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Iran’s Dead Sea — البحر الميت لإيران

New video after the jump.

For $15 an hour, any taxi driver will take you the length of this Long Island and back (about an hour and a half between the furthest points). Whether you’re stuck or just visiting or visiting and stuck — return flights are often delayed by twelve hours or a day — there are at least two full days worth of informed wandering. The otherworldly caves and mangroves and beaches of Qeshm are exceptional and untrodden, and without parallel on the more visitable coasts of the Persian Gulf.

Our driver balked when the paved road turned to dirt, making a machine gun sign with his hands and charading I don’t think you are supposed to go here with worried eyebrows. We had heard half-formed rumors about gunfire in the empty areas towards the south, potentially the army (or someone’s army) in training, but we coaxed him onwards and never had to duck and cover. We never saw anything remotely unsafe.

If the island were a dolphin — it is shaped a bit like one — the magnificent mangrove forests would be just behind its dorsal fin. The tangled roots of mangroves work to solidify the coastline, holding the mud in place and extending out into open water that covers the roots completely at high tide. A mangrove forest looks like a Venetian neighborhood. Greenery lines more than ten miles of the northern coast, stretching across the narrow Straight of Khuran almost to the shores of southern Iran. A sign points to the Jengel Hara (a.k.a. the Hara Protected Area, established 1972).

Geshm’s particular mangroves are home to the hara tree, lushous green with yellow flowers and an almond-like fruit in the summer. For twenty-five dollars a boatman singing old songs in Arabic motored us out through the shallow channels, past blue and white herons and flat-billed birds flaunting their mandibles from higher ground. When the spot looked right, we hopped off the side into the mud.

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لحم القرش وودي ألن والعلاقات الإيرانية العربية — Shark Meat, Woody Allen, and Iran-Arab Relations

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.’”

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Iran’s Long Island — جزيرة الطويلة لإيران


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.”

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