In my mind, I had it all spelled out. Based on hearsay and made up prejudices. Dry, hot, empty, hostile, barren, lifeless. The desert: badlands worth visiting, a wasteland not worth staying. How wrong can one’s image of a place be? Completely.
Onbekend maakt onbemind is a Dutch saying (‘unknown makes unloved’, badly translated). As a kid I never liked the episode of the desert when there was a documentary series on television about nature. Looking back, I think I just had nothing in my life that could relate to a place like that. Not our little sandbox in the backyard, nor the North Sea beaches or dunes in the summer holidays. So when a friend and I left Isfahan for a visit to the desert, I had prepared myself for days filled with itching sand, blinding light, blazing heat, boring quietness. And of course, the only foreseeable upside of the trip, an unforgettable night sky.
It took a six hour bus drive to Khur and a local taxi driver called Mehdi who flew us over an unlit, winding desert road that went up and down in a dark blue, shadow landscape, to reach Mesr, a small village in central Iran counting no more than 120 living souls in the off-season. Although the sun had already set and there was but little moonlight, the few burning street lights gave a vague outline of the village: a two laned main road with a footpath in the middle – cleaving the village into a right and left side, several guest houses, a shop, two water towers, a small medical center and an abandoned police post. Almost all visible buildings were erected out of the same brown-grey soil mixed with straw. It was so quiet, it felt abandoned.
‘There is Rohab.’ From behind the steering wheel Mehdi pointed to the right side of the village. Two men were in front of a guesthouse. One of them was watering young trees and low growing plants beside the road. The other was looking towards the sky and smoking a cigarette. We got out and walked up towards the man who was staring up. ‘It’s a good night. Not a perfect night. Too much wind and there are clouds. But still… a very good night.’ He spoke with a friendly voice, calmly – as if weighing every word. ‘Hi, I am Rohab. Welcome to Mesr.’
Rohab’s guesthouse would become our base for exploring the desert. ‘Tonight we drive to the desert. For a short visit. To see the sky and if you are lucky… some animals.’ We dropped our stuff in one of the traditional decorated rooms, got in a 4×4 car and drove into the darkness. The asphalt road became a dirt road and the dirt road turned into barely visible tire tracks. Rohab steered the jeep through the dunes, skillfully avoiding bushes and rocks. Music was put on and the sound coming from the kamancheh changed from quietly sobbing in a corner to dancing in a storm. Rohab, as if guided by the traditional Persian instrument, commanded the car to go faster. Left, right, left, another left. He must have known what he was doing since he hit none of the bushes or boulders that suddenly jumped into the beams of the headlights.
After half an hour we stopped at what recently had been a lake. We got out and stood upon nature’s self laid tile floor, cracks and lines of bursted open earth everywhere. With his soft voice, Rohab started sharing his knowledge about the desert. ‘In the winter and spring, animals come here to drink. It’s dry now but who knows… maybe we see a few animals. You know, under and around the bushes and trees in this desert live a lot of animals. Insects, small rodents, snakes, scorpions… Snakes won’t bite you as long as you don’t surprise them. And if they do, they normally don’t release a deadly amount of poison. Scorpions on the other hand, they are nasty. They sting you without any reason. So when you camp in the desert, put your tent in the dunes where nothing is growing. But if you have no other option than to sleep near trees or bushes, try to find eucalyptus. The last Shah brought seeds back from Australia. They are doing pretty well here. Pick the leaves of the tree, tear them and make a circle with the torn leaves around the place you are sleeping. Animals don’t like the strong smell.’ (Later I learned, making a circle with petrol has the same effect but it is, of course, less environmentally friendly.) We would see only a small gecko that night but I didn’t matter: the things I had learned and a first glimpse of a desert night sky, it was more than I could have asked for.
We stayed up late that day and slept through the following morning and afternoon, trying to catch up with the rhythm of the village. The week before, temperatures in Mesr had risen to 48 degrees Celsius, meaning when you are not a farmer, you move as little as possible before the evening. Mainly for this reason, the day’s schedule is different compared to city life with breakfast being served at noon, lunch at five and dinner normally at ten or later.
On our second evening in Mesr, when the sun was about to touch the horizon, we packed the 4×4 car with food, installed some cushions, made ourselves comfortable on the rooftop of the car and were driven to what Rohab called ‘a very special place’. The designated spot Rohab referred to was wedged in between the foothills of a massive mountain range to the south, towering sand dunes to the northwest and a plain to the northeast.
After the moon shortly had shown itself across the firmament, after the wind had blown its final breath, after the Milky Way had fully stretched itself across the sky, after the reign of silence had begun, that’s when my friend and I understood why Rohab called this place a very special one.
As I did myself, many may think an endless black sky filled with a million diamonds is what strikes the ignorant desert tourist the most, but no… First and foremost, for me personally, the deafening silence made it a spiritual place. For the first time in my life, without any instrumental help, I heard my own blood flow, I heard the slow and steady rhythm of my heartbeat – like a timpani, boooom, boooom, boooom -, I heard my spine and cartilage work when I followed one of the many falling stars. Yes, it was the complete absence of any outside noise followed by a primal bond with everything going on in my own body which really struck me.
Besides getting up for eating watermelon, smoking a cigarette or finding some candy to suck on, I lay on my back – hands behind my head, trying to discover other ‘new’ sounds. With a falling star every ten minutes and a sporadic meteorite shooting by – lasting up to several full seconds and lighting up the place a little, I naively hoped to hear one break the silence. It felt so weird, so unnatural: a giant fireball with a bright, long flare passing before your eyes without hearing anything.
