BUILDING A SCHOOL IN CHASHM

A Peace Corps Recollection

 By David Garrett

I first arrived in the village of Chashm in the spring of 1967. Chashm is, or at least was then, a village of a few hundred people in northern Iran at about 7,000 feet near the crest of the Elburz Mountains as they begin their swift descent to sea level at the Caspian Sea about fifty miles to the north. It was a charming village of white-washed earthen walls and flat roofs tied together by footpaths rising on either side of a gentle stream and set within stark hills and dramatic mountains. It was without electricity, about eight miles from near the nearest town over a rough dirt road, and largely self-sufficient for food, growing wheat and vegetables and raising chickens and goats, which were herded in the surrounding hills and which provided milk, meat, and wool. No one in the village spoke English.

I was barely twenty-two at the time, a Peace Corps Volunteer, and had agreed to spend the summer living in Chashm and coordinating the construction of a small school, the first in the village. The funds to build the school were provided by bake sales and car washes at a grade school in Bellingham, Washington, the hometown of a PCV living nearby in Semnan, a town several hours to the south by foot, donkey, or truck. I had been in Iran for several months, living and working in a rural development branch of the Iranian government in Bandar Abbas, another small town on the steamy and somewhat dreary southern tip of the Persian Gulf.

Iran at the time was still under the rule of the Shah and was an interesting blend of conservatism, progressive western values and styles, traditional cultural affinities, a strong religious orientation, and other more difficult to discern influences, all contributing to a sense of social complexity and at times unease that led within a decade to the Iranian revolution. Still, beyond the complexity, I found that traditional Iran, particularly away from the larger centers, offered much beauty and an open, warm, and industrious people. Perhaps because of this growing awareness on my part, and along with a youthful sense of adventure, I had volunteered to go to Chashm.

The school project was started, developed, and nurtured by Bruce Prior (from Bellingham), George Sakkal, and Doug Schermer, three PCV’s living in Semnan. They each had responsibilities in Semnan and needed another volunteer to coordinate the construction of the school and manage the expenditure of the school children’s money. After arriving from the south, I lived with George and Doug for a couple of months before moving to Chashm. During that time we finalized plans for the school and worked on an innovative approach to make the building more durable with locally available materials. I also frequently visited Chashm.

During each of my visits to Chashm, I was hosted by Said Ali, the acknowledged, although seemingly unspoken leader of the village, and his family. During my time in the village, I came to deeply appreciate and form a strong bond with Said Ali. Although he and his wife appeared older, perhaps middle-aged to our eyes, their children were young – an energetic boy, Davud, about four, and two sweet girls, about six and ten. Said Ali definitely drove the process of constructing the school, and I believe his interest in the project was at least in part due to his desire to see his children educated. When I did move into the village in the late spring, I was offered a lovely one-room cottage with trees and a small stream in a courtyard enclosed by a wall that was shared on one side by the home of Said Ali’s family. Whatever food or other provisions I needed were brought to me by said Ali, members of his family, or other villagers.

During that summer I ate dinners and drank tea most evenings with Said Ali and his family, sitting comfortably by kerosene lamps on the floor of his main room on beautiful Persian rugs woven by the women in the family. When the evenings were cool, as they often were in the mountains, a brazier of hot coals was brought in and put on a stone base on the carpets. A short metal table was put over the brazier, and a heavy blanket over the table. We then sat with crossed legs under the blanket and ate simple Iranian meals of goat meat, vegetables, rice, and flatbread from bowls set on the blanket-covered table.

A prominent site at the entrance to the village had been chosen for the school, and construction began in the same way as construction projects everywhere – by laying out the foundations. George, who had a degree in architecture, came up from Semnan for the day, even bringing a transit, which he peered through professionally while villagers watched with interest and amusement. The next day digging began. The ground was rocky and hard, but the workers young and enthusiastic, and within a few days the digging was complete. Soon footings were laid, and work began on the bricks for the walls. The bricks were made in wooden forms on the ground with a mix consisting of earth, water, straw, lime, and our “innovation” of a little oil, producing, we hoped, a more stable mud brick. This was a messy mixture to work with, but again, cheerful enthusiasm prevailed. The bricks dried in the hot sun, and the process continued for several weeks as the walls began to rise and the form of the three-room school take shape.

