Iran-Trotter: Esfandiar

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Javad Gharaei is a young tourist who travels across Iran to explore the country’s most exotic places. In this episode, he visits the saffron-covered village of Esfandiar in South Khorasan Province.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

Narration: This time, I leave the cold winter weather in the capital city for the beautiful desert flower farms. My destination is the outskirts of South-Khorasan province; an area famous for its saffron, Iran’s prized red gold. Iran is one of the most mountainous countries in the world covered by rugged mountain ranges and deserts. 61 per cent of the country, has a dry climate. Deserts cover a combined area of around 34-million hectares scattered among 18 of its provinces. That means around 30 per cent of the country is made up of vast deserts featuring many mountains, salt pans, and sand dunes. Deserts across the world share almost the same features;Little precipitation, intense evaporation of water due to the scorching sun, smothering heat,dry air, great temperature fluctuations, poor vegetation, and a dearth of adequate organic compounds in the soil. However, despite the hostile climate of the deserts of Iran, life is in progress on their margins.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: “Hi. I’m Javad Gharaee. I’m an Iran-trotter. And I’m taking you on a journey to the most pristine areas of my beloved country and showing you their many beauties.”

Narration: Before visiting the saffron groves, I decided to take a look around at the desert surroundings on the outskirts of South Khorasan province. To that end, I began my journey with Halwan Desert located within 90 kilometers of Tabas, a city in and the capital of Tabas County, in the North West of South Khorasan.Because of its distance from the urban areas, the natural beauties of deserts are not known to humans as much as they should. If you wanted to venture out into the desert in order to admire its matchless beauties, you’d have to choose the right season and the right time of day. From a distance, deserts and the wilderness don’t seem all that beautiful.

But when you set foot in them, you feel as if you’ve stepped into a veritable heaven. But a different kind of heaven: You don’t see forests with tall trees, grass or running water….All you can see is streams with very salty water, single salt cedars and saxauls, scattered shrubs and bushes in the landscape, camels and other species unique to this hot and dry climate.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: “It’s very beautiful and peaceful here, but that’s not always the case. Within minutes, this whole area can turn into an ominously stormy ocean. Ferocious storms of sand and dust that have buried many a caravan and traveler over the course of centuries.”

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

Narration: In the not too distant past, some of Iran’s deserts were inhabited by people living in this climate. But thanks to global warming, and decreased precipitation that led to drinking water wells drying and part of the vegetation dying, the people living in such areas were forced to leave their little villages for a better place….Today, those villages lay in ruins on their original locations. Ruins that now serve as shelters for the camel herders against the blazing sun. But these homes of yesterday are still as beautiful as ever. Deserts around the world are expanding by the year. Desert expansion or desertification is a result of global warming, the growth in the human population, unplanned agriculture and excessive firewood collection, depletion of subterranean water resources, industrial contaminants and excessive use of fossil fuels, overgrazing by livestock, and the change in the use of agricultural land.This conversion of habitable and fertile land to uninhabitable desert can happen naturally due to a drought, or can be caused byhuman activities. Activities that have disturbed the balance of nature on planet earth. Iran accounts for more than two percent of the world’s drought.

It’s also home to more than eight percent of the deserts and arid lands that contain no vegetation. And that is considered a big number.

But in the fringes of this same hot and dry desert, meaning the one in South Khorasan, there are mountains that supply the rivers and Qanats in this area with drinking water. Streams that could be regarded as the natural wonders of this otherwise parched region.

Takhte-aroos or the Bride’s Throne near the village of Ezmiqan on the Tabas-Mashhad road, is a befitting name for this stream. The flowing water reminds me of the celebrations held by people in the old times upon the discovery of clean fresh water in a hot and dry region.

