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The first time I heard about Iran was at the end of my trek around the Annapurnas, in Nepal. I was chatting on a terrace with a young guy cycling around the world with his uncle. When asked which country he had preferred, he answered without hesitation: “Iran! The people there are incredible and they always invite you, I have never experienced that anywhere else”.

That was almost ten years ago. Fate tickled me again two years ago during a sailing expedition in Greenland. After helping to install a weather station on a glacier, I hit it off with Faezeh and Babak, two Iranian expats now living in Europe. So much that we ended up dancing to Persian music on the deck of a Danish army ship — a real military boat, with armor, guns and all!
– You have to visit Iran. If you come I can introduce you to my family, they can help. There are great mountains, deserts and lovely people. You’ll love it!
– Alright I promise, I’ll visit Iran.

So when the startup I was working for announced a voluntary departure plan, I didn’t hesitate long to seize the opportunity and keep my promise.

Horse carrying wagon at night in Isfahan's Imam square, Iran

First steps in Iran

Sina, Faezeh’s brother, is a wise and smiling young man. He shows me around Tehran. He takes me to a march through the city where thousands of pilgrims dressed in black beat their chests in memory of the death of martyr Hossein. It is the pilgrimage of Arbaeen, a day of sharing where everyone is offered food and drinks. A few hours later, I receive a text message from the embassy recommending me to avoid public demonstrations. Sina explains me that there is nothing to fear because this pilgrimage is not an anti-government demonstration before telling me about a young woman who was supposedly killed by the morality police the day before because she was not wearing her veil correctly, hence the protests to avoid. I would never have imagined at that time that this movement would grow to such an extent — at the time of writing, these protests have been going on for forty days.

One of the advantages of the blockade in Iran is that there are few tourists. Visiting UNESCO world heritage sites and being almost alone, what more could one ask for? I spend several hours in the mosques of Isfahan, nuggets of Persian architecture, observing and photographing the improbable marriages of curves and angles several meters high. Between the visits I join Sina and Sara, a friend of his who brings us to traditional Persian restaurants with breathtaking beauty. But each time they won’t let me pay. In Iran, there is this tradition of taroof which consists in offering out of politeness, even when you don’t feel like it. But theoretically by insisting they should have given in. Alas, I had to develop a more aggressive technique: throwing myself at the front, card in hand, when it’s time to pay the bill. It worked and I finally managed to pay! Except that the next day Sara contacts me: « By the way, I need your receipt from yesterday because Sina had already paid the restaurant when he left. You will be reimbursed on your card… ». I give up.

The hospitality doesn’t stop at friends. When I wear the camera around my neck I am regularly approached by random people, young and old: « Welcome to Iran! » — even the merchants in the bazaar are delighted to invite me for saffron tea and sometimes deep discussions in their stall even though they know I won’t buy anything. « First, human relations. Then maybe business » as they say. But when I start to get tired and want to be left alone I put my camera away and, thanks to my Mediterranean appearance, the only people who now approach me do so in Persian, a language I don’t speak. Convenient indeed!

Woman walking in Smajed-e-Jameh in Isfahan, Iran

I am feeling at ease in this country and rediscover the joy of meeting strangers. Through these new ephemeral friendships I feel the lightness of life of the traveler who doesn’t know what tomorrow will be made of and voluntarily lets himself be carried away like a dead leaf on a river.

Towards Zagros mountains

It is on the way to Zagros mountains, where I’m about to follow the transhumance of the Bakhtiari nomads, that shit starts hitting the fan. It is supposed to be the highlight of this trip in Iran but after ten hours in buses and cabs, my back hurts. « This feeling, I know it. No, that can’t be… not now! ». The next day, while driving on the bumpy tracks, I have to face the evidence. This pain starting from the back and ending at the buttock resembles badly the sciatica which handicapped me in Mongolia — once again, I was with nomads… correlation or causality? 🤔

Driving through Zagros trails, Iran

We stop at a first village. Mohammad, our guide, offers dates and cigarettes to the inhabitants. It’s part of the « pact » he made with them. Here, one doesn’t come empty-handed. This territory has been defended by the Bakhtiari for centuries. From feared plunderers they have become nomadic shepherds but they remain mountain people with a rough life. In order to help them keep their culture alive, he has been cultivating a relationship of friendship and exchange with the few families who have not yet settled.

At the end of the track I learn that we will not have mules to carry the bags to the nomads’ camp as planned. Shit! I had generously loaded mine because I was not going to carry it. These 20 kg on my back with the sciatica… I have a bad feeling. Benham, a twenty-five years old Bakhtiari as talkative as a magpie and a born joker, guides us towards his family’s camp — Mohammad will confide to me later that he could not translate all his jokes because he never stopped. The hybrid landscape between the harshness of the Mustang desert and the softness of the oak forests of Provence is delicious, but the heat and thirst affect this idyllic experience. Fortunately, we left after sunset.

