplifted halt, which refreshed the Europeans but did not suit the health of the attendants, we descended, crossed the Zalaki valley and a low ridge, with populous camps, into the valley of the Mauri Zarin, where the nomads were busy harvesting, forded the river, and proceeded up its left bank to a dusty level on which a deep ravine opens, apparently blocked up by a castellated and nearly inaccessible rock of great height. At this place, where the Badush joins the Mauri Zarin, we were obliged to camp close to some Ilyat tents, which involved crowds, many demands, much noise, and much vigilance.

We were then in the territory of Mirab Khan, the chief of the Isawand tribe, between whom and Aslam Khan there is a blood feud, with most deadly enmity. He sent word that he was not well, and asked the Agha to go to see him, which he did, telling him that the Hakīm would also visit him. Later, taking Mirza and two guides, I forded and followed up the Ab-i-Arjanak for two miles by a most remarkable cañon. The lower part of its sides is steep and rocky, though not too steep for the growth of tamarisk scrub and much herbage, but above are prodigious conglomerate cliffs, and below, the river, which narrows to a stream, is concealed by enormous masses of conglomerate rock. This cleft must be fully 800 feet below the heights which surround it. A ridge runs across it at Arjanak, and the river passes underground.

The village and “Diz”58 of Mirab Khan are reached by a frightfully steep ascent. Arjanak has been built for security on some narrow ledges below these colossal walls. It is a mere eyrie, a collection of rude stone hovels, one above the other, among which the Khan’s house is distinguishable only by its balakhana and larger size. The paths on the dusty hillside are so narrow and shelving that I needed a helping hand as well as a stick to enable me to reach a small, oblong, rug-covered platform under some willow trees, where Mirab Khan received me, with a very repulsive-looking Seyyid scribe seated by him in front of a samovar and tea equipage, from which he produced delicious tea, flavoured with lime-juice. The Khan was courteous, i.e. he rose, and did not sit down till I did.

He is a most deplorable-looking man, very tall and thin, with faded, lustreless gray eyes, hollow, sallow cheeks, and a very lank, ugly, straight-haired beard, light brown in the middle. He and Khaja Taimur look more like decayed merchants than chiefs of “tribes of armed horsemen.” I was very sorry for him, for he evidently suffers much, but then and afterwards he impressed me unfavourably, and I much doubt his good faith. He said he heard I should spend two or three days at Arjanak, and all he had was mine. He was not “like some people,” he said, “who professed great friendship for people and then forgot all about them. When I make a friendship,” he said, “it is for ever.” I asked him if his tribe was at peace. “Peace,” he replied sententiously, “is a word unknown to the Bakhtiaris.” In fact he has more than one blood feud on hand. He complained bitterly of the exactions of Persia, and added the conjecture, expressed by many others, that England would shortly occupy Luristan, and give them equity and security. Another Khan of some power said to me that if England were to occupy south-west Persia, he would help her with 400 horsemen, and added, “An English fleet at Basrah, with an English army on board, would be the best sight which Bakhtiari eyes could see.”59

I had to hear the long story of the Khan’s complicated maladies, to look at many bad eyes, and at the wounds of a poor fellow suffering from snake-bite, who was carried on another man’s back, and to promise to bring up my medicine chest the following day, the fame of the “leather box” having reached Arjanak.

On my way I had called at the haram, and the ladies accompanied me to the durbar, conduct which I think was not approved of, as they told me the next morning that they must not go there. After the Agha returned, the three wives and many other women clustered timidly round me. Two of them are very bright and pretty, and one, a Persian, very affectionate in her manner. She held my hand all the time. There was also a handsome daughter, with a baby, the discarded wife of a son of the next Khan. In winter, they said, they amuse themselves by singing, and playing with their children, and by making a few clothes, and the Persian embroiders boys’ caps.

Aziz Khan has been irrepressible lately. His Arab mare is his idol, not because she is a lovable animal and carries him well, but because she is valuable property. He fusses about her ceaselessly, and if he were allowed would arrange the marches and the camping-grounds with reference solely to her well-being. She is washed from her nose to the tip of her tail every evening, clothed, and kept by the camp-fire. She is a dainty, heartless, frivolous creature, very graceful and pretty, and in character much like a selfish, spoilt woman.

Unfortunately, in one of the many attempted fights among the horses, Screw kicked her on the chest and fore-leg a few days ago, which has made a quarrel between Hadji, Screw’s owner, and Aziz. Now Aziz is making me a slave to his animal. That night, after a tiring day, I was sleeping soundly when I was awakened by Aziz saying I must come to his mare or he would stay behind with her the next day. This is his daily threat. So I had to bring her inside my tent, and sleepily make a poultice and bandage the hurt. I have very little vaseline, and after putting it twice on the slight graze on her chest, which it cured, I said, when he asked for it a third time, that I must keep the rest for men. “Oh,” he said, “she’s of more value than ten men.” Lately he said, “I don’t like you at all, you give me many things, but you don’t give me money; and I don’t like the Agha, he doesn’t give me half enough. I’m going back tomorrow, and then you’ll be robbed of all your things, and you’ll wish you had given them to me.”

