x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The easy way into Iran

On the road For Americans such as myself who like to travel, Iran has been something of a forbidden fruit since the 1979 revolution.

For Americans such as myself who like to travel, Iran has been something of a forbidden fruit since the 1979 revolution. For decades the country was essentially off-limits to citizens of many countries including the US. In recent years, however, Iran has warmed to allowing more visitors as part of group packages - but people choosing this option must be aware that they will be accompanied by a state-sanctioned guide and likely monitored in other ways as well.

And then there is the backdoor to Iran that is Kish. Situated about 200km across the Gulf from Dubai, the 15km-wide island was developed by the Shah before the revolution as a luxury resort destination with a now-defunct casino. In the wake of the UAE's rapid economic development, Tehran hoped to capitalise on the region's emergence as a hub for tourism, trade and migrant labour by designating Kish a free-trade zone. As part of this programme, it also gave Kish special status whereby visitors don't need a visa to enter and instead are given a 14-day travel permit to stay on the island (Kish Air flies onward to more than a dozen destinations inside the country, but having made it to Kish does not necessarily increase the chance of receiving a visa stamp for the mainland).

As such, Kish soon became a popular spot for people to go while they wait to renew their visas. Kish Air (www.kishairlines.com) even helps to market the island for this purpose by providing cheap "visa run" return flights - US$190 (Dh700) from Abu Dhabi and $150 (Dh550) from Dubai - that include free transport to basic dormitory-style accommodation and a complimentary first night's stay with breakfast.

While my UAE visa is secure for another year, the prospect of a budget holiday in a country I've long dreamt of seeing, but without the visa hassles I had expected, was enough for me to plan a three-night stay in what I began to think of as Iran Lite. The flight from Abu Dhabi was only about 40 minutes long on a 44-seat prop plane where I and two friends appeared to be the only westerners aboard. While the aircraft seemed a bit of a clunker, unlike on other low-cost carriers, juice and snacks were provided.

When we landed I was greeted at the walkway to the airport by a signboard that said "Welcome to the beautiful, visa-free Kish Island." The people backing Kish obviously think they've found a niche. At the same time, it was also clear I'd arrived in Iran as a side room at the airport's entrance was filled with burkas so women who didn't bring their own could borrow one. And, despite the warm slogan, having entered a country that regularly uses anti-American rhetoric in government statements and that had accused the US of taking part in the assassination of a nuclear scientist in Tehran the day before, I had prepared myself to face a grilling at immigration. Indeed, an American who arrived in Kish in 2005 has never been heard from again.

So I was not surprised when my European friend glided through but my American friend and me were told to have a seat and wait for an official. A man in military-style garb took our photos, scanned our fingerprints and questioned us as to why we had come to Kish. But the tone was bureaucratic and it was hardly the third degree. After passing through immigration, however, our passports were given not to us but to a travel operator working with Kish Air who was holding onto the documents for all the plane's passengers. He seemed friendly, but being parted with one's passport while in a foreign country always induces nerves.

My two friends planned to spend the night in a proper hotel while I headed to the dormitory-style Khatam Hotel. A 10-minute drive from the airport led to an inland, low-rise residential neighbourhood that has not yet seen the glitzy development of the island's eastern shores. When an outsider pictures life in the Islamic Republic, they probably don't imagine the raucous all-night party that seemingly goes on every night at the Khatam. The unkempt courtyard is filled with palms dressed in flashing Christmas lights and an assortment of people from all over the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where migrant labour in this region tends to come from. The area is encircled by elevated platforms constructed out of brightly painted rebar and covered with canopies where men and women speaking different tongues flirted, smoked shisha and ate chips ($1.50; Dh5) or hard-boiled eggs ($0.40; Dh1) sold from a kiosk near the entrance. Someone was rocking 50 Cent on a mobile phone speaker and the headscarf rules seemed to not apply here. I got the sense that what happens at Khatam, stays at Khatam.

My room was down a hall painted with hypnotic red and black horizontal stripes. Guys slunk in the doorways of the girls' dormitories and mine was a smoky place with six thin beds jammed together. There was nowhere to lock my things and my bed was squeezed between two others and had no pillow or blanket. I went to buy tea from the kiosk and the man inside said I was only the second American he had seen in three years.

When I met up with my friends and taxied to the Payab restaurant on Olympic Boulevard (00 98 0764 442 3638) I found quite a different scene. The outdoor seating area was elegant with beautiful Persian rugs atop cosy raised majlises. There was live traditional music and, in a country were dancing is restricted, nearly all of the seated patrons were clapping, moving their bodies rhythmically and waving white napkins in the air. Here, in fact, the chair dance seems to have been elevated to art form. Communicating with the waiters in English was impossible, but I recalled the Farsi for my favourite Iranian dishes - chelou kebab, doogh and levash: or minced lamb kebab served over saffron rice with yoghurt and flatbread on the side. At about $15 (Dh55), the kebab was as expensive as at a UAE hotel. But there is no place in Abu Dhabi such as Payab with music outdoors in such a relaxingly simple but refined setting.

When I returned to the Khatam it was almost 1am and the party had grown even livelier. I found a Syrian man cowering on a bed in my room, watching Die Hard on a small TV. I asked him why he wasn't outside with everyone else. He said he had been at the hotel waiting for a visa for almost a week and he was afraid to leave his belongings alone. "Those people are crazy," he said. Around 3am I crawled onto the bed with my clothes on and my bag at my side and a man sleeping only a foot away. Another man in the bed across from me rose and found me a pillow and blanket. At about 5am someone nosily stumbled through the door. He yanked the pillow from beneath my head but I continued to pretend I was out cold, which is what I did till daylight.

It turns out that a free room to sleep in is a nice perk, unless, that is, you can't actually sleep. lkummer@thenational.ae