Masouleh, 2016

Shervin Mohajer: Beats. From the album Kohân Kamân (Ancient Bow), Pieces for Kamanche and Alto Kamanche (2015)

We were afraid of Masouleh. Back in the times of Ahmad Kavousian, in 1975, the little town, lying at a thousand meters up the side of the Alborz, may still have been a hidden gem of Iran, an unknown destination, which only the initiated relayed to the selected few, an archaic settlement where the locals still looked at a stranger in amazement. But in forty years all that has changed. Today Masouleh is an obligatory station in Iranian tourism. The village of 500 people is visited by ten thousand tourists every year. First and foremost by Iranians, because domestic tourism is incredibly lively in Iran; even so, the village is also on the top ten list of Lonely Planet, and in the programs of the standard Iranian journeys in foreign tourist offices. It was clear that the former idyll has gone. The question was, what would we find instead?

We know what it looks like when tourism singles out an Iranian town. In the Kurdish mountain town of Palangan – still unknown abroad, but already swarmed by Iranians – the locals desperately try to protect the dwindling remnants of their private sphere, and they angrily turn away from the tourists who flood the steep streets, pushing cameras in their faces. In the clay town of Yazd in the desert, the traditional shops of the bazaar have been replaced by the souvenir vendors. Even the air is offered for money, and for the first time in ten years of travel in Iran, it happened that they tried to cheat me when settling the accounts in the hotel. We were afraid of these kind of changes in Masouleh, which is much more advanced on the way of becoming a tourist trap.

But it was not to be. The advantage did good Masouleh a good turn. The town has already passed the initial shock and growing pains of tourism. The locals have learned to deal with the new situation, they have found their own place in it, and have succeeded in adjusting it to their daily lives. In the farm houses converted into guest houses, they treat you just as kindly as family guests are elsewhere. In the bazaar, the souvenirs have not pushed out the ancient shops, and the demand has even created a range of modern artisan products. The healthy development of the village is looked after by the “Masooleh Conservation and Sustainable Development Institute”. The old houses are renovated, in a more or less authentic way. Community holidays are still celebrated: the participants are not distracted by the stared and cameras of the tourists, and they even get them involved. We would like to believe that with the gradual opening up of Iran, and the forthcoming tourism boom, this would be the direction taken in developing other settlements exposed to tourism.

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The procession stars at the top of the village. In the distance, you can hear the booming of the drums and bits and pieces of singing. In the three-story bazaar on the main square they have already prepared to receive them. Microphone and loudspeakers are placed in the middle, a curious crowd surrounds it, made up of tourists and locals alike. In half an hour, men dressed in black arrive at the bazaar, and they line up on both sides of the corridor. The singer alternates between singing sad rubato funeral melodies, and rhythmic, energetic songs into the microphone. During the former, which are like the old Hungarian folk songs, everyone bows his head, some people cry. In the thousand-and-five-hundred-year-old mourning they relive their own losses. With the latter, they come to life, they beat their breasts on the rhythm of the song, they shout out the name of Imam Hussein, who died in the battle of Kerbala. On the upper level of the bazaar, little boys dressed in black are doing the same with great enthusiasm. The locals suggest we go quietly with our cameras between the rows, it does not disturb the dancers, on the contrary, they hold themselves up as we take close up pictures of them. The ceremony lasts about an hour, then they break. The lines are broken, and are rearranged into chatting groups. As we walk up to our guest house, we hear the singing start again, already from the mosque, where they stay up for the night in memory of Imam Hussein and his martyr companions.

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From Alamut to the sea

Nobody knows the road after Alamut. The guide books come only this far. They report only from hearsay about whatever lays beyond it. They do not even know whether there is a road, and if yes, what quality. Although the map shows a daunting series of serpentines from Garmarud upwards, it is not known whether it is only accessible by jeep, or not even that. The 2012 Lonely Planet goes so far as proposing the hire of a mule driver in Garmarud, “if we want to be one of just a handful of foreigners since Freya Stark (in the 1930s) to make such a trip”.

