Monday, March 11, 2013

The Rose Farmer

Rose farmer in Ghamsar

By Heidi Noroozy

The day began with a promise of clear skies and sweltering heat, even though it was still early May. The desert dust traced yellow-brown streaks across the windshield as we followed the rural roads crisscrossing the Dasht-e Kavir Desert near Kashan. My husband and I were in search of the elusive turnoff that would take us to the mountain village of Ghamsar. Our mission that day: to find a rose farmer willing to give us a tour of his garden and show us how the villagers make golab (rosewater), the clear, fragrant attar for which the region is famous.

The road to the village, once we located it, quickly left the desert behind and climbed upward through undulating hills toward the distant mountains. Pebbly soil and clumps of scruffy vegetation by the roadside gave way to leafy, green forests. We rolled down the windows and inhaled the crisp air that still carried a hint of winter’s chill.

On the outskirts of the village, a young man on a motorcycle pulled up beside us. “Do you want to buy golab?” he yelled over the roar of his engine and handed us a flyer advertising a local shop.

The road to Ghamsar
We asked if any of the farmers were making rosewater that day. He nodded and beckoned for us to follow then roared off on his bike, red blazer billowing out behind him like a bright sail.

He directed us to a modest house with a green and white awning that shaded a shop window. Behind the glass stood row after row of liter bottles containing rosewater. If every home-based shop along the road offered such an array of wares, Ghamsar would be teeming with tourists in the harvest season. I peered down the empty street and wondered if we’d arrived too early. Were the farmers even distilling rosewater yet?

Our guide led the way down a brick path that snaked around the side of the house, past a row of pink and red geraniums bursting forth from clay flowerpots and into a large walled-in backyard. Several takhts (carpet-covered benches) stood in the shade of poplar trees, and two beehive-shaped, copper stills sat on a raised platform. A breeze carried the light perfume of roses. So we had not arrived too early for the harvest after all.

A chador-draped woman greeted us. Later, I learned that her name was Nargess and that she was our motorcycle guide’s mother. She served us rose-scented tea and explained how the golab distillation works. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation here, but you can check out this video to see a similar process.

Rosewater stills
As Nargess wound down her demonstration, a spry old man came into the yard. The fine dust coating his dark suit and scuffed loafers made it clear that he’d just come back from tending his rose garden. He immediately struck up a conversation with my husband. While Nargess plied me with the usual personal questions of how many children I had and whether I preferred Iran or America, I eyed the two men deep in conversation, chatting as though they’d known each other for years. Our planned half-hour visit to the backyard rosewater distillery stretched into half a day, as the old man recounted the story of his long and surprisingly eventful life.

“When I got married, we were both 13,” said the rose farmer, whom I will call Hajj-Agha, a title of respect for older men. “Because the legal age for marriage was 15, we had to wait two years to register the union. Now I’m 81, but I still get up every morning at 4 to look after my roses.”

Hajj-Agha'a wife died 20 years ago, leaving him with six children (3 boys and 3 girls). Then his third son died in a motorcycle accident, so Hajj-Agha gave the widow (Nargess) and her two children a home. I remembered the grandson on his bike, with his billowing blazer and no helmet, and hoped he would not suffer a similar fate. Iran has one of the world’s highest traffic fatality rates.

“My daughters are married and have their own families now in the village,” Hajj-Agha continued. But he’s not on speaking terms with his two remaining sons. “They got greedy.”

He explained how he wanted to divide up his property equally among all his children, even the girls, contrary to the Islamic law of sons inheriting twice the share of their sisters. But two of his sons didn’t care for the arrangement and tried to manipulate their father into giving them more than their sisters.

“They thought I was a senile old goat,” he scoffed. “But my mind is as sharp as ever.” He banished them from his life—and Ghamsar—warning if he ever saw them on the road to the village again, he’d shoot them right through the heart.

Hajj-Agha's potato patch
He invited us to tour his garden. I jumped at the chance, thinking we would soon be wandering among fragrant rows of pink Damask roses, the strongly scented variety native to the region. But he led us through a wooden door in the wall that opened into an entirely different sort of garden, one so lush and green it made me think of the Persian word jangal, which means forest but sounds so much like the English “jungle.” The rose farm, it turned out, lay an hour’s hike up the mountain, and Hajj-Agha had been toiling there since 5 that morning.

He led us along a path through the lush “jungle” of his garden, where the fresh scent of growing things mingled with the earthy odor of freshly turned soil. He pointed out his prize trees—walnuts, apples, peaches, and cherries. The ground was carpeted with strawberries, their green thatch interrupted in places by brown furrows that marked the new plantings. I admired the practical use of limited space, with vegetables growing on the orchard floor.

A makeshift bridge of rough planks spanned a deep pit with tall woodpiles on either side. This was where Hajj-Agha made his own charcoal to fire the rosewater still. He buried burning logs in the ground for a long, slow smolder then dug up the charcoal after several days.

“Watch your footing.” He eyed me warily as I picked my way across the bridge, aware that one wrong step would send me tumbling into the abyss. He looked like he wanted to reach out a hand and help me across but held back, mindful of Islamic customs that prevent men from touching women not related by blood. I managed to cross without mishap.
Leaving Ghamsar

Later, when we left Ghamsar, I held two plastic bottles of home-distilled rosewater in my lap, one for my mother-in-law in Tehran and the other to take home to California. I watched the village’s yellow brick houses and leafy lanes fading in the distance behind us, knowing that the old rose farmer and his stories would remain in my mind for a long time to come.


  1. Wonderful piece. As Persian gardens are so famous and a rose lover myself, I was eager to read the piece, which is so visual and fragrant that I was really there with the "jangal" (love that word!). Thanks for sharing:-)

  2. Thanks, Diana! Glad you like the post.