Only those born and bred in a dry climate with limited resources of fresh water appreciate its true value…people who have endured thirst, have felt the baking heat from the sun on their skin, and may have seen rain coming down from the skies over their heads only once a year. The people of Ezmiqan fit that profile perfectly. God has bestowed upon them fresh water in a stream gushing out of the dry desert mountains around Tabas. And the people here have utmost appreciation for this most precious of God’s blessings in the heart of the natural world.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: It’s really hard to believe, but the deserts of Iran each have a valuable prize inside them for nature-lovers. I’m in the midst of the camel-back mountains of Tabas. This is a spot surrounded by a vast desert, sand dunes and aridness as far as the eye can see. But this is the spot where a freshwater stream flowing down to the bottom of a deep ravine in these mountains springs from, a stream that travels around fifty-kilometers on the bottom of a yawning ravine to somewhere near the city of Tabas. This is absolutely truly beautiful. It just fills you with awe.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

Narration: In the distant past, the people of Ezmiqan lived in dwellings carved into mountain walls. With the tools they had, they would dig deep vertical and horizontal holes into the side of the mountains. In them they’d carve out rooms where they’d live. In the past, these hand-carved chambers were referred to as “Loons”!

Desert people are very smart. Using the water from the stream and the fertile soil here, they’ve been farming rice for generations. Today, the rice produced in Ezmiqan is among the best in the country.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: “Who would believe there are paddy fields in the middle of a desert and among these mountains? Everybody thinks rice is only grown in the north Iran.”

Narration: But where does the stream go on this dry land, after irrigating the paddy fields of Ezmigan? Does it sink into the arid terrain in the areas surrounding the rice farms? That can’t be the case…because to the desert dwellers, fresh water is worth more than diamonds. The locals in this area have spoken to me of a formidable yet beautiful canyon, and helped me see the rest of the course that the water from Takhte-aroos spring takes. The name of that canyon is Kaal-e Jennie, the Canal of Jinns, shaped by water movement and erosion over centuries. I’m going to step into a canyon where the water from Takht-e Aroos spring is flowing. But the volume of the water is not large enough to make it to the end of this very long course without going to waste. I am curious to know how that water continues on its path in the dry land and where it eventually gets to!

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: “It’s simply beautiful. As I say, the name of this awe-inspiring canyon is Kaal-e Jinnie! On its bottom, water from the Takht-e Aroos spring of Tabas is moving as we speak.

Most of the way, the water flows between the two walls of this canyon just like it does in a Qanat, and springs outta the underground, near Tabas. It’s one of the most beautiful sights to see around the city of Tabas in Southern Khorasan province…The Canal of Jinns! That’s a scary name!

Kaal-e Jinnie was shaped so beautifully by water movements such as seasonal rain-induced flood-waters over thousands or millions of years. It kind a looks like the Grand Canyon in the US though it doesn’t share the same depth. It really is stunning.”

Narration: After a long walk in the mountains, I arrive at the upper end of the Canyon. From up here, it’s a spectacular, deep gorge. I explore the canyon as much as I can and as long as there is nothing to threaten my life. But as I walk the length of it, water from Takht-e Aroos spring is nowhere to be found most of the way. The locals have already given me valuable information about that. But to see everything first-hand, I have to walk down to the bottom of the valley….and I do so with gusto and caution.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: “One of the things that renders Kaal-e Jennie even more remarkable, is its pristineness. Not many nature-travelers come here, and fortunately those who do, don’t leave behind any kind if waste or garbage. And that has turned this canyon into one of the most must-see natural sights in the Tabas area. There are Qanats as you can see over there. In some places water has pushed its way out but there are still other Qanats inside these walls that continue all the way to the villages of Tabas. And this water originates from the Takht-e Aroos spring in Ezmiqan village. It’s the same water that’s come all the way here and welled out over there as you can clearly see.

In the absence of pluming in the past, they would channel fresh water from one village to another or from the mountains to their villages and farms by means of a Qanat system. And they did it to prevent the water from going to waste. This one here is one of those Qanats. Out on the bottom of the canyon, the water would sink into the ground.So they channeled the water downhill through a series of gently sloping tunnels along several kilometers to the places where it was needed for irrigation and domestic use.”

Narration: Although new Qanats are seldom built today, many old ones are still used in Iran and have until recently served as one of the main reasons behind the continuation of life in areas with hot and dry climates. New technology has in recent years led to a rapid depletion of the underground water reservoirs, but we can still think of reviving the Qanat water-supply system, take advantage of this millennia-old experience for agricultural purposes in Iran, and do something to make it happen.

