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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 35

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part IV. Our Suicidal Quest for Energy

Chapter 35. Zavareh

Inspiration for this book comes, perhaps, from a trip I made in 1976 to the village of Zavareh, while I was living in Iran. It was a journey from which I returned with great hope. Before closing this disquieting book, I would like to share with you what I discovered there.

Zavareh is located in the very middle of Iran, at the edge of the Dasht-e-Kevir salt desert. Its remote location has shielded it from most of the ravages of Western influence. Its ancient mosque and beautiful silhouette against the stark surroundings make it a true jewel of the desert. The kindness of its inhabitants adds a further dimension to its beauty. Iran "Top Tier, Bottom Tier" does not exist there.

The people of Zavareh are among those who have preserved a simpler life and have not tasted the luxuries or felt the pressures of our more sophisticated world. We who have made the great industrial journey know that we can never go back to a way of life like that of the Zavaris. But I think that we have sufficient proof of how uncertain our "modern" world has become to at least refrain from pulling onto our path of frenzied development those who have not yet followed us there. Even if we were to discover new riches that lie beneath their feet to feed our Western egosystems, I hope that we will have the kindness, grace and intelligence to leave them alone. I feel guilty for even having visited them, for having given them a brief glimpse of another world.

Around the curve of a dune
a village appears
home to the desert's guardians
nest on Earth
piece of paradise in the Universe
here is Zavareh.

I arrived in Zavareh under the blazing noonday sun. A deep stillness filled the village, broken only by the gentle splashing of water in the fountains.

Immediately I wondered where the water had come from to fill the fountains in this remote desert town. There was no river. How could there be? The scorching sun would have quickly dried it up. It almost never rains in Zavareh; most Zavaris can count the number of storms that they have witnessed in their lifetimes on the fingers of their two hands. It was not until I met Ahmad that the mystery was solved.

The magnificent patriarch of the village, Ahmad, appeared before me on my first afternoon in Zavareh. He was wearing a gandoura, a gown of flowing white wool. Exuding wisdom and serenity, he seemed to embody the charm of his desert home. He was speaking to a gathering of children, whom he had taken to the outskirts of the village to remove them from the present, so that he could talk to them of ancient times when reality was fused with legend. His clear voice, tranquil eyes, and tufted beard lent depth and emotion to his words. That day, he was talking to his young friends about the history of water in Zavareh.

"My dear little ones, do you know how water comes to Zavareh?"

"Through the qanats {a}, Baba!"

The children all called him "Baba", which in Farsi means both father and grandfather.

"Of course! But where do the qanats find the water?"

The little Zavaris could not answer. Their old friend stood and pointed to the horizon where the sky was already turning red from the sunset.

"Look over there, beyond the big plateau! Do you see those mighty mountains? They are so far away that we cannot even see them in the daytime. We have to wait for the sun to set before we see their outline against the sky. The mountains are our source of life. In winter, clouds bring much snow there, then in spring the snow melts into water, which is swallowed by the mountains. This water flows slowly under the earth in unseen rivers all the way to Zavareh, all year long".

"But how, Baba?"

The children did not seem to understand. For them, the mountains were so far away that it would take a miracle to bring water all the way from there. Ahmad beckoned the children to come closer, as if he were going to tell them a great secret.

"Our ancestors came here a long, long time ago, led by a very wise man".

"Wiser than you, Baba?"

"His name was Zarathustra".

"The prophet?"

"Yes! He told them that if they dug deep tunnels from the mountains, they could capture and bring the water of life to the desert and build a village there. So they started digging long tunnels by hand. They dug qanats, qanats, and more qanats. And the water flowed through them. All the way to Zavareh."

"The water that we drink is snow, Baba?"

This question had darted out, as nimbly as a bird from its cage, from within the folds of the chador that covered the face of a little girl, Maryam. She had never seen snow up close and the very idea of drinking it bothered her a lot.

"Yes, Maryam. As if by magic, the water that falls as snow during the four months of winter melts and flows all year long through the qanats to the Zavaris."

Old Ahmad paused to distribute a few dried figs to his young friends.

"The great wise man visited the Zavaris often. He also showed them how to repair the qanats. He told them to remove the rocks that flow down with the water from the mountains in such great numbers that they would otherwise block the channel."