River in the arid landscapes of the Zagros mountains, Iran

Darkness soon covers us. We need to be careful with the scorpions and spiders that indulge themselves between the rocks on which we rest our sweaty carcass a little too often. Dried out after having walked several hours under a canopy of oaks pierced by starlight, we are welcomed by Behnam’s family with fresh spring water — never water tasted so good! Sitting on carpets under a precarious roof of dead branches and lit by the glow of a flickering fire, we share a hot meal and tea. Seized by fatigue we then fall asleep, eyes riveted to the stars, as do the Bakhtiari in the summer.

Scorpion in Zagros mountains, Iran
Spider in Zagros mountains, Iran

The transhumance — the ‘kooch’

The sun is still below the horizon when I wake up. In front of me stand a mountain range that seems infinite and the silhouette of Marziye, Behnam’s sister, lighting the fire. I feel as if I’m dreaming but an anguish brings me back to reality: is the pain still there? An electric shock hits me in my buttock and makes me scream when I try to stand up. This time I’m convinced: I have sciatica and yesterday’s walk amplified it. What am I going to do? Will I be able to walk? After all, in Mongolia I managed to drag myself for more than a month even if in the end I arrived home in a terrible state with a herniated disc as a bonus. I try not to think about it and to enjoy the hot tea before taking a couple of pictures — while limping. After an hour, the main lens of my camera fails. I can’t focus anymore. They say that « bad things never come alone ». Fuckin’ proverb! I am disintegrating. Fortunately I always have with me a few fixed lenses that can serve as a backup. I’ll have to make do with them even if it adds an extra constraint.

Bakhtiari nomads warming by a fire early morning in the Zagros mountains, Iran
Bakhtiari family preparing for the kooch under sunrise light. Zagros mountains, Iran

Sheep and goats have been regrouped, belongings loaded on mules and donkeys. It is time to leave. It is not even 10 AM but the sun is hitting hard. I’m going to talk about it once and for all so as not to repeat myself: I have felt thirst every single day, almost all the time, so much so that I could sometimes hardly swallow. And yet, I drank gallons of water. Between heat, dust and the dryness of the air my body never seemed to be satisfied. Fortunately, the pain signals sent by my sciatic nerve rarely occurred while climbing (70% of the trek). It was during the stops that I suffered the most: sitting down, lying down, bending over to get water, taking off or putting on my shoes, … all these little everyday gestures became torture. And let’s not talk about the low angle photos.

Bakhtiari herder with his goats and sheeps in the Zagros mountains, Iran, for the kooch (transhumance)

I have become a walking ruin but the landscapes and the way of life of these nomads fascinate me. This is where photography plays an important role. As soon as I enter a photographic flow, everything happening outside the frame disappears. The only thing that counts in these moments are the shepherds gathering their flock, the silhouettes of my fellow travelers around the fire, the arid landscapes softened by the light of the setting sun… But once the camera is slung over my shoulder, the pain comes back and brings me back to reality.

Bakhtiari nomad on horse with his gun during the autumn kooch (transhumance) in the Zagros moutains, Iran
Young Bakhtiari nomad handling a goat. Autumn kooch (transhumance) in the Zagros mountains, Iran

Three days later we arrive at the edge of a road. A few squabbles have taken place with other nomadic families. Nothing serious, just a territorial dispute. It is pitch black, the men gather the animals without light. Do they do it by ear? Marziyeh lights a fire and then starts baking flat breads on a metal saucer covered with ashes. Tonight we feast. For the occasion a sheep will be transformed into kebab. I don’t like killing scenes, but this one is masterfully handled. A sheep is isolated then hidden from the others. They comfort it, give it a drink, then gently tie its legs before slitting its throat. No scream, no sudden gesture. The scene is solemn. We are a world apart from the slaughterhouses. The carcass is then hung from a tree and cut with precision before being grilled on skewers over the camp fire. A treat!

Bakhtiari nomads during the autumn kooch (transhumance) in Zagros mountains, Iran
Young bakhtiari woman preparing flat bread during the autumn kooch (transhumance) in Zagros mountains, Iran

As I wake up, I feel an excruciating pain now extending to my knee. I must have given everything I could, maybe too much. I get up and try to walk a few steps to relax my back. No relief, this pain is tough. The sun rises on a dry mountain, just my kind of images. I take a few shots but my head is elsewhere, I feel like crying. I was starting to feel alive again and now this shit happens. There are six days of intense walking left, I will not be able to handle that. If I keep going I’ll end up with a paralyzed leg and then need back surgery. I must give up. Mohammad comforts me: « You made the right choice ». With a tear in my eye I greet one last time the rough but adorable mountain people who have been fascinating me. Several attempts and cries of pain later, I finally get into the 4WD vehicle. As we drive through the mountains I am already nostalgic for the nights in the open air, the waking up around the camp fire, the early afternoon breaks drinking tea and napping under the oaks, the long days of walking in the arid landscape. I have tasted and enjoyed every minute of this outdoor life, now I have to return to the oppression of the city.

