PHOTOS: In this nomadic tribe of Iran, women persevere despite hardship

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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.

Fereshteh, 14, is pictured in the central Zagros Mountains, where her tribe spends spring and summer. They travel many hours on rough trails throughout the year, from pasture to pasture, and then there is the annual 10-hour commute from their summer home to their winter home. She says she doesn’t like the nomadic lifestyle but feels she has no choice but to accept and put up with it.

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.

TO THE

  • 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.”

A woman stands with her head down

Jamileh, 50, stands on a mountain slope near her home.

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.”

Two people sit on rocks using binoculars to look up

Rostam, 40, and Farzaneh, 37. She was seven months pregnant and expecting the birth of their sixth child when this photo was taken in June 2021. The couple use binoculars to keep an eye on their 95 goats – and watch for wild animals that could threaten them.

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.

A woman covers her face near a pot over an open wood flame

Bakhtiari women boil goat’s milk over an oak wood fire. They use the milk to make yogurt, butter and cheese. On the right, a woman bakes bread in a hillside village in the central Zagros Mountains.

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.

A girl holds two babies in front of a tree

The heart was not carved – it was formed when a truck delivering flour collided with the tree. It is the favorite tree of this Bakhtiari girl, standing in front of him on the right.

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.

Four children with a stone wall behind them

Young Bakhtiari enjoy a fun time. One of the children is wearing a lion mask that his parents bought for him on a trip they took to a city. Bakhtiari children usually study up to middle school but do not attend high school.

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.

an old oak tree

An old oak tree stands along an ancient route for the nomadic Bakhtiari people. In the areas where they travel, trees have fallen victim to drought and fires – and been felled for fuel.

Three women in a grassy field with trees behind them

From right: Marzieh, 22, Golgol, 25, and Sangi Jan, 60, harvest barley from their field. They will use it as fodder for their livestock over the coming winter months. Marzieh, who was 8 months pregnant in this photo, told the photographer that she felt nauseous due to her pregnancy but was still working on the farm while her husband worked in town.

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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