It all started one day when I walked into Rasht Museum. An old house converted into a modest museum, it took under an hour to view everything in the collection. Through my travels inside Iran, I had visited similar museums in other cities, Tabriz, Hamadan, Zanjan, Isfahan, Kashan, Mashad, Shiraz, etc. They all appear neglected and somehow sad as compared to the richer museums in Tehran, and of course none of them can hold a candle to Western museums, I’m ashamed to say.
On this particular visit, on my way out of the museum in Rasht, I noticed a bright red piece of hand-woven fabric on a wall. I asked the museum attendant what that was, as there was no description for it nearby. She said this was a chadorshab. I knew what a chadorshab was. It was a huge square of fabric wherein in Iranian homes extra bedding for guests was lovingly wrapped to stay clean and dust-free. I suppose as the tradition of big houses, surprise visitors, and extended stays of guests have one by one disappeared in Iran, there is no more use for the concept of the article, at least in big cities. I asked her if it was made in Rasht, and she said that it was woven in the village of Ghassem Abad. I left making a note to myself to seek out Ghassem Abad and go visit it someday.
Three years later, on a Nowrooz excursion to Gilan and Mazandaran, I pulled out a map, found Ghassem Abad on it, and suggested to my traveling partner that we go there to find a chadorshab. On the map, it looked like Ghassem Abad was right on the border of Gilan and Mazandaran, just past Chaboksar on the road from Ramsar to Rasht. We arrived in Chaboksar, and looking for someone to help us, we found a man standing by a realtor office, observing the traffic. I asked him if he could tell us which direction we should take for Ghassem Abad. He asked which Ghassem Abad? Ghassem Abad Olya (Upper) or Ghassem Abad Sofla (Lower)? We didn’t know.
So, I explained to him that I was looking to find a chadorshab, and if he knew which one of the two villages had what we were seeking. He said that would be Ghassem Abad Olya. He further explained that there is no shop to go to in that village to buy the item; rather, he said we should wait for Ramsar’s Seh-Shanbeh-Bazaar (Tuesday Market), where assorted chadorshabs were brought to market for sale. This being a Friday, it seemed rather frivolous to have to wait for Tuesday to tackle this project, I thought!
As we were thinking about what to do, he offered that if we waited for a few minutes, he could call his friend in Ghassem Abad Olya to see if he could arrange a “viewing” of chadorshabs for us. We thanked him and waited while he went into his shop to make the phone call. Five minutes later we saw him lock his office door and pull down the shades, walking towards our car! He said O.K. I have talked to my friend and he is waiting for us! Us? I asked him if he was coming with us, and he said yes, that we wouldn’t be able to find the place by ourselves. This felt presumptuous on his part and made me a little uneasy.
I got off the passenger side and went to sit in the back, offering my seat to the Chaboksar guy, Jafar Agha. We drove in silence until we reached a fork in the road, the branch on the right leading to Ghassem Abad Sofla and the road on the left leading to Ghassem Abad Olya. We took the left road for a few minutes when the man told us to stop the car. His friend, Akbar Agha, joined us in the car now, giving us directions to his house. It was a typical village road, bumpy and winding, going through an endless series of farms and citrus orchards. I was slowly developing trepidations at this whole business! What would we do if something went wrong? Who were these people in our car? Where were they taking us? Who was waiting for us at the end of this road? Who would know where to look for us if we disappeared?
I slowly pulled my cellular phone out of my purse and when I realized there was no reception signal on it, put it back in my purse, feeling even worse. I looked at my companion’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He looked confused and concerned, too. I wanted to protest, but thought that it would be so rude. Then I was mad at myself, for if anything should happen to us, we would have given up our lives not to be impolite! How typically Iranian of us! We kept on driving until we reached what seemed to be the end of the road. Akbar Agha and his friend jumped out of the car and in their sweet Gilak accent said: “Befarmaid!” We reluctantly got out of the car. I was thinking all kinds of bad thoughts, walking with leaden feet towards a typical Gilan village house on wooden stilts, with clay steps leading to the residential portion of the home upstairs.
We took off our shoes and entered a large, impeccably clean room which represented the entire residential part of the house, with a kitchen just to the side. It was covered with carpets, and had traditional pillows (mokhaddeh) on one side of it. We were invited to go sit down at the top of the room (against the wall farthest from the entrance), where guests are usually received respectfully. There was no one else in the room and there were no chadorshab in sight. Akbar Agha told us that his wife would be along in a few minutes, as she had gone to bring the chadorshabs to us. An older lady appeared in the threshold, holding a tray with glass tea cups (estekan) on it. She introduced herself as the “mother-in-law” to the woman we were awaiting.