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

Narration: I knew very well that the rainfall in the eastern regions of the country is less than half the rain that falls in the western regions. Therefore, water is much more valuable in this part of the country. The people living in these parts have always been thinking of innovative ways of harnessing water and managing its resources. Digging Qanats and channeling underground water onto to the surface was very common in Iran. They didn’t cost much and they were very efficient. Qanats offered several advantages. Firstly, they’d prevent the sun from shining directing at the water and making it evaporate. Secondly, moving inside the mountains, not much of the water is absorbed by the bed and walls of the channel and thirdly, the water is immune to any and all kinds of contamination and flows to its destination clean and cool. What’s certain is that humans wouldn’t have been able to survive in the desert areas if they hadn’t built the Qanats.

Almost all researchers believe that the world’s first Qanats were built in areas under Iran’s cultural influence.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: No one knows for sure why the ancient dwellers of this region named this gorge the Kaal-e-jinnie. But apparently some of them believed this canyon was haunted by Jinns or ghosts. There were others who believed the idea of digging holes and caves into the mountainside for safety was something that even ghosts wouldn’t have been able to come up with. Or maybe the reason why this canyon was named the Canal of Jinns was the roaring seasonal floodwaters that swept along this canyon and still do today. Whatever the name, it must have been chosen for a reason! It defies belief that there’s so much water in the Kaal-e-Jinnie canyon….To the people of Southern Khorasan province, each drop of water is worth as much as a kilo saffron. And this Canyon has a lot of it.”

Narration: It looks like someone haschiseled away at the rocks. The only sound you can hear in the mountains is that of the water rippling along the Qanats. Eventually, I get to a point in the canyon where the ancient dwellers of this land redirected the water from the surface to a canal inside the mountain.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: This is where the water is redirected underground. It was the brainchild of folks who lived here in the distant past. And that beautiful Qanat dug inside the wall of the canyon, carries this water to the villages lying on the outskirts of Tabas.”

Narration: The locals have told me different things about the cavities and man-made holes inside the Kaal-e-Jinnie. Apparently, no one has accurate information on the age of those cave-like shelters. But tales of how they came to be have been passed down from one generation to another. I spend hours scouring the canyon for those man-made tunnels and I finally find them.It is hard to believe how these tunnels were hand-carved at this height.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: It’s quite a challenge getting into these tunnels but I’m sure it wasn’t that hard back then to get in here. Look at this! They burrowed this tunnel into the mountain using hatchets, you can still see the hatchet-marks here. Look at this vertical tunnel over here. I think the reason they dug this one was because they wanted to access the chambers on the way up. And to be able to climb up to those chambers, they didn’t use a ladder, a rope or some kind of elevator. All they had were these niches that they cut into the walls of the tunnel. Niches that acted as footholds to help them climb some five or six meters to get to the chambers above where they are likely to have lived. And that was where they’d feel safe.

It’s still not clear why these tunnels, these wells and these chambers were dug into the walls of this canyon and this height by the people in the past.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program:But many believe they actually live in here. This was the perfect place for people to take shelter in and survive the stifling heat of the Tabas region. And there are many others who believe this was a place where the village dwellers around here who wanted to steer clear of the brigands and looters, would transfer all their valuable belongings. They themselves would hide here along with their belongings and wait for the looters to leave the area. Of course there are others who are of the opinion that these tunnels were just the right place for the people of that time to come to and worship their Gods. That, in fact, they considered this place as their place of worship.

They call it the Canal of Jinns for a reason! It can get really scary in some parts. And it’s obvious that torrential floodwaters have shaped this valley like this over the years. In fact what those floodwaters did was wash away the dirt and stones on their path. Of course, it might have taken millions of years for this canyon to take on the shape it has today.

It’s frightening to be here, and walking on the bottom flanked by these tall walls. It looks endless to me. I’ve been walking these smaller gorges near Kaal-e-Jinnie for hours but it looks like there’s no end in sight. I haven’t been able to get to the other end of any of them. The deeper you go inside, the more you realize that you have more to go.”

Narration: This is a completely virgin valley with no trances whatsoever of human activity in it. Usually, garbage is the first sign of human presence in the natural world. It is clear to me that only people who feel responsible to nature have been to this area before. That is because there is no trash on the ground and no writings on the walls. That has made my trip into the heart of the canyon ever more worthwhile, and helped me appreciate its magnificence more intensely. My visit to Kaal-e-Jenni canyon has come to an end. I got to see beautiful sights in the Canyon from different angles. The Canyon has a scary name but that didn’t change my mind about travelling right into it and exploring it.

