In the morning, I was pleased to hear Caspar’s voice again. From when we had first set camp in the riverbed, his quiet presence had only been felt in the tense curvature of the hammock. He had laid there all evening, without complaining or seeking attention, as was his style.
Excited by his recovery, we packed up quickly and drove northeast towards the Dasht-e Kavir desert, which in our map’s view; we entered after just a few hours. In our view, the doors to the desert had been unnaturally understated. A constant scenery had accompanied us since we had first ventured south of Teheran, indifferent to the distance we had put behind us.
A flat expanse of gravel stretched from both sides of the road; a canvas for daylight’s studies of earth’s red shades, oftentimes blemished by white veins of limestone. On windy days, dust would unsettle from the dry rock, lifting a dense fog. The electricity pylons flanking the road becoming the sole markers of the passing of distance, punctual like metronomes with time. When wind settled, the landscape opened, only to be bound again by chains of low-rise mountains, violently cutting through the gravel with their sharp angles. Rising from nowhere, these lines, drawn on a blank sheet of earth by a child’s hand, at times disappeared nonchalantly in the distance, only to then reappear, menacingly surrounding the road from both sides, or else advancing from one flank to force its detour.
Towns got sparser, and signs even more so. To find our way, we would match the crossroads labelled on the map with the ones we encountered once we left a town. Navigation though was complicated. Endless tracks disappeared into the desert; their uncertain nature repeatedly driving us into heated debates on which of these deserved the noble title of “road”.
We stopped to fill the tank at the last signposted gas station. Muffled by the heat, we contemplated the horizon in silence with palm dates at hand. The melting sugar had moulded them into a sticky block, finally bringing them at one with their brick-shaped cardboard box in which we had carried them from Kashan’s market. As we sat there, a white speck appeared in the mountains ahead of us. By the time it reached the plain, I could distinguish a man with a long headscarf, partly left free to float behind his back. His features dark, the wind revealing the shapes of his thin figure walking straight towards us at a fast pace, carrying a large plastic tank. On arrival, he ignored our curios eyes, filled his tank with water before returning, without pause, into the plain and behind the mountains. As he faded in the distance, one could hear the siren-like call of the shade niched between the ridges, the attractiveness of hiding in their anonymity, in their immovability. In a rush, he had returned to a place that has none.
He could have been a pastor, or a recluse living behind the first corner in the distance. I liked to think he was a nomad, a Qashqai travelling north to escape the summer’s heat with his pastures. It was wishful thinking, I knew. A claim I would not have contemplated, and a memory I would have lost if before departing I had not stumbled upon Italo Calvino and the memoirs of his travels through Iran in the 1970s. In an essay gathered in Collection of Sands, Calvino tells of meeting these vanishing people not far from Persepolis. After having visited this latter site, his encounter with the Qashqai sparks a reflection on the disparities that exist between a sedentary and a nomadic life:
“If I had to choose between the two ways of being, I would have to weigh up their pros and cons for a long time: either living only in order to leave behind an indelible sign, transforming oneself into one’s own figure engraved on the page of stone, or living by identifying with the cycle of seasons, the growth of the grasses and bushes with the rhythm of the years that cannot stop because it follows the revolutions of the sun and the stars. In each of these cases, what one is trying to escape is death. In each of these cases, it is immutability that one is aiming for. For one group death can be accepted as long as what is saved from life is the moment that will last forever in the uniform time of stone; for others death disappears in cyclical time and in the eternal repetition of the signs of the zodiac. In each case something holds me back: I cannot find the gap where I could insert myself and join the crowd”.
Maybe none of us can.
By mid-afternoon, and following a number of detours, we arrived in Garmeh, an oasis where we had planned to settle for a few days. The mud-brick village surrounded on all sides by a green patch of palm trees perfectly fitting the contours of our expectations. What we could not have imagined was the eerie silence of the place, its narrow streets and arched passageways empty. The only sounds coming from a pen facing the oasis’s guesthouse. Within it resided a babel of animals ranging from rabbits to camels, cats and sheep, all in hiding under the shade of the mud walls. All with the exception of the self-titled ruler of the pack, a black goat satisfyingly beating its feet in an abandoned bath tub...