While we were waiting, talking quickly to cover my nervousness, I told her that we were looking for chadorshabs, and she said she had a very old one which she would like to sell. By this time I was desperate to see one just to have a reality check! She brought out the most beautiful green silk chadorshab, a little dirty with grime and time, but beautiful just the same. She said it was sixty years old, and that nowadays they don’t make silk chadorshabs anymore, as they are entirely made with regular wool now. I asked her how much she wanted for it and I bought it.
As I gave her the money, the old Gilak lady extended her hand and shook mine. I don’t know why this gesture all of a sudden relieved me of my worries and earlier reservations. This wasn’t even like doing business in Tehran (most people did not shake hands with me during business deals, because a devout Moslem man or those pretending to be one, don’t shake hands with women who are not related to them, and the only people I ever dealt with were men, so no handshakes for the most part). It felt like I had just finished a routine business meeting in Europe! She smiled at me and without counting the money, wrapped it in a small handkerchief and put it under the carpet.
Several minutes later we heard a raucous outside, then several footsteps, and all of a sudden we saw a line of 12 village women walk into the room. They were of all ages and appearances, led by Nargess Khanoom, Akbar Agha’s wife, a young, tidily dressed woman. Several of the women were fully clad in the traditional Ghassem Abadi dress, with the full colorful skirts and amazingly detailed tops, and intricate white headscarves, not so much to cover their hair, but to finish the traditional look of their attire. Each of the women held a basket containing one chadorshab.
They arrived and with unbelievable skill, each of them put their basket down, pulled out her chadorshab, opened it, floated it in the air and caught it to spread it artfully before us. I was mesmerized at the colors and details of each piece of fabric and the masterful presentation! As I looked at the deep reds, blues, greens, and oranges, I started asking questions about how they were made. I was told that they were woven in strips with a width of approximately one yard each, and sewn together later to make large squares. Each woman had made her own chadorshab, and I learned later that this is how they present them in Ramsar’s Seh-Shanbeh-Bazaar (Tuesday Market).
One young woman though, had a chadorshab unlike any others. It was a beautiful electric blue, with phenomenal detail and many different characters woven into it. I started asking questions about why this one looked different, as she was also asking for a very handsome price for it. It was explained to me that though many women weave chadorshabs in Ghassem Abad for sale, each young woman weaves one which represents her and her skills in a unique way. This chadorshab is not normally for sale. This one is shown to the woman’s suitors (khastegars) as a representation of her skill and attention, to impress the suitor’s family. When the young woman gets married, this chadorshab is displayed in her wedding ceremony, hung on a wall, for all to see her handiwork.
I asked her if she didn’t mind selling this important piece of work, essentially her wedding trosseau (jahizieh). She said demurely that she will have time to make another one, and the women who were now eagerly awaiting their turn to show their handiwork all laughed and teased the young woman.
When our business was completed, the women left, and Nargess Khanoom brought us some fresh oranges from her orchard. They were the most delicious oranges I had ever eaten. We learned that Nargess more or less managed her household, worked on her craft and took hers and other women’s work to the market, managing the little industry in her village. She was so articulate, yet understated. Nowhere in her behavior did she pretend to be a city woman, yet there was something so refined and confident in the way she moved and talked, so intelligently and competently.
As we got ready to leave, and they followed us to the car, my companion whispered to me that he needed to use the bathroom. I asked Nargess Khanoom where the bathroom was. She said softly “follow me,” so my companion followed her behind the house and I wasn’t sure what I should do, follow them, or stay where I was. Since Nargess Khanoom showed no reservation in showing a man where the bathroom was, I stayed. Later, my companion said that as they reached the outhouse, Nargess Khanoom had moved her hand towards the outhouse, looking him in the eye, and saying: “Befarmaid,” then returning to the crowd by the car. Something in the grace, confidence, and hospitality of this young woman is seared in my memory.
As we got in the car, they brought a whole box of freshly picked oranges and put them in our car, wishing us a safe trip home. We asked Jafar Agha if he needed a ride back to Chaboksar, and he said not. We were at a loss for words for this man who had shut down his business and taken the time to bring us here, all because we had asked him for directions. It was unbelievable. We drove in silence for a long time, thinking and reflecting on what a little treasure of an experience we had just stumbled upon. I shall never forget the spontaneous kindness, generosity, and friendship upon which we arrived on that spring day in Chaboksar and Ghassem Abad Olya–one of those days and events which for the rest of my life will continue to make me proud to be an Iranian.