After the turnoff to Alamut, we cross a ravine. The narrower and narrower band of the Alamut river here had elbowed out for itself a spacious valley, showing how wide it swells in late spring, when snow starts melting up on Salambar Pass. The valley is now covered by a cobweb of rice fields, and it is filled with the humming of the threshing machines, like the chirping of cicadas. Then the road becomes increasingly steep, the mountains higher, the valley narrower, and the rice fields disappear. We arrive at the head of the valley, the last village, Garmarud.

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At the end of the village, a rock blocks the way, meaningfully towering from the river bed, as if indicating the end of the inhabited world. Before, whoever had any reason to go further could do so only via the riverbed. The shepherds had to wait until the end of spring flooding before they could drive their flocks to the summer pastures of Piche Bon. Only a couple of years ago they carved out a thin road in the rock face above the river, the vegetation has not yet grown back on the side of its embankment.

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The road rises with steep hairpin bends, from higher and higher up we look down upon the canyon. On the bare rock, dwarf pines, thistles, and some quick-growing flowers. A griffon vulture is circling above us.

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As soon as the serpentine comes up on the ridge, the asphalt suddenly ends. Only a dirt road goes further, who knows for how long. The great Alborz watershed is about forty kilometers away from here. If we manage to get there, from there we can descend to the sea. If we do not manage to do so before dusk, we can still turn back to Garmarud, to the Navizar guest house. A jeep comes from the other side. “What is the road like?” “Well, like this, er, viable. By evening you will get to Piche Bon”, he points to the tiny hamlet across the vast valley, “from there tomorrow morning you can go over to Maran.” Not very encouraging, we should travel thrice as much to reach the sea.

The golden hour reaches us on the plateau of Piche Bon. A flock is grazing on the plateau, the light tints with a golden contour the backbones of the animals and of the hills. On the same plateau, at the same afternoon hour, but eighty years before us, Freya Stark wrote this in her diary:

“Out in the sunset the homing flocks poured like honey down the hillside, with their shepherds behind them; beyond the cries and greetings, the barking and noises of the camp, lay the silence of uninhabited mountains, a high and lonely peace.”

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At the last ray of the sun we reach Salambar Pass. The small Safavid-era carvansaray built on the pass indicates that the road from Alamut to the sea was regularly used even in the times when the road was viable only on muleback indeed. The mountain landscape opens up around us, the snow of last year still lies between the rocks of Alam-Kuh that dominate the region. Here wrote Freya Stark:

“And then I took a last look over the landscape: the Assassins’ valley westward to its vaporous defile, Balarud on its ledge, like a toy far below, and, hiding the Rock of Alamut, Haudegan with a clean edge against the sky. Still three hours down our old route to Maran, along a narrow valley walled by the Salambar, green on its northern side. Steep fields appeared with cocks of hay made black by constant mists. The river rolled below us in a bed made by its own millenniums of effort; it dug itself a canyon, and wound like a worm in its earth hole.”

We also go downhnill towards Maran on the narrow dirt road, a steep serpentine, with a deep abyss to the right hand. I drive carefully, but I would like to reach the village before dark. From here there is no return to Garmarud. If the dusk surprises us before Maran, we must ask for accommodation in the 150-strong village. We do not even have time to get off to nearby Sahrestan, where I wanted to ask whether they remember the Hungarian engineer mentioned by Freya Stark. The engineer tried to sell gramophones in Tehran, but he failed, and then he moved here with his Greek wife, commissioned by Shah Reza Pahlavi to survey the estates confiscated by him from aristocrats who had been faithful to the Qajars.

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The dirt road is good, we manage to pass by Maran before dusk. The serpentine continues to descend, and at the sixty-strong village of Yuj we reach another river in the valley of Seh Hizar. This runs to the north, into the Caspian Sea. The landscape suddenly changes, as if we were walking in another country. The rocks are covered by thick green vegetation, we go ever lower through green forests. Leaving behind the last one, the dirt road changes back into an asphalted one. We reach a high plateau. Beneath us, the lights of a large city, and beyond them, on the horizon, a hazy gray stripe. Θάλαττα! θάλαττα! We made it.