I continue my trek in the desert, this time to see the desert flower commonly known as the "saffron crocus". That means an approximately 200 kilometer walking distance from the Kaal-e Jinni Canyon. On my way there, the imposing ruins of an ancient building grabs my attention. They are the remains of a desolate village by the name of Dee-hoook.

Iranian deserts always have wonderful surprises for travelers, and this beautiful ancient village, is one of them. What really tugs at my heart strings though is that the villagers have abandoned these buildings with their unique architecture, for brick and mortal homes. It saddens me to see traditional Iranian architecture consigned to oblivion by my fellow Iranians in cities and villages. Today Iranian architecture that encompasses life and vitality, art and aesthetic beautifies, and love and positive energy, is being replaced by ghastly steel and mortal structures. Architecture that’s alien to the Persian culture. Architecture that bears no signs of the ancient Persian culture, and doesn’t include the freshness, the gardens, the water pools and other natural features characteristic of traditional Persian architecture. Such homes do not belong in our country. I wish they’d never been built.

TIME CODE: 25:00_30:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: In my opinion, this ancient village is one of the most beautiful villages I’ve seen in this area. The people here, I mean the people who used to live here, call this village Ancient Dee-hook. Now they live in a small township by the same name, built around 20 to 25 years ago. It was built after the earthquake in the year 1978. So now they call this place Ancient Dee-hook, which as I say is one of the most beautiful villages on the margins of the Lute desert.”

Narration: I’m pinning all my hopes on the Iranian authorities who’d have to roll up their sleeves and take action to revive Iran’s traditional art and architecture. I hope they’ll be able to breathe new life into this valuable national asset, and motivate the marginalized artists and architects to come to the fore and train and educate the next generation of traditional Persian artists and architects. And that’s something that has to be done before it’s too late.

I leave behind the ruins of Dee-hook and its beautiful architecture for my main destination which is the terraced saffron farms of Esfandiar. A patchwork of little farms that demands the attention of any visitor.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: The name Esfandiar was derived from the word “Espand” or wild rue plants that grow in abundance in and around this village. In the spring season, these perennial plants make the mountains surrounding Esfandiar, all the more beautiful. In my opinion, this village is a masterpiece, home to many and varied beauties in and around it.”

Narration: The people of Esfandiar are kind, faithful and hard-working. Farming is the main occupation of the people living in this part of the country. And their main produce is Iran’s famed red gold that is saffron. These fragrant vivid crimson threads are known by almost everybody around the world, and has forever been the world's most expensive spice. In the words of researchers, the history of saffron goes back thousands of years. Iran was the first place where these beautiful flowers were planted. And after Iran’s neighboring countries such as India, Syria and Lebanon found out about it, it was planted in Greece for the first time as well.

The word Zafaran is the Arabicized version of the word zar-paraan meaning a flower with petals of gold. Saffron threads are plucked from the flower saffron crocus, and used mainly as a seasoning and coloring agent in food. Historically, saffron has been among the most expensive spices in the world. Harvesting saffron is so labor-intensive. Every 150-thousand crocus flowers, that weigh approximately 75 kilos, yields a meager one kilo of this sought-after spice. The crocus is a flower with a bulb, and of the Iridaceae family. The crocus bulb grows multiple flowers for seven years, but after that the number of its buds decrease by the year.

Still there have instances when 30-year old bulbs bloomed, too. Around the world, saffron is used as food seasoning, medicine, dying agent and fragrance. At the moment, Iran is the world’s biggest producer of saffron accounting for 90 percent of the world production.

Saffron has been used as a coloring agent for fifty-thousand years. Signs of that application have been discovered in drawings found in caves in Iraq and the across the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Sumerians used it as medicine and for making certain potions. Iran’s South Khorasan province is the main producer of saffron in the country.

