In the southern Iran coastal town of Bandar Abbas on the banks of Persian Gulf, music pulsates out of every store, car, restaurant and home. Bandari beats are known for their tribal rhythms, an infectious musical arrangement that has evolved through the centuries of ethnic and cultural diversity in the region, which bought with it a thrilling mix of Iranian, Arabic and African sounds and flavours.
On my travels around Iran for the research of my book I had innumerable enchanting encounters with Iranians from all walks of life. I feasted with farmers and pharmacists, teachers and tradesmen, students and sculptors and even squeezed in a quick snack with someone who was number 2 in the pop charts that week. But my warmest welcome was perhaps in Bandar Abbas in the home of musician Ahmad Ravan and his wife Goli Heydari. They welcomed me into their home and took time to break bread with me, regaling me with extraordinary stories of their ordinary lives.
Ahmad and Goli
Ahmad Ravan and Goli Heydari are a remarkable couple, exceptionally warm, generous and exuberant of spirit. They opened my eyes to so much about Iran’s past, its present and the potential for its future during out short time together.
Goli is a teacher and immediately set me to work in her kitchen, instructing me with her school ma’am charm on how to cook Kuku-ye Mahi, a fragrant coriander and dill infused fish cake and Ghaleyeh Mahi – a spicy and tangy southern Iranian speciality of firm white fish poached in a thick coriander, tamarind, red chilli and garlic sauce. As the scent of the aromatic spices filled the humid kitchen and the fish cakes sizzled and crackled in the hot oil, Ahmad regaled me with tales of history and imperialism, of the legacy of the maritime spice trade which ran through the old port of Bandar Abbas and of the Portuguese occupation of the region in the 16th century that bought with it thousands of African slaves. After the Portuguese relinquished control of the area, these communities stayed on, today resulting in a sizeable African-Iranian community of that Goli and Ahmad are part of.
But what made our time really special together was the music.
After our feasting, Ahmad taught me how to play the jaleh, a clay pot which is traditionally used to store water. Whilst his day job is working as a security guard for a rich Arab Sheik (southern Iran is filled oil fields which has always made a popular place for foreign interests in Iran’s resources), Ahmad is a musician at heart. A percussionist and hip hop artist to be exact.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, severe restrictions have been placed on musicians in Iran and in order to perform publicly, artists have to submit their music to Iran’s Ministry of Culture for an official permit. Music that is deemed too “western” by the government is often banned and that includes rap music which has faced a particular clampdown over the last decade. Like many Iranian musicians I spoke to on my travels, Ahmad prefers to stay independent of state censors and so chooses not to seek approval for his music. Instead he is part of the country’s vibrant underground music scene that has spawned an eclectic range of Iranian pop, techno, heavy metal and rap music. Our afternoon together taught me so much about Iran’s rich musical traditions and the risks that artists have to take just simply to play their music. So it is a real pleasure be able to share some of Ahmad’s music in this short video – enjoy!
You can find the recipes and stories from my time with Ahmad and Goli in my book The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen
To hear more about this story, listen to my full interview about it on the BBC World Service’s Outlook programme here – I’m on at 36 minutes in.