I am surrounded in all directions by hundreds of miles of desert wasteland, where scarcely a weed survives. But centuries old underground tunnels feed water to the oasis city of Yazd, which emerges like a mirage from nowhere. The tunnels, called qanats, are dug a hundred feet below ground and just wide enough for someone to crawl through. They carry water sometimes for miles from a spring to irrigate fields. I learned all of this at the boldly named “Yazd Museum of Water.”
The qanats also feed overground and underground pools in the ancient mansion homes of Yazd. While walking through the streets of the old city, I was beckoned into several of these mud brick houses to see inside. As I passed the tiny wooden doors, I could hear them open, and a voice shout out at me in Farsi, and a hand would emerge and wave me inside. An old woman stood there in full black chador, hunched over, pointing within. I followed and walked into a magnificent courtyard with a small pool in the center, a ring of grass, trees, and roses around it. Around the perimeter, shaded alcoves had persian rugs and pillows strewn about, with kerosene lamps hanging from above. Shielded from the hot desert sun and the noise of the traffic outside, I could imagine the entire family lying there all day, though the courtyard was empty. Everyone was home, just too shy to come out and greet me. I saw faces apprehensively peering through all of the living room windows, with far more fascination than I warrant.
Continuing to wander through the alleys of the old city with several other tourists I’d met, we came across Mohssem, who works for the bureaucratic sounding Yazd Cultural Inheritance Committee. Mohssem offered to show us a restored mansion home for a small fee. 8Though at first he came across as a bit dour, there was a hint of a very good sense of humor, and I quickly became more fascinated with this curious character than yet another mansion house. Mohssem was quite fat and had a thick black mustache with a m8ass of black curly hair, an appearance perfectly suiting his heavily accented monotone voice, which had not even a trace of in8flection. “My Uncle in Canada. I want to go Canada but no visa. Tehran write me, Canada Embassy say ‘You have failed to convince us that you have sufficient ties in Iran to incent you to return there from Canada.'”
“I learn for examination” he continued changing the subject, and held up a dog eared notebook which contained english words like ‘Septic.’ “After examination I become very bad tour guide. Very bad tour guide because very bad english but very high price.”
The floodgates of conversation had been thrust open and things started to get very personal. “For 14 years I take nervous tablets. I am very hungry.” I stared at him blankly. “No hungry! Angry! Angry!” he corrected himself laughing. “I am very angry” he repeated with a broad smile.
“Now that you take the nervous tablets you aren’t angry?” I asked.
“Yes, still angry.”
“But less angry than you were.”
“Yes, less angry now but still angry.”
“I am happy that right now you are only a little bit angry and not very angry.”
Mohssem then introduced us to a man in a filthy suit jacket who looked older than a qanat: “He take you up mosque.” Then 8Mohssem pressed his lips up against the old man’s left ear, and shouted something into it in Farsi. The old man gave a very cool nod, lit a cigarrette, and gave us a flick of his hand motioning us to follow him up a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs we emerged high up on the dome of a mosque looking down on the entirety of the sprawling old city. For the next 10 minutes, the old man lectured to us in Farsi on every detail of what could be seen, pointing periodically, and pausing only twice to light more cigarrettes. Not one in his audience could understand even a word, but the view was worth the trip by itself.