When I do anything, such as opening a whitlow, which he thinks clever, he exclaims, “May God forgive your sins!” This, and “May God forgive the sins of your father and mother!” are ejaculations of gratitude or surprise. One day when I had been attending to sick people for four hours, I asked him which was the more “meritorious” act, attending to the sick or going on pilgrimage? He replied, “For a Kafir no act is good,” but soon added, “Of a truth God doesn’t think as we do, I don’t know.”

Yesterday he came for plaster, and while I cut it he saw a padlock pincushion with a mirror front on my bed, and said, “You’ve given me nothing today, you must give me that because my mare kicked me.” But I like him. He is a brave fellow, and with a large amount of the mingled simplicity and cunning of a savage has a great deal of thought, information, and ability, and a talk with him is worth having.

Mirab Khan had promised that not only guides but his son would accompany the Agha, but when I arrived at his eyrie the next morning it was evident that something was wrong, for the Agha looked gloomy, and Mirab Khan uncomfortable, and as I was dressing the wound of the snake-bitten man, the former said, “So far as I can see, we are in a perfect hornets’ nest.” Neither son nor guides were forthcoming. It was necessary to use very decided language, after which the Khan professed that he had withheld them in order to compel us to be his guests, and eventually they were produced.

I called again on the ladies, who received me in a sort of open stable, horses on one side and women on the other, in a crowd and noise so overpowering that I was obliged to leave them, but not before I had been asked for needles, scissors, love philtres, etc. Polygamy, besides being an atrocious system, is very hard on a traveller’s resources. I had brought presents for four legitimate wives, but not for the crowd of women who asked for them. Each wife wanted to get her present unknown to the others. Later they returned my visit, and were most importunate in their requests.

When I went to say farewell to the Khan I found him on his knees, bowing his forehead to the earth upon a Mecca prayer-stone, and he concluded his prayers before he spoke — not like many of us, who would jump up ashamed and try to seem as if we never demeaned ourselves by an act of devotion. His village, Diz Arjanak, has a Diz, or stronghold, with a limited supply of water. It is the raison d’être of his residence there. This Diz consists of a few shelves or cavities, chiefly artificial, scooped out in the face of the perpendicular cliff above the village. They are only attainable by a very difficult climb, have no internal communication, and would not hold more than 150 people. In one cavity there is a small perennial spring. The largest recess is said to be twelve feet deep by about twenty long, and has a loop-holed breastwork across the entrance. In case of attack the Khan and the people provision this hiding-place, and retire to it, believing it impregnable.

Mirab Khan on this and a later occasion complained, and apparently with good reason, of grinding exactions on the part of Persia. The Isawands, like the Magawes and Zalakis, pay their tribute partly to Burujird and partly to the Ilkhani. The sum formerly fixed and paid was 150 tumans. It was raised to 300, which was paid for two years. Now, he says, this year’s demand (1890) is for 500.

We left Diz Arjanak rather late in the afternoon, ascended a valley which opens out beyond it, forded the green bright waters of the Mauri Zarin, and crossed beautiful open hillsides and elevated plateaux on its right bank till we lost it in a highly picturesque gorge. Some miles of very pleasant riding brought us to a rocky and dangerous path along the side of a precipice above the river Badush, so narrow as to involve the unloading of several mules, and a bad slip and narrow escape on the part of mine. The scenery is singularly wild and severe. Crossing the Badush, and ascending a narrow ravine through which it flows, we camped at its source at the junction of two wild gullies, where the Sahib, after sundry serious risks, had already arrived. We did not see a single camp after leaving Arjanak, and were quite unmolested during a halt of two nights; but it is an atmosphere of danger and possible treachery.

Camp Badush, at a height of 9100 feet, though shut in by high mountains, was cool — a barren, rocky, treeless spot. A great deal of bituminous shale was lying about, which burned in the camp-fires fairly well, but with a black heavy smoke and a strong smell.

The limestone fragments which lay about, on being split, emitted a powerful odour of bitumen. Farther up the gully there is a chalybeate spring, and the broken fragments of the adjacent rocks are much stained with iron. After a restful halt we retraced our route by a low path which avoided the difficult precipices above the Badush, forded it several times, crossed a low pass, descended to the valley of the Mauri Zarin, forded the river, and marched for some miles along its left bank, till the valley opened on great grassy slopes, the skirts of the rocky spurs which buttress the grand mountain Shuturun, the “Camel Mountain,” so called from its shape. It was a very uninteresting march, through formless gravelly hills, with their herbage all eaten down, nothing remaining but tamarisk scrub and a coarse yellow salvia. There were neither camps nor travellers; indeed, one need never look for camps where there is no herbage.

