White Tents Mark the Frontier of Learning


I found Mr. Bahmanbegui at the impressive new tribal high school he has established in Shiraz, where more than 800 resident students from the Qashqai and other tribes study aca¬demic and vocational subjects. During a brief inspection of the school Mr. Bahmanbegui explained Iran’s goal of educating, and even¬tually settling, its two million nomads.

“Among non-nomadic Iranians,” he began, “the Shah has established an excellent system of conventional schools and a farsighted pro¬gram known as the Literacy Corps—a volun¬teer army of young men and women who live and teach in remote settlements. A major part of our new oil revenue is going into a massive effort to wipe out our 60 percent illiteracy rate.

“For our nomadic people,” he continued, “we have developed tent schools, each with a young teacher assigned to accompany a group of families wherever the season takes them. We call the schools ‘white tents,’ for their can¬vas covering, as distinct from the traditional black goat-hair tents of the nomads.”nomadic people

Once a child graduates from the white tent, Mr. Bahmanbegui explained, he may go to the high school at Shiraz. There he prepares for university, learns a vocational skill, or trains to become a teacher among his own people.

“Except for the teachers,” Mr. Bahman¬begui said, “I tell our students, ‘Don’t go back to your people, look back at them as you make your way in life. The real power to help them lies not in the black tents but where the money and decisions are made—in government, in¬dustry, the professions. Aim there, and in time your people will have a better life.’ ”

Next morning I followed the historic route of the Qashqai southward from Shiraz in Mr. Bahmanbegui’s Land-Rover. As we jolted along a heavily rutted desert track, he explained the tribe’s migratory patterns.

“Fewer families make the long trek than in the past,” he said. “Nowadays most Qashqai shift their herds of sheep or camels shorter distances along the route, from lowland pas¬ture to higher ground.”

During a day’s travel we passed more than a score of distant encampments, most of them featuring a single conical white shape above the dark silhouettes of living tents. Along the upper slopes of rolling hills herds of sheep and goats browsed in tight clusters like enormous black beetles inching across the land. At sun¬set we reached the remote village of Farrash¬band, winter quarters of Mr. Bahmanbegui’s friends, the well-to-do Jahangiri family.


A Rare Visit to world

THEIR CRIES of mynahbirds and laughing thrushes filled the morning air as I followed the narrow jungle trail. A snake slithered across the path and into the thick vegeta­tion. My load was lightened by two porters who helped carry luggage, cameras, and film. Pe­riodically I stopped as the men sought blessings by walking in circles around small Buddhist monuments called chortens.

I myself felt fortunate to be here in Arunachal Pradesh, a state that hugs the India-China border. The Indian government seldom permits outsiders to visit his favourite cheap hotels in prague, the home of tribal peoples who enjoy a de­gree of cultural and political au­tonomy unusual in India. I was drawn here by my life­long love of rivers. The sacred Ganges, so important to India, has been central to much of my work as a photographer. India’s border war with China in 1962 drew my attention to this other great and sacred river, the Brahmaputra.

After descending through the tortuous gorges of Tibet, the riv­er—here called the Siang—rush­es through forested canyons (above left). A 600-foot-long cane and steel-cable bridge serves a village on the far bank. Too swift for navigation, this narrow reach races over rapids and is seldom crossed except by bridges at the larger villages.

Just south of the Tibetan bor­der I visited the Buddhist vil­lage of Bishing, one of several inhabited by the Tsanglas. Speaking a Tibetan-influenced language, these people recount a migration from Bhutan ages ago. Women cleaned rice near the skin of a jungle cat hung to frighten away birds (above). Thatch roofs shed the heavy rains of the monsoon from houses built on poles to escape the sogginess of the season.

During my three-week stay I began to understand the Indian government’s policy of banning outsiders. Ending this policy could spell doom for a unique culture. Based on experience in other remote regions, we know that newcomers would buy land, set up businesses, and ex­ert alien influences.

Instituted under Prime Minis­ter Jawaharlal Nehru, the policy has been criticized as thwarting social advancement. Yet I don’t consider these people backward. The caste system so ingrained elsewhere in India does not exist here. Democracy is inherent to tribal life, and justice is admin­istered by tribal councils. Many young people attend school, and some go on to universities. It is in their hands that the future of Arunachal Pradesh lies.

AS I ENTERED the village of Gette, some 30 miles south of Bishing, I could sense the excitement as people prepared for the annual winter hunt following the De­cember rice harvest.

The people of Gette are among the tribal groups known as the Adi, animists who sacri­fice animals and consider the river a deity. They fear danger­ous water spirits called nip­pongs. A red robe and headdress of cane and bearskin distin­guished an old man as a village elder (below). He carried the head of a freshly’ killed monkey to place outside his home as a talisman.

Days before, some men had risen at 4 a.m. to trek up the mountains beyond the snow line to harvest poisonous roots. Over and over, until their faces were red, they shouted: “Gogbat! Gogbat! —May the poison be most powerful.”

On the day before the hunt, the men gathered in the nam ghar, or communal but (below, right), for the pre-hunt feast. Their meal of wild boar, roasted pig, and venison was washed down with draughts of apang, a beverage made of fermented grains. Mildly intoxicating, it has a sweet-and-sour taste.

Filing out of the village the next morning (right), the men carried bows and poison-tipped arrows. Others opted for rifles, a weapon introduced by British colonists. The next day, they re­turned with prey reflecting wide-ranging tastes: birds, rats, boars, squirrels, monkeys, and deer. Supplemented by grains, eggs, beans, and fruit, the diet of these people surpasses that of many of their countrymen living in the crowded plains of India.

