Teaching in a remote Kurdish village in the 60's
By Ab Mobasher
July 19, 2001
Well, I clearly remember days of planning and soul searching for what I needed
to do. I was finishing high school and was feeling the urge of leaving the nest.
My regular adventures like fishing trips to strangest parts of my home state, hiking
the un-traveled trails and getting lost in the most weird places in the mountain
that even a drunk mountain goat would not dare to go became kind of boring, like
been there, done that. I was sensing that there was more to life than the routine
and even un-predicted stunts I was pulling on the weekends. My poor mother, bless
her heart, was very patient and tolerated my dangerous adventures in mountains and
I started thinking about who I was, what was my special gifts and what the possible
best course of action. One day, riding the top level of a double-decked red bus,
I carefully evaluated all the possible careers I could think of. Being a sports hero
was a very popular dream of all kids my age. However, under careful examination,
I realized that sports figures had a very short life of success and their useful
life and career was over with age almost simultaneously. I then looked at other popular
careers such as being an engineer or a doctor. I realized although security was very
tempting, most of these doctors and engineers were tied up to their jobs and had
very boring lives.
I concluded then that, at least for me, the only possible and happy career would
be placing myself in a welcoming and nurturing environment that would allow me to
utilize my inventions and get them to the market. I figured that as an inventor or
a product designer my useful life span was virtually unlimited and did not have anything
to do with age and physical conditions.
It was very clear then that I needed to be in the right place. Based on all the
reading I had done and success stories I had followed, it were pretty obvious that
I needed to be in the U.S. I figured that first I must study the language then I
must gather the money I needed for my travels. I knew that my brothers would not
help me. Around the time I finished my high school, my half brothers slacked paying
my monthly expenses while spending all kinds of money on their own family and kids.
They started passing the buck and using me as a football, bouncing from one brother
to the other. All these times, they were collecting the rent from hundreds of tenants
in our father's many prime business properties. I do not exactly know how much, but
I know they pocketed most of my fair share of inheritance for years. I decided that
the best course of action was joining the service and utilizing the time and salary
to study the English language.
Due to my partial blindness I was technically exempt but I would not use that
as a crutch. After graduating from high school, I signed up for the Literacy Corps
(sepaahe daanesh), a new branch of Iranian army designed by late Shah. There were
several of these branches that operated like the Peace Corps in the U.S. There was
the Health Corps that sent trained medical personnel to villages, there was the Agriculture
Corps to help farmers, and the most popular was the Literacy Corps. In Iran, after
9th grade, depending on grades and strength of the students, students can choose
majors like natural science (my choice), math, literature, and home making (for girls).
We attended proper classes to help us focus in our major.
After joining the Literacy Corps, we went to boot camp and took classes for military
officers and civilians, depending on which branch we wanted to serve. I stayed in
boot camp about four months. Besides all military training, we were also taught as
many as 20 different social and educational subjects. Boot camp in Iran was toug,
like any other place. It was especially tough for us because I was stationed in Sanandaj,
the provincial capital of Kurdestan in northwest Iran. After reporting and going
through the paper works, we waited in an indoor gymnasiumfor the drawing to decide
where we would be stationed. We were picked up by a bus and transferred to a base
It was middle of the winter and Kurdestan is one of the coldest places in Iran.
Temperatures as low as - 40F are not uncommon. For all practical purposes, we were
a bunch of city-slicker mama's boys! Our base -- designed by Americans -- was kind
of modern, but it did not have any of the conveniences like hot water. So we had
to wash in sub freezing temperature. It was not fun. One of the fellows ended up
freezing his ear lobe in one of those extra-cold mornings. Many of those super cold
nights we had to stand guard outside without rifles knowing that there were wolves
coming down from the mountain next to the base.
Training was very tough and demanding. None of us was happy about getting up at
3-4 a.m., get dressed, make up the beds, and then wax and polish the floors for inspection.
After that, we had to line up and march and stand still in 20 to 30 degrees below
zero for morning gathering. After breakfast, we would go to classes and try to cram
in all the military and non-military subjects. Most of the times we were so tired
that we dozed off in the class. The highlight of the day was after dinner when we
would return to the barracks and fix some tea and chat. Before going to bed, we used
to use a block of paraffin wax and polish the tiles with rags. Most of the time there
was so much wax built up that we had to use razor to scrape the excess wax off. I
discovered that steel wool worked just great! As a matter of fact, I spent less time
than any of the guys in waxing my floor, my steel wool really did a great job.
After my routine chores, we all polished our boots. My boots were always the shiniest.
We were using kerosene perimous for making tea. I discovered that by holding my boot
over the flame of primous, the shoe polish would melt to an even film and then all
I needed to do was allow it to cool and then gently buff it to the shiniest luster
in our group. My day was not over yet, I would put on my shiny boot and go to the
office of our commanding officer where I would teach his illiterate assistant reading
and writing based on the phonetic method developed by Mr. Arbaby. Within a few weeks,
the country boy was catching up and before I graduated as a trained teacher by the
Iranian army, my student was able to fluently read and write.
Spring is especially lovely in Kurdestan. The entire base was covered with spring
vegetation. Birds were flying the skies, catching bees in mid flight. In the following
months we did much studying and crammed as many as 40 different subjects. Our grades
were important and proportional to strips and salary we were about to receive. I
become a popular figure among the fellow teachers. I also gained the respect of our
commanding officer, 2nd Lt. Housein Safdary. I was assigned and complimented as the
store keeper in the barrack and ended up storing our buddies' belongings very neatly
and super organized to a point that they all were able to get their personal items
without hassle. We finally graduated and I got two stripes, becoming 2nd sergeant.
