In Arab port, Iranian dhows unload rugs, dates, and draft dodgers

Portable televisions. Automatic ``twin tub'' washing machines. Sacks of sugar from Thailand and long-grain rice from Texas. Boxes of auto parts. Chinese tires. And cases of Pepsi-Cola. The quayside of ``the Creek'' that bisects this bustling port city is a fascinating example of the idiosyncracies of consumerism in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But it is more than that. The Creek is virtually a slice of Iran on the Arab side of the Gulf where Persian sailors and merchants have come for generations to bargain and barter and trade.

Despite Arab-Persian tension almost everywhere else in the Gulf region and acute foreign-exchange shortages in Iran, Dubai remains a large-scale, open-air department store for the Islamic Republic, which ultimately receives more than 70 percent of the port's total transshipment cargo. It remains a free-trade zone of ideas as well, where the region's ethnic, religious, and political conflicts take a back seat to commerce.

As one Iranian trader put it: ``There aren't any politics in Dubai at all. Everybody is too busy with their work and making money.''

And it all revolves around The Creek.

Each month, more than 270 wooden dhows from ports all along the Iranian coast sail up the narrow waterway.

The dhows, which range in length from 60 feet to more than 200 feet, are of the same hand-made teakwood design as the sail-powered versions that plied Gulf waters centuries ago. Today, the dhows are fitted with diesel engines, though the steering is still by a rudder rigged to a ship's wheel through a crude system of ropes and pulleys.

It is an 18-hour trip to Dubai from Bandar Abbas, Iran's large port on the Strait of Hormuz. And it takes more than 65 hours to reach Dubai from Iran's northern port of Bushehr. There are no immigration officers, no fences, no required visas. The dhows tie up, literally, in downtown Dubai. On the open wharf in front of the Bank Melli Iran building they unload Iranian pistachios, peanuts, dates, occasional smuggled Persian carpets, and the latest clandestine cargo: draft dodgers.

``Can you help me get a visa to America?,'' asks a 22-year-old Iranian who arrived here secretly 18 months ago. In that time he has acquired a good job and a Pakistani passport.

He is sitting jammed in the wheelhouse of an Iranian dhow with five crew members and the captain who puffs non-stop on a smoldering hookah. Traditional hot tea is served from a thermos. But when the crew learns an American is aboard, the wheelhouse suddenly falls silent. Several men look surprised and angry.

``America wants to take the whole Gulf into its power and hold all the oil for the United States,'' an Iranian sailor complains. He adds quickly, ``But the Iranian people will never let them do it.''

``War, war until victory ,'' chants another, shaking his fist in the air. Each of the sailors, all in their late 20s or early 30s, served in the Iranian Army on the warfront with Iraq. Two of them have substantial scars to document their service.

The Iranian people have nothing against the American people, a crew member says. It is the government of Ronald Reagan that is causing trouble for Iran in the Gulf. ``Reagan is the ambassador of the Pentagon,'' explains the 22-year-old Iranian, who later asked if a month-long tourist visa would permit him enough time in New York to meet and marry a US citizen.

Iranians in Dubai say a steady number of crew members opt to remain here when their dhow sails for Iran. They note that in wartime Iran it is difficult to find work, and doubly difficult without a government-issued identification card verifying past military service.

There are no such requirements in Dubai. ``A lot of people come to Dubai to work for two to three years and earn a lot of money before going back,'' says an Iranian merchant. ``It is just like the Vietnam war when everyone was running to Canada to avoid going to Vietnam,'' he says.

On neighboring dhows, crew members assemble on the wide decks for the midday prayer. They stand, hands folded before them, in quiet contemplation facing west toward Mecca. Others continue loading cargo. Small men in bare feet carry 50-kilogram (110-pound) sacks of rice on their backs from the quay over a wobbly plank and across several decks to the appropriate dhow. Only the largest cargoes, such as cars or heavy machinery, are lowered into the boats by cranes.

While in port, members of the crew work, eat, and sleep on the dhow's open deck. Toilet facilities are spartan: a two- to three-foot-tall wooden crate, with a hole in the bottom, is lashed in place and overhangs the stern.

A dhow captain may wait in Dubai between a week and six weeks to arrange a return cargo to an Iranian port. During that time, if they aren't needed to load, crew members congregate on board, telling stories and talking for hours over numerous cups of tea. They are also free to walk and shop in Dubai's maze-like ``souk'' or market.

At any given time there are several hundred dhows steaming in the Gulf. The heaviest traffic crisscrosses the southern waters, the same deep-water corridor used by foreign warships for their escort and convoy missions.

Several Iranian captains tell of close approaches by US military helicopters, apparently to ensure the dhow wasn't a disguised attack craft of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

``We don't have any problem with the navy when they see that our boat is not going to come close to them,'' says the captain of a dhow from an Iranian village on the Strait of Hormuz. He adds that when his entering Iranian waters the dhow is routinely met and checked by the Iranian Navy which also keeps a close watch on traffic in the strait.

As a matter of policy, the Iranian authorities forbid dhows to be equipped with two-way radio equiptment and modern radar. Most captains couldn't afford elaborate navigation and communications equipment anyway. For whatever reason, dhows at sea remain out of touch with vessels around them until they are close enough to hear shouted instructions or warnings.

The lack of radio equipment may become a significant problem as Iran, in yet another apparent shift in tactics, is reported to be using fishing boats to carry out attacks on shipping in the southern Gulf.

On Nov. 1, an Indian fisherman was killed in the southern Gulf when a US warship fired ``warning shots'' in its direction. The small fishing boat had no radio and was trying to return to port at the time.

The only noticible change in the way dhows operate has come in response to a different threat. As standard procedure now, a crew member is stationed at the bow at all times to keep a look out for mines.

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