The lure of Grass and the cinematography of Shahsavan nomads
By Fereydoun Safizadeh
January 30, 2003
Since the 17th century Western interest in the Middle East,
Islamic lands and peoples was often one of projected imagination and romantic depiction
of Turks, Arabs, Persians and others. In addition to sex and harem life of Middle
Eastern kings and elites that fascinated travelers, adventurers, explorers, writers,
and poets, there was a romantic interest in the pure bedouin (and pastoral) nomads
as primitive contemporaries of Europeans.
The timeless, unchanging and "the uncorrupted manners"
of nomads not only found expression the written descriptions of numerous observers
(Burckhardt 1831), it was also dramatically portrayed by Cooper and Schoedsack in
the film Grass:
A Nation's Battle for Life (1925) their renowned adventure
travel documentary, and through the popular man-against-nature theme of the film
focusing on the annual migration of the Bakhtiari nomads in central Iran. Despite
some flaws, Grass remains one the most dramatic human experiences ever filmed,
and it served as a catalyst for the filming of The Shahsavan Nomads of Iran.
See 52 snap
shots form the film
My original objective was to retrace the footsteps of Cooper and Schoedsack to film
the Bakhtiari annual migration in the 1970s. Logistics, proximity and familiarity
focused the project on the Shahsavan pastoral nomads of Azerbaijan in northwest Iran.
The filming coincided with the 1979 Islamic Revolution and it forced a scaling down
of the project.
This paper interrogates the representation of the Shahsavan
pastoralists in the context of the representations of Iranian nomads in documentary
cinema and ethnography. It pays particular attention to the notion of "salvage"
anthropology, efforts to show an earlier and more pristine way of life, and the persistence
of such ideas, theories and perspectives for understanding nomadic life and its place
in the Middle East and Islamic societies.
I saw the film Grass:
A Nation's Battle for Life (1925) in 1971 in a class on anthropological documentary
film. For a foreign student having been through high school and undergraduate education
in the United States in the late 1960s and having had limited encounter with subjects
related to his country seeing the film Grass was important and griping.
Earlier, my college studies had shifted from a fast-track to becoming a mechanical
engineer to a slow-track search for an understanding of Iranian culture and society,
and ultimately its translation for my peers. As a young student I had brought with
me from Tabriz a particular interest in the Iranian countryside. The urban-rural
cultural and economic divide had been a subject of much childhood pondering probably
because of the impact of upbringing by individuals who had come from the countryside.
The film Grass arrived at a time when I was searching for ways to intersect
my interest in photography with the larger worlds of filmmaking and social studies.
Upon seeing Grass, the desire to retrace the footsteps of the Bakhtiari provided
the needed focus for an undergraduate thesis, an ethnographic film project about
village life and wheat harvest in regionally famous village of Liqvan in Azerbaijan
in northwest Iran. This launched me into graduate studies in anthropology, and with
the end of course work for the graduate studies, a valiant effort was made to return
to filmmaking and the tracing of the footsteps of the Bakhtiari nomads.
By this time the idea that the anthropological documentary film crew should be
small, only the camera and sound-person, was too entrenched in my thinking. And with
the my thesis Ph.D. research slated for northwest Iran, the retracing of the Bakhtiari
foot steps fifty years later in southwest and central Iran appeared insurmountable.
But the Shahsavan, although not as famous as the Bakhtiari or the Qashqa'i tribes,
were close at hand in Azerbaijan, and still practiced their colorful seasonal migration
between the Aras River in the Moghan Steppe and the high pastures of Sabalan mountain
range located between Sarab, Ardabil, and Meshkin Shahr. Finding contacts, managing
the logistics of filmmaking and transportation did not seem so overwhelming.
The time was January 1978. Oil income had dropped, prime minister Abbas Hoveyda
had been replaced with Jamshid Amuzegar, demonstrations had marred the Shah and Queen's
visit to Washington, Dariush Homayoun's letter about "black reaction" had
triggered demonstration in Qom and a number of persons had been killed by the government
forces, and on January 14th? on the 40th day observances of the funeral of the Qom
dead, Tabriz had erupted as anti-government demonstrators burned banks and cinemas
and clashed with the police and the army.
The country moved more and more into a period of political turmoil, but my spirit
was not dampened about pursuing the project of filming the daily life of the Shahsavan
in the winter and summer camps and their 3-4 week long colorful seasonal migration
between the Moghan Steppe and the Sabalan area. Needless to say, seasonal migration
takes place only in its season. You have to film it or wait a whole year to get similar
conditions again. There was little time to mobilize interest for the project.