After a short vacation, I reported to Divan Darreh (Valley of Giants) about 50 miles
north of Sanandaj -- a tiny community with a grocery store, some government buildings
and houses. I was assigned to a Buynch-Gholoo, a village about 20-30 miles north
I arrived in Buynch-Gholoo where the total population was about 2-300 farmers
and herders. The village had an old mosque that is probably hundreds of years old.
The part of the mosque that seemed to be for classes for monks or training clergy
was torn down. You see giant bricks as long as 18-20" long, reflecting the more
glorious past. When I met the teacher I was replacing, I was shocked to see how he
had let himself go. He was walking around outside in pajamas and scratching himself!
The burnt out former teacher confused me. Although his term was over, he did not
want to leave! I did not know why. Perhaps he did not want to go back home to face
whatever waited for him. Anyway, he finally left and I was on my own, the only "civilized"
man in a strange village where they still used animal dung as a major source of fuel!
The village had no electricity, phone or plumbing. The entire village depended on
a natural spring for drinking and washing, as well as watering animals. It was just
right for a National Geographic feature.
Kurdish people are very proud, hard working, tall, healthy and beautiful. Men
wear traditional baggy pants, shirts and vests, with turbans that are usually white
and black or gray and black. A twisted long piece of fabric wraps around their waist
as a belt. Women wear long colorful dresses and vests that is usually covered with
silver coins and golden thread in their clothing. These women are very attractive
when they are younger. Skin tone is usually light, blond hairs and blue eyes are
not uncommon. In fact, if you dress some of these Kurdish men and women in European
or American clothing and drop them in any-town USA, you will not be able to distinguish
them from the native beauties. Life in these villages has not changed much in perhaps
thousands of years. [See People
A dirt road kept us connected to city centers and supplies. Motorized traffic
was almost a novelty. If we saw a handful of trucks or old Jeeps within the year,
it was considered a traffic jam! There were villagers beyond the rolling hills, not
more than a few miles away, who had never seen an automobile. Many had never been
to a city!
People speek Kurdy, the ancient native dialect, dating back from the settlement
of the first Aryans after the ice age. Kurkds are tough and happy at the same time.
They often sing as they work, tending their animal, harvesting the crops or processing
their wheat by tossing them into the air for the wind to separate the wheat from
the hey. Kids start working as soon as they are able to walk. Boys usually help their
parents tending the sheep, goats, donkeys and beautiful horses that are usually kept
in underground stalls. Their houses are remarkably efficient and in harmony with
their environment and life style. Houses are made of combination of mud and straw
that is very easy to make and makes an excellent insulator. Buildings are usually
one to two-stories above ground and there is a large stall underground for their
animals. This unique combination, keeps animals protected from the harsh winter and
also allows the heat from the animals to rise to the upper floors. Kurdestan gets
pretty cold and windy in winter. Snow as high as 3 to 6 feet is not uncommon.
The landscape is usually farmed parcels on the hills and higher elevations covered
with rough to sparse vegetation and trees like oak in northern and western region
that support wild life like mountain goat, deer and bear. There are many rivers and
small lakes that had varieties of fish. People live off the wheat they raise or milk
and meat of their animals. Hands did almost all the farming in late 60's. There was
only one tractor in our village and most of the tilling of the soil was done by plows
pulled by cows. When they brought the wheat harvest home, they would lay the stalks
down on a circular ground and then break them using a cow drown sled that had two
wooden tracks. The entire family took part in this affair; older members would cut
the wheat and load them on the donkeys, then children led the donkeys to the circular
separation ring. After the cows had driven many paths over the wheat, then either
men or women tossed the broken stacks into the air and let wind separate the grain.
End of summer and early fall were super busy times as the entire village would start
way before sun up and kept on working and singing until it was too dark to see. Some
of the farmers were beginning to hire combines that were going from village to village
for harvesting and were paying them with sacks of wheat.
During harvest time I really felt sorry and guilty for my poor students. Since
they worked in the fields, I would let them finish their chores, including watering
their animals. I would start pumping the kerosene Coleman lantern and then use a
piece of rock to bang against an old piece of broken plow that was our school bell;
Dang Dang Dang Dang Dang! Within minutes I could see my tired students dragging their
feet and showing their smiling faces. After a short ceremony and prayer we would
raise the flag and one of the older kids called Seyf-Allah who was in charge, would
lead the kids to our small classroom that was a single room furnished by wooden benches
and a table. The class was pretty barren. We had a blackboard under a portrait of
the Shah. Walls were plastered and the ceiling was covered with cardboard. These
kids were super bright and as tired as they were, they tried very hard and learned
very fast. I tought first to fifth grade in the same classroom. In interest of time,
each year we advanced two years and I had older kids helping me with younger students.
I have always liked reading since I was a kid. So I decided to share the pleasures
with my students in school. In one of my trips home I went to a bookstore and bought
a handful of children's books. I don't remember the titles but I remember that one
of them was Dr. Seuss's "Cat in the Hat". My kids loved the books. I used
two nails and a string to hang books on the wall and started the first row of our
school library. I let the kids borrow the books and told them that books were free
but if they did any damage it would cost them a penny or more that I used to but
more books. Before long the entire wall was covered with children's books.
In wintertime we all had much more time, school was conducted in regular schedule.
Some of the grown ups attended adult schools in the evening. Besides regular school,
I had plenty of time on my hands especially in summer time. We had a running creek
and a forest several acres big that was privately owned by a major landowner. These
trees gave me a chance to go hunting for foul. Usually I returned empty handed! I
remember one time I was returning in the middle of day and knew I would be passing
by some farmers so I pulled out my handkerchief and filled it with some green leaves
pretending I had bagged some game!
Although I have been away over 30 years, the love and memory of Iran and Kurdestan
is as fresh as ever. I would especially love to hear from my former students and
friends in Kurdestan.