Skip to content

Your browser is no longer supported. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Plum Trees and Pigeons: Foreign at Home in Iran

Florence Hazrat

Raw earth, paisley patterns and sweet figs. German-Iranian writer Florence Hazrat leaves the city behind and finds home in a small town in Iran.

He ran towards me in heavy beige overalls, waving a walkie talkie in one hand, and a khaki green cap in the other. Without thinking, my fingers caught the unruly strands of hair that had found a way out of the scarf I had loosely slung around my head and neck, and quickly tugged them back in. Sleeves pulled down, long billowy manteau wrapped around me to cover my body, but not tightly enough to show my figure. Had I accidentally disobeyed Iranian dress code? Did I breach some unspoken-of custom? I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. But you never knew in Iran.

Englisi? Amrikayi? Austorali? Englisi baladid?


He asked where I was from, and whether I spoke English. I said yes, and was handed a mobile phone to speak to his wife. She was an English teacher, and would love to talk to me. Would I come visit her? Now? Before I knew it, I was in a stranger’s car, leaving Isfahan behind for a small town named Dorcheh, to meet someone I had never met. These things happen to you as a foreigner in Iran. But then, I was no foreigner. Not really, anyway.


"Before I knew it, I was in a stranger’s car, leaving Isfahan behind for a small town named Dorcheh, to meet someone I had never met."

There are so few Western visitors to Iran that you stick out like a sore thumb. It’s easy to spot tourists: women struggle with clumsily slipping headscarves, moving timidly through busy streets; men wear shirts and shorts, breaking male modesty dress codes, walking with puffed-out chests.  Sit anywhere and within the blink of an eye, you will be surrounded by a cluster of Iranians, eagerly asking for news from abroad, what are you doing here, please we’re no terrorists although our government is, we love Europe! Will you come and have dinner at my place? I will show you around, we can also travel to Kish Island, it’s gorgeous! You’re invited of course!

Iranian hospitality is famous for a reason.

I too was assailed by kindness as I walked down Enghelab Avenue to Naqsh-e Jahan, World Square, my favourite spot to hang out in Isfahan after language class, ambling through the bazaar’s miles of cool vaulted stone paths, nesting inside one another like one of the intricate geometrical designs on the Blue Mosque in front of which I would sit for hours, watching. Though never alone for too long. Someone inevitably sat beside me, asking ‘khareji hasti?’ Are you a foreigner? A harmless enough question to any traveller but me. ‘Baleh,’ I’d say, heavy-heartedly. ‘Khareji hastam.’ I am a foreigner. ‘But your Persian is great!’ – ‘Babam Irani. My dad is Iranian. My mother German.’ And I? I am half German, half Iranian. A foreigner in both worlds.

I had come to Isfahan to improve my Persian, and connect to my dad’s country on my own terms. It’s been twenty years since we last visited my now-deceased grandmother in Tehran. Too much had changed since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and my dad suffered from reverse culture shock, refusing to return in the meantime. So here I was, trying to fill an Iran-shaped hole in my soul, desperately trying to belong, silently begging Iranians to allow me to be one of them, to accept me. ‘Khareji hasti?’ meant so much more than that, only nobody knew it but me.


I put my head against the car’s window frame as Rassoul, the university campus guardian, sped through the scorching August afternoon. The pane was rolled down, the wind tearing at my headscarf. Although that grand old dame of architecture Isfahan is not a modern mega-city like Iran’s capital Tehran, it was nice to get out of town. The grey road snaked its way through parched pebbly earth, past white settlements dotting the vast space around Isfahan like shimmering oases. ‘Look, over there,’ Rassoul said, pointing to a huge clay fortress in the distance, rising out of the ochre earth like a finger from a hand.

Ateshgah’, Rassoul answered my questioning look. ‘A fire temple. They used to keep a flame burning there, always. Fire was sacred to zardoshtian.’ Zarathustrians, the nature-revering religion of Iran before the Islamic conquest in the eighth century whose customs still pervade Iranian culture. As we drove by, something strong and age-old emanated from the temple whose edges trembled in the heat of distance. This was very different from the playful swirls and clever architectural riddles of the mosques in town. This was something that belonged to the raw earth.

Rassoul’s car rumbled across the unpaved road to his house in a hidden side-street in the town of Dorcheh. A quotation from the Koran in beautifully curved Islamic calligraphy graced the walls; protection  from sheytan, the devil. Inside, we sat on the carpeted floor of a huge living room, a colourful cloth with the typically Persian paisley pattern already spread out on the ground, waiting for us with home-made rice, sauces, chutney, and sweets which Zahra khanoum, Mrs Zahra, Rassoul’s wife, makes herself from vegetables and fruits gathered from her garden. And would I like to see it? Her little farm?

"Rassoul’s car rumbled across the unpaved road to his house in a hidden side-street in the town of Dorcheh."