Help came in the way of Dr. Nader Afshar Naderi, a French educated anthropologist,
who had been the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tehran University, and
at the time was the director of Institute for Peasant and Rural Studies. He had made
a number of anthropological documentaries among tribes in central Iran. He accepted
the proposal, provided 5,000 feet of raw film and assisted with enlisting the help
of National Iranian Radio and Television for developing and editing of the footage.
The main objective for the project was the visual preservation of fragments of
nomadic lifestyle in Iran. My first-hand acquaintance with the Shahsavan nomads had
begun with a number short-term trips, made between 1971-1978, to observe and to photograph
the changes taking place in the pastoral society due to the effects of the introduction
of large-scale agro-industrial development schemes in the Moghan Steppe in northeast
Azerbaijan (now Ardabil province). I was also interested in the effects of rapid
socio-economic change on the migratory patterns and practices of the Shahsavan.
It should be noted that a significant body of literature on pastoral nomadism
such as the works of Fredrik Barth (1961), Neville Dyson-Hudson (1972), William Irons
(1972), Nader Afshar Naderi (19xx), Brian Spooner (1973), and Lois Beck (1978), Gene
Garthwaite (1983) contributed to the development of better understanding of the socio-economic
organization and migratory patterns of the tribal society in Iran. Of particular
interest was the fieldwork of Richard and Nancy Tapper carried out among the Shahsavan
a decade earlier (Nancy Tapper, 1978; Richard Tapper, 1966, 1979).
My spouse and I spent much of January of 1978 in the Shahsavan winter camps, qishlaq,
in the Moghan Steppe pursuing the idea of making a documentary film with the Shahsavan.
We stayed in the camp unit, oba, of Mr. Al-Heidar Sadeghi, who was one of
the leaders of the Moghanlu taifeh, lineage.
Mr. Sadeghi introduced us to various subsections of the tribe and his presence
granted us legitimacy among the Shahsavan. His support and personal interest turned
the idea of making a film on the Shahsavan into a reality. Arrangements were made
to film life in the winter camps and to follow the Moghanlu taifeh on its
southward migration over the traditional routes to its summer camps on and around
the Sabalan mountain range.
Early in April 1978 we departed from Tehran but the trip was delayed for a week
in Tabriz where we needed to obtain the final travel permit from the Governor General's
Office and the security forces. The tight security measures taken were a response
to the political unrest in the country at the time, and the fact that the Moghan
Steppe and the road leading to it bordered the Soviet Union.
We arrived at the Shahsavan qishlaq by mid-April and spent two weeks observing
the daily life in the winter camps, and prepared to undertake the elaborate spring
migration that begins approximately 45 days after Norooz, the Iranian new
year and the spring equinox. We began to film the Moghanlu lineage in the camps and
in the surrounding pastures on the Steppe in early May.
Being a male-female team provided us the opportunity to gain access to male and
female spheres of activities, and in particular to be able to film within the women's
alachiq, tents. Women in the Shahsavan society, like women in many other tribal
societies in the Middle East, adhere to rules of sexual segregation. Unrelated males
are not allowed into the women's domain, and information about women is provided
by male informants. n the other hand, the Shahsavan women do not wear veils, however
in the presence of unrelated men, they cover the lower portion of their face. Older
women and young girls do not strictly adhere to this code of behavior, while newly
wed women had to comply.
In our research and filmmaking, my spouse spent considerable time in the women's
tents observing and gaining insight into the demanding nature of women's work in
a tribal society. A Shahsavan woman's day often starts well before dawn and continued
late into the night. Women and girls fetch water, bake bread, churn milk into butter,
yogurt and cheese, spin wool, weave storage bags and rugs, and prepare the daily
meals. The differences between men and women's activities are interesting. Men are
primarily engaged in shepherding, in the various decision-making processes concerning
the buying or selling of flocks, and the determination of an appropriate time to
commence the seasonal migrations. Men were not as burdened with the daily camp chores.
It was in the winter camps that rapid transformations occurring in the life of
the Shahsavan could be witnessed first hand. Nomadic pastoralism, historically an
important human response to the particularities of the environment, was being challenged
by more intensive methods of land use. This, together with the introduction of large-scale
advanced systems of irrigation, had led to sedentarization of a sizable number of
nomadic families, and brought major changes in the socio-economic and spatial organization
of the Shahsavan tribe.