A shepherd under Alamut

The fortress of Alamut rises on an almost inaccessible rock. We are climbing up to it in the bed of the stream running down under the rock. The sun rises, it shines on the poplars along the stream, and the barren hillsides beyond the poplars. At the end of the village, when looking back from the beehives, we see that a small group turns up the road. Shepherds go in the mountain to replace their colleagues, and an old couple drive their six sheep to the pasture above the fortress. We await them. The old man on the white donkey returns with dignity our greeting. “So early?” he asks. “Did you sleep in the village? Where? Yeah, Agha Rusuli”, he places us in the coordinate network of the intelligible world. “Won’t it be very cold?” he asks by pointing at my short-sleeved shirt.” “By the time we reach the top, I will want to take this off as well”, I say. “I don’t go as high as you.” For a while we go along. Where the road forks, he beckons us to follow them. “Don’t go straight up, keep with us in the field, the fortress looks much nicer from here.” We go with them. At the next fork we look long after them, until they disappear behind the bend of the hill.

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Autumn in Iran, minute by minute

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The original plan was to arrive at the airport before sunrise, immediately rent a car, head to the west, and two hours later greet the sun in the valley of Alamut, between the mountains of the Assassins. But traveling with photographers is a risky business. With so many gadgets, it is impossible not to forget at home something, in lack of which the whole photo tour is meaningless. Therefore, from the airport we head to the city. The rich northern part of Tehran, where this kind of stuff is available, sleeps for long, the shops open late. In the meantime we pass our time on the Tabiʿat, that is, Nature Bridge. The world’s largest footbridge is so new that it is not even mentioned in the guidebooks. Built in the autumn of 2014 after the award-winning designs of a twenty-some year old architect girl, it links Tehran’s two favorite picnic parks, as if being the new main square of the city. Its three levels are filled with stylish restaurants and cafés, in the evening here strolls and dines everyone who counts in the thirteen-million-strong city. At dawn only one breakfast place is open, but its range is a stunning start to our week-long northern Iranian photo tour. The rising sun slowly adds color to the panorama of northern Teheran’s skyscrapers, light clouds are flying above the peak of Damavand. Iran welcomes its guests.

After Qazvin, the road turns sharply north, it winds steeply up to the Alborz mountain ranges. We cross two ridges, we look down in two valleys from dizzying heights. Small smokes rise from the curves of the auburn hills, little clay villages cling to the cliffs, poplar lines indicate where the region’s greatest treasure, water breaks to the surface. Flocks graze on the hill ridges along the road. This road was once flanked by fifty-two fortresses of the Ismailis, who in 1090 fled here from the Seljuk invaders, fifty-two bastions that formed an impenetrable wall around the Ismaili empire of Alamut, and in the middle of it, the castle of their imam, the Old Man of the Mountain. When Freya Stark in 1930, first among all Western travelers, traversed this path, she found traces of each fortress. Even today it is not hard to imagine on the steep mountain peaks and sharp ridges the fortifications controling the valleys, whose gradual conquest took more than twenty years to the Mongol army.

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At dusk we arrive in Gazorkhan village, at the foot of the fortress of Alamut. On the main square of the village, in the wooden mosque, Imam Hossein is mourned with beautiful rubato melodies. Yesterday began the mourning month of Moharram, on whose tenth days, at the dusk of Ashura, the Shiite Imam and his followers were massacred at Kerbala by the mercenaries of the vicious Sunni Caliph: the lamentation, the mourning celebrations and commemorations, as this time last year, will accompany our entire Iranian journey. Men are talking in front of the mosque. I come up to them, we ask us about each other’s health, we exchange pebbles of politeness perfectly polished by the thousand-year-old Persian etiquette, which does not allow me to hastily get to the point, neither them to immediately give way to their curiosity. I ask them about accommodation, they suggest Agha Rusuli, who has an empty “pretty room”. They accompany us. The host welcomes us with tea and fresh walnut. The traditional wooden house with porch is just a street away from the mosque. We can clearly hear the late-night memorial service, and then the call for the first prayer before sunrise.

