THE BAG MYSTERY

We hadn't been in Iran very long until we heard that some
of the best turquoise in the world is mined near the city of
Mashad. We saw beautiful turquoise stones in the Tehran bazaar,
but our Iranian friends urged us not to buy it there. They said
the best quality stones at the best prices were found in Mashad.
So we waited, with the hope that one day we might go there.
Sometimes accompanied by my wife, but more often with
Iranian colleagues, I traveled to many places in Iran -- to Esfahan
thirteen times, to Tabriz, to Babulsar on the Caspian coast, and
even to Persepolis in the far south -- but it wasn't until shortly
before my two year tour of duty was about to end that I went to
Mashad, accompanied by three Iranian colleagues.

One afternoon when our work at the Mashad city hall was
finished, one of my colleagues, a bright, well mannered young
man named Aziz, went with me to the Mashad bazaar to buy
turquoise. At that time, it was 1959, a Persian bazaar was as
fascinating a place to visit as one could imagine. The narrow,
shop-lined streets rambled in all directions, forming a complex
web that seemed to never end. There were stories about
foreigners who got lost, robbed, and even murdered in the
bowels of a middle eastern bazaar.

In any of the big city bazaars in Iran, one could buy Persian
carpets, bolts of doth, hand made pots and pans, copper trays
and jugs, bars 9f gold and silver, shoes, jewelry, donkey bags,
sheep skins, prayer rugs, men's hats, food of all kinds, sweets,
and almost anything needed for daily life. Going deeper into the
bazaar, one would pass roaring clay ovens where many kinds of
bread were baked, and beyond that the meat shops where whole
goats and halves of cows hung, waiting to be hacked apart by a
butcher's machete. Beyond that was an area were men and boys
melted bars of copper to be hammered into pots, pans and water
pitchers. And beyond that whole sections of tailors, shoe
makers, furniture builders, on and on. In the Tehran bazaar
there was a grist mill where a blind horse pulled a huge round
millstone around and around in a circle, grinding wheat into
flour. The sounds and smells that went with all this activity, not
to mention the people one encountered there, made every visit
to an ancient bazaar a memorable adventure.

But back to the turquoise, which of course was the
purpose of our going to the bazaar in Mashad. After winding our
way through a labyrinth alleyways, we came to a narrow street,
lined on both sides by walk-in tents, each one indistinguishable
from the other, at least to me. This was the precious stone
market. Aziz somehow found the particular shop that had been
recommended to him, and we walked in. The only furnishing was
a Persian carpet. We sat on the carpet and waited.

In a minute or so a man with a black beard and wearing
tribal costume entered the tent from the rear and greeted us
with the customary "Salaam a ley cum". Aziz and the man went
through the normal getting acquainted rituals while we waited
for the usual glasses of sweet tea to be served. More talk in
Farsi, a little of which I understood, then the merchant went out
and brought back a velvet-lined tray containing perhaps a dozen
pieces of turquoise.

Aziz picked up the stones one by one, looked at them
carefully, then asked our host if he would kindly show us
something of better quality. The turquoise looked perfectly OK
to me, but, trusting that Aziz knew what he was doing, I said
nothing. Another tray of stones was brought in, and Aziz went
through the same procedure, examining them one by one.
Wanting to show that I was not entirely ignorant
about this business, I picked a few stones from the tray and
"examined" them. Then, as before, Aziz asked the man to show
us something better. Again he obliged, and removed the tray.
This time the merchant brought in a small black velvet bag.
As though conducting a religious ceremony, he untied the
drawstring and slowly turned the bag over, gently emptying six or
seven pieces of deep blue turquoise onto a velvet-lined tray.
As Aziz looked at the stones, he complimented the owner on
their quality.

At this point I wondered how long this ritual would go on,
looking at one batch of stones after another. I wanted to see the
best turquoise the man had without going through aU the Inferior
stuff, so I asked If that was aU the turquoise he had. A glance at
Azlz's face told me that I had made a grave error. Later he told
me that I had probably insulted the man by implying that he
didn't have very much turquoise.

Again the merchant left the tent, then in a minute came
back holding a gray canvas bag, considerably larger than the first
one. This time there was no ceremony. He opened the bag and
In one motion dumped the entire contents onto the carpet.
There were stones of aU shapes and sizes, some appearing to be
of good quality and some obvious trash.

As Azlz and I were gOing through the pile of stones, picking
out a few that looked interesting, I happened to glance over at
the gray canvas bag lying on the floor. On it was clearly written
"Arizona Navaho Reservation". I was stunned. Had I waited two
years to come to this far corner of Iran to buy exotic turquoise,
only to find that the stones I'd been looking at came from
Arizona?

With some reluctance, I purchased a few of the nicer pieces
for which I later designed gold settings. But the question as to
whether the turquoise originated in Iran or an Indian reservation
in the United States still remains a mystery.

Ren Renshaw. December 22, 2006