And so, thanks to Ahmad the patriarch, the mystery of Zavareh's water was revealed. Zarathustra created a place of wellbeing for the Zavaris in this grey desert by tunneling the water from the far-off mountains and shielding it from the blazing desert sun.

I could see evidence all around of the mysterious underground rivers that traveled so far and so secretly to this remote desert outpost The qanats are marked by a series of mounds of dry earth next to black holes in the desert. The openings are shafts that descend from the surface to the underground river. Once the qanats arrive in the village, life revolves around them; the wonderful maze of tunnels brings water to every Zavari garden.

The next afternoon, I saw the wonderful Ahmad again, this time looking very serious. He had the children with him once more.

"Today, my little friends, I'm going to tell you about the battles of the Zavaris".

"But you've always said Zavaris don't fight!"

"These were long, slow battles that you might not have noticed if you didn't know where to look. These were battles without fighting."

"Pretend battles?"

"No, real ones".

"I don't understand what you're saying!"

"For many years, the "bani-adams" {b} in the north of our country have been trying to invade Zavareh. They have lost wisdom and want us to follow them on their path of madness. They say life must be "modern" to be beautiful. It all began one day when they tried to teach us how to make fire from a shiny brown liquid, something we'd never seen before. They call it "kerosene". Until then we had only used dried camel dung and lignite in our workshops and we were able to make things of copper, glass, and pottery. We didn't need anything else. But soon the northerners would not sell us any more coal and we had to trade our products at the marketplace for kerosene. Without realizing it, the Zarvaris had opened their doors not only to this new fuel but also to the ideas of the north. We made a big mistake!"

"But Baba Ahmad, you've always told us to leave our doors open so visitors can come in".

"Visitors, not invaders!"

Ahmad was having trouble keeping the attention of his young audience, so he stopped to pass out generous amounts of dried figs and raisins.

"My little friends, we didn't know it, but by opening the doors of Zavareh too wide, we let in some things that were undesirable. While Zavareh's craftsmen were working so well on their copperware and weaving beautiful rugs of silk and wool colored with Nature's dyes, objects with strange shapes and glistening surfaces started coming in from other places and they seemed more attractive to us than the things we were making ourselves in Zavareh."


"Toys for children, but also for adults, each one more tempting than the last - like the bicycle that came one day".

"But Baba, bicycles are wonderful!"

At the word "bicycle", all eyes turned toward the old man. Few children in Zavareh owned a bicycle, but all of them desperately wanted one. So they couldn't understand why their Baba seemed to think it was undesirable.

Ahmad perceived their confusion, but he continued with his story.

"The bicycle was very nice! But soon it was followed by the first engine, made by our northern bani-adams".
A motorcycle, Baba?"

Old Ahmad purposely began to breathe as if he were gasping for air.

"Yes, Saadi, almost like that. It was something that the northerners call a motor vehicle".

"A car!"

"It made an infernal racket. When it arrived, people came from every part of the village to see it. They were amazed but also a little afraid because they didn't know what it all meant. They had never imagined that such a thing existed. They had heard of motors, but no one before had described to them what motors were like. They hadn't imagined the noise, the smoke, the vibrations, all coming from one single machine. It was like a noisy, unwelcome intruder imposing himself on them."

Ahmad told this part of the story with effort, to show the difficulty that the Zavaris had found themselves in at that time. Then, as if he could not bear the memory of it, he stopped speaking for a few seconds. He took hold of little Ali's arm to stop him from interrupting with another question, then went on.

"Our fears about this roaring metal were rapidly confirmed. We were right to be concerned. We felt that this noisy engine was something more powerful than we were, something that might change us completely. It was a serious time because we had always worked together to face the difficulties of life in the desert. It looked as if the engine might tear us apart. It was then that our Zavareh had a magnificent reaction. We refused to allow the northerners' engine to enter our village. The streets were too narrow to accept the machine."

"But Baba, what about Jahan's motorcycle?"

"Yes Ali, it entered Zavareh and it still makes its noise around here. It was difficult to ask our young people not to try it. But you have to understand that, because of these motorized devils, our camel caravans don't cross the desert anymore."

"Our camels are still here!"

"Yes, but the northerners' vehicles are faster than our camels, and when our caravans come to load their cargos, we're always told we're too slow. Our camel drivers have had a very hard time. Jahan's father, who inherited this way of life from many generations before him, is so ashamed of not having a use for his camels anymore that he doesn't even want to meet his friends. He wanders around the desert with an empty caravan; you can see him sometimes at night, circling the village as if he's afraid to come in. Sometimes he doesn't come home for several months. His children bring him food."

