With the borders closed, many turned their gaze inward and began exploring parts of Iran they had not seen in years. Despite the ongoing war, there was a boom in the tourism industry; this time it catered not to foreigners but to Iranians themselves.
There was plenty to see that was out of range of artillery shells and mortars, so we took every chance possible to visit parts of Iran that neither of us had been to previously.
One of our first trips was to the island of Kish, a windswept strip of coral in the Persian Gulf. Prior to the revolution, the Shah had spent millions converting the barren piece of land into a world-class resort that catered to rich Iranians and Arab sheikhs. The Arabs would fly up in private jets and helicopters to spend a weekend gambling, drinking and carousing – in short, all the activities that they were forbidden back home. It was a perfect setup, a secluded piece of paradise where the extremely wealthy could unwind without worrying about the consequences. Everything was thought of, down to the French workers they had brought in to work as hostesses, waiters and traffic cops.
As we touched down on the landing strip, I stared out the window at a treeless landscape burnt desert brown by the merciless sun. The runway, we had been told by the tour guide, was long enough to accommodate the Concorde, which had visited on a regular basis to offload passengers and French champagne during the good old days.
The heat blasted at us as we disembarked from the plane and walked across the tarmac to the terminal. We entered the building and immediately noticed it had obviously seen better times – chairs were ripped out of their moorings and telephone booths were missing telephones.
“Unfortunately, after the revolution some people took matters into their own hand and there was some looting here,” the tour guide explained as we walked through the empty terminal. We were the first group to be let back in since the fall of the previous government.
The bus taking us to the resort area wound through an area of complete barrenness. Not a town or human being in sight, just a ribbon of asphalt set in scorching desert coral, looping away out of sight. The sun glared and bounced off every object ferociously and in the distance one could see the vapor rising off the road, shimmering the horizon.
“There is a small village on the other side of the island, where most of the locals live. They earn a living by fishing and smuggling with the Arabs across the water.” The guide gestured in the direction of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.
Within minutes, we began to approach what appeared to be a futuristic city sprouting out of the desert floor, using an architectural style that blended the modern with traditional Persian motifs in concrete. There were several buildings surrounding what looked like the main hotel and casino complex, all connected using a grid of broad streets lined with tall palms swaying in the wind. Beyond the casino I could see the blue-green shimmer of water, the sunlight bursting in sparkles on the surface.
As we drove into the main area of the resort, we could neither see nor hear anyone else. No cars, no people. It was a modern day ghost town, set in a lost paradise in the middle of nowhere. In that setting, the loss of noise and clamor that came along with urban life was somewhat unsettling.
We drove around the main complex in a loop, then took a side road and finally stopped in front of a five or six story building that was ugly modern in design. The tour guide stood up in the front of the bus.
“Well, here we are. Over the course of your visit, you will be staying in this building, which used to house the employees and staff of the resort. As you will no doubt notice, the rooms may be missing a few odds and ends – we apologize for this in advance, but we are working diligently to get the rest of the resort back in shape. There is a restaurant open every day and evening at the main hotel down the way. You can also rent bikes there and there are some other sights to see around the area.”
As we clambered off the bus and went to get our bags, I half expected to hear the sound of honking cars or the cries of vendors floating around the corner, but there was nothing save the whipping sound of the wind.
Fereshteh and I dragged the luggage up the stairs to our room – the elevator was broken – and we looked at each other before opening the door.
“The bed sheets better be spotless or I’ll raise hell with them,” she said wearily.
“You better pray we have beds to sleep in, never mind the sheets,” I grunted as I lugged the suitcase through the open door.
The room was spare, but clean. Two bunk beds against one concrete wall, a single chair and table. No telephone and no television. I went to the window and stared out at the road leading back to the airport. No views for the hired help.
“Look at this.”
I turned around and saw Fereshteh pointing to the wall. There in huge black letters someone had painted the words “GOOD BYE ADIEU” against the gray concrete blocks. The words reverberated through the room, as though the last person out the door had stood there, shouting them at the top of his lungs.
“How sad,” she turned and looked at me. “It seems like they didn’t want to leave.”
“It’s not surprising considering how much they were probably being paid. Plus, they got to live in this paradise.”
I looked around the room to see if there were any other signs the previous inhabitants had left behind. The graffiti had only increased the sense of sudden and utter abandonment one felt in this place and the room felt alien to me.
“Let’s get out of here and go explore the rest of the place. This is depressing,” she said.
I was more than happy to comply.
We wandered out on the grounds along the broad, empty boulevards until we came to the beach that fronted the casino. There, the sun sparkled brilliantly off the water and a flock of seagulls swooped and soared on the wind gusts. We walked along the coarse sand – it was a multicolored mixture of crushed coral, seashells and finer grains – until we came to an outcropping on the beach. We stopped and looked around; there was not a soul in sight as far as the eye could see.