This is a charming camping-ground covered with fine turf, damp, I fear, and some of the men are “down” with fever and rheumatism. There is space to see who comes and who goes, and though the altitude is only 8400 feet, last night was quite cool. Ischaryar, Aziz Khan’s devoted young servant, the gentlest and kindest Bakhtiari I have seen, became quite ill of acute rheumatism with fever, and felt so very ill and weak that he thought he was going to die. I sent some medicine to him, but he would not take it, saying that his master had spoken unkindly to him, and he had no wish to live. However, this morbid frame of mind was overcome by firm dealing, and Aziz attended to him all night, and salol, etc., are curing him.

He is the one grateful creature that I have seen among these Orientals, and his gratitude is in return for a mere trifle. We were fording a stream one hot day, and seeing him scooping up water with difficulty in his hands, I took out my mug for him. Ever since he has done anything that he can for me. He brings tasteful little bouquets of flowers, gathers wild cherries, and shows the little courtesies which spring from a kindly nature. He said several times to Mirza, “It isn’t only that the Khanum gave me the cup, but she took trouble for me.” It may be imagined what a desert as to grateful and kindly feeling I am living in when this trifle appears like an oasis. Hard, cunning, unblushing greed is as painful a characteristic of the Bakhtiaris as it is of the Persians.

Hassan is now “down with fever” and the opium craving, and one of the charvadars with fever. The cold winds of Gunak were too much for them. All day shots have been heard among the near mountains. The Hajwands, a powerful tribe, and the Abdulwands are fighting about a recent cutting off of a cow’s tail, but the actual cause of the feud is deeper, and dates farther back. Aziz Khan wants us to return to Diz Arjanak, fearing that we may become implicated, and the Agha is calling him a coward, and telling him to ride back alone. Bang! Bang! The firing is now close and frequent, and the dropping shots are varied by straggling volleys. With the glasses I can see the tribesmen loading and firing on the crests of the near hills. A great number are engaged. One tribe has put up a stone breastwork at our end of the valley, but the enemy is attacking the other.

3 P.M. — An hour ago Mirab Khan arrived with a number of armed horse and footmen. Before he left he spent, I may say wasted, nearly an hour of my time again on his maladies, and again wrote down the directions for his medicines. Volleys fired very near startled him into departing, and he rode hastily back to Arjanak, fearing, as he said, an attack. Nominally, he armed the guides and the men he left behind, but one of the guns has neither caps nor powder, and another has only three caps. All the animals have been driven in.

4 P.M. — A man with grimy arms bare to the elbow has just run down to the Agha’s camp from the conflict. He says that his people, who are greatly inferior to the Hajwands in numbers, thought it was the camp of the Shah’s revenue collector, and sent him to ask him to mediate. The Agha expressed his willingness to become a mediator on certain conditions. There is much excitement in camp, all the men who are well crowding round this envoy, who is guilty of saying that fifty men are to attack our camps to-night.

7.30 P.M. — The Agha, with the Sahib and Aziz Khan, three brave men mounted and armed with rifles and revolvers, went to mediate. I went to a knoll in the valley with some of our men, above which on either side were hills occupied by the combatants, and a large number of tribesmen crowned the crest of a hill lying across the ravine higher up. The firing was frequent, but at long range, and I was near enough to see that only one man fell.

Our party rode on till they reached the top of a low ridge, where they dismounted, reconnoitred, and then passed out of sight, being fired on by both parties. The tribesmen kept on firing irregularly from the hill crests, occasionally running down the slopes, firing and running into cover. The Sahib’s tufangchi, who is of Cheragh Ali’s tribe, asked me, “Is this the way they fight in your country,” I asked him if he would not like to be fighting? and he replied, “Yes, if it were my quarrel.” The sun was very bright, the sky very blue, and the smoke very white as it drifted over the lonely ravine and burst in clouds from the hill-tops. I saw the combatants distinctly without a glass, and heard their wild war-shouts. What a matter for regret is this useless tribal fighting, with its dreary consequences of wailing women and fatherless children! “Why don’t the English come and take us? Why don’t the English come and give us peace?” are surely the utterances of a tired race.

After sunset the Agha returned, having so far succeeded in his mission that the headmen have promised to suspend hostilities for tomorrow, but still shots are fired now and then. I. L. B.

58 A “Diz” is a natural fort believed to be impregnable.

59 To English people the Bakhtiaris profess great friendliness for England, and the opinion has been expressed by some well-informed writers that, in the event of an English occupation of the country, their light horse, drilled by English officers, would prove valuable auxiliaries. I am inclined, however, to believe that if a collision were to occur in south-west Persia between two powers which shall be nameless, the Bakhtiari horsemen would be sold to the highest bidder.

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