TIME CODE: 30:00_35:00

Narration: The reason I’ve chosen Esfandiar is the many other stunning sights to see apart from the beautiful saffron farms. The beautiful pomegranate, fig and almond gardens. The lofty mountains behind the village reaching to the skies. The vast, terraced saffron farms and a very hospitable people who are a valuable asset for Iran….Add to that, the beautiful ancient village of Esfandiar, that had lain uninhabited for around thirty years for fear of earthquakes. All these beauties have turned Esfandiar into a peerless little paradise in the heart of the desert.

I’m overjoyed at the knowledge that the village has maintained its original shape….Everything from the architecture to the farmlands. Thanks to my good friend Abbass Amiri, a village council member and the other responsible inhabitants of the village, no one is allowed to make even the smallest changes to the architecture of the buildings in the village and of those nearby. I hope that the authorities at the Cultural Heritage Organization and the responsible villagers living here will join forces in preserving and renovating the unique architecture of the buildings in Esfandiar give local and foreign tourists a chance to relish in such a beautiful bucolic environment, and leave a precious legacy for posterity. Additionally, a move like that will help the country’s tourism industry to thrive and create jobs for the locals. Provided that not a single modern structure is built in this area and the landscape is clear of paved-roads, power-posts, and other eyesores. I spend the whole day walking around in the mountains surrounding Esfandiar and taking beautiful photos of the village from different angels.

Tomorrow, I am supposed to accompany my good friend Amir, a village council member and high-school teacher, AND his kindly wife to a saffron farm. I want to see up-close how they and other farmers pick the saffron threads.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: “It’s freezing. It’s 6:30 in the morning and most of the villagers have are already sat down in a squatting position on their farms picking saffron-bearing flowers. I really didn’t want to get out of my comfortable bed, and come out here in this biting cold and dry weather. Butthe best time to pick those flowers and to see the farmers at work is the very early cold hours of morning. Apparently, it has to be cold and it should still be dark when they start picking the flowers.

I better get going if I wanna see them in action. I wanna see them work and I wanna pick some, too. Very cold! Very!”

Narration: It is mid-fall and the best time to harvest the saffron. The cold early-morning fall desert weather is ice cold. Time is of the essence for these saffron farmers so they have to make the best use of the time they have.

From the day when the first saffron crocuses burst into flower, the farmers have around 15 days to pick all of them. Therefore, they cannot wake up any time they want and go to work any time they please.

There’s a certain timeduring all those 15 days at which the farmers can pick the flowers….and that is only the early morning hours.

TIME CODE: 35:00_40:00

Narration: All the villagers, men and women, young and old, lend a helping on the farm during this period. It’s takes a certain degree of skill to pick the flowers….and the older folks of Esfandiar are master pickers hands downs.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: “If you leave these flowers under the sun for too long after they have bloomed, your saffron is gonna lose most of its original aroma and taste…It diminishes the quality of your saffron….as if the aroma of the saffron crocus gets released into the air and disappears forever. That’s what I’m told.”

Narration: You have to pick the buds with the longest stems and you have to do it fast. There’s no alternative to the human hand when it comes to picking these flowers… no machines, no automatons, no nothing. The men and women of the village spend hours squatting or doubling down while picking the flowers. The cold weather and the time crunch on the one hand and the pressure on the farmers’ knees and backs on the other make the job ever more difficult. The tips of the fingers tingle from the bitter cold….and nagging pain starts to be felt in the knees and back. The work is agonizing and toilsome.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Farmer Singing: “I would like to take to my wings and fly away from here, and land in the city of God. Medina, which is the city of the Prophet. Where I can pay a visit to Imam Jaffar’s grave.”

Narration: Desert dwellers are tough human beings and do not easily give up in the face of the difficulties presented to them by life.

These people’s entire being is made up of hope and love of life….Theyare eternally grateful to God even when doing the most difficult of work. The young people too hum local songs as they work. After spending only a couple of hours with Amir and his family on their farm, I am completely worn out. The pain in my back and knees is excruciating. But I feel great, because during those three hours, I got to see first-hand what these hard-working people go through. I can feel their pain. But there is something that upsets me and all of Iran’s saffron farmers. Unfortunately, the farmers do the lion’s share of the work in producing saffron…a case in point is the back-breaking harvesting process…But it’s the middleman who stands to make most of the profit. That’s an issue that calls for proper management and careful planning. The farmers need help to cash in on the result of their hard work, to make a profit that makes it all worth their while. Another big problem is a lack of a proper, internationally-interesting packaging industry in Iran for exporting saffron. A country like Spain is making the best of this opportunity. It buys Iran’s high-quality saffron at a very low price, puts it beautiful, modern packaging and re-exports it to other countries, in its own name and at a much higher price. The margin of profit is staggering. And that’swhat the farmers here have been complaining about.