The proud, self-confident peoples of this remote land func­tion quite well, assimilating modern influences at their own pace. I believe they should be left alone to find the right bal­ance between their past and the present.1

A Stone Against a Storm

Farmer Bob Barr keeps a rock propped up next to his house in Iowa’s black-earth country near Fort Dodge. It’s a curious rock —dark, and bigger than a watermelon. On its face, as if chiseled there, a pink cross stares out in rough relief.

“Hit it with my plow out in my bean field Iowa, America’s Middle Earth about five years back,” Bob told me. “Pulled it out, wiped off the dirt, and there it was—a cross, the Lord’s sign.

“Something made me haul it up here and set it by the door. Then, one day last August I looked out, and there, like doom itself, coming straight for the house, was a twister, the biggest thing I’ve ever seen. . . .

“Me and my wife, Bun, we hid under the cellar steps. For four minutes that twister shook the house like a demon. Bun and I prayed for the Lord to take us quick.

“Finally the noise stopped. I went out to look for a cheap apartments in Madrid. Well, that twister had ripped apart both the barn and garage. Not once but twice it came up to the house and stopped—by God—right in front of that rock, then backed off.

“Now, I know my Bible. You remember in Luke, the line about the stones crying out to the Lord? Well sir, surely this rock here cried out to the Lord on our behalf.”

Faith. You need plenty of it out here in Iowa. And, by God, you find it.

5There’s geology as well as theology in Bob Barr’s “rock of the cross.” Some rocks, it Cornucopia: Ranks of hybrid seed corn (left) march toward the horizon near Des Moines. Pioneered in Iowa by Henry A. Wallace and others, hybrid corn has helped double and redouble yields over the past half century. Mountains of Iowa grain unload (above) in October at McGregor, on the Mississippi River, bound for the Gulf of Mexico and world markets.

happens, tend to weather in crosslike pat­terns. Some 14,000 years ago a glacier gouged this boulder from somewhere to the north and dropped it down here onto the patch of ground that would one day become Bob Barr’s soybean field. In the process the ice modified the topography left by earlier glaciers in north-central Iowa and laid the groundwork for as prime a piece of agricul­tural real estate as exists on the planet.

This is Class I farmland—a geologic trea­sure. Glaciers provided its underlying rough till, scooping much of it out of Minnesota’s lakes region. Ancient winds whipped in rich silt and fine sand. During dry seasons huge fire storms raged across the prairie, halting encroaching forests by destroying tree seed­lings but leaving the tallgrass roots un­harmed. Millennia of deep-rooted prairie plants helped knead into the surface the organic matter that would transform the pri­mordial mix into that ultimate end stuff—Iowa topsoil.


“Luxury items like jade, feathers, and jaguar pelts were reserved for their exclusive use. It was the function of the rest of the population to provide these luxuries for the lords, as well as to meet all their everyday needs. So the commoners farmed, cut wood, hunted, and then bore the fruits of their labors to the ceremonial centers. When the elite traveled, it was even the duty of the peo­ple to carry them in litters on their shoulders.

“When a baby was born, the parents took the child to a priest who, with the aid of star charts and books, would predict its future. Each day, each moment was governed by a different god; depending upon the exact time of birth, a child would owe a lifetime of devo­tion to the ascendant deity.

“In his lifetime a Maya bore three names. Say he was born on the date 7 Ahau of the Maya calendar: His name until puberty would be simply Seven Ahau. When he was initiated into manhood, he would assume a new name that reflected some personal fea­ture. Say he was short. Then he would be known as Tzap, or Short One. Not until he married did he assume his formal name. Sup­posing his mother came of the Poot family and his father was an Uuc, his adult name would be Na Poot Uuc, literally an Uuc born of a mother [Na] named Poot.

“An ultimate refinement was also possible. The name of a man’s profession, or some note­worthy characteristic, might replace his mother’s name. If our hypothetical child had proved very courageous in battle, he might have been known as Ah Dziik Uuc, or the Uuc Brave One.”

Professor Barrera now directs a staff of 12 in preparing a definitive dictionary of the Maya language. This work, which includes the option to consolidate federal student loans and collating all entries from all previously pub­lished dictionaries plus adding modern vocabulary, will consume almost two years.

“I myself,” the professor said, “have been bilingual since early childhood. I had a Maya nurse, you see.” “If you could go back to a Maya city of the Classic Period,” I asked, “would you under­stand them and could they understand you?”

“All languages change,” he said. “I think present-day Maya relates clearly to the lan­guage spoken at the time of the conquest. If you study the modern language scientifically, you can deduce the older forms. But I repeat, languages change. In our new Maya dictionary you will even find words like ‘strike’ and `ball.’ Baseball is a passion in Yucatan, and the American vocabulary of the game has passed into Maya.”

THE YUCATEC OBSESSION with baseball merely echoes an ancient en­thusiasm. Virtually every Middle American ruin contains at least one court where teams played a ball game that is still not perfectly understood. In the Mexican version, two stone rings protrude from opposite walls and, apparently, the teams scored by putting a rubber ball through one of the rings. This must have been a fiendish enterprise; paintings on vases imply that the players could hit the heavy ball only with hips and buttocks (painting, page 810). Possi­bly, penalty points also resulted when the ball touched the ground.