The fortress and the assassins of Alamut were made a brand in Europe by Marco Polo. According to his narrative, taken over from contemporary Islamic legends, Hassan-i Sabbah, the “Old Man of the Mountains”, the leader of the Nisari Ismailis influenced the policy of the Near East, murdered or forced to grovel caliphs, sultans and crusader leaders from his inaccessible castle hidden among the Alborz mountains, virtually without any army, just by way of his suicide killers called fidaʿin, “sacrifices to God”. Thereby he set an imperishable example to today’s Muslim suicide bombers, who, too, call themselves fedayeens with the euphemism coined by him. According to the legend, he invited the selected young men to a dinner, at the end of which he dazed them with hashish – from here the name Hashashin, Assassin of the sect –, and had them carried over to the secret paradise garden created next to the castle. There, the zealous huries and the never experienced delights convinced them to have really come to the Paradise, thanks to the Old Man of the Mountains. When, at the end of the day, an after a new dose of hashish, they once again found themselves at the dinner table, they happily swore allegiance to the Old Man, and enthusiastically faced death, because they knew, that in turn he would again, ad now definitely, let them come to the Paradise.

Alamut is no longer inaccessible. To Freya Stark, who in 1930 first started on the trail of the Assassin legends, it took months to reach from Qazvin the valley of Alamut, and there some new weeks, until she, following the guidance of locals, localized the former castle. Nevertheless, she could get up there only a year later, when she returned with the right equipment. Since then, the road leading through two steep mountain chains has been asphalted, and a stair of hundreds of steps built in the side of the rock under the fortress. The locals immediately show us the path leading from the end of the village to the castle, and the old shepherd even the field from where you have the most beautiful view of it. The walls of the castle are ruined, but they can be restored, and the “Foundation for Alamut” has even begun at least scaffolding. From above we enjoy a wonderful view of the valley of Alamut, surrounded by mountains, which clearly illustrates, why the castle was inaccessible for centuries. The paradise garden cannot be seen any more, but its memory is preserved by the green poplar groves along the network of canals, which were established by the Old Man of the Mountains for the development of the region and for supplying his troops. Way down, we meet a Slovenian tour guide, who is on the way to the desert with his Slovenian client, but they absolutely wanted to make a detour to the castle. “You know, Alamut has a special significance in our Slovenian culture”, he says. “Because of Vladimir Bartol’s novel?” I ask him, referring to the Slovenian cult book of 1938. He reaches hand. “The fact that I hear this from a non-Slovenian, is at least as much of a miracle as to be here in Alamut.”

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Dictatorships cannot survive without campaigns, which again and again unite the people in the spirit of the shared values or against the common enemy. The slogan of the new Iranian campaign is zakat or sadaghe, the donation made for charity purpose. The zakat is one of the “five pillars” of Sunni Islam, and of the “ten commandments” of Shia Islam, that is, of those basic religious acts, which every Muslim must practice. It seems that the Iranian citizens do not practice them enough, at least in the government’s view, because in recent months, billboards have appeared along the roads, wherever we travel in Gilan, with this kind of texts: “The zakat and sadaghe is a duty for every Muslim.” The text usually has a strong octagonal frame, like a huge stop sign, to emphasize the message. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of octagonal collecting boxes have been set up across the country, so every Muslim could effortlessly practice his or her newly recognized duty. On the streets and in the bus stops, on the store counters and next to the toll gates on the highway, such an amount of collecting boxes, that a serious charitable foundation could have been created from their price. But the most unusual is that the collecting boxes also show up in private houses. In the Gilani peasant houses, wherever we stay at night, there is the zakat box attached to the porch column or to the house wall. The boxes are emptied every month, so it can be easily shown out, who how satisfies the demands of the campaign. “And what is the collected money spent for?” I ask my hosts. “Nobody knows.”

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According the entry “Rice” of Encyclopaedia Iranica, the two coastal “green regions” of Iran, Gilan and Mazandaran provide 85% of the country’s rice production, the raw material for chelo, saffron rice, the standard garnish for spit-roast meat. The fine drawing of the rice terraces cover the river valleys and coastal plains with a Chinese flair. By the beginning of October, the rice fields have been drained and dried up, the rice harvest has begun. From dawn till dusk, a persistent buzz permeates the whole area, like the humming of a trapped beetle: the rattling of the threshing machines. We stop above the river, take photos of the geography represented by the contour lines of the terraces. The farmer harvesting on the hardly one-hectare land invites us with a polite gesture to come down, since the mountains are much better visible from there. The rice is harvested with sickle, the threshing machine from the Shah’s era is driven by a diesel engine hoe, the threshed rice straw is carried on donkey-back to the village clinging to the hillside. A truck stands at the beginning of the village, a large crowd around it: the weekly gas cylinder delivery has arrived. Old women and old men drag the cylinders on their backs up the steep streets: the working hands and the load-bearing animals are now busy in another job down there in the valley.

