In November 2019, on one of his last semiannual trips to Iran before the coronavirus pandemic, Antoine Béguier visited Kurdistan, also known as Rohjelat, in the country’s northwest. “I went there at the last minute, with no background research. In any case, there is very little reliable information about this region. I am generally interested in people and isolated communities in areas that receive little media coverage. We hear about Kurdistan when there are tensions, otherwise nothing. And when it comes to Iranian Kurdistan, we simply never talk about it.” This mountainous area with an arid climate, bordering Iraq and Turkey, is inhabited by Iranian Kurds.
Caught between poverty and isolation, Iranian Kurdistan is struggling to survive. Unemployment (the highest in Iran) and insecurity (the region is the poorest in the Kurdish geographical and cultural area), leave its inhabitants with two options: making ends meet by growing pomegranates or becoming smugglers, risking their lives. As Antoine Béguier noted: “The first thing that struck me was this dichotomy: you are either a pomegranate picker — you make a living legally but barely get by — or a kolbar, asmuggler (literally, “one who carries goods on his back”) — you make a living illegally and risk being killed by border guards, but you make some money.” The Iranian Kurds, like the rest of the country, are subject to the various American embargoes, but are also ostracized by the Iranian regime. They are doubly penalized, “they live as pariahs.”
“Everyone has at least one smuggler in their family, and there are smugglers of all ages, I even saw an elderly man carrying a fridge on his back. I wondered how it was physically possible,” recounts the photographer. Being a smuggler means crossing the border from Iraq to Iran, avoiding army checkpoints in the mountains, and a two- or three-day trek with “tires, cigarettes, alcohol, cell phones, household appliances, and clothes” on one’s back, occasionally with a pack horse. Once the crossing is completed, motorized middlemen, called kasibkars, come to collect the goods. They usually drive at night, at full speed, on winding roads skirting treacherous precipices. “The products are then sold in the markets around Iranian Kurdistan or sometimes even in Tehran.”
Some Kurds still prefer to pick pomegranates. It’s a thankless job as this bright red fruit is gathered by hand, using a crocheted stick. Harvesting is done in October, when the pomegranates begin to take on a yellow hue. Nouraldin, a young picker, admitted to the photographer, “I’d rather die picking pomegranates than get shot.” Others in his family are smugglers or would like to be smugglers to get rich. “More than a hundred kolbars are killed each year by the border guards who do not hesitate to shoot at smugglers and/or their horses,” says Antoine Béguier. Some young Kurds manage to go to college in Tehran or even abroad, “but they often end up coming back to live here when there is no work for them.” Despite the harsh life, Kurdish youth remain attached to their territory, their heritage, and their culture, which their elders had taught them to respect and cherish.
By Sabyl Ghoussoub
Born in Paris in 1988 into a Lebanese family, Sabyl Ghoussoub is a writer, columnist and curator. His second novel, Beyrouth entre parenthèses [Beirut in Parentheses] was released by Antilope editions in August 2020.
More information on Antoine Béguier on his website.