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PHOTOS: In this nomadic tribe in Iran, the women persevere despite hardships

This gun held by 35-year-old Fatima was a wedding gift from her husband. Families of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribes of Iran may own several weapons, used to defend themselves and their livestock against thieves and wild animals. Fatima is known for her shooting and riding skills.
Enayat Asadi for NPR
This gun held by 35-year-old Fatima was a wedding gift from her husband. Families of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribes of Iran may own several weapons, used to defend themselves and their livestock against thieves and wild animals. Fatima is known for her shooting and riding skills.

No one knows exactly where the Bakhtiari people came from before settling in the Zagros Mountains. But over the past several thousand years, their roots have grown deep into this land — in what is now western and southwestern Iran — alongside the native oak trees that serve as a vital source of their sustenance. In the face of modern forces, they're standing their ground.

Fereshteh, 14, is photographed in the central Zagros mountains, where her tribe spends spring and summer. They travel many hours on rough paths throughout the year, from pasture to pasture — and then there's the yearly 10-hour journey from their summer home to their winter home. She says she does not like the nomadic way of life but feels she has no choice but to accept and endure it.
/ Enayat Asadi for NPR
/
Enayat Asadi for NPR
Fereshteh, 14, is photographed in the central Zagros mountains, where her tribe spends spring and summer. They travel many hours on rough paths throughout the year, from pasture to pasture — and then there's the yearly 10-hour journey from their summer home to their winter home. She says she does not like the nomadic way of life but feels she has no choice but to accept and endure it.

Urbanization began to take hold in this region a century ago, and over the years, the majority of the Bakhtiari have assimilated. Many vaulted into the Iranian elite, becoming academics, actors, ambassadors and athletes. There's even a National Football League player with Bakhtiari roots: David Bakhtiari of the Green Bay Packers.

And yet, some tribes of Bakhtiari continue to raise animals, grow barley and migrate between pastures with the seasons, just as they have for generations, explains Alam Saleh, of the Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. "Their habits, way of dressing and lifestyle are still maintained," he says. "If they don't live this way, they don't exist any more. For those who continue — the numbers are diminishing — they persist to maintain identity."

Jamileh, who's 50, stands on a mountain slope near her dwelling place.
/ Enayat Asadi for NPR
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Enayat Asadi for NPR
Jamileh, who's 50, stands on a mountain slope near her dwelling place.

Rostam, a Bakhtiari who goes by one name and says he is 40, notes: "I am used to this lifestyle, I can't live any other way. traveling in these mountains, grazing the herd and hearing the bells of the goats is a pleasure for me. It's the only thing I've done since I was a child, and I'll teach these [ways] to my children, too."

Rostam, 40, and Farzaneh, 37. She was seven months pregnant and awaiting the birth of their sixth child when this photo was made in June 2021. The couple use binoculars to keep an eye on their 95 goats — and keep an eye out for wild animals that could threaten them.
/ Enayat Asadi for NPR
/
Enayat Asadi for NPR
Rostam, 40, and Farzaneh, 37. She was seven months pregnant and awaiting the birth of their sixth child when this photo was made in June 2021. The couple use binoculars to keep an eye on their 95 goats — and keep an eye out for wild animals that could threaten them.

Women play an outsized role in this community, carrying out customs and keeping families together. "Because of their rough way of living, the structures force women to get involved in every aspect of life. Women participate in fighting and physical work, and at the same time act as mothers and wives," Saleh says. "She needs to be strong." This has been true throughout the group's history, with revered figures such as Sardar Bibi Maryam Bakhtiari, a revolutionary military commander who helped tribal forces capture Tehran in 1909.

Bakhtiari women boil goat's milk over a fire made from oak wood. They use the milk to make yogurt, butter and cheese. At right, a woman bakes bread in a village on a hillside of the Central Zagros Mountains.
/ Enayat Asadi for NPR
/
Enayat Asadi for NPR
Bakhtiari women boil goat's milk over a fire made from oak wood. They use the milk to make yogurt, butter and cheese. At right, a woman bakes bread in a village on a hillside of the Central Zagros Mountains.

But the name Bakhtiari, which means "bearer of good luck," doesn't reflect the current situation for these women, who must also deal with child marriage, domestic violence and poverty.

The heart was not carved — it was formed when a truck delivering flour collided with the tree. It's the favorite tree of this Bakhtiari girl, standing in front of it at right.
/ Enayat Asadi for NPR
/
Enayat Asadi for NPR
The heart was not carved — it was formed when a truck delivering flour collided with the tree. It's the favorite tree of this Bakhtiari girl, standing in front of it at right.

And their lives are not growing any easier. Most of the remaining nomadic tribes have limited access to medical and educational facilities. Dry winds and dust, combined with a lack of water for their livestock, force them to travel longer distances during their annual migration from the plains to higher, cooler pastures. Wildfires, stoked by heat and drought, burn their grazing land.

Bakhtiari youngsters enjoy a moment of fun. One of the kids is wearing a lion mask that his parents bought him on a trip they'd made to a city. Bakhtiari children typically study through middle school but do not attend high school.
/ Enayat Asadi for NPR
/
Enayat Asadi for NPR
Bakhtiari youngsters enjoy a moment of fun. One of the kids is wearing a lion mask that his parents bought him on a trip they'd made to a city. Bakhtiari children typically study through middle school but do not attend high school.

This photo collection, made in 2020 and 2021, reveals the world of three Bakhtiari tribes and the women who raise the children and carry on the agricultural traditions — even as the realities of the 21st century may mean that their days as nomads are numbered.

An old oak tree stands along an ancient route for the nomadic Bakhtiari people. In the areas where they travel, trees have fallen victim to drought and fire — and been chopped down for fuel.
/ Enayat Asadi for NPR
/
Enayat Asadi for NPR
An old oak tree stands along an ancient route for the nomadic Bakhtiari people. In the areas where they travel, trees have fallen victim to drought and fire — and been chopped down for fuel.
From the right: 22-year-old Marzieh, 25-year-old Golgol and 60-year-old Sangi Jan harvest barley from their field. They'll use it as fodder for their livestock in the coming winter months. Marzieh, who was 8 months pregnant in this photo, told the photographer she felt nauseous from her pregnancy but still did farm work while her husband worked in the city.
/ Enayat Asadi for NPR
/
Enayat Asadi for NPR
From the right: 22-year-old Marzieh, 25-year-old Golgol and 60-year-old Sangi Jan harvest barley from their field. They'll use it as fodder for their livestock in the coming winter months. Marzieh, who was 8 months pregnant in this photo, told the photographer she felt nauseous from her pregnancy but still did farm work while her husband worked in the city.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Enayat Asadi is a photojournalist in Iran. In 2020 he began a project he calls "Hard Land," Bakhtiari nomads in southern Iran. He lived with the nomads for a month in 2020 and three months in the spring and summer of 2021, aiming to "captured their strength and rich culture in front of the hardships they endure." His new project is called "Survivors of Death Row" and chronicles convicted murderers who were sentenced to death. You can learn more about his work at his website and on his Instagram account.

Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to NPR.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Enayat Asadi
Vicky Hallett