The forgotten land of colours: a trip through Iran’s Persian Gulf


“This rock is a dragon, left here before the last great war.”

“Look at the top of the cliff. We call that rock Ferdowsi, as it looks from afar like the great poet.”

Locals have stories for the rocks and cliffs that resemble birds, animals or mythical creatures. “We grew up with our grandparents taking us on long walks and telling us about the rocks,” says Ali Hormuzi, a 44-year-old resident.

Colourful mountains in shades of pink, red, purple and yellow overlook shorelines where turtles and flamingos roam or sunbathe.

This is Hormuz island in the Persian Gulf, the mostly forgotten land of colours in the Strait of Hormuz, 5km from the mainland, and southeast of Bandar Abbas, major port and capital of the province of Hormuzgan. The island was visited among others by Marco Polo. Ibn Battuta who came twice between 1330 and 1340, wrote that the island’s city was “fine” and “large…with magnificent bazaars.”


Locals have stories for the rocks and cliffs that resemble birds, animals or mythical creatures.

The island was once settled by tens of thousands but its population has fallen below 10,000. Many have been unemployed since relations with Oman, an important trading partner, soured during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013).

“Before, most men on the island were involved in trade with Khasab, a coastal city in Oman,” says Ali. “We would go in the morning and come back at night, never leaving the special reserved area for Iranians. I never saw the rest of Khasab despite going there for years. We just weren’t allowed in.”

Locals would bring goods back to Hormuz, and then sell to traders in Bandar Abbas and Qeshm, a neighbouring Iranian island. “Technically, it was smuggling, since it was all done under the rug,” Ali explains.

Ali has worked hard to make ends meet since trading with Oman declined. Smuggling, qhachagh, is a word you hear all over the Persian Gulf islands, including Qeshm, from where I have travelled the 60km to Hormuz.

In some ways the islands are distinct from the rest of Iran. The wind-catchers – long, rectangular structures that cause airflow from the cooler undergrounds to the main rooms – in old homes are even more intricate than those found in Yazd, in the central desert. The cats resemble Siamese cats more than any feline you will find in Tehran, Isfahan or other mainland cities: one can only imagine they arrived on trade ships.

Unlike many parts of the country where women have shed traditional regional attire, the women of Qeshm and Hormuz mostly wear the colourful bandari pants, loose at the top and tight at the bottom with vibrant embroidery. A loose cotton chador with rich, bright flower patterns covers their heads.

Iranian woman, Qeshm Island

Picture of Iranian island woman on a wall, Qeshm island

But despite deep trade and cultural ties to India and Pakistan, locals know themselves to be Iranian first and foremost. Rice is cooked the particular Iranian way, steamed and then crisped at the bottom and along the edges - tahdig.

Local cuisine, especially on Qeshm, which sees most tourists, is plentiful and delicious, with seafood offered once the sun sets and residents get out by the water. Octopus, fish and shrimps are sautéed with onions, tomatoes and local spices, and put into a sandwich with pickled cucumbers and cabbage. A local mix of ten spices and herbs including turmeric, cloves, dried rose petals and cinnamon makes meals exemplary.

In recent years, with the absence of hotels across the islands, people have begun turning their homes into restaurants and hostels. The most famous is nakhoda (captain) Amini, a sailor turned restaurateur in Tabl village, on Qeshm island. He has a dozen rooms, and theirs is a family business: his wife cooks, he manages, the children and grandchildren take care of affairs.

Guests are given a notebook to sign, and captain Amini says he now has a sack full of them, and plans to publish a book on his 20 years in the business. There are notes by people from as far away as Australia and Germany, and there is a family from Spain staying in the room next to me.

Traditionally, homes on the islands were all built with wind-catchers. But today, on Qeshm, Loft village is the only place where they can be found. Following an earthquake in 2005, the houses were rebuilt with cement and air-conditioning. “It’s an archaeological artefact,” a woman tells me, pointing to her wind-catcher.

Lotf village is also known for its view of the Persian Gulf, and as we walk the village in the late afternoon, at least a dozen European tourists are waiting on a hill to watch the sunset. “Where are the Iranians?” I ask a resident. “In the shopping malls,” he answers.

With sanctions against Iran, smuggling has supplied the Dubai-style malls sprouting up. Most of the merchandise came that way, a storeowner in Qeshm city centre tells me.

Qeshm was declared a free trade zone under the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), following a boom in Kish, another island in the province. The quest to create a business-friendly environment around glitzy island resorts in the Persian Gulf began under the Shah. After he built a villa on Kish, his regular trips were well publicised and led to the establishment of the Development Organisation of Kish.

Whole villages were razed to make way for large-scale projects. Following the 1979 Revolution and end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the vision was carried forward despite tight economic sanctions. There are now many Iranian free trade zones including not just Kish and Qeshm but Chabahar in Sistan-Baluchistan province and most recently Arvand in Khuzestan.

What makes Qeshm different from Kish, known throughout Iran as a shoppers’ haven, is that many locals own stores and malls. But while locals that are savvy enough to jump ship can prosper, those wedded to the traditional pastoral life are pushed into deep poverty. In Kish, locals live in almost slum-like conditions beyond the high rises and shopping malls.

Naeem, an acquaintance in Qeshm, has been smuggling fuels like petrol to Dubai since he was 14. “It’s been lucrative,” he tells me. “I have a house, a car, and will be fully paying for my own wedding next week.” Weddings on the island are seven-day affairs where the entire village is fed many times, so paying for one’s own at 25 years of age is an achievement.