Sunrise over Zagros mountains, Iran

Back to Isfahan: A visit to the hospital

In Isfahan the situation has worsened. The protests have grown and are now happening daily. I hear them passing in front of the hostel — as a tourist, you’d better avoid finding yourself in the middle of those or you might end up in jail. Besides, there are almost no tourists left. In the hostel we are four foreigners, then four becomes two. Luckily, a few Iranians are also here. The atmosphere is weird but we meet every morning at breakfast to exchange jokes and brighten up the mood.

Architectural details of Masjed-e-Jameh in Isfahan, Iran

Now I have to go to the hospital. Maybe with a good treatment I’ll be fine in a few days. I am welcomed by a guy who speaks a few words of English. He takes me under his wing. Here, every act — consultation, purchase of medication, treatment — requires a checkout. I enter the doctor’s office with my ticket. He speaks English, but barely enough for us to understand each other, then hands me a scribbled piece of paper: his prescription — do all doctors get trained to write like pigs, no matter what country? 😅

The nurse who is going to give me the injection is an imposing woman with a placid look. She must have jabbed quite a lot of buttocks to look that jaded. I feel like she’s going to hurt me. It may even be her little pleasure to pierce people’s asses with those big syringes, who knows? Ouch! She smashes mine, but I thank her anyway. She doesn’t flinch and leaves without even saying goodbye. The next day I repeat the experience, this time by calling a nurse to the hostel and I didn’t feel anything — one can deduce what one wants… 🤨

Architectural details of Masjed-e-Jameh in Isfahan, Iran

After these injections I am supposed to lie down for three days. Alone in a dormitory of six, that’s more than enough time to mull over. I try without success to forget that I should be with my nomadic friends in the mountains… So I read. A lot. I travel by proxy through « Flash or the Great Trip » by Duchaussois (apparently not yet translated to English), an adventure in the golden age of travel ending in a drug addict’s bad trip in Kathmandu. It puts things in perspective. Thanks to the corticosteroids, pain subsided. But it’s still there, slumbering in a corner of my buttocks. I sink into gloom. My only hope was that I could continue this trip to Iran, which was supposed to last two months, but I am still stuck. I feel guilty when I think that right now people are being killed in the streets but my little self feels strangely more important. Now I have to plan an early return with a slow and censored internet connection. The lightness I was beginning to feel is now gone.

Back to France

The return trip will be long. I need to take a six-hour bus ride to Tehran, then two three-to-four-hours flights with multiple hours waits in between. I’m going to need another shot to get through this. The memories of my comeback from Mongolia are engraved in my mind: I arrived in France in such pain that I had to bend over on the side to be able to line up one step in front of the other. So before taking the bus, I take a cab back to the hospital. The frustrated nurse is still there. She’s going to smash me again, and she doesn’t fail at it! By the doors of the hospital my friend recognizes me — now calling me Georges. He introduces me to a fluent English-speaking doctor offering me a pack of medicines to soothe the pain during the trip. Even in hospitals, Iranians are generous and have a sense of hospitality.

Thanks to the pills and the injection the trip hasn’t been too hard. Now landed in France, the stewardess does her best to organize the exit of the plane whose doors aren’t open yet. A guy, annoyed to wait, gets up and yells at her before rushing to his luggage. A part of the flock follows his initiative. I can see hopelessness in her eyes — which I understand, really. Welcome to Gaul! A cab comes to pick me up — thanks insurance. During the whole trip he talks to me about covid, vaccines, Macron… I can’t take it anymore. The following days, unable to do anything, not even to sit my ass on a chair for more than thirty minutes, I sink into the abyss. I have no more desire to read, to listen to music… I don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t even enjoy eating the tomatoes from my garden anymore. I binge-watch series in the hope of lobotomizing myself. On top of that, a flu keeps me stuck for two days. I hope I have touched the bottom because the summit now seems very, very far away!

A month later, my situation improves. I can now live an almost normal life: edit my photos, write, walk a few hours (on flat ground). I’m going back up the slope, step by step. Here I find myself again up for a long trek, this time in a figurative way. I have taken a good slap in the face, but it reminded me that this is also what traveling is about: getting beaten up in order to rise again, stronger.

Architectural details of Shah mosque in Isfahan, Iran


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