In the autumn of 1966, as the leaves were beginning to fall in Shiraz, my father hired a gardener. Baba Soghra was a lean man, with a body of a horseman, an angular face and neat moustache. A man of few words, he had a clean appearance and always wore an impeccable white shirt with his sleeves rolled up. He came from Firouzabad, a village near the ancient ruins of Persepolis and the “gishlaq”, or the winter home of the Qashqaie nomads.
I have never been to Firouzabad but I have heard that it is warm in the summer and mild in winter. There are swaying palms, rose bushes and poppies. In the spring the cherry trees bloom beside the bare hills that turn blue in the shimmering light. And yet, like most of his people, Baba Soghra and his family had left their green pastures in search for work in the city.
Every afternoon, when the blazing sun had left the ground and a cool breeze tempered the heat, Baba Soghra would cycle to our house on Behbahani Street, to tend the plants and water the grass and flowerbeds. Before leaving, he would wash down the dust from the balconies and the paving stones in our courtyard. This gave a cooling effect before we all sat down on wooden benches covered by tribal rugs, drinking tea or eating pommegranates. Maryam, Baba Sogra's wife, often took over the domestic chores in the daytime until her ten-year-old daughter, Soghra, came to relieve her in the evening after school.
Soghra was a sweet girl, with a strong, intelligent face with heavy dark brows and aquiline nose. She had a nice smile and long, braided black hair that fell down as far as her narrow hips. On her wrists she wore several bracelets of solid gold which jingled everytime she moved.
Whenever my parents were away socialising or attending the numerous garden parties which Shiraz was famous for, Soghra would stay the night at our house, looking over me. She was always inventing games or telling stories to entertain me. As time went by I grew fond of Soghra and looked forward to seeing her. One of my favorite memories of her is sitting inside in the living room one evening listening to the radio's midnight program, huddled in her arms. I can still smell her rosewater perfume.
Many of Soghra's stories centred around her tribe, conjuring images of the Qashqaie nomads wandering in the direction of the sun in search of fertile land. She often spoke of a world of harsh deserts and cruel mountains, of capable horsemen, black tents and sheep.
One day, shortly before my fifth birthday, my family received an invitation to attend a Qashqaie wedding. A few jeeps arrived at our house to drive us through the desert roads to the village of Kaftarak. Upon our arrival a flurry of trumpets and village drums greeted us. It was an open-air party and nobody seemed concerned by the dust which blew from the purple hills in the hazy distance. My parents and grandparents went to pay their respects to Iraj Khan, our host, and another relative among countless relatives.
In his forties, Iraj Khan, a prominent judge and Majlis deputy, had purchased Kaftarak (“abode of doves”) from the government when it had been an abandoned marshland. A number of Qashqaie families had been settled there in the wake of government action against rebel tribesmen. With the support of the provincial governor, also among the guests, Iraj Khan had supervised the construction of several wells, a school, a bath house and a small shrine. Hard work had transformed Kaftarak into a green and prosperous village and won the loyalty of its proud inhabitants who treated Iraj Khan as their new lord and feudal master.
As special guests, my family sat under a primitive tent on tribal rugs held to the ground by huge rocks away from the blinding sun and the heat. Iraj Khan sat on a metal chair enjoying the shade beside the poplar trees, his keen eyes surveying a parade of crack horsemen firing their rifles into the air.
A procession of young women danced by, swaying their magnificent layered skirts to the sound of drums beaten energetically by young men wearing skull-shaped hats. Often the shrill, high-pitched voices of an elderly group of women competed with the sounds of unrestrained laughter, whistling kids, and gunfire. Hundreds of tribesmen cheered the beautiful bride.
Mounted on a white horse, she wore a white tulle skirts that hid her feet, and was covered back and front by another garment in rich colors of pink, green and blue. In accordance to custom the bride was led three times around the family hearth, then led toward her husband's camp escorted by her brothers on horseback.
Later as darkness fell over Kaftarak, the camp site was lit up with torches and fires. Trumpets and drums played on as the stars invaded the black sky. Feeling dizzy in my mother's arms, I fell asleep.
That was many years ago but every autumn in London my thoughts wanders back in search of the caravan of memories – sketching on paper the autumn migration of the Qashqaies as they move slowly away from Shiraz, treking across the Marvdasht plains in search of the sun.