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The last inhabited place uphill in the valley of Alamut is Garmarud. After the village, the road was until recently blocked by rocks, now it rises steeply, across the Alborz ridge, all the way to the sea. No one knows how much of it is viable. How far do we get on it? More: From Alamut to the sea.

The thin strip of the coastal road is flanked by huge, dark green mountains. Their peaks are covered with heavy clouds, from their valleys streams run down to the sea. As if the total amount of rain determined for Iran fell down here, on the northern side of the Alborz, so that the inner regions, from the southern slopes of the Alborz to the Persian Gulf, hardly get anything.

On the hillside, a small dome rises from the trees. We turn up from the road to take a closer look. One half of the village of Divshal lays in the valley, along the stream, and the other up on the hillside. The mosque is in the latter, its square was decorated with flags for the feast of Ashura. As we stop there, the locals appear in the doors of their shops. They silently watch us. Probably no foreigner has ever visited this village. As we pass in front of them, and greet them, they come to life, and offer us tea and freshly baked bread.

The road is mainly flanked by the traditional wooden houses of Gilan with veranda and balcony. After leaving the village, a pirkhâne, a holy man’s tomb rises on a small hill. The dome we saw from the road belongs to it. Around it, colorful flags wave on a rope, as if it were a Tibetan temple. The horseman on the black flag next to the entrance is Abolfazl, the hero of Kerbala.

The road leads on to the mountains, but it is not at all deserted. Again and again people appear on it, motorcyclists, sometimes with three or four passengers, horsemen, donkeys loaded with sacks. What a high density of population is there in the mountains? Arriving to the bend, and looking down into the valley, we understand the reason. Under the trees, the whole hillside is covered with one kind of underbrush: tea shrubs, planted in pretty regular rows. The northern, Gilani side of the Alborz, all along the Caspian Sea, is one vast tea plantation. The Persian consul in India, Kashef-ol-Saltane, who around 1900 introduced tea in Gilan, is today revered as a Shiite saint. His mausoleum in Lahijan is visited by pilgrims from the whole province.

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The gate of the Chahar Padeshahan, that is, Four Kings mosque in Lahijan is a veritable old men’s trap. Its low pedestal is a comfortable seat, from where one can keep an eye both on the traffic of the intersection and of the Grand Mosque and the bazaar on the opposite side of the road. The old men now are watching us, as we enter the Four Kings’ courtyard. The four kings were four great men of ancient Gilan, two of them rulers from the Kiaei dynasty. The Alborz chains have always preserved Gilan from the southern invaders, even the Arabs were unable to break in, and the Gilanis are proud of speaking the old Persian language, clean from Arab influences. Thus the region was an independent kingdom, as long as the descendants of Sheik Safi, who was educated in the Kiaei court, in 1501 re-united all the regions of the fragmented Persia. The mosque walls are covered with colorful patterned tiles. Next to the entrance, two so-called “café house style” frescoes from the Qajar period represents the two heroes of the battle of Kerbala, Imam Hussein and his brother Abolfazl. Lahijan is no longer a royal seat, but the huge Hussein image of the Four Kings has conquered all Iran. In these days, during the feast of Ashura, its gigantic versions are posted in the squares all over Iran, from Kashan through Nain to the Persian Gulf.

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The aesthetic of the Eastern butcher shops is simple: it puts on public display the magnificence of the freshly slaughtered meat, with an almost embarrassing frankness. From the Caucasus to Pakistan, the freshly skinned bodies of sheep and goats flaunt themselves in the windows of butcheries, or rather in front of them as shop labels, eliminating the need for any further explanation. The butcher, as he sees me taking photos of the window, spices up the spectacle with a tasteful still-life, or rather natura morta, the most delicious portions of the animals, the head, tail and feet, artistically arranged in a tin bowl. He purses his lips and shows with the hand, how divine the food is.