"Poor camel drivers!"

"But, my little friends, Zavareh is still in danger. We can't allow ourselves to be overcome by the force and the noise of the bani-adams' engines. If we do, they will carry us away into the crazy life of a world that isn't ours. We would all suffer, just as our camel drivers do now."

"But Baba, Jahan's motorcycle is a good one! It doesn't hurt anyone!"

"Perhaps, Ali, but our northern adams have so many other motorized machines that not even they can control them anymore; they're like animal tamers who can't control the beasts that surround them because they've grown too strong and too numerous for them. Their engines sometimes even behave like dangerous animals. To avoid being hurt by them, we have to keep our Zavareh the way it is. We must, especially, never widen our pretty streets."

The little Zavaris went home very sad that night, not at all convinced that the northerners' engines posed any real threat. They had all dreamed about riding on Jahan's motorcycle and even of someday having one of their own, more beautiful than his. And here was old Baba warning them about wild motorized beasts. Might they not succeed in taming them, these ferocious animals? How could Baba know?

During the evenings spent with Ahmad, I learned to truly appreciate Zavareh and its inhabitants. On one occasion, Ahmad explained what had happened to the villages that were not as successful as Zavareh in rejecting the overwhelming influence of the northerners. Rebellion against the encroachment of the northerners' ideas had provoked the Shah of Persia. He ordered a highway to be built through the largest villages in the south. This new highway drained the life out of the village of Natanz, another erstwhile jewel of the desert. In the village of Nain, a road was built right through the middle of the village. Things were even worse in Yezd. {c} The people had to rebuild the facades of their houses which had been torn off to widen the streets so that the northerners' engines could make it through. These villages lost their character and, large or small, they all look alike. Now men ride in exhaust-spewing vehicles through widened streets lined with little shops displaying objects made in other places. Those who live next to these roads have grown a little richer and often no longer frequent those whom progress has left behind. The village facades have been made to look like those in the cities of the north. Old houses that once shared a common roof to keep them cool now stand alone, exposed to the sandy winds and driving sun and have lost their color.

And yet, despite all the extravagant novelties introduced by the adams of the north, the villages of Natanz, Nain, and Yezd still get all their water from the qanats dug by their ancient forbearers. The hundred thousand Yezdis of today could not survive in their beautiful grey desert without this remarkable network of underground canals. In lands farther north, ideas from other places took too great a hold and some towns stopped maintaining their qanats, which are now totally obstructed. Westerners urged diem to build dams in the mountains to accumulate the water of the winter rains there. Unfortunately, those dams, which cut off these cities' qanats from their mountain sources, turned out to hold only a little of the water that they were supposed to contain and, without sufficient water, people in these towns have had to abandon their gardens to the harshness of the desert. Some of the villages have completely dried up and are now half covered in sand, their fountains yawning empty in the desert sun.

Situated far from the highway, however, Zavareh has been spared the big construction projects and has not had its houses cut open. The Zavaris rejected the values of the northerners. They wisely kept their little orchards, workshops, and narrow streets and continue to maintain their wonderful qanats. Zavareh is a jewel of the desert, as it has always been. Its big roofs of dried mud brick undulate above the houses and alleyways, where a delicious freshness reigns even on the hottest summer days, thanks to the water from the mountains.

During the time I spent there, I had several conversations with wise old Ahmad When it came time to leave, I left this note to show him my appreciation for his Zavareh:

Goodbye, Ahmad.
I hope your little Zavaris will be able to resist the "bani adams" of the north.
I will think of you often in your Zavareh.
Your village
is so very real.

Goodbye, Baba.
Your qanats were made to last.


{a} Qanats are narrow underground channels dug by hand. They are sometimes very deep. Because they are built with no inner material support, they require constant upkeep to prevent blockages and cave-ins. Vertical openings are located at regular intervals along their length to enable repairmen to descend into the channel to inspect and maintain them.

{b} In Farsi, bani-adam means "son of Adam", or "man".

{c} The city of Yezd, population 135,000, lies about 200 miles south of Isfahan. As it almost never rains there, qanats are its sole source of water. Some convey water from mountains located more than twenty miles away.

Bill Totten


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