The Iranian Tribes
By Iraj Bashiri
Copyright © Iraj Bashiri, 2002

If you drive from Shiraz to Isfahan or if you travel between Isfahan and Ahwaz, you might see rows of small tents around which children play. These are the tents of the Qashqais (between Isfahan and Shiraz) and of the Bakhtiaris (between Isfahan and Ahwaz).


The Chador

The chador or tent is the smallest unit in the nomadic societies of Iran. It is headed by a male who, along with a few other males and some females, provides food stuff and other necessities for the chador. Each chador accommodates a household that consists of grandparents, parents, and children. Together they see to the needs of the extended family as well as contriobute to the daily chores of the tireh.

The Tireh

A number of chadors form a tireh. Each tireh is comprised of a Kadkhuda or headman and a number of other men known as Rish Sefids (white beards or elders). The affairs of the tireh, unless made complicated by circumstances such as involving the lives of the people from other tirehs, are regulated by the Kadkhuda. The Rish Sefids help the Kadkhuda in the decision-making process.

The Tayefeh

A number of tirehs form a tayefeh. The affairs of the tayefeh are regulated by a Kalantar or chief who is appointed by the Il-Khan or chief of all tribes. The Kalantar oversees the well-being of the various tayefehs as well as settles disputes among the members of the tirehs. He also takes care of the problems that had not found a solution at the chador and the tireh levels.

The IL

A number of tayefehs form an il. The il’s affairs are administered by an Il-Kahn (chief) who lives in a tent known as the darbar or court. As both the regal and the legal center of power, the darbar serves the tribe as a last resort for justice. All quarrels that have not been settled on the tayefeh level are brought to the Il-Khan. His word is law.

The il is the highest level out of which a certain number of people carrying the same geneaology work. The people of the tribe speak the same language and share the same myths about the past of the tribe.

Often, for political reasons, a number of tribes cooperate and form a confederation. The confederation is placed under the leadership of an influential member of one of the tribes. This Supreme Chief of tribes is also called an Il-Khan. He settles the affairs of the tribes with the help of an Il-Beg or manager.

In order to save tribal uprisings, the Il-Khan is also recognized by the central government. In that case, in times of war, he sends a given number of young people from different tribes to serve in the national army.


The Bakhtiari Tribe

The Bakhtiaris are a very independent people. Like other tribal confederations, they are composed of clans, lineages, and families each with an assigned routes and tasks. Each branch of the tribe is ruled by charismatic men called the khan. The Bakhtiaris are Muslims with a limited understanding of Islam; their real involvement in religious practices and rituals, too, is limited. Women in the tribe are free from the restrictions of the purdah (seclusion). The Bakhtiaris perform seasonal migrations and carry out nomadic activities no matter how difficult these tasks prove to be. They disdain building structures such as permanent houses, bridges, and the like

The Bakhtiari tribe divides into two main branches: the Haft Lang and the Chahar Lang. The Haft Lang consists of 33,493 households. The Chahar Lang consists of 2,825 households. Each tribe further divides into subtribes. The Bakhtiaris are Shi’ite Muslims. In difficult spots you find them seek assistance ("Yo Ali!") from Saint Ali, the First Saint of the Shi'ites.

The branch of the Il-i Bakhtiari (Bakhtiari tribe) that is depicted in the film is called the Baba Ahmadi. It migrates between Ahwaz and Isfahan, crossing the ice-cold water of the Karun River and the snow-clad peaks of the Zagros Mountain. They undertake this journey twice a year. This branch numbers about 50,000 individuals. The Il-Khan (supreme tribal chief) divides the tribes into groups of approximately 5,000 and assigns each group an Il-Rah (tribal route).

The journey begins around the 21st of March (Persian New Year), near the city of Ahwaz. The first hurdle is the Karun River that is about half a mile wide. Women, children and young animals cross on puffed-up goatskins made into a raft. Others use single or double skins to cross themselves and their animals, which number about half a million.

To cross the river, the Bakhtiaris throw themselves and their livestock into the whirlpools. There they paddle into the river until the centrifugal force of the water throws them out towards the opposite shore. Some men cross the river more than eight times a day to help others carry their flock, children and household utensils over to the other shore.

Crossing the river takes five or six days usually accompanied by many casualties. These include sheep and other livestock being swept away in the whirlpools, as well as the young men who drown trying to save them. Some elderly who decide against crossing the river stay behind. They have to fend for themselves alone.

The next hurdles are several mountain ranges. These mountains are crossed one after the other in a space of a few days during which the Bakhtiaris fan out and graze their flock around the rivers that take source in the mountains. The last range is called Zardeh Kuh. Over 13,000 feet in height and still covered by snow, the Bakhtiaris must cross it before they can reach the green pastures around Isfahan in the center of the plateau.

Here, the Bakhtiaris leave their equipment, tents, carpets, cooking utensils, and the other amenities that they had recently used in the nearby villages for use after they return. With them they take only the absolute necessities, i.e., their flocks, horses, donkeys, and mules, the main sources of their survival.

The Bakhtiaris are a truly hardy people. Even on the snow, they do not wear shoes, which they believe belong to the world of the city dwellers. When they must pass a place where deep snow needs to be packed, they "break trail" in the snow with their bare feet to ease the passage for the rest of the tribe. The entire journey takes about 30 days.

In general, the Bakhtiaris live six months in their qishlaq (winter quarters) around Ahwaz on the Khuzistan plain and four months in their yaylaq (summer quarters) around Isfahan. The other two months they travel, grazing their flocks on the way. About fifteen days of each journey is truly rough. At times, they find themselves sleeping on the snow-covered mountain without adequate clothing.

About the film Grass
See also:
The Kirghiz of Afghanistan
The Kazakhs of China
The Blacks of the Persian Gulf

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