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    Sunday, October 19, 2008

    Ali Reza

    Kish Island, Iran - Saturday, Oct. 18

    At dinner tonight, I found myself thanking the higher power, my foreign editor, that been allowed to study Arabic long enough to at least be able to sound out the Persian-only menu in the hotel restaurant. Arabic and Persian use the same right-to-left script and, even more mercifully, a kebab is still spelled “kebab” in Farsi. A "Beebsee," or Pepsi, was as exciting beverage as I could find to wash it down with (there is no letter P in traditional Arabic script).

    I’d been warned beforehand that many Iranians consider it odd to see someone dining alone, so I was only mildly surprised when a balding middle-aged man soon took one of the empty chairs at my underutilized table for four. In halting English that he’d learned two decades ago while working at a tourist hotel in his home city of Esfahan, he asked me where I came from, and then solemnly introduced himself as Ali Reza, a 50-year-old civil engineer. He was unmarried, and had no children. He liked to ride his bicycle and didn’t smoke. I didn’t ask him about any of this, he just told me one personal fact after another as if he wanted to use every English word he knew right there and then before he forgot any of them.

    Ali is one of the estimated one million Iranian tourists who visit Kish each year, looking for sun and sand and a rare break from the strict Islamic laws in the rest of the country. It’s hardly Sodom or Gomorrah, but Kish is a place where Iranians can breathe a little easier without the religious police monitoring their every action. After dark, young couples cuddle together on the beach in contravention of the mullahs’ restrictions on socializing between unmarried couples. Headscarves are worn often only loosely, and it at least one case I saw, not at all.

    Later, as Ali and I strolled around the hotel gardens past the empty swimming pool, Ali told me that he thought George W. Bush was “a good man” while “our president” (he didn’t name Mr. Ahmedinejad) “is crazy.”

    When I prodded him to explain why, he switched the topic. We were coming to the end of the small path we’d been following and were about to join the much busier boardwalk along the gulf coast. “The weather is very good here,” Ali said loudly and to no one in particular. “No rain.”

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