Iran 1978

I had promised our bearded guest we’d show him where our mulberries came from, and tonight was the night. In most semi-desert villages in Iran, families have a garden in the oasis. The oasis is separate from where people live: it has water, palm trees and a large number of mud-brick-walled compounds, for each family. In each compound there may be trees (mulberry or other fruit), some grass, a crude hut and patches of land surrounded by earthen ridges where we might grow our onions, lettuce and other vegetables. Under or alongside the oasis’ paths, and connecting the compounds, are a system of jube, or ditches, which move the infrequent rainwater around but also ensure that when water is pumped from a river, or up from the qanats (underground water channels) or wells, it can be fairly distributed.


It was our family’s turn for water that night and we took our guest with us to help.  One of my cousins came, my brother-in-law, another brother-in-law’s cousin, an uncle and one of my brothers. We took along gas lights, torches, food, tea, charcoal and much else. We roasted sweetcorn, we ate sweet watermelon, we used the atesh-gurdan to get the coals hot for the shishe (waterpipe): this is a small metal basket containing coals which we put on the fire and then, after a while, whirl it swiftly around in the air to get them hot enough to light the tobacco well.

When it was our turn for the water we opened the sluice at our gate and broke down the earthen ridges next to the jube so the water could flood the vegetable patch and fill the tank for the trees.

At about 2am we finished the work and rebuilt the ridges. The water rushed on, for another family to use. The clouds had gone by this time and the moon was strong. On the way home we met two more gardeners, exchanged greetings and gossip about who was abusing the watering system. We were joined by more men, middle-aged farmers. One was riding a Had motorbike which hummed gently in the otherwise wholly-silent oasis and added its headlight to that of the moon, highlighting the hazelnut brown eyes, white beards and handsome lined faces of these working men paid to manage the water and turn out for families who didn’t like the night work. They were carrying, looking eerie in the half-light, their large wooden shovels with six-foot handles, ready for remedial works on the jube if necessary. One proudly displayed a snake he had found and killed. He would bury it under a mulberry tree: it was well-known this would make the tree grow faster. As long as there was water of course.