Iran

Wish You Were Kish

Writer

Jason Rezaian

Photographer

Maryam Rahmanian

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On Kish, Iranians do as they do wherever they go – shop and eat – but here they can do it without any sense of self-consciousness, in their own language and spending their own currency. Foreign visitors may find it a difficult place to access or wrap their minds around, but that matters little, because locals are determined to help visitors have a good time.

‘I love Kish more than the city I was born in and I want people from all over the world to enjoy it too,’ says Saeed Aghyani, a 24 year old who, along with his family, moved to Kish from his ancestral home in northern Iran when he was six. ‘Peace and tranquility are the best features of Kish. I call it my flaming paradise,’ he says, referring to the island’s oven-like climate.

Life is slow on Kish. There are no traffic lights – only roundabouts. Most people come for the fresh air and for the shopping. ‘With the support of the new government Kish will have an even brighter future,’ Aghyani says. It is unclear how Kish got its name, but it would come as no surprise if it was from the local pronunciation for ‘kitsch’. The island excels at a uniquely local version of retro that is an enamouring entrée into Iranian culture for foreigners.

This is best experienced at the quintessentially Persian Dariush Grand, a Las Vegas-style theme hotel modelled after the 2,500-year-old ruins of Persepolis. With soaring marble columns featuring evocative symbols from the country’s proud and very long history, the Dariush Grand is a must-see for the nearly one million – mostly Iranian – visitors that Kish attracts each year.

Other bygone eras can also be experienced on Kish. At Kooh-e-Noor, a restaurant that is set in a recreated cave inside a mountain of cascading waterfalls, recordings of classic Iranian pop stars like Googoosh, along with popular American tunes from the 1950s, serenade diners late into the night, especially in summer when, as in Dubai, people stay out late in feudal attempts to beat the heat.

While it all feels a bit thrown together, Kish’s hodgepodge of cultural references is no accident: this is one of the favourite domestic destinations for Iranians and one of the few places in the Islamic Republic that other nationalities can visit visa-free. This makes Kish an island resort like no other; devoid of beachside clubs blaring Bob Marley, colourful cocktails with umbrellas and bikini clad girls playing volleyball on the beach.

While this is where Iranians go to let their hair down, even just a little, there are constant reminders that this is still the Islamic Republic of Iran. Next to the island’s boardwalk is a single winding bicycle lane, famed as one of the few places in Iran where females can freely ride. Women and girls of all ages peddle around aimlessly, enjoying one of life’s simplest pleasures.

Perhaps the biggest potential attraction of Kish, though, and the one least accessed by the island’s visitors, is the underwater world teeming just off the shore. Ringed by coral reefs, Kish is home to dozens of varieties of tropical fish as well as vast sea turtles that can often be spotted from dry land. Ghasem Nargesi, a dive master at the Kish Diving Center, says that diving in Kish is one of the island’s many undiscovered treasures. ‘I’ve been living and diving here for 31 years,’ Nargesi says. ‘The cost of a single dive here is about 90 dirhams, while in the UAE you would pay at least five times that much for the same diving conditions.’

For now, though, Kish’s biggest draw is also its quirkiest. Each day at sunset several hundred Iranian holidaymakers make their way to Kish’s deserted western shore, where a trade vessel from Greece – known as the ‘Greek Ship’ – missed its mark one foggy night in 1969, giving birth to what no one knew then would later become the island’s top attraction.

The rusting boat, sitting just metres from the shoreline, provides ample entertainment opportunities for visitors to Kish. Foremost among them is the ship’s celebrity status as Kish’s undisputed top photo opportunity. Young couples and teenage girls pose, sometimes mimicking, arms extended, the characters of ‘Titantic’, but more often just simply gazing out into the remoteness all around.

During the summer months this corner of the island becomes the main stage for Kish’s annual Summer Festival, now in its 16th year. Troupes from throughout Iran come to play traditional provincial music and perform dance shows. Performances here provide the most authentic Iranian experience currently available on Kish. Industrious fishermen have also set up shop nearby, offering short but thrilling rides around the Greek Ship, circling it by speedboat and coming dangerously close before peeling off.

For land lovers, another form of local transportation provides an exciting and novel alternative. Jalal, the ‘camel master’, offers rides accompanied by old Persian proverbs about camels, of which there are unsurprisingly many. ‘The egg thief will also be a camel thief,’ and ‘Trust in God, but tie your camel tight,’ Jalal says, offering visitors to Kish enduring words of wisdom, ride after ride.

This article appears in the issue41Buy Now