Mr. Sadeghi pointed out winter pastures that had been converted into agricultural
lands. In 1978, estimates indicated that 2000 nomadic families had lost their winter
pasturage (90,000 hectares) to the Aras River Irrigation Project, and over 20 Shahsavan
winter camps, qishloq, had become agricultural land. On the average, each
winter camp had the grazing capacity for fifteen family herds. Also, the traditional
camp unit, oba, and tents, alachiq, were being replaced by planned
permanent settlements and model homes.
The Shahsavan nomads forced to sedentarize either became tenant farmers, sharecroppers,
or wage laborers in the nearby towns such as Parsabad or migrated to Ardabil or Tehran.
The Shahsavan also formed companies, sherkat, modeled on the government farm
corporations, which were agro-pastoral units in order to better deal with the changing
conditions in the area. This form of adaptation brought about drastic changes in
the labor organization of the family unit. As land replaced livestock as the major
source of wealth and income many nomads considered selling their flocks and becoming
sedentarized villagers and farmers.
Other examples of rapidly occurring change was the replacement of camel caravans
by automobiles and trucks as the basic means of transportation during the seasonal
migration, or for example the replacement of the ceremonial exchange of labor event
at the summer camps for the pounding of the felt by kin and friends with machines
located in the shops of Meshkin Shahr.
Mr. Sadeghi, as well as other members of the Moghanlu taifeh often remarked
that they did not expect their grand-children to share their heritage of nomadic
and tribal life. With such changes occurring among a people who relied primarily
on oral tradition for cultural transmission, a documentary film was viewed as a valuable
way of preserving and transmitting fragments of Shahsavan lifestyle for the future
The Shahsavan began their spring migration to their traditional summer camps,
yeyloq in early May. We filmed the start of the seasonal migration and followed
them on their journey south to the foothills of the Sabalan mountain. The Moghanlu
taifeh rely on two major routes during their migration. The Barzand route
is utilized by pack animals and flocks, and the Ziveh and Salavat route is shared
by camel caravans, flocks and cars simultaneously.
In the past three decades, the nomads have been forced
into using a much narrower passage route south. This is due to the increased cultivation
of land by the sedentary farmers particularly around the villages of Ziveh and Salavat.
We filmed the process of setting up of temporary camp and the related activities
as the Shahsavan gather on the northern approaches to the Sabalan range just east
of the Meshkinshahr. They camp here for about a week, make trips to Meshkinshahr
to buy supplies and wait for good weather to ascend the Sabalan range to their spring
The Moghanlu taifeh ascend the Hafteh Pass to reach their designated camps on
the mountain known as yazliq, the in-between spring quarters on the southern
flank of Sabalan range that can also be accessed from the towns of Nir and Sarab.
The Shahsavan set up camp and remain their spring quarters for 4-5 weeks until the
snow recedes allowing them to move to their summer camp, yeyloq, at higher
elevations on the mountain. They remain in the summer camps nearly four months until
cold weather forces them to begin their return migration around mid-September.
Time spent at the yeyloq is an enjoyable period of the year for the nomads.
With the availability of lush pastures and many mountain springs, the Shahsavan graze
their animals with ease. The sheep reach their top condition here and are sold before
the start of the return migration. Traveling merchants visit the Shahsavan summer
camps frequently selling cloth and household items. Professional wool separators,
halaj, come from towns to convert the sheared wool into felt. Life in the
yeyloq is particularly active for the women. In addition housekeeping, weaving,
washing of the sheared wool, collection of brush for fuel much time is spent feasting,
celebrating and visiting kinsmen.
As Ramadan the month of fasting approached we returned to Tehran to develop the
footage. After Ramadan in late August we joined the Sadeghi camp again and filmed
daily activities such as bread making, meal preparation, felt-making, herding, as
well as, a wedding ceremony and related festivities. The wedding was a three hours
walk from the Sadeghi camp. The bride was to arrive after a day's Jeep and horse
ride from the northern flank of the Sabalan mountain. Travel difficulties delayed
her arrival, and the groom's household was forced to go ahead with the festivities
as many guests had assembled from distant camps and had to depart before nightfall.
Later as we were descended back to Mr. Sadeghi's camp, we met the bride and her entourage
making their way up the mountain to the bridegroom's camp, but it was too dark to
In Tehran we began to edit the one-light work print made from the original footage
at the National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT). It was September 1978, the Jaleh
Square confrontation with security forces known as "Black Friday" had shaken
the government and the country. Before a rough cut could be completed, the NIRT employees
joined in the national strike against the government.
The strike continued until the toppling of the Pahlavi
regime in early 1979. The revolutionary the government of Ayatollah Khomeini appointed
Sadegh Ghotbzadeh as the new director of NIRT. A directive for a re-evaluation of
all the projects brought everything to a standstill. Purges for political and ideological
reasons began and NIRT suffered losses. In the chaotic state of affairs, we finally
gave up any hope of being able to complete the film.
