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Meeting the Kurds of Sonedad, Iran

“The Western media could not have found a more gentle, kind and welcoming people to paint as a nation of crazed killers.”

The bus squeezed its way through the rippling foothills that lay to either side of the road. The relief of the slopes against the dawn sky reminded me of the elegant Persian calligraphy. Like the words that adorned the sides of the bus. The valley was tinted pink in this early morning light and Sonedad lay before us, the capital of the Kurdish province of Western Iran.

The city was a relatively small one and could not have expanded even if it had wanted to – the outlying districts brushed against the rocky, barren hills that served as natural frontiers. The central part of town was filled with traffic even at this early hour in the morning. But even from where i stood in the bus station I could see that there lay neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city that could only be navigated by foot.

I’d barely left the station in search of a taxi when a young man came running up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. Had he come to mug me? No. He passed me my wallet which had somehow fallen out of my jacket moments before.

This was typical of the Iranian character and especially of the Kurdish that I met in the country. The Kurds are a people who have the misfortune to be spread over a mountain range that borders Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Armenia. And they have faced persecution of varying degrees in each.

They fought and lost a war for independence again the central Iran Government in the early ’80s and for this reason remain one of the poorest states in the country. Yet the Iranian Kurds probably have a much better standard of living than their cousins on the other side of the mountains.

A professor in Esfahan had given me an address of the Sufta family, old colleagues of his who would be sure to give me a warm welcome, he said. I arrived at their door and Mrs Sufta gave me a look of total incomprehension – she had no recollection of any professor in Esfahan. But her response was typical of the land in which she lived as she said:

“Anyway, you are our guest!”

It’s quite normal in Iran for relatives to come and stay for months at a time without feeling the least bit uncomfortable. The home of a brother, sister or uncle is their home too. And in some sense the Suftas welcomed me as though I were a long-lost cousin finally returning home.

Iranian homes are always decked out in thick lush carpets and families spend the majority of their time sitting on the floor. I can’t remember seeing a single bed in Iran. Whenever bedtime rolled around they took out cushions and blankets and everyone went to sleep on the carpets beneath them.

We also ate on the floor. Plastic coverings were pulled out and then an incredible array of food was piled on. To give you an idea of an average lunch: There were cutlets of lamb or beef that were as thick as they were large and as the guest I was always given the biggest piece. Then piles of nan bread were laid to the side along with a bowl of rice cooked with dill. There was always another meat dish and at least two vegetable dishes and a salad. All washed down with a drink made from yoghurt.

Every time i took a bite someone would serve me more so that no matter how i tried I could hardly make any impression on my plate. In the desire to show my appreciation for the cooking I overate terribly at each meal and needed to sleep for several hours to recover. But whenever I awoke it was already time for another meal and so I spent the days in a kind of gluttonous stupor.

Consequently there was hardly an hour of the day in which one of the women was not working in the kitchen. Within the home they had no need to wear a head scarf of chador and they showed little embarrassment to be in my company.

I reflected on all that I’d heard about Iran before I’d come. TV pictures of millions of religious fanatics marching in the streets, propaganda about a nation of terrorists and the blood-thirsty religion that supported it.

It was laughable. The Western media could not have found a more gentle, kind and welcoming people to paint as a nation of crazed killers. In the space of three weeks in Iran I was welcomed into 8 different family homes and everywhere I went I was offered tea and food. They wanted to find me a job, a house, even a wife. And if I wanted to become a Muslim – well, everything could be arranged.

Nowhere else in the world have I met such unconditional hospitality.