I am depressed after watching the farmers work so hard, and hearing out their problems. But Amir has a present for me to cheer me up.

To refresh themselves and shake off the cold after the working hours, the farmers get together somewhere next to their farms and brew themselves some fresh tea laced with fresh saffron in a pot on fire made from dry sticks.

CONVERSATION [Persian] Javad and Rural man: “- The saffron flavor is dominant.

- Yeah. That’s correct.

- It’s so poignant.

-It’s supposed to taste like that when you brew it.

- The locals here believe that saffron tea cheers you up. It makes you laugh.

- It keep exhaustion at bay.”

TIME CODE: 40:00_45:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: “It helps freshen you up. But for someone like me..uhhhh…the question that comes to mind is, “How can you not be happy when you hang around with such hard-working, kind, pure souls…How can you sit down with these folks, sip saffron tea with them and not be filled with joy.

- Come over. Care for tea?

The fact is that even without this tea, saffron tea I mean, you get filled with peace and happiness when you hang around with people who spend all day, from morning till evening doing backbreaking work. Cheers.”

Narration: After imbibing that delicious saffron flavored tea one sip at a time, I decide to sit down with one of the elders of Esfandiar. And that is none other than Mr. Dananee. He tells me about the desert people’s frugal existence, about their simple lifestyle….

About the tough days of famine many years ago and the perseverance and resilience of his fellow villagers in the face of the vicissitudes of life.

CONVERSATION [Persian] Javad and Rural man: “- When did the folks here start cultivating saffron? I mean how far back in time does farming saffron in this area go?

- Well, I don’t remember exactly, but I guess it’s been around 30 years or so.

- About 30 years. And what did the people of Esfandiar use to grow before they turned to saffron?

- They use to grow barley and wheat.

- Barley and wheat?

- Yes.

- I remember this who area was hit by famine at some point. When did the famine strike, and what did the people do during that time?

- The famine hit in 1958.

- 1958, right.

- Yes. It was so bad that the poor people, those who didn’t have their own farmland or any foodstuff stored, were on the brink of death.

- Ahhh

- Our village elder, lived in one of those buildings there…

- Old Esfandiar you mean?

- Yes. So he went to the rooftop and said, “Listen people! The poor are starving to death.” “Allow themto sheave the leftover barley and wheat from your farms. Don’t stop them. They have to eat to stay alive.””

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: “The farmers don’t any time to waste. Therefore, after picking the flowers, they usually sit down together, and start the next phase of saffron production, which is plucking the stigmas from flowers.”

CONVERSATION [Persian] Javad and Mr.Amiri: “-So Mr.Amiri. How much time do you have between the time when you pick these flowers and the time when you have to pluck the stigmas from the flowers.

- Well, we are doing just the right thing. We’ve pick the flowers over there and now we’re sitting here picking the threads.

- Exactly.

- The sooner the better, and the higher the quality. At any rate, you can get it all done in two days.

- You mean you have two days to do this?

- Yeah.Because of the sheer number of the flowers, they may not be able to do them all in one go..

- Right.

- They need another day to get it done…

- And how do you store them for day two?

- Well, for one thing, you shouldn’t cover them with plastic covers. You have to put on a fabric and keep them in a cold place. Somewhere with no humidity and things like that.

- Uhuh

- That’s how we keep them.

- It has to be stored in a cold place.

- Yes, it has to be cold.

- And, look! As I separate these threads, I’m getting an itch my nose, and I’ve already sneezed a couple of times. What do you think is behind that? It’s bothering me.

- Well, you may be allergic to certain things but the fact is saffron has some kind of dust, which is released when you touch the threads.

- Yes, I can see it rise into the air.

- It bothers everyone. It’s irritating. I mean that’s one of the difficulties of this job. Because of its warm nature, that’s what traditional medicine practitioners say, because of its warm nature, it can be an irritant. It causes your body to itch, gives you a runny nose and things like that.

