Naneh Noghli and her friends put on their best costumes every day and sit at the doorsteps of their mud houses from sunrise to sundown. They gossip about the old man down the alley, about their children in Tehran, about the busloads of tourists from distant lands with their Cannons and their bewildered looks.
Naneh Noghli is 80-years old , with emerald eyes, and a frame that barely measures one meter, and weighs, perhaps, less than three red stones in the desert below her mountain. From behind, with her short red dress, her long white scarf with flowers and her black tights, I thought she was 10-years old.
But Naneh Noghli is no museum doll. No sir. She is a worldly woman, experienced, and street, well, alley- smart. My twentysomething Tehrani driver calls her “Haj Khanoum” and I laugh at the irony. With my black manteau and dark scarf, I look more like a haji than any khanoum around here. Mo'men, sure, the people of Abiyaneh are known for their lavish ceremonies at Ashoura and Tassoua, but Naneh Noghli a haji? I hardly think so. “Shahr baazi dar nayaar,” I say to the driver. “Oumadi baalaa kuh.”
“Khodet khoshet miyaad azat aks begiran?” Naneh Noghli grins through perfect teeth. “If I were as pretty as you,” I say, “I'd be proud to pose.” She laughs. Chuckles really. “Hee hee hee,” echoes her mountain.
“Khonoum joon” she says, “biyaa berim khounam, dar-o panjareyeh qadimi daaram. Biyaa yeh chiz az man bekhar, biyaa chaay meyl kon.”
But if I go to Naneh Noghli's house, her friend Khaleh Joon will be jealous.
“Look here,” the friend says. “You can take as many pictures of me as you want. Just buy this talisman.” Eighty kilometers from Kashan, 20 up the mountain, and their talisman, a round blue glass on a thin leather rope to fend off the evil eye, costs 1,000 tomans. “Khaleh, cheh khabareh?” I say. “Khoubeh, khoubeh, begir khanoum joon. Americans used to pay $5 to everyone when they came to take our pictures, and they didn't even buy anything. Biyaa naneh.”
Twenty kilometers up the mountain and a 1,000 tomans won't get you much in the market, if there were one. With her 1,000 tomans, Naneh Noghli and Khaleh Joon can go to the only store in the village which sells anything anyone can haul up the mountain at extraordinary prices. Or they can deposit it in the only official building around, a branch of Bank Melli or Saderat or whatever it was, which seemed quite absurd in this Shangri-La of elders. There isn't much need for money; the kids bring all the food and commodities they need for the season in bulk every time they come visit.
“You won't find anyone below 60,” says an old man. “All the kids have gone to the big towns in the past twenty years.” But I do see two sisters by the shop. Turns out they were born and raised in Tehran, now visiting their grandparents for the summer. Donning on their red dresses they were happy to travel from a black and white frame to a multi-color production.
But I do also see two young men coming up the hill with their shovels. I stop them. “Bebakhshid, shomaa injaa chikaar mikonin?” Turns out they are Afghan refugees. But how did they end up here? “Nasibemoun boud,” says one. Two able bodied men, and they work the land they can in between arid mountains, below by the river which is blessed with greenery. No aid, nothing. Everyone forgot them there. So they dig and dig.
The people of Abiyaneh were known for their high level of literacy, but now, there is only one school left for a handful of students, and those, I suspect, are the children of the Afghan refugees.
Naneh Noghli's neighbor wants me to see the view of his 1,000-year-old village from his roof. His wife must be the belle du village, at 72, with her faded gold embroidery dress and her Turkmen silver bracelet. “Khanoum joon,” she drags on the vowels, “man az shomaa khosham oumadeh”.
What of this cocoon in 20, 30 years? The red stone houses will stand, but its population will be eroded, just like the mud houses of Kashan. A dying village, forever registered in tourist books and anthropological accounts as the land where women were educated and wore bright colorful dresses. And folks locked in eternal conversations at the threshold of their houses. “Khob cheh khabar az shahr? Cheh khabar az bachehaa?”
Naneh Noghli gives me chestnuts and esfand for the road. “Naneh joun, khaaleh joon, khaanoum joon. Manam az shoma khosham oumadeh.”