The nomads were heroes in the past: in the country’s constitutional revolution (1905-1911), in the Second World War when they stood up to the Anglo-Soviet invasion, and later when they were targeted by the shahs determined to overpower them and have them show blind obedience to the central government. Over recent decades, with policies designed to force them to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, they have endured many ordeals and suffered many setbacks. Today the last nomads of Iran could again be described as heroes.
Over a century ago, their numbers went from 5 million (and half the population) to only 1.5 million, a tiny minority of the 78 million Iranians in the country today.
For the Bakhtiari and Qashqai people, spring and autumn are times of transhumance which can last from three to eight weeks. Traditional donkeys and horses have now been replaced by motor vehicles, but it is still a challenge: walking, setting up camp every evening, cutting wood, fetching water, feeding their herds, kneading bread and cooking. And at night they have to be on the lookout for cattle thieves.
Three young women, Zeinab, Mohzeinab and Mounavar, chatted: “We hate this nomadic life. It is the grim burden we have had to bear ever since we were born.” The only other prospect would be to find a husband living in the city. Children attend primary school until the age of ten, but any further studies can only be done in the city. Yes, literacy is one of the main factors behind the change to a sedentary lifestyle. Many nomads who travel to Isfahan and Shiraz never come back.
Some see things differently. “What would we do? Sell our animals, our only asset, and settle in the city? What for? What if you don’t find a job?”
There are those who take up the challenge, willing to live in remote areas, with no security. Some adapt to urban living, while others, once cut off from their tribes, with no support from public authorities and unable to pay their bills, sink into deep depression.
As grandfather Sabzali put it: “No one supports us... Yes, I am angry, and for fifteen years now I’ve been trying to keep my temper under control by smoking opium.”
Words by Catalina Martin-Chico & François-Xavier Trégan