-Uhuh! Right.”

-Who do you sell this to? I mean who buys your saffron crop from you?

You don’t do the packaging yourself, do you?

- No! We sell our saffron in bulk to our customers. And usually, there are a couple of clients in every village. They sell the saffron on the consumer market.

- Right.”

TIME CODE: 45:00_51:02

CONVERSATION [Persian] Javad and Mr.Amiri: “- And the consumer market is Southern Khorasan and Central Khorasan meaning the city of Mashahad.

- Mashhad.

- Yes, Mashhad. That’s where the saffron is sorted in terms of quality and then packaged. Some of it is sold on the local market and the rest is exported to other countries.

- Right.

- And prices fluctuate. I mean, if someone can afford to keep some of it for a while after the harvest, they can sell it at a higher price.

- So the farmers stand to make a loss every time if they need money urgently, or they only make a small profit.

- They don’t make much of a profit.

- That’s because they have to sell right after harvesting it.

- That’s right. The market is briefly saturated in the harvesting season and naturally the prices go down.

- That’s why I believe those who live in deserts or near them, are very patient people. See for yourself.

It took a lot of patience for them to turn this steep surface into a terraced farmland, then with a lot of hardship, they planted the saffron bulbs in it, spent months attending to them and waiting for them to yield. As far as I know, saffron crocuses bloom once a year. It takes a lot of elbow grease to cultivate them. They don’t need much water but still growing them is no walk in the park…Everything about saffron requires a lot of hard work and patience. That’s why I’ve come to believe that desert dwellers are very stoic. Whatever they do, calls for a lot of patience and if they aren’t patient, things won’t happen. They won’t prosper. The pain Mr. Amiri has in his knees and back, is a pain that everybody here shares. All these people work really hard on these farms. And as I say, those living in desert climates are super-patient human beings. Being in their company, gives you the kind of peace that defies description.

The last stage in the production of saffron involves spreading the stigmas on a proper surface and leaving them to dry. And that’s a job that has to be done with a lot of care and skill, otherwise, the quality of the end product will be impacted.

- Thank God! Recite the Salawat everyone.

- Thank you very much.”

Narration: In the end, the middlemen come to the villages, buy the dried saffron from the farmers, and sell it at staggering prices after proper packaging. I have high hopes for this beautiful village to be reconstructed and renovated. I wish that on my next trip to Esfandiar, I’d see many tourists here.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Javad Gharaee, Host of Program: “There aren’t many places on earth that share the same natural, architectural, agricultural and anthropological variety as Esfandiar’s. But unfortunately, those beautiful houses you see behind me, although they used to be people’s homes one day, now lay in ruins. No one is paying adequate attention to all the historical, cultural, and architectural beauties of our beloved country. I’m sure each one of those houses in this beautiful mountainous region, with all these vast, terraced, saffron farms and its beautiful gardens, not to mention its very hospitable residents….I’m sure if they are renovated, they can act as hotels in this region….to accommodate tourists coming from other countries and of course local tourists travelling to this region. They can become beautiful hotels offering peaceful moments to those staying at them.”

Narration: My trip to south Khorasan has come to an end. I’m leaving with pleasant memories and valuable knowledge of this region of Iran. Before setting out for this part of the country from the capital city, I hadn’t even dreamed of such spectacular scenery and such kind human beings. I travelled to this area to see the saffron crocuses, growing in the desert. I found the beauties of South Khorasan as a treasure trove, each of which is as valuable as Iran’s famed saffron. All this area needs, to turn it into a major tourist attraction, is proper attention and management on the part of our government officials. And all that is possible if the traditional lifestyle of the folks living here does not undergo any radical changes…and provided the untouched scenery in these areas is not despoiled by modern residential and industrial structures. The beautiful face of deserts and the wilderness, the sand dunes and mountains, the animal and plant species living in deserts, an unpolluted blue sky, clean air, beautiful, vacant yet livable villages.

The farms and gardens of the area and on top of them all, the genuine and hospitable people with a rich culture. Each and every one of them is as precious as the saffron produced in the desert of South Khorasan. All I wish for is for all these assets to be preserved and protected for future generations.  

   

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