NOTwhere we know exactly where the Bakhtiari people came from before settling in the Zagros Mountains. But over the past few thousand years, their roots have gone deep into this land – in what is now western and southwestern Iran – alongside the native oak trees that are a vital source of their subsistence. In the face of modern forces, they hold their ground.
Urbanization began to take place in this region a century ago, and over the years the majority of the Bakhtiari have assimilated. Many have joined Iran’s elite, becoming scholars, actors, ambassadors and athletes. There’s even a National Football League player with Bakhtiari roots: David Bakhtiari of the Green Bay Packers.
A disproportionate part of the Iranian diaspora lives in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. More than one in three Iranian immigrants to the United States are here (more than half are in California overall.)
Recently, members of this community came out in force to protest the current conditions of women in Iran, following the death of Mahsa Amini shortly after the 22-year-old was arrested by Iranian vice police. for not wearing her hijab properly.
And yet, some Bakhtiari tribes continue to herd animals, grow barley and migrate between pastures through the seasons, as they have done for generations, says Alam Saleh of the Center for Arab and Islamic studies from the Australian National University. “Their habits, their way of dressing and their way of life are still maintained,” he says. “If they don’t live that way, they don’t exist anymore. For those who continue – the numbers go down – they persist in maintaining their identity.”
Rostam, a Bakhtiari who has only one name and says he is 40 years old, notes: “I am used to this way of life, I cannot live otherwise. To travel in these mountains, to graze the herd and to hear the bells of the goats, is a pleasure for me. It’s the only thing I’ve done since I was a kid, and I’m going to teach those [ways] to my children too.”
Women play an outsized role in this community, carrying out customs and keeping families together. “Because of their difficult way of life, the structures force women to be involved in all aspects of life. Women participate in fighting and physical labor, and act as mothers and wives at the same time,” says Saleh. . “She needs to be strong.” This has been true throughout the group’s history, with revered figures such as Sardar Bibi Maryam Bakhtiari, a revolutionary military commander who helped tribal forces capture Tehran in 1909.
But the name Bakhtiari, which means “bringer of luck”, does not reflect the current situation of these women, who also have to deal with child marriage, domestic violence and poverty.
And their life doesn’t get any easier. Most of the remaining nomadic tribes have limited access to medical and educational facilities. Dry winds and dust, combined with a lack of water for their livestock, force them to travel longer distances on their annual migration from the plains to higher, cooler pastures. Forest fires, fanned by heat and drought, burn their pastures.
This collection of photos, taken in 2020 and 2021, reveals the world of three Bakhtiari tribes and women who raise children and carry on farming traditions – even as 21st century realities may mean their days as nomads are numbered.
About this story
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Enayat Asadi is a photojournalist in Iran. In 2020, he started a project he calls “Hard Land”, Bakhtiari nomads in southern Iran. He lived with the nomads for one month in 2020 and three months in the spring and summer of 2021, with the aim of “capturing their strength and cultural richness in the face of the hardships they endure”. His new project is called “Survivors of Death Row” and chronicles convicted murderers who have been sentenced to death.
Vicky Hallette is a freelance writer and regular contributor to NPR.
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