Dinner with the Qashqai — Iran’s Nomads
By Elisabeth Orgorzaly Greenberg
What is it like to eat dinner with a group of nomads? Down home and personal, especially when you see your dinner slaughtered.
When I visited Iran, we tracked the nomads, looking for an opportunity to observe their lifestyle at close quarters. We finally spotted four black tents huddled on a rocky plain and approached. The tent, woven out of black goat hair and supported by sticks and ropes, sat beneath a spreading thorn tree.
Rocks bordered the hard-packed dirt in front of the tent, creating a “patio” with an 8-inch deep fire pit for cooking. Under the tent canopy two large woven rugs carpeted the dirt floor. Mongrel guard dogs barked furiously to protect the goats and sheep, corralled in chicken wire fencing.
A Qashqai family — grandmother and grandfather, mother and father, four daughters and two sons – welcomed us by rinsing out their three glasses and offering us tea, boiled on a propane stove.
We sat cross-legged, resting our backs against stacked sacks of flour, grains, and other food supplies, folded carpets and saddle bags and blankets. A parade of round bolster pillows in brightly colored satins topped the “supply closet”.
Behind it, partially shaded by the tent canopy, the Qashqai mother and her daughters set up their horizontal loom for rug weaving. This living space is compact, but well-organized, with areas for work, cooking, and conversation. At night, each family member will take a pillow and blankets from the “closet” and stretch out together on the carpets.
As soon as our tour leader paid for a goat, the Qashqai family went into high gear. The older daughter, perhaps 18 years old, poured a couple of kilos of flour, some precious salt, and a few cups of water into a large tin bowl. She kneaded the mass of dough, pushing hard with her knuckles into the side of the tin basin and pulling the dough in to the center.
After ten minutes, the dough became firm and elastic. She unfolded an old woven carpet coated with flour and slid a circular stone underneath it. She ripped out some bread dough, rolled it into a snake on top of the floured carpet, then formed it into balls the size of a child’s fist. The younger daughter built up the fire in the fire pit and placed a battered convex metal plate on top of the ring of stones.
Then the mother stepped into the act. She took a smooth stick and rolled each ball into a paper-thin circle a foot in diameter. Giving it a final toss or two with the stick, just like a pizza-maker, she spun it on to the hot metal plate where it quickly toasted.
She flipped it, added another thin circle of dough, toasted it, and flipped again, adding uncooked dough sheet as she flips the stack until she has a stack of ten or twelve flat breads. Sliding that stack on to a tin platter, she began baking again until 80 breads were piled high.
Just making the dinner bread takes the three women an hour and a half every day. As the sun dropped behind the mountains ringing the plain, the two younger girls, eight and ten, huddled around a propane light with their school books, practicing their reading.
Meanwhile, the father and oldest son, about twelve, chose and slaughtered a shaggy black-haired goat from the flock. The Qashqai are Muslim and the father cut the throat of the goat, then held it by its heels to drain its blood so that the meat would be “halal” or permitted. He slit the skin at the hip of the goat and slipped a smooth stick between skin and meat, then blew into the hole made by the rod in order to separate the skin completely.
Peeling the entire skin of the goat off the animal, he gutted it, and hacked it into chunks for the stew. The oldest daughter chopped onions and tomatoes into a little bit of goat fat in a large pot on the propane stove, then added the meat chunks and a few pinches of spices such as sumac and thyme and set the stew to simmer.
From our camp supplies come some sliced cucumbers; from the Qashqai, a large container of goat yogurt. Then dinner was served!
We tore bread into scoops for the stew and yogurt; everyone dipped in to the communal pots. First the “tourists” ate their fill; then the Qashqai grandfather, father, and sons, squatting on their heels, dipped into the pot; and, finally, after we retreated to our own tents, the Qashqai women ate the remains.
Would I want this life? Not for a second, but I was honored to share dinner with those who struggle day to day to gather food, cook, and eat together before striking camp for the next grazing ground.