Hills, hairpins, harmonies: On the road in Iranian Kurdistan

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“Yavash, yavash,” the small, gray-haired doctor says, leaning across from the passenger seat to put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, imploring him to slow down the black Toyota as we approach another hairpin bend in the dusty road.

The driver cheerfully ignores the doctor’s pleas and continues to take the corners at a clip, smoking all the while and occasionally breaking into wailed bursts of Kurdish folk song.

We’re traveling from Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan province, to Marivan, a small city just a few kilometers from the border with Iraq.

It’s the final day of Nowruz, the Iranian new year, and my companions, a doctor called Ghaffar and a taxi driver named Jahan – both from Sanandaj – are still on holiday.

In a typical display of Iranian hospitality, they’ve offered to accompany me on the journey.

To the left of the narrow road is a vertical, sand-colored mountain wall.

To the right, a 50-foot drop and a view across the spectacular Howraman Valley, a sparsely populated and beautiful part of the region.

On the eastern edge of Iran, Kurdistan province makes up part of a broader Kurdish region, which also spans adjacent sections of Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Over the border in Iraq, the territory has been targeted by the Islamic militant group known as ISIS, but Iranian Kurdistan remains unaffected, a peaceful world away from the violence.

It also seems a world away from Iran.

Although we’re still within Iran’s borders, the Kurdistan region is quite different, and more traditionally Persian compared to the country’s heartland.

Colorful dress, religions at odds

Nowruz New Year celebrations often lead to dancing in Iranian Kurdistan.

Culturally and linguistically, the residents here have more in common with their fellow Kurds across the border than with Iranians from Tehran, Esfahan or Shiraz.

Dress is traditional: men sport baggy shalwar trousers, plain shirts and heavy felt waistcoats, while the women wear colorful dresses and headscarves rather than the black chador or hijab seen throughout much of the rest of Iran.

On the way, we stop in a tiny village called Negel.

The mosque in the village is home to large, handwritten Quran said to be about 1,300 years old.

The mosque’s facade carries an inscription naming Abu Bakr the first caliph and, according to Sunni Muslims, the rightful successor of the prophet Mohammed.

Although most Iranians are Shia Muslims, the Kurds are predominantly Sunni and this has often put them at odds with the Iranian government.

A few days earlier, a Kurdish man in Sanandaj had told me that police had forcibly removed a satellite dish from his roof to prevent him receiving Kurdish television channels.

Another had pointed at a photo of a Shia cleric in my guidebook and shaken his head, saying “Not good, not good.”

After Negel, the road winds through snow-capped mountains and then drops down into the village of Howraman-at-Takht.

Here the houses are built into the steep hillside, with the roof of one doubling as a porch area for the building behind it. Large blue or green latticed windows face out over the valley. Children chase each other around the streets.

Wandering down the hillside, we stop near a stream to drink tea bought from a small shop.

As in other parts of Iran, people don’t sweeten their tea directly, preferring to place a sugar cube between their front teeth and then sucking the tea through the sugar.

The teashop owner asks me where I come from: “Russ-stan, French-stan?” he guesses.

I tell him “England-stan” and he smiles. “Welcome!”

Hairpin bends and dancing

As we drink the tea, an elderly man walks to the edge of the stream, removes his shoes and socks, rolls up his trousers and wades out to a large, flat rock in the stream.

He washes his hands, feet and head and then begins his afternoon prayers, in turn standing, kneeling and then pressing his forehead to the rock.

Once he’s finished he carefully negotiates the way back and dries his feet with a cloth.

As we continue the journey, the doctor takes over the driving and progress is slower, but the hairpin bends are no longer quite so terrifying.

We arrive at Marivan in the late afternoon.

A large lake catches the afternoon sun and we stop at a restaurant at its edge.

Some friends of Dr. Ghaffar join us for a meal of barbecued fish, rice and pickled vegetables.

We sit cross-legged on the floor and drink more black tea.

Afterward, music is played and people lock arms and dance in a line, men at one end and women at another, jumping in unison and kicking their feet in time to the music.

One of the women’s veils slips back off her hair, but no one pays much attention. The dancing goes on until the sun sets over the lake.

We leave Marivan and head back toward Sanandaj.

The doctor’s phone rings and he talks in rapid Farsi before suggesting we stop at a friend’s house on the way.

“My friend is very wealthy,” he tells me, “and he can trace his family back 1,300 years.”

Kurdish pop

Hairpin bends are a familiar feature of the mountainous region's roads.

We stop on the outskirts of Sanandaj.

The friend’s house is certainly that of a rich man; thickset gold picture frames enclose black canvases covered in intricate Persian script, thickly woven carpets are laid out across the floor and a huge flat-screen TV sits in the corner, blaring out Kurdish pop music.

Before stepping further inside, I remind myself that it’s not polite to shake hands with women in Iran.

As I’m mentally congratulating myself on my cultural sensitivity, the sister of the owner of the house steps forward, confidently shakes my hand and invites me to sit on the sofa.

Huge bowls of sweets and cashew nuts are laid out.

I sit next to the man’s eldest daughter who takes out her iPhone and shows me photos on her Instagram feed.

Most of the images are of Western fashion models. I ask her why and she says: “Model is the best job.”

She plans to go to university in Tehran and wants to study German, but her long-term ambition is to leave Iran and she has many questions about life in the West.

It’s late and after more dancing – this time in the marble-floored living room to the music coming from the TV – it’s time to go.

Jahan drives back toward the center of Sanandaj. He sings in Kurdish again, but this time there’s a more melancholy tone to the song.