Construction went smoothly for the most part. A mason had been hired from a nearby town along with several young men from the village. In addition, the villagers agreed to provide volunteer laborers. They wanted the school. At various times there would be up to a dozen men of varying ages working on the building. We all became good friends. One small hitch in the process occurred early one morning as I was walking to the construction site. I encountered a prominent village man from walking away from the site with a large sack of lime. It seemed he had a more personal use in mind for it. Said Ali was informed, and the matter quickly settled with mild recrimination.

In preparation for the completion of the walls and starting the roof, tall, straight, Aspen-like trees were cut from a stand near the stream above the village, trimmed, and carried to the site. This was hot, strenuous work. The tree trunks were about ten inches in diameter, fifteen feet long, and there were about two dozen of them. Thirsty and without tea or water, I made an unfortunate mistake: I drank a few sips of water from the stream. This led to my second bout with dysentery in Iran, a return to Semnan, and a prolonged antibiotic treatment.

After about ten days, I was able to return to Chashm and found that remarkable progress had been made. The roof was nearly complete, and the only significant remaining items of work were the cement floor and plaster wall finishes, to be done by the mason. By late summer and the arrival of cooler temperatures, the school was complete and ready for its grand opening. This provided excitement for the villagers, satisfaction for Bruce, George, Doug, and the school children in Bellingham, and a photo op for Iranian officials from Semnan and Peace Corps administrators from the American Embassy in Tehran.

The evening before the opening, a goat was slaughtered in front of the school, some say sacrificed for good luck, roasted, and a gender-segregated large feast was held by kerosene lamps next to the school. Soon benches and tables were assembled, a teacher hired by the provincial school system, accounts settled, and the school was ready to begin teaching children. I moved back to Semnan, and soon after left for an extended overland trip across a then stable Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, which became a rich and personally pivotal experience.

During the winter and spring of 1968, I lived in Semnan and worked in a rural development office on small projects, including a road improvement project for the dirt road into Chashm. I returned to Chashm several times that winter and spring, staying each time with Said Ali and his family. The school was functioning well, and the children very appreciative. I left Iran for the last time in the early summer, having been there almost two years.

Remarkably, it is now almost fifty years since I first went to Chashm. Many details of life in the village and the construction of the school have faded from memory, but many remain vivid, assisted, by a small collection of photos. Among the enduring memories are those of simple appreciation for the villagers of Chashm, who I found to be gentle, kind, well-balanced, and in many cases, beautiful people. Among my photos is a picture of an elderly man sitting on a village wall in the afternoon sun smiling at my camera with a look of deep ease and well-being. This photo has always spoken to me as a picture of a man with a sense of spiritual balance, although at the time I simply attributed it to a wholesome rural life, which perhaps it was.

Recently, I have come to understand that this area of Semnan Province was, and perhaps still is, a center of Baha’i faith, a gentle, universalist religion, which is now prominent in the West and has it’s roots in nineteenth century Iran. At least several villages and small towns in the area had significant Baha’i populations. Whether Chashm was one of these has been a matter of speculation among us ex-PCV’s from the area, although the balance of evidence suggests that it was not. Tragically, this area has also been a center of religious persecution since the Islamic Revolution, with considerable human rights abuses and many deaths. One village, Ivel, where five of us, four PCV’s and an Iranian friend, stumbled in during a snowstorm while bicycling from Semnan to the Caspian Sea and were warmly hosted for three days, is reported on the internet at www.iranpresswatch.org/post/6127 to have had lands stolen and fifty homes demolished due to persecution.

I would love to have had news of Chashm over the past decades, particularly of Said Ali and his family, but for a variety of good and bad reasons, I have not. I have wondered many times whether Davud, Said Ali’s son, or any of the other village boys I knew were claimed in the terribly destructive war Iran fought with Iraq during the 1980’s or any of the other difficulties the country has endured over the past forty years.

One can find a current aerial photo of Chashm online by simply entering “Chashm, Iran” on the Google Earth website. It shows a much larger and perhaps more prosperous village than I remember, with roads leading to it from three directions. Unsurprisingly, many features remain the same in and around the village, in particular the barren hills laced with red earth and the contours of the valley. You can see a building at the entrance to the village from the south, but it’s difficult to tell if it’s the same school that we built in the Sixties.

June 10, 2013

David Garrett, Architect

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

<garrett.arch@ns.sympatico.ca>