“Wow – this is amazing,” Fereshteh said. “All this just for us.”
“Yeah, really is. Come on, take off your shoes and socks. It feels better barefoot.”
She took off her long sleeved jacket, remaining bare-armed in a T shirt, then bent down to remove her shoes. When she was done, she rolled up her pants up to her knees and tied her headscarf up in a bow.
“Hey, I said take off your shoes – not strip all your clothes off.” The sight of her bare arms and legs in public shocked me, in spite of myself.
“What do you mean? Why do I have to suffer in this heat while you can go prancing around as you please? Anyway, there is no one around.” She glared at me.
I laughed. “Let’s go around that big rock, you can sit there without being seen.”
The sudden freedom was exhilarating but it was tinged with a sense of doubt, and we still looked back every so often to make sure that no one was watching. We walked around the rocky promontory and found a sandy patch against the far wall where we sat down. She gathered up her jacket and shoes in a bundle as a headrest, then stretched out on her back, her legs in the sun.
“Don’t bother me for a while – I want to get tanned,” she announced.
I looked around at her and patted her pasty white feet. “That’s going to take a while,” I murmured, more to myself.
Sitting on the warm sand I looked out over the water, squinting in the glare of the sun. The waves lapped peacefully against the beach, sounding a rhythmic gurgle as they broke, hissing as the water bubbled through the sand. From where I was sitting, the water looked pale green, almost colorless near the shore, and I could see the large brown clumps of coral growths in the deeper distance. From there it turned rapidly bluer and darker as the eye traveled further out. The gulls still danced in the air and other than an occasional screech, all one could hear was the sound of the waves and the low whistle of the wind.
“This place is absolutely amazing. Fereshteh, take a look out there.”
A grunt came back and I saw that she had dozed off. Suddenly hot, I took off my shirt and got up to walk around, hopping gingerly down to the water’s edge, the soles of my feet burning from the heat of the sand. As my feet touched the water, I was shocked at the warmth.
“Shit, this is like bath water.”
Quickly I rolled up my pants and waded in, looking in astonishment down at the sandy bottom as though there were no water there. The clarity was simply amazing to me, when all I had been used to were the murky, seaweed coated swells of the Caspian Sea. For a while, I just stumbled around, mesmerized by the colors and movements of the grains of coral and shell remnants, floating in a transparent world and reflecting the rays of the sun in a million different hues like spinning kaleidoscopes. Bending down from time to time, I would scoop up a handful from the sandy bottom, letting the grains float through my fingertips, feeling the tickle as they brushed against my skin. I took my glasses off and dipped my face under water, keeping my eyes open. The sensation was a shock, as much from the warmth of the temperature as from the sparkling scene I witnessed, ever so slightly distorted by the movement of the water. In rhythm with the lapping of the water, the sandy bottom would stand in full clarity, then blur, and then refocus again. I stood up and wiped my eyes out.
I waded further out, the water reaching my knees as I approached the coral growths. From close up, they looked like barnacle encrusted giant toadstools, nature’s version of a coffee table or ottoman. I grabbed on to one in an effort to clamber up and immediately drew back, surprised at how sharp the edges were. Sucking at the cuts on my fingers, I looked at the coral warily, cursing under my breath. I would try it another day.
Slowly, I waded back, the ebb and flow of the waves and undercurrent pushing and pulling me back and forth. The soles of my feet were raw from the coarse grained sand and my back was beginning to smolder. I reached down and splashed some water on my back and face – it was time to head for the shade.
I ran back to our spot and found Fereshteh sitting half up, supported on her elbows. She smiled at me as I jogged up.
“How was it?”
“Beautiful. The water is warm and perfectly clear – like a pool. I tried to climb up on the coral but the damn thing was so sharp it cut me.” I was babbling away like a seven-year-old kid from the excitement. “You should come out and try it, it’s fantastic. Although I think I burned my back, it feels a little sore.”
“Turn around, let me look.” I twisted round. “You’re red as a tomato – don’t you know that the sun in these parts can fry an egg? We need to rub some ointment on that when we get back to our room.”
I kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you, my sweet.”
“Why don’t you think of these things? You’re just like a ten year old boy,” but she was smiling at me.
I shrugged. “The place just took me – I’ve never seen water like that before.”
She sat up. “I think it’s time to get back. We need to wash up and get ready for dinner.”
We gathered up our stuff and I put on my shirt gingerly, wincing at the touch of the fabric. It was going to be a long night.
