The portal to Esfahan’s ancient bazaar allows respite from the Persian sun and I pause for a moment to watch my children walking together up ahead. They are curiously untroubled by the glances they attract by their paler complexions and European appearance.
“Yâllâh mâmân, zud bâsh!” calls my daughter, Farah, practising her Farsi, “Come on Mum, hurry up!” So I take my husband’s hand and like Ali Baba entering the magic cave in the mountainside, step into a 21st century treasure trove of my own.
The call for prayer echoes from distant minarets and sunlight bounces off the cobbles that lead a path through the myriad of shops. All day I’ve been searching for some special gifts for the folks back home and now I’m running out of time. There is only an hour left before we have to leave.
Just when I have almost given up, I see the answer to my prayers – a stall of intricately patterned tablecloths in every shape and hue. Perfect. This is definitely it, I think.
A young boy appears, and sensing my interest announces in broken English, “Come see factory! Many more beautiful cloths for you there.”
I look at my husband. “A factory?” I query silently with my eyes. How can we have time to visit somebody’s factory? But our enticer is adamant. “Very near,” he invites again. And of course, the proposition is too intriguing for us to refuse. So, we follow him through the snaked passageways until, after only a short time, he stops, and with a flourish of arms directs us through a doorway and into a small half-lit room. “Factory!” he announces with pride.
Sitting lotus-positioned in the middle of the floor is an old man. He has a wooden template strapped to his forearm and he is stamping out patterns on to a cloth with red dye. Tablecloths are piled up in hillocks around the walls – some complete, some unfinished, but all tenderly created by the one-man factory sitting cross-legged in front of us.
“How long,” I enquire, “have you been making these?” He glances up. “Shast sâl,” he says simply. 60 years. And he soothes the fabric out with loving hands and works until the pattern comes alive again beneath his touch.
I buy a dozen or so small cloths; delighted at their discovery, yet suddenly humbled by the simple humility of one old man. As we leave, he thanks us for our custom and for honouring his humble factory with our presence. I cannot bring myself to tell him that the value of one cloth is no more than a pack of cigarettes back home.
Outside the chatter of trade and barter continues to resonate through the labyrinth of streets, while the sun maintains its vigil in a blue Iranian sky.
With a heavy heart I gather up my precious purchases and take my leave.
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