Entering the shipyard is like stepping back into the Old Testament, with a wooden Noah’s Ark standing before you. Situated in the Iranian port of Gouran on Qeshm, the largest island in the Persian Gulf, this is the last place where a traditional wooden cargo boat known as the Lenj is still constructed. In a region dominated by gleaming skyscrapers and soulless modern developments, this practice harks back to an age-old way of life. The Bandari locals here still wear traditional dress, live in houses cooled by badgirs (wind towers) and build boats by hand, plank by plank, without blueprints.
Qeshm itself, situated at the narrowest part of the Straits of Hormuz, is a geological wonder. As well as pretty beaches, canyons, hills, caves and valleys, it has mangrove swamps that have acted as a natural breakwater for Gouran for 900 years. While the island’s other dockyards now concentrate on the repairs and maintenance of older Lenjes or have switched to cheaper fibre-glass construction that requires less time and skilled craftsmanship, the yard at Gouran seems to have survived against the economic odds.
Yet continuing this tradition of shipbuilding has not been easy, particularly as the international economic boycott of Iran almost tripled the cost of wood and engines. The owner of the shipyard, Ali Pouzan, an Iranian in his forties who lives in Gouran, hopes for better times after economic and trade sanctions were lifted at the beginning of this year.
Another challenge has been the sharp decline in the number of people with the knowledge to build and maintain a Lenj. Currently 10 Pakistani carpenters from Islamabad in the Punjab work for Pouzan. They each come for a period of four years, earning about €1,000 a year. Staying at the yard’s workshop near a cemetery behind a mosque, they live in a communal room with their few meagre belongings and some blankets on the floor.
A new Lenj will cost between €300,000 and €500,000, depending on its size. Each one takes two years to build, such is the care and detail of the craftsmanship. Different kinds of wood are needed for the various components — tropical teak for the hull, for instance, is imported from Burma, India and Africa as Qeshm is a desert island where no trees grow.
The shipyard’s superintendent is an old man from Gouran, who seems to know where to find any kind of wood in the chaos around the boats. We also meet the master carpenter, Ghafoor Ahmed, currently unable to work because his right eye is infected by a splinter of wood. There is no form of health or income insurance provided for the workers here, nor any union or co-operative to defend their interests or