Visiting Iran's Party Island

By Ryan P. McCarthy

Thirty-five years ago, Iran was a very different place than it is today. Shah Mohammad Reza Phalavi was in charge of the place, and it was pretty hopping. Woman wore Western clothing, and drinking and dancing were favorite pastimes.

The Shah aspired to build a Las Vegas–style tourist trap to bring in international dollars and provide a haven for Iran’s elite. He chose Kish Island in the Persian Gulf to be the site of his new playground. Kish had it all: warm weather, beautiful beaches, and a generally liberal, laid-back populace.

All that changed with the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power, and Iran’s party scene became nonexistent. Today’s fundamentalist Iran is pretty much the last place in the world Westerners want to go and party, but this hasn’t discouraged the current regime from trying to attract them to Kish.

In 1989, dismayed by the lack of international tourists, the government declared Kish Island a free zone. This new status meant there would be no taxes, no visas required to enter, and a more lax enforcement of moral laws. Women are allowed to wear their hijabs with a generous amount of hair showing, and swimming (although gender-segregated) and dancing are encouraged. All of these activities are verboten in most other parts of the country.

Alas, Kish did not become a hot party destination. Instead of the island earning a reputation for its nightlife scene, it became know for its kidnapping scene. In 2007, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared while visiting Kish. He's been captive ever since, which gives him the dubious title of the longest-held American hostage in US history.

After his capture, the US government issued a statement denying he was a CIA agent on a spying mission, and was simply there on holiday. Last year Associated Press broke the real story, a Jason Bourne-esqe saga of intel gathering CIA agents on a rogue mission that, the AP said, had paid Levinson to gather intel.

Despite this messy history, last summer Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, told voters he wanted to increase tourism on Kish, largely due to the heavily sanctioned government's desperate need for foreign currency.

Unsurprisingly, no one is showing up. The majority of tourists are Iranian, and the few others are migrant workers from Dubai who had to leave the UAE due to expired visas, many of whom have been treated badly and being taken advantage of. To the surprise of no one except the Iranian government, Westerners tend to avoid spending time off in countries where citizens occasionally chant things like "Death to America!"

But I’m an optimist. Maybe it was still possible to party on this island? On a whim, I reserved a plane ticket. Due to sanctions preventing Iran from using the international banking system, payment involved forking over cash at the airport before departure. I had the privilege of flying Kish Air, which had planes so old and flight times so terribly disorganized it was almost worse than flying Spirit Airlines. Almost.

The whole island stands as a monument to another era. The closest thing you can get to liquor on Kish is a "non-alcoholic malt beverage." I thought it would be a good idea to drink one ironically, but after my first sip I realized I would have to be drunk to continue downing the stuff, which tasted like rusty metal and artificial flavoring. Quite the paradox.

The dearth of international tourists created an eerie, abandoned feel to the place. The shipwreck known as "Greek Ship" is one of Kish’s most popular attractions and photo-op sites, just beating out the empty building in the shape of a ship.

OK, so maybe the place is a few decades and a couple of fatwas away from its prime. Still, I hoped there would be a good time somewhere. After asking around, I was informed there was a dinner-and-a-show venue that would go until the wee hours of the morning and featured Iran’s biggest names in entertainment. Sounded good enough to me.

The night kicked off with an insult comic who—according to my Farsi-speaking friends—was asking people in the audience where in Iran they were from, then went about ripping on that city with various stereotypes. The crowd seemed more interested in their dinners than the guy's jokes, although his wisecracks about Tehran seemed to get a rise out of the crowd.

Unfortunately, I was seated in the top mezzanine and despite my attempts to get his attention by waving my arms, he never chose someone to make fun of beyond the first half of the lower level. I was really curious how he would have gone about making fun of New Jersey. Would he go the Jersey Shore route? Would he go with the industrial wasteland, exit 12 on the Turnpike, bad smell route? Or the infidel, "America is the Great Satan" route?

Despite in the world capital of anti-US rhetoric, the whole affair was right out of Orlando’s playbook. Food came in obscene quantities, and there were a bunch of people in unlicensed American cartoon character costumes running around giving kids nightmares and looking for tips. Disney, Warner Brothers, and Nickelodeon were all well represented. I managed to snap a blurry picture of Tweety Bird just as he tried to slap my camera out of my hand.

The grand finale of the show featured some singer who I was told is moderately famous in Iran. There were lasers, some small pyrotechnics, and even a fog machine that seemed to spook the performer. The crowd, now hopped up on sugary soda, (the wait staff did have a generous pour), clapped their hands to the music, and a few even had the gusto to do a little jig in the aisles. This was it. I had reached the pinnacle of the (legal) party scene in Iran. I have been to the mountaintop, and it was mildly entertaining.

Now mind you, I said legal. I have heard plenty of stories about underground alcohol- and drug-fueled orgies in Tehran that could rival anything the rest of the world could put together, but I never received an invite to one of those. I need to network.

@ryan_pmccarthy

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