Swimming with Osama

Bandar Abbas, Iran (photo:wikipedia)

Does Osama like to swim? Yes he does. If it was more wading and paddling or arms stretched to the front parting the water like morning curtains I can’t recall, but he certainly had no fear of water. There was no hesitation there: that is true, for I swam alongside him some years back, in 1997 by the settled calendar of the west, to be exact, to be precise, in the mountainous wilds of southern Iran.

The water was mineral stained, the blue at its least a mix of cobalt glass, peacock-chest and Swedish-eye. It was other-worldly, a blue that must’ve shamed the sky even in its brightest effort, such that the regular concealment of night would come as an entirely welcome cloak to its failure. The water was warm, Earth-baked and a suitable adversary for the cooling evening air, when we arrived in that furrow of a gully in those rocky and harsh mountainsides.

Marco Polo had been there, so it is said, to the place called Geno outside the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas. It can’t have offered much physical comfort on Polo’s way eastward to China: there were no silkworms there to weave for him some bedding, no emperor’s court on-site to entertain and in all likelihood not a single campfire in wait for the roasting of a meal. Geno is rugged and unsettled, but at the very least it surely brought a certain measure of wonder: the traveller’s treasure. And if it was that, like Osama, in Geno he swam, I couldn’t say.

Fishing the Persian Gulf (photo courtesy Iran)
The stars were sewing their tapestry across the heavens by the time we were drying ourselves in readiness for the drive back to town. The lateness of the hour was Osama’s fault, and Osama’s mother’s: for the Osama family had all the hospitality of that country where the locals say, ‘guest is God.’ The lateness of the return was the lateness of the setting out, after a meal, quite possibly of kebab and that long, delicious flatbread the Iranians also call ‘nan’, quite probably taken while sitting in a circle on a carpet on the floor. There had been so many meals like that so the specific details of that one have become elusive.

To be sure, it wasn’t at all to be considered in Iran, the country of crystal finery and etiquette precision, to be setting out for the springs without the prior satisfaction of food.

1997 by the settled calendar of the west, to be precise, to be exact: it was the days before Bin Laden’s infamy, and this Osama was not him, to be sure, but a young Iranian guy who’d met my school friend Lachlan and I by happenstance on a Bandar Abbas street on our way travelling through Iran. It was the first time I’d heard the name, and I liked it: O-sa-ma. It’s quite pleasant really; in those days when there was no connotation to it, and even now it can hardly be said to be a name of any less fortune than ‘George’, with apologies going to Mr. Harrison, Mr. Washington, Mr. Clooney, Mr. Costanza, Mr. Jetson and the others: sadly, your name has been cooked.

Bandar Abbas has a Portuguese history, with burqa-clad women sporting red or black masks across their noses and around their eyes; a masquerade relic of Portuguese fashion from centuries gone that went native along the Persian Gulf coastline before the colonisers left in their ships. The odd thing was that with the additional facial covering uncustomary in the rest of Iran the local women’s ankles were bare, less covered than in the rest of Iran, so in a sense it evened out.

Persian Gulf fishing trawler (photo courtesy Iran)
And offshore on the island of Hormuz is the shell of a Portuguese fort, rounded and brick, in which a random Kurd from far north-western Iran cooked and shared his lunch with us; partly because his village lay near a remote and ancient Armenian church that we’d visited some moons previously.

Bandar Abbas has an African history: the locals there called Bandaris are of mixed African and Iranian heritage, the complexion darker and culture distinct. In Bangladesh, it need not be said, that the term Bhandari has created its own cartography.

Bandar Abbas is a Russian story, so it was said: such that in the days when the Soviet Union opened and the Russians first ventured beyond they would sometimes stop there on the way to or from the electronics haven of Dubai. So we’d accidentally become Russians too, Lachlan and I, for perhaps half an hour in Bandar Abbas.

For two months or more we’d been in Iran, and our Farsi lessons in Sydney had led us into a little game called ‘trying-to-convince-the-hotel-manager-we-are-locals-at-least-until-the-room-rate-is-fixed.’ It’s not that Iran was expensive; only that the game was fun.

When we’d been wearing local clothes, and with new beards in place (mine rather silly-looking), we could perhaps for a brief moment, with singular short questions and monosyllabic answers, pass as locals. And even my blue eyes were not totally inexplicable, for some Kurds share that blue. We’d try our best to arrive at a price, and then enjoy the hotel manager’s surprise as we handed over Australian passports.

But in Bandar Abbas it was assumed we were Russians, so we were, we were! The little stories, the little lies at the hotel reception: our Farsi was imperfect on account of our Russian-ness and we were engineering students studying in Tehran who needed a good rate since the Russian rouble hardly went far, did it? Why engineering? I don’t know, but we were not like their other guests, the moneyed Muscovites wanting to buy a new TV set and a video recorder in Dubai, that was the main thing.

Lady with Bandari mask (photo courtesy Iran)
We used to encourage each other in such endeavours, Lachlan and I, or lead each other astray. But it was Bandar Abbas and if the local women could mask themselves in red or black, then for just some minutes why couldn’t we do so with words?

They knew it was not so, those reception people, of course, of course; but they enjoyed the little performance, especially hearing us speak Farsi, in much the same way Bangladeshis now take muse from my inventive, original Bangla, if it’s to be described politely, which is what the Iranians would do.

‘So where are you really from?’ the reception people asked at the conclusion of the initial exchange. ‘Okay, Australia, but we really are students with no need for rich-country room rates.’

At dinner, a few hours, we got to know the hotel staff properly; for the hotel was hardly bustling and we were at least interesting guests. We relived the Iranian tour completed and re-listed the route ahead.

Persian Gulf (photo courtesy Iran)

Yes it was then: on the evening of slight Russian-ness before the Kurdish lunch in the relic of the Portuguese fort on the Island of Hormuz, on the day before the meeting with Osama and before the swimming in the pools of cobalt glass and peacock chest and Swedish eye. That’s the way, in accordance with the rules of true adventure, that calendars are written. Marco Polo would understand it: the other-worldliness and the wonder.

The Portuguese Fort on the Island of Hormuz, Iran (photo: wikipedia)

More adventure can be had searching for massive beasts or dealing with a non-English speaking travel agent or even just getting to work.

This article also published by Daily Star, here: Swimming with Osama
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