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Yazd, my love
Where kind hands bring small paradises into living

December 16, 1999
The Iranian

I have fallen in love. Head-over-heels, utterly, magnificently. With the desert city of Yazd.

Shiraz and Isfahan may be the glittering jewels of Iran, drawing the eye with their sumptuousness, stimulating awe with their story and history, and enticing the mind with the extravagance of their beauty. The oasis city of Yazd, however, is the very essence of what we wistfully remember Iran to be, so long ago, when we were all young and life was much simpler, and Yazdis are the fundamental representation of what Iranians should be now, even now, when necessity and despair have aged us all and we are no longer kind, nor generous or tolerant.

Light in Yazd is clear and dazzling. This is a desert city on a high plateau and her horizons are snow-covered mountains, but it rarely rains here -- that is before "the Russians" began inducing rain recently by impregnating rain-clouds over the desert. The sky is the bluest of blues, turning a thousand magnificent shades in twenty-four hours -- and at twilight, the world is divine, ethereal, the sky a cast of indigo I have never seen, neither in North Africa nor in Tuscany whose skies are far more famous than Yazd. The air is the air of high places and kavir deserts, scrubbed by dust storms and washed by wind and noon-time heat and the chill of desert midnights.

The city itself is something to behold in Iran, where the rush to modernity has wholly condemned the past and anything that smells of age to death (or the tacky culture of souvenir-shops). The Old City of Yazd is vital and beautiful and vast, and encompasses the most preserved native architecture of public and private spaces I have seen in all my travels. Perhaps because UNESCO has placed such high currency on the old city, the neighborhood is preserved, or perhaps it is that it fits so neatly into the lifestyle of its inhabitants. But more importantly, my friend Kati who traveled to Yazd with me has discovered the raison-d'être of the Old City: unlike Rome or other historic cities, the old neighborhood in Yazd is the poor neighborhood, and as such the inhabitants simply cannot afford to "improve" on the ancient building materials and building methods.

And the ancient building materials and methods are what makes the Old City of Yazd extraordinary, so serene and charming: all walls are still adobe and mudbrick, taking a golden hue under the sunlight, shimmering in the heat of noon, fitting so sensuously, so languorously into the desert landscape. The heavy wooden doors have two knockers, a male and a female, both phallic in shape and with different tones of sound, thus calling the correct party to the door. The portals seem to open into a world of dark corridors and central courtyards and old trees around small reflecting pools. Most houses have curved ceilings and two entrances, one for men and one for women and some boast the presence of gorgeous wind towers on their roofs. The wind-towers are shaped to capture the rare breeze from six directions and send it to the interior of the house, intensifying it inside by blowing their catch upon interior pools and circulating it inside via hallways and passageways to the various rooms of the house. Many of the old houses have stained glass windows which not only soften the unforgiving desert light, but also -- as Kati has told me -- deter flies from entry or from the environs of the house.

The streets are narrow and labyrinthine, leading one moment towards sunset and the next minute towards sunrise. They take so many turns and there are so many dead-ends and small hidden squares that one can spend hours in one part of the neighborhood and not find her way out. There is a street in the oldest part of the neighborhood, near the ancient and stunning Masjed-e-Jame', that is called "ashti-konoon" or "Making Up"; the street is so narrow and winding that it is used to make peace between two lovers or friends or relatives, who for some reason are in a state of "qahr" (the untranslatable Iranian concept which simplistically means not on speaking terms), by sending them down the opposing entries of the street. Once the estranged persons meet face to face on "ashti konoon", they HAVE to kiss and make up. During our endless wanderings in the streets, we found charm in what they hide and not what they reveal. We smelled the fragrance of a thousand traditional lunches, rare spices and tropical fruits through the windows, heard the sound of laughter and argument and the occasional crowing of roosters without ever seeing anyone in the streets.

The deserted streets of Old Yazd, and the mystical loneliness of the golden labyrinths does not reflect the nature of Yazdis. I found them so generous and kind, so open and tolerant. This is the only city where when I looked in the face of elderly clerics, instead of turning frowning faces aside, they actually -- and without exception -- smiled at me benevolently and bowed their heads in a silent greeting. Kati and I had to actually argue with the taxi-drivers about paying the fare: as soon as they would find out that we had fallen in love with their city, they would refuse to accept any money and would not even tell us the rate of the fare. In every street, whomever we greeted invited us -- persistently and far beyond the bounds and necessities of ta'arof or politeness -- to their house "for some tea". People smiled at us everywhere and went out of their way giving us directions and suggesting places to visit. Though both Kati and I were far less covered with the perfunctory hejab than Yazdi women, not once did we receive an angry word or even an angry or curious look.

This city -- maybe because of the millennia long peaceful coexistence of Zoroastrians and Moslems -- is far more tolerant and open-minded than even the accustomed-to-foreign-female-tourist cities of Isfahan and Shiraz. I have even come to like Mohammad Khatami better since I have visited Yazd. He was born near hear in the town of Ardakan. His ever-present smile is so very much like all other Yazdis, and we saw the likes of his tolerant and respectful demeanor over and over again throughout the city. The city also loves its native son. All public spaces without exception bore his visage, at several times the size of that of the former and present Leader of the Revolution.

The people of this city are accustomed to creating beauty. Their hands have bred cypress and plane trees out of the harshness of desert soil, and their most famous products are termeh -- a gorgeous silk tapestry woven for centuries by hand -- and the most divine pastries which melt on the tongue with the hidden flavors of rose-water and pistachio and almonds. These hands have created despite the unmerciful adversities of living in the desert and the reputation of Yazdis as very hard-working is so true. There is a sort of respect for history, for one's legacy and for one's ancestry, for one's environment and one's surroundings that I have seen little of elsewhere in the country. Though many wistful inhabitants of the Old City could hardly believe all the acclamation we rained upon their city, there was also a sort of pride in their faces, a recognition that in every part of this land, even in the very heart of the salt desert, kind hands bring small paradises into living.

* Laleh Khalili's articles index

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