Unable to obtain the original copy of the film from NIRT, we only had about 2000
feet or about one hour of the work print in our possession. Four years later back
in the United States while doing her graduate studies at UCLA, my spouse obtained
a small grant to make a copy of the one-light work print to use as the new work print
for editing. Picture and sound editing was completed, and the narration for the film
was derived from an article I published on social change among the Shahsavan, and
Richard Tapper's book, Pastures and Politics, on the Shahsavan.
The Romance of the Nomads:
As I mentioned in the beginning the lure of the film Grass was to retrace
the Bakhtiari foot steps fifty years later. Grass by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest
B. Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison released in 1925 was a quintessential film
about adventure and the theme of struggle for survival among Bakhtiari pastoral nomads
of central Iran.
The filmmakers spent two months with the Heidar Khan of the Baba Ahmadi taifeh
of the Bakhtiari tribe migrating from their winter camps south of the city of Shushtar
in Khuzistan, across the freezing Karun River, over the harrowing 15000 feet Zardeh
Kuh to their summer pastures in Chahar Mahal area west of the city of Isfahan.
Both the film and the later book written by Merion Cooper
portray the drama of the struggle between the Bakhtiari and nature for pastures and
grass for their animals. Cooper speaks of nearly 50,000 Bakhtiari and 500,000 sheep
and goats that make this twice yearly migration. The filmmakers skillfully focus
on interesting details, and portray the spontaneous human drama of the Bakhtiari
crossing the freezing Karun River and climbing up the Zardeh Kuh, some in bare feet,
and their arrival in the summer camps.
What begins as a routine travel and adventure film becomes an amazingly faithful
depiction of places, people, events and a portrayal of the sheer visual spectacle
and drama of Bakhtiari migration. One can imagine that every Iranian student of documentary
film have thought of returning to the Bakhtiari tribe to see what is left of their
seasonal migration and possibly to film it. Underlying this desire in most cases
is the romance of the nomads.
I certainly remember as a child captivating stories by older generations in Tabriz
how of the caravans of nomads were attractive and beautiful as they filed by often
awe struck urban on-lookers. Or about how the women, the newly weds, the camels,
the horses were dressed very colorfully in their best. One only needs to flip through
Parviz Tanavoli's book Shahsavan Rugs and Textiles to see the beautifully
patterned horse blankets, bedding and luggage carriers, mafrash, to imagine
how a caravan of them might have looked. In short, the romance was real and provided
a powerful incentive for undertaking a filming project.
For foreign adventurers, explorers and scholars, tribes
of Iran have been an entity with parameters, boundaries, identities and a name. The
nomads have been easier to identify and relate to than the masses of the peasantry.
Although in sheer numbers the tribal nomads have been small, governments have often
been worried about them, their ability to organize, mobilize and to resist or avoid
its power. As a result, politicians and historians have also been interested in them
For me, yet another reason for wanting to retrace the footsteps of Bakhtiari or
filming the Shahsavan, was to understand change brought about by time, technology,
economy, and politics. As with many things, as change comes, so comes the desire
to preserve the traditional ways and culture of the "timeless" nomads.
In the filming the Shahsavan we avoided the newly adopted technological ways of
doing things, for example using pickup trucks to go and come from the camps, or the
use of Mercedes trucks to relocate sheep from the Moghan Steppe to the Sabalan range,
or to show the canning factories in Moghan where the Shahsavan worked as day laborers.
If I had to do the film again, I would show life as is instead of putting it through
the filter of authenticity and the salvaging of the old ways. Similarly, I would
not be so mindful of beautiful cinematography in terms of color or composition.
the world of ethnographic film and anthropological documentary film is grappling
with the problems of filmmaker intervention, interpretation, and subjectivity and
"positionality." Cultural understanding, presentation and representation
of Iranian pastoral nomads, whether on film, in cinema, or in ethnography has come
a long way and some ways to go yet.
The concern with power, politics, and the "poetics" of presentation
and representation is a serious one for the identity of a people such as the Shahsavan.
It should be also noted that in the chain of cinematic and anthropological experience,
it is the viewer, the spectator, who takes up and rises to the challenges of the
cross-cultural translation, comparison and interpretation made by the particular
ethnographic situation and reality. See 52
shots form the film
Fereydoun Safizadeh teaches anthropology at Boston University. He holds a PhD
in Anthropology and Middle East Studies from Harvard University.
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