Over the next few days, we got to explore more of the island and began to fall in love with the place. Once the sense of displacement wore off, Kish exuded a mystical attraction that tugged at our senses in unknown ways. The feeling of isolation, the openness to the sky and sun, the quiet nooks where only the wind blew through, the stillness of the afternoon heat, broken only by the rasping of a lonely cricket – all combined to create a magical moment in time that would have been shattered by the presence of people.
Walking through outdoor corridors of the empty shopping complex, I would touch the rough concrete posts and watch the silent shadows crisscross with blocks of sunlight. They had constructed the area to conform to the traditional Persian village look, with arched doorways and narrow, twisting lanes turning out of sight. I would wonder what was around the corner, and sometimes waited and watched, looking for someone to appear, their echoing footsteps a precursor. But there was nothing, nothing except the wind, the sun and the shadows.
One day Fereshteh and I rented some bikes and set out to explore the road that led away from the resort. On the way out, we set ourselves against the oncoming wind, pedaling hard to make headway. The sun was beating down and the treeless landscape around was parched, in suspended animation. The road stretched out in a ribbon of mottled grey and black but I felt strangely at home.
We laughed as we struggled to keep a straight line. Fereshteh’s headscarf kept blowing off her hair and she eventually gave up trying to straighten it. After about an hour of effort, we threw in the towel and turned our bikes around. I lay mine down and stepped out in the middle of the road to take a picture of her as she struck a pose in the middle of nowhere.
“Now we can coast back,” she laughed gaily. “My ass is so sore, I can’t pedal one more meter.” I smiled and kissed her cheek.
“Come on, let’s ride with the wind,” I said as I hopped on the bike.
Sure enough, as we pointed our bikes toward the hotel, the wind pushed against our backs like the sails of a clipper ship and we coasted merrily along, laughing all the way.
In the evenings we would head to the hotel restaurant for dinner and every night would order the same food – a delicious shir-mahi caught fresh from the waters of the Persian Gulf and grilled to perfection as a kebab. We had the whole place pretty much to ourselves, with a few other tour guests scattered around at the other tables.
In this manner we whiled away the week – days spent exploring the beach or walking through the abandoned casino with its broken up piano and tattered wall hangings. The looters had stripped everything that could be carted away: phones, TV sets, chairs, paintings – even the chandeliers. We walked through the eerily empty buildings where the Shah, his family and entourage stayed. The guide pointed out Hoveyda’s villa and the special one built for the Crown Prince, with a shower facing the ocean.
It felt wonderful to be able to hold her hand while we walked outside, making sure of course, that there was no one around to see us.
On one occasion a side trip was arranged for the guests to visit the fisheries plant, where the government had stored the local catch for distribution to the hotel’s guests. Now that there were no visitors to the resort, the plant was idle most of the time, but it had some frozen specimens that were a sight to behold.
As we walked into a hangar like space, I spied some large fish laying frozen on the concrete floor, slightly bowed and stiff as cardboard. The staff had pulled out a hammerhead shark along with a large dolphin so we could see some of the various species that inhabited the local waters.
I was awestruck by the hammerhead, its mouth open in a frozen smile and the rows of razor-sharp teeth glinting devilishly. The underbelly was soft white and the rectangular planes jutting out from its head gave it the most peculiar alien look. The eyes had misted over in death, yet it seemed so unnervingly alive that I hesitated before placing my hand in its mouth for a souvenir photo, half expecting it to snap shut at any moment.
“That is an amazing fish – do you have lots of them here?” I asked the plant manager.
“Oh yes, they are all over. In fact, you should be very careful when going into the water around here as they have been known to come in very close to the beach and attack people. They are very fast and dangerous.”
“How close to the beach do they get?” I was wondering about my daily plunges into the ocean.
“Quite close. They can swim in less than half a meter of water.”
Shit, I thought to myself. “So how did the visitors here swim in the ocean – or did they?”
“Most people used the pool. They had built a safety net around the main beach area in front of the casino as well but that needs repairs.”
“You heard that?” Fereshteh said as we walked outside. “No more ocean swimming for you. All I need is a husband that can’t perform his marital duties. Of what use would you be then?”
I looked at her and smiled. “No use whatsoever, my dear.”
In any event, it did not matter because the next day we boarded our plane and headed back to Tehran. As we circled lazily over the island before heading north, I looked out the window and saw the brown oval set against the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf, a jewel on the hand of the sea. The blue green water frothed white around the edges like the scallops of the many seashells scattered on her shores.
I turned to Fereshteh. “That was a beautiful place. I will never forget it.”
“Neither will I,” she smiled back at me, and I saw in her dancing black eyes the eternal memory of Kish, known only to the both of us and engraved for all time in our hearts.