After dark, we found lots of young people at Nemat’s Ice Cream, offering fifty-some flavors from hazelnut to melon to something that tasted like spray paint (beware the four scoop minimum). Our hands oily from plates of tomshi, like crispy Persian crepes, that was where Maral took us first. Maral was from Shiraz, one of the island’s four CouchSurfers, and an immensely eager and delighted tour guide. She was studying physical therapy at a Shahid Beheshti Medical University.
There wasn’t a whole lot, but what there was in Qeshm was relaxed and (sometimes) lively. And it did beat the Hotel Diplomat. Maral’s friends and the other young women around Nemat’s were unveiled, wearing bright, patterned scarves that left much of their hair showing — but it wasn’t like Shiraz, Maral said, where she would hardly readjust her headscarf if it fell. If I had expected (the image of) Saudi Arabia in Iran, I was mistaken. Foreign is welcome: Maral was an avid downloader of Gray’s Anatomy. On her Facebook, she lists Woody Allen as a favorite artist.
She took us by taxi (twenty thousand dinar, a buck-fifty, for anywhere in town) to the Portuguese Fort built in 1507 and destroyed a century later by Persian “liberators.” On the northern tip of the island, the fort is surrounded by one of the poorer neighborhoods of Qeshm locals (as opposed to mainland workers or students). Maral classified the locals as ethnically Arab. “I ask if they celebrate Eid-al Fitr or Nowruz,” the Persian New Year on March 21. “They say, ‘We celebrate Eid al-Fitr… that’s what we’ve always done.’”
As we navigated around the stumpy castle to a Zagat’s-worthy restaurant on the sea, the driver shut off the headlights. “So they wouldn’t see the garbage,” he said to Maral. He was visibly embarrassed. “The government doesn’t want it to be beautiful.”
This part of town does look forsaken, garbage piles collecting in corners of the medieval ruins. It is hard to know how much this can be attributed to the federal government. Religious freedoms, though, on this island abundant with Shia and Sunni mosques may come with a price — one that is levied not only externally, but from within. Those backed into corners at risk of losing their traditions put up walls, conserve — become conservative out of necessity. A woman in a full black robe and a niqab that covered her face shouted at me from a distance, waving a finger and warning me to not even think about lifting my camera. I wasn’t going to, I didn’t know how to say.
On Hangam Island, some of the area’s first inhabitants live in thatched huts and sell handicrafts to passersby. Their features appeared African and their brightly colored and patterned clothes reminded me of a Pakistani wedding. Elsewhere, the dark sand on sheltered “Silver Beach” glitters with mica. Our companions hid in the shade of a boulder on sparkling Silver Beach. All this sun and nowhere to tan! We were all boiling in long pants (also the law for men), while light breezes threatened to unwrap their headscarves. Maral’s friend’s sister Azade, 32, visiting from a town closer to Tehran kicked at the sand. “I hate this religion!” And then she shoved me into the ocean, jeans and all.
But except for the dolphins that circle playfully circle around the island, tiny Hangam also seemed like a place the rest of the world had just let be; aside from the septic tanks and us tourists with our cameras and the concept of tchotchkes, almost nothing spoke of modern times.
And this may have been to our advantage: a ten-minute boat trip from the coast of Qeshm, Hangam was (we think) outside of the Free Trade Zone authorized by the stamps in our passports. Maral realized this and cautioned us to keep our voices down. Here, if there were any overzealous police, we might have been accused of encroachment into other Iranian territory — a penalty whose punishment has been made well known around the world. Luckily (for us), Hangam was a place where we transients and the country’s indigenous could both be ignored.
At the restaurant on the sea by the Portuguese Fort, the waiter brought a mixed selection: fresh shrimp, squid in a light, sweet tomato sauce, and shark meat, minced and spiced, dry and pungent and delicious. We talked about Iran and religion and ethnicity over the waves. “I hate Arabs!” Maral said, beaming. It was bizarre: she loved the West, longed to emigrate, and hoped for lasting peace and stability in Iran, but she hated her neighbors — or rather, she hated her neighborhood. But still, the brazenness of this — was it racism? — hit me as if Mother Theresa had just told me to go fuck myself. From what I could gather, it was more culturalism than anything else: on this Arab-identified island, cultural and religious rules were more conservative than at home in Shiraz. What she hated was not a people, but the influences of strict normativity on her personal life. Or, I had read her all wrong.
Beyond that, the girls seemed to enjoy ranking foreign countries like American Idol judges. USA? Great. Europe? Wonderful. Pakistan? Good.Azade said she loved Israelis (but would never go to Israel — it wasn’t allowed). This, of course, was no unanimous opinion. We passed well-painted graffiti on the side of the road: TELL AMERICA TO BE ANGRY AT ME AND TO DIE FROM THIS ANGER.
Over the course of our visit we had been teaching the women some vernacular English words… that all happened to be Yiddish. (“I am sorry for being schlep,” Maral tried out on us.) Later, sitting at the same restaurant toking Cuban cigars, we outed ourselves to Maral as Jews. She was delighted. Her parents had Jewish friends that traveled discretely to Israel via Turkey, and now she did too. Of course, when you hate your neighborhood, it’s easier to love the world beyond.
In the evening after Nemat’s, Maral said goodnight to hurry home before her school’s 9:30 curfew. It was easier than dealing with the reprimands and dirty looks if she didn’t, and in return for her degree from the prestigious medical university, she would sometimes have to play by the town’s rules. We schlepped back to the Hotel Diplomat to find everyone where we had left them, frozen in visa limbo at the pool table. I rotated into the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan doubles game and miffed a few shots. The woman from Tashkent laughed, and translated a phrase from Uzbek she thought germane to my frustrations:
“Not every time you can eat ice cream,” she said.
I nodded. I’d have to think about that.