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Iran Standard Time | Nowruz on the Hormuz


06 Apr 2012 22:02Comments

A ship, a strait, a holiday afloat.

asleep.jpg [ vignette ] "This weather is terrible for chicken farmers," jokes Hossein, a dark, wiry man in his late 20s, as he looks at the sunrise over the Persian Gulf, largely blotted out by a dense sandstorm. "The sand gets caught in chicks' throats and they suffocate."

Hossein, who supplies Tehran's jujeh kebab vendors by personally slaughtering 2,000 chicks every 45 days, is one of around 200 passengers aboard the Hormuz, a rusted ship docked in Iran's biggest port, Bandar Abbas, waiting for the weather to clear to sail to the Emirati city of Sharjah. He is from Bastak, a tiny ancient Iranian town in the southern stretch of the Zagros mountain range. Its 6,000 inhabitants speak a Middle Persian dialect, and most of them move between these hot highlands to the even hotter irrigated deserts of the UAE for business or to see their migrant relatives.

Flanking Hussein on the sunny deck is his friend and hamshahri (town-fellow) Ali, a skinny onion farmer who is adroitly peeling an orange with his large cracked hands, and fortuitously, Farzin, a professor of water resources from Shahrekord University. The professor says that our current predicament is the result of winds sweeping across lands that have been affected by the region's five-year drought. "The drought is strong in the southwest near Iraq and Saudi and in the northeast, near Afghanistan," he explains with the aid of a map he carries around. "In Shahrekord, we are in the Zagros Mountains, which used to have a very snowy climate. Now we just get rain."

We are on the last Iranian vessel to cross the now world-famous Strait of Hormuz before Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. It's filled with people who were too late or too broke to find a flight during the notoriously busy final days of the Persian year, when Iran experiences an exodus for the two-week break. What the demob-happy passengers don't know yet is that they will be spending Nowruz at sea, as a ten-hour delay stretches into a two-day waiting game.

I had spent the day before in Bandar Abbas, against the emphatic advice of my guidebook. Bandar, a sweltering town even in spring, is home to some of Iran's best beaches -- even if classical aesthetes might demur over everything aside from its clear water. Thronged with visitors from all over the country hitting the Persian Gulf for the holidays, the scene is a very Iranian affair: girls flying kites, boys on camels or quad bikes, men smoking, families picnicking, litter everywhere, women swimming in full hejab, and morality beach police enforcing strict swimwear rules (don't wear it). The women of Bandar mostly forgo the chador and northern Iran's stark black sartorial style, opting instead for colorful sari-like gowns, which drape over their heads and shoulders.

Down the promenade from the beach is the town's bustling fish bazaar. Beside the market is a car park, whose drains flow with the blood of every type of sea creature you care to imagine. Women sat in threes chatting and plucking prawns from their shells while men squatted, gutting bass, sharks, and everything in between. There was an old man wearing greasy spectacles who dragged around a rotting wheelbarrow of guts and bones to sell to the passing trade, presumably as animal feed.

At six o'clock, I picked up a shared taxi to the boat and an insouciant port official, with the air of a man who has long given up on timetables, told me that boat would not leave until "sometime tomorrow." Quick off the mark, my driver Abolfazl immediately offered me his home for the night and a lift back in the morning. "You are a kharehji!" he shouted. An outsider. "You are a guest in my city and you are a guest in my home!"

After about 20 minutes and several salvos of ta'rof (him insisting, me politely refusing), I relented and found myself on his carpeted floor being served cans of Iranian Zam-Zam cola and khoresht ghaimeh -- a dish of lamb, split peas, potatoes, and lime -- with his wife and three children.

After Abolfazl went to sleep, his two late-teenage sons excitedly fired up an ancient computer in the darkness to show me endless downloaded photos of nervous-looking Iranian women who had taken photos of themselves in varying states of undress. The photos were punctuated with a few polished Western lads-mag photos, in which they seemed far less interested. "She's Iranian!" they both intoned when a particular girl had dyed her hair blonde or removed more of her clothes. Then they played three Avril Lavigne music videos in their entirety. It was time to get some sleep.

Back onboard the Hormuz, the morning drags into afternoon and rumors about the captain giving the all-clear to go circulate and die by the hour. They peter out entirely when it becomes known that the captain is preoccupied helping out on the ship's tuck shop, endeavoring to satisfy the roaring trade in tea and Iran Cell mobile-phone credit.

For a country known for its religious adherence, the small prayer room remains conspicuously quiet. Other than a small group of Balochs, who yo-yo between the facility and turns on an incongruous decktop exercise bike, the prayer room is much less popular than the rear deck.

It is here, a day into the delay, in the early evening on the eve of Nowruz, that a mood of resigned abandon takes over. Ali, the onion farmer, finds a drum (a garbage can) and a couple of young women spirit up two qhalyans (Persian smoking pipes with unflavored, harsher tobacco than the Arab shisha) and a party erupts. The onion farmer can dance.

He draws in the younger crowd from the boat and gets everyone singing traditional Lari, Bandari, and other folk songs from southern Iran. Crossing the deck is a dangerous game as it involves passing Ali and being encircled by some 30 clapping Iranians demanding that you dance or come up with a new song to sing.

On the fringes of Ali's party, a man wearing a sharp suit, who looks impressively unruffled in spite of the delay, struck up conversation. "You British are cunning," he said, didactically pointing his finger at me. "Do you know your King James did a deal with Shah Abbas to kick out the Portuguese and take half of the port duties of the town [Bandar]."

Reza, a businessman based in Sharjah but from the provincial capital of Lar, explains that the Strait of Hormuz was as strategic in the 17th century as it is now: in 1622, the British along with 50,000 Persian soldiers loyal to the Safavid Shah Abbas destroyed the Portuguese navy, captured the island of Hormuz, and shifted the balance of power and trade in the region in Britain's favor. Demonstrating the Iranian psyche's brilliant grasp of history, Reza runs through some other Albion-related injustices: The D'Arcy concession, the Reuters concession, the establishment of the Peacock throne, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and of course, Mosaddegh.

"In Iran, we have everything for the management," he concludes.

After we snatch a few hours of sleep, the boat finally sets sail at 5:30 a.m. Nowruz, which falls at exactly 8:44 a.m. to coincide with the spring equinox, is celebrated privately by families in tight, huddled embraces. Those with no family greet one another with "Mobarak!" (blessed, happy). There is much kissing, hugging, and exchanging of addresses with people who were perfect strangers only the day before.

In the midafternoon, as the boat docks and everyone is ushered by the Sharjah police into immigration, an elderly Bandari lady shrieks at the sight of her luggage: the icebox of fish that she bought as a gift for her relatives has melted and the smell is terrible.

Iran Standard Time is a new feature about life in Iran. Photo: A nap on the Hormuz (credit: Tehran Bureau)

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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