When I got tired of listening and realized the position of the Milky Way and the stars had changed, I tried to get my head around the movements of the planets and how our solar system as a whole moves through space. I tried to comprehend the sheer magnitude of space, our drop within that vast ocean and what I or we as a species mean in the grand scheme of things. Not much more than a grain of sand between my toes, I concluded. I knew it already, just as you probably do, but still, the desert emphasized my total insignificance in a gentle and pleasant way. Finally, after a few hours and a handful of raindrops, I dozed off.
Mesmerized by the place, I decided to stay for a whole week in Rohab’s guesthouse. I enjoyed how the quiet, carefree and predictable days rolled over me. The only thing that really changed during that week was the amount of money I had to pay for the ice cream and cigarettes. With only having the internet for half an hour a day, I had heaps of time to sleep, rest, read, think, write and talk with Rohab and his friends about the desert, Sufism, spirituality and much more. I learned a lot in those days, especially about the courageous resistance in Mesr and about what I had started to appreciate more than anything else: water.
Let me begin with the latter. While riding in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Iran I had changed my own answer to a question I often asked other cyclists: what is the most valuable thing you are carrying with you? When they returned the question, I told them in the beginning of the journey it was my pencil and diary. Last month though, water had taken the number one spot. So when Rohab started sharing facts like ‘did you know the best saffron in Iran comes from Mesr, and did you know that this flower, just as the pistachio tree, needs only water once every forty days, abd did you know a camel needs to drink only once every twenty days?’ my interest was triggered.
‘Rohab, how does it work with the water over here? I have seen a lot of irrigation canals in your country with water constantly flowing to a specific field of crops.’ Rohab took time to light up a cigarette. I almost could see him think: how am I going to explain this? ‘You know, almost every farmer in Iran has water rights. He has, for instance, a right of six hours water each twelve weeks. You don’t have to use it all at once: farmers between themselves know often more or less who needs water at what moment. These water rights get passed from father to son and depend also on the amount of land you own. Here in Mesr, we are quite lucky. Or should I say blessed? We are on top of a big reservoir. There is a lot of water deep under the ground. The shepherd back then, had a good eye and was a smart man. When more and more people came, they started building a network of wells. From outside the village to within, each one coming closer to the center a little less deeper. The problem we face at the moment is that a lot of water is used for growing crops outside the village by big farmers, using the crops for feeding cattle. It’s so stupid… The water level has dropped more than usual since those farmers started using our water. It’s going to be a big problem in the future. I am sure of it.’ A development I recognized from back home. I asked Rohab how to deal with it. `We try to come together as a village, farmers and people that make money from tourism. Together. Showing that the water level drops every year further and further. But it’s not easy… They don’t really care, I think. It’s all about money. I don’t know how it will end.’
Rohan might not, but I felt confident that they would solve the issue. Why? Because in Mesr they know how to deal with powerful outside parties. Let’s go back in time a little.
Mesr was founded and therefore owned by the aforementioned smart shepherd who saw potential in an uninhabited oasis. He decided to settle down, built himself a house and not long after, people joined. After his death, he left the oasis to the people living in the village who made sure they kept things as much as possible within their own circle of influence. So when the new Islamic government of Iran wanted to build a mosque, a medical center and some infrastructure, the village negotiated in such a way they didn’t sell the ground underneath the buildings and roads but still received the new facilities. The people also tried to maintain the more liberal and secular view on society which was present under the last shah.
As time went by, more and more people found their way to this remote place at the edge of the desert. For many, Mesr became a place where one could escape reality for a brief moment. In their holidays, young Iranians came and raced their cars through the sand dunes and had a party with sex, drugs and music on the neighboring salt plain while foreign tourists who wanted to experience this unique place could smoke a joint or two or use something stronger. The restrictive and religious government didn’t like this at all and started using their power, throwing people in jail who organized parties or publicly ventilated their discontent about the political and religious leaders.
Till this day, the more secular (temporarily) inhabitants of Mesr have to fight tooth and nail to keep the oppression outside and the village as they think it ought to be: a spiritual place for those who do not believe in the theocratic principles of the government and religious place for those who believe in them. To give an example: not long ago, like guerilla fighters, the free minded inhabitants were able to block and trap cars of officials who catched rule breaking Iranians and tried to escort them to the police station. Eventually, because of the blockade, they had to let them go. Another example: last year there was some serious turmoil about people not following clothing restrictions which led to an actual fight on the streets with some influential people and again the strategy of not backing down paid off: in Mesr you can see women without a scarf right next to women wearing a hijab.
I hope people like Rohab and his friends keep fighting as they have been doing for all those years. So Mesr can stay the place where people like me can listen to new sounds. So Mesr can be the oasis where one can lessen a lust for life. So Mesr can be the village where all humans are welcome and life itself is celebrated.
Let me end with a poem I wrote when I was in Mesr.
Weggeblazen door de laatste zonnezucht,
schaduw werpend licht, wit zinderende hitte, schuwe sikkel, spiegelwind.
Verschijnend na het eerste sterrengeschal,
donker golvend schimmenspel, sluierende nevels, lichtvoetig woestijnverkeer, fonkelstilte.
In de donkerte, zuigend aan het kristallen licht, hoe poriën en pupillen verwijden.
In de woestenij, bam – boembam, bam – boembam, hoe hartslag en adem synchroniseren.
In de immense leegte, ontketend, los van het warme zand.
Geen spiegel, noch een glazen bol. Enkel het hier, alleen het nu. Grenzen vervagen, regels ontbreken, alles wordt één, want is het niet: ik ben wij en jij bent mij?
Niet bang, noch dapper, niet boos, noch blij. Vannacht ben ik alles, vannacht ben ik vrij.