Although they say I can loosen my scarf and take off my manteau, Zahra khanoum covers herself in a chador, a black formless tent that covers her entire body and head, except her face. The wiry woman disappears into an ocean of darkness, turning her into a nightly sphere without arms or legs, waist, shoulders, hips, hair. She has both disappeared and emerged, stately and serious.

Dorcheh is a more conservative place, just like any smaller Iranian town in the country’s centre. Gone are the rainbow scarves I saw in Isfahan, that little bit of rebellion against the regime’s oppressive dress code. All women wear a chadoras we drive through quiet streets lined by trees and small shops whose abundance of watermelons spills out onto the pavement in green glory. The fields surrounding Dorcheh are not far away, and we stop in a neighbourhood that transitions from town to farmland by weaving one-level brick houses into swathes of fruit tree lines: sour yellow plums, and soft apricots whose skin gives way upon the slightest touch, tiny red-cheeked apples, and quince glowing golden in the dusk of evening, deep purple sour cherry and sweet, juicy figs, unripe pomegranates, and mirabelles whose Persian name I find irrationally enchanting. Azgir.

I am allowed to try them all, as we thread our way through the patches of trees. Zahra khanoum is proud of her little paradise that took so many years of care, and all the wisdom of Iranian gardening. At the border of the fields and houses, there’s another clay structure looking like the fire temple we saw before, just much smaller. It’s a clay tower around 30 feet high with innumerable grooves every hand-span or so away from one another. Little dark windows into the hollow cave inside. Is this also a Zarathustrian relic, I ask? Zahra khanoum shakes her head no. It’s a borj-e kabootar. A pigeon tower. A dovecot.

Four hundred years ago or so ago, people would keep huge flocks of pigeons, but not for meat, and not for sending messages from town to town, although they did that, too. They kept them in the tower for their guano which collected at the bottom of the cot when the birds flew into their nightly nests through the holes in the wall. And it was that guano that provided the fields around Dorcheh with manure. People stopped using them when some landowners upscaled agriculture, and the smaller family-owned lands became less and less. Then the pigeon towers fell out of use. Yet, this was not such a long time ago, Zahra khanoum remembers.

It’s become dark, and we carry the pots and pans from Rassoul’s car through the trees, putting them into the shadow of the pigeon tower. Zahra khanoom’s two brothers arrive, bringing wood for the fire, and a samovar. We make a fire – a real wood-fuelled fire – and drink ruby-red tea while the soup is heating. The brothers, as religious as her sister and her husband, and everyone else in Dorcheh and most of Iran, complain about the regime, its mismanagement of Iran’s plentiful resources, of the economy, of the country’s reputation abroad. The mullahs, they take and they take, sucking the life-force out of people young and old. But despair has no depth. You think there’s nothing worse than this, but things keep getting worse. Then, in the summer of 2019 we did not know that six months later, a once-in-a-century pandemic would ravage Iran and the rest of the world, followed hard on its heels by the war in Ukraine, inflation, a civil uprising unheard of in Iran for 40 years. There’s no bounds to “worse”.

Zahra khanoom’s brothers want to leave, just like everyone else, and (like everyone else) they ask me what they need to do to get to Europe. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. And while they wish to go, I want to return. I want to live here. I want to sleep in the courtyard of my house under a mosquito net, looking at the thousand bright stars of the night sky, as we do now, here, while the green rice blades in the paddy to the right sway in the breeze, rustling, whispering stories from long ago. But I can’t say that. Nobody in their right mind wants to come back. Then again, have I ever been here? Have I ever left? I have Iran in my bones, too, you know.


As Rassoul drives me away from Dorcheh, back to Isfahan, I’m lost in my thoughts. The bizarre shape of Soffeh Mountain stands guard over the city’s entry, illuminated by flood lights. Its towering elemental roughness rubs up against the city’s refined urbanity. Isfahan, nesfeh jahan, they say. Isfahan is half the world. The radio plays a sad and sweet song, raftam safar, the singer says, ‘I went on a journey’. Yes, I did.

"As Rassoul drives me away from Dorcheh, back to Isfahan, I’m lost in my thoughts. The bizarre shape of Soffeh Mountain stands guard over the city’s entry, illuminated by flood lights."

My dad must have lived a life like Zahra and Rassoul, or something like it, back in the 50s and 60s. A more traditional life. More earth-bound. Perhaps small towns everywhere preserve a strange Iranian-ness, a mixture of Islamic surface and Zoroastrian depth.

In the town, nobody asked where I was from. Picking plums, watching the fire dance in the red coals, I was no khareji. I just belonged.

Florence is an acclaimed author known for her unique narrative styles. Producing thought-provoking works, drawing on her own diverse background, Hazrat’s writing often blurs the lines between reality and the imangination, as she blends elements of magical realism and literary fiction.

Back to issue