Qeshm Island lays 75 miles along Iran’s southern coast at the mouth of the Straight of Hormuz. Every day, more than 15 million barrels of oil are squeezed through the tightly regulated waters. For many tourists, especially Americans, the beauty of Shiraz and the history of Persepolis are all but off limits — “One percent chance,” the man at the embassy told me on getting approved by the Ministry of the Interior. He was laughing. But for all the mainland’s regulations, this Iranian island has a different policy: visitors welcome.
A thirty-four minute hop from Dubai in a Yakolev Yak-42 and you’ll be there, landing over the shocking desert moonscape: sharp-sided mesas snapped like Lego pieces onto completely flat ground, fire burning over the oil refineries. That is, of course, if you can get on the plane.
Our journey to Dubai’s Terminal 2 for Forsaken Airlines began early in the morning on an empty bus that would get a flat tire somewhere on the emptier stretches of desert highway from Abu Dhabi. The driver, who had been in an accident a week earlier, was attempting to wind the car jack without using a protracted index finger the size and shape of a large carrot. At the airport, the flight was unlisted. The airline had no counter. We waved our paper tickets collected (as they must be) from a travel agency and representatives at the Miscellaneous Desk directed us to a back office where we paid a fifteen dollar “airport fee” and tried to confirm that the island still existed. (“You fly in here,” said the agent, pointing to the one of Qeshm’s two airports that was abandoned years ago.) We waited by the gate, though it never appeared on the Departures screen. After hours without announcement, other passengers assembled as if secretly in tune, and we filed in behind them onto the bus to the plane, underneath the sign that read “Basra.”
In Dayrestan Airport, Americans are fingerprinted with office supply stamp pads and offered sugar cubes to help scrub up while other foreigners file immediately to the one van to the one hotel offered us. We passed our luggage through the outbound x-ray, where the checker kept a bottle of Pimm’s, that ginny summertime English liqueur, hidden poorly on his desk. Perhaps it had been confiscated (alcohol is forbidden in all of Iran); the bottle was still in its protective duty free leggings.
Visitors of all nationalities but Israel are approved on arrival; many Iranians stop over from Dubai on a more economical route to major cities, but the rest are neither tourists nor businessfolk — aside from us two Jewish sightseers (to Immigration, say Christian), the rest of the van carried disappointed-looking men and women from Central and South Asia to the purgatory of the Hotel Diplomat. With no interest in tourism, waiting only for visas to come through so they could return to Dubai, most guests of Qeshm (sometimes Geshm, or Qushm) couldn’t care less about the scenery.
The Hotel Diplomat was part hostel part minimum security prison, with comfortable enough dorm-style or single rooms and televisions with a sprinkling of channels all from the Emirates. Our roommates were from Tashkent but spoke little to each other in Uzbek. One said that he had learned all the English he knew — conversational and easy to understand — in the last fifteen days. The other snored louder than the Persian army.
The hotel seemed to wake up between noon and 4 p.m. In the evenings, national delegations stuck mostly together around either hotel’s two shishas — the African table, the Arab couples perched on benches — and mingled by the pool table with tattered felt. A woman from Tajikistan in a bright blue headscarf was playing like she did most nights, waiting for her work visa to arrive, against our roommate who had just gotten his. No one dared challenge the quiet, skinny man from northern Iraq. He had been there six months.
There was hardly any food, too. A little shop by the pool table sold chips and ice cream and the restaurant on site offered something at select hours of the day (breakfast of a hardboiled egg, honey, and a tea bag). But still, almost no one wanted to go into town. “Yeah, it’s bad,” our roommate said. “Outside is worse.”
In Arabic, Qeshm is called Jazirat at-Tawila, “Long Island.” Downtown Qeshm centers around two large malls selling clothes and bags and smuggled IKEA for cheaper than anywhere else in Iran. Because the island is classified as a Free Trade Zone, the same reason we as Americans were allowed in, there are no taxes and domestic tourists pop in to save, either in (the town of) Qeshm or in nearby Dargahan. Shawarma stands deal in long rolls and little kids peddle chewing gum and locals gather in the town’s park by the sea to smoke nargila or, because it was nice out, to prepare camping tents for the night. An outdoor movie “theater” is set up with benches in front of a television.
Resplendent with spiky hairstyles and too-shiny pants, the Long Island of the Persian Gulf has both Hamptons and Great Neck; on the highway, there are even signs for the “North Shore.” Winter is the busy season, when mainlanders show up for sun (though you won’t find anyone tanning).
Between the bright lights of the fruit and ice cream stands and the twinkling of boats out in the Straight, the park at the edge of town had the air of a small carnival. Families and twosomes were strolling along the water’s edge. Dark waves rolled in softly and lapped at their feet.