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The European man inherited from the Romanticism his relationship to Nature, as it was painted by Caspar David Friedrich. Nature is the this-worldly appearance of the Majestic, and one can confront with it (and at the same time with himself) at the cost of an arduous journey, per aspera ad astra. The European man climbs the Mont Ventoux, in order to contemplate on its peak about the greatness of Nature and about his own smallness, or other topoi of the romantic program. The Persians were left out of the romantic development. For them, Nature is the place of a pleasant pastime. The Persian may climb the Damavand, because he is a sportsman, and loves to climb mountains, but mainly in order to make a fire on its peak and fry kebab. Or he rather stays down in the valley of the Damavand, spreads a carpet along the stream, and takes out the picnic basket, because he finds this the best way of using Nature.

If the castle of Rudkhan, built by the Ismaʿilites in the 12th century, with its mighty walls and forty-two towers stood in Europe, a narrow, secluded hiking trail would lead to it, as a preparation to the encounter with the Majestic. But since the castle of Rudkhan stands in Gilan, the wide path leading from the foothill to the gate of the fortress is flanked by tea rooms, at least a hundred. On Thursday afternoon, that is, on the Muslim Saturday, masses invade the foothill, and start going upwards, but they do not reach far. The majority ends in one of the tea rooms along the stream, or a takht, a four-person lunching throne stands in their way in front of a smoky kebab-frying shop. The few who, by two or three tea rooms, reach the castle, consume there the pistachios and sweets purchased along the way, while taking selfies with the ancient walls.

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The gag statues, like the ragweed on the stubble-field, rapidly proliferate everywhere, where a plebeian takeover wiped out the former high culture. This happened in the former socialist contries, and this is happening also in Iran. These statues have been created jointly by the self-confidence and naivety of the folk artist and the lack of education and petty-bourgeois taste of the state or party patron. Like in Gilan’s Fuman, where one side of the large roundabout is decorated by the statues of some Gilani hunters, and the other by that of a soldier fallen for the homeland. His body is embraced by his militiaman friend, his carefully daubed blood flows into the chalice of tulips, and from there down on the earth, so that, like from Siavush’s blood, freedom would sprout out of it. Next to it, the photos of two local martyrs fallen in the Iraq war, and the color pencils and books on the school fence set the visual tone of the square. Even a zakat box appears modestly in the corner of the picture.

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It’s evening, we are looking for accommodation, but Fuman is not famous for its touristic infrastructure, if for anything. The map shows the only hotel outside of the town, somewhere along the road to Masouleh. We are winding under gardens, on dirt roads, and then suddenly we roll in before the hotel. A green neon sign proudly proclaims that the place has five stars. First they offer a four-person room for three hundred euros, but when I resignedly want to leave, the manager, called down to the reception, calls me back by saying that he gives it for half of it. If we do not want to wander around maybe for hours, we have no other choice. We accept it. Since the room has two double beds, they add extra beds, set in one line, so it looks like a hospital room. The five stars gradually fade out: the wi-fi does not work, the batteries run out in the air conditioner’s remote control, the toilet is the squatting type, the windows cannot be opened, their handles remain in our hands. It seems that in the whole barn there is no other guest but us. At dawn we look out: the whole vast front yard of the hotel is one tea field. We go down to the hall. The receptionists are sleeping in the armchairs of the hall. They apologetically throw off the blankets, pull up their pants, and start to work. In twilight we leave behind the hotel. We do not dare to look back, perhaps there is nothing behind us, perhaps all it was but a mirage.

The picture is just an illustration, it represents the foot-washing basin of the great mosque in Lahijan

In the afternoon we arrive at Masouleh. We immediately look for accommodation. We want to spend the evening there, and also want to look around in the village at dawn, without tourists, hoping that we can see it like it was forty years ago, on Ahmad Kavousian’s photos. We cannot see it like that any more, but it is not bad either. More: Masouleh, 2016.

(Continued every day for three weeks)