From 2014 to 2015, the number of petrol smugglers has dwindled. “The profit used to be threefold,” says Naeem, who is trying to get into tourism, while still transporting cargoes of clothing and foodstuffs from time to time. In summer of 2014, Naeem counted more than 100 petrol smugglers in one day. In 2015, “I see less than half a dozen on the same road. “The guards have cracked down hard,” he says.

Toyota Hilux pickup trucks are invariably used, and as we drive along the coast, Naeem points out one after another: “smuggling clothes”, “gas.” On Naz island, off the coast of Qeshm, he takes a child’s shirt from the water and puts it in the back of his pickup. “It’s brand new, that’s alarming. Sometimes smuggling ships have to dump their load if they notice guards coming close. I’ll take it to show the rest of the boys in the village, they have to be careful these days.”

Qeshm, Iran

 A wall of colour, Qehsm, Iran


A museum with walls painted in vibrant colours

The “boys” stick together, and inform one another of things they’ve seen. As soon as we see guards stopping three Toyotas with gasoline in the back, he calls several friends and warns them to keep watch. As we hear the call to prayer from a mosque, he asks to stop: “I try to never miss Friday prayers, especially the sermon.” In Qeshm, the population is predominantly Sunni Muslim.

A mosque at Bandar-e Lotf in Iran.

A mosque at Bandar-e Lotf in Iran

Fishing is a main source of income across the Persian Gulf islands, but one that has always been associated with a more humble lifestyle. Driving around Qeshm, the fishing villages are always more simple than where smugglers, merchants, dhow constructors or mall-owners live.

Regardless of occupation, the flow of outside investments disrupts quiet lives. Within Qeshm city, a long man-made beach was built in front of homes by the water, and turned into a road, despite objections from residents. “We used to sit by the coast every afternoon and drink tea,” says a resident. “Now we can’t even let our kids outside for fear of the cars.”

Arang Keshavarzian, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, writes: “Iran’s free trade zones in the southern Gulf currently rest on a tacit alliance between state officials, members of the military, and cross-border traders, a coalition that is not conducive to economic growth, egalitarian re-distribution of resources, or democratisation.”

Corruption is a word one hears everywhere on the islands. In 2013, the newly appointed head of Qeshm free trade zone spoke of “a vast loose financial mafia” that had been “looting the island’s riches en masse.” A large incomplete building that was to be the headquarters of the Heritage Organisation sits in ruins near Holor village, half built because the head of the project disappeared with the budget, neighbours allege.

The end of the fishermen's day.
                                                      The end of the fishermen’s day

Qeshm airport was bulldozed in a plan for a multimillion dollar development project with hotels, theme parks and a vast shopping mall called Golden City. While a new airport has opened 60km from the city, Golden City remains unbuilt with long walls surrounding the land. Two cab drivers and two shop owners and a local resident all echo one another. “It was bought off by Ahmadinejad cronies for less than 30,000 tomans [£6.70, $10.50] a square metre,” says one. “They tore down an airport, just like that.”

The far smaller island of Hormuz is facing tough economic times. While Oman and Iran again harbour closer diplomatically, Khasab remains shut tight to Iranians. Unemployment is rampant on Hormuz and I notice drug addicts in the street, a rare sight in Qeshm. There are also almost no cars. “Only a few dozen people own them here,” says Ali.

The island has only one small medical clinic, where a general practitioner works a few hours each day. The sick and pregnant must travel by boat to Bandar Abbas to see specialists.

“Most people these days get by through fishing, but there’s less of that than there used to be, or driving around tourists but that’s only in the winter and early spring - then it gets too hot,” Ali tells me. “In the summer, we just hang out indoors all day and spend from our pockets [what has been made in busier times]. If you haven’t earned enough, you’re in trouble.”

Hormuz has been trying to get in on the riches of the free trade zone, Ali says, but each time the plan has gone awry. Most recently, in February 2015 Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, announced that adding Hormuz island to the free trade zone was under consideration in parliament.

The promise alone made real estate prices skyrocket. “I bought 100 square metres of land by the Persian Gulf ten years ago,” says Ali. “Back then, it was 30,000 tomans a metre ($10.50 or £6.70 at today’s exchange rate). Now, it’s more than 400,000. I wish I’d bought more.”

Each time there is news of Hormuz joining the zone, says Ali, businessmen from Tehran and Isfahan come and buy land. Still, 400,000 tomans (£ 90, $140) is cheap compared to prices in Tehran, where a typical house or apartment in downtown sells for at 9m tomans (£2,014; $2,700) a sq m, or the northern regions by the sea, where development land costs 1 to 3m tomans.

The house Ali has built by the water is humble, made of cement with no facade. But it is located by luscious beaches. There are no guarantees that such scenic landscapes will remain unscathed if business starts to thrive on the island.

Hormuz ochre is a blood-coloured earth pigment.

Hormuz ochre is a blood-coloured earth pigment

Hormuz is best known for its ochre, a red-coloured earth pigment that has made miles of this land look majestic. Traditionally, the ochre was used in everything from decorative arts to wedding ceremonies and even as a spice for fish and torshi (pickled vegetables). Now the ochre is transported by the truckload and exported. Out in the countryside among the multicoloured mountains, the dirt of tractors and trucks belonging to the mining facility can be seen from miles, razing the land, and emptying dirt into the nearby water.

The ochre is mined by a company whose primary shareholder and owner is best known as an outspoken government critic following the June 2009 protests. But residents here care little for such things, or for his denial that he owns the bulk of the company. They call him the “earth thief.”

Unlike those on Qeshm, Hormuz island inhabitants are in no way wealthy, and so it will be capital brought from outside the island that will dictate the rules. As I walk on the island’s beaches – possibly the most serene and untouched in the world – I cannot help but wonder what this place will look like once the townspeople get their wish and resorts are built nearby.

The Guardian




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