GHOLAM ALI - THE PANTHER KILLER
This is Gholam Ali. He’s 89 years old. He’s a father of five. A husband for 67 years. And half blind. We met in an alleyway in Kang, a small village in north-western Iran.
Within seconds, he offered to take me to his small mud-brick home for cups of tea.
His house was basic, just a single photo on the wall. A portrait of himself.
He has lived in this village his whole life - his family has been in Kang for thousands of years.
He quickly prepared the tea, along with apples and walnuts from his meagre garden, before sitting down to chat.
For the next three hours we spoke (through a translator). He told stories from his past - as a teenager he remembers the marauding Turkmen raiding the village and kidnapping his neighbours. He spoke of the Soviet soldiers who occupied his village after the Second World War. He revelled in the tale of how he killed a panther with a knife - earning him the title ‘Panther Killer’.
At one point I asked about his one and only photo. It was of him at age 60. It was taken the day he volunteered for the Iranian army to fight Saddam Hussein’s invading forces. He served 6 months on the front line- losing three family members in one battle.
He’s built two mosques and one school for his village - with his own hands and paying for it out of his own pocket. His one good eye glistened with a tear when he said Allah will reward him in the afterlife. It was this precise moment that he asked me to photograph.
I’m not sure what Gholam gained from our conversation - maybe just a fresh set of ears to listen to his life stories. Maybe it helped take his mind off his wife, who has fallen ill.
For me, it was one of my greatest travel experiences. It was simply tea, but the stories changed the way I looked at his region, his country and his faith.
He embodies humility, integrity, family and community. I hope at 89, I can entertain for three hours like him.
At the end I asked Gholam Ali to pose with his single photo. His spirit to live hasn’t diminished at all with time.
Tomorrow I will get the picture sent to him.
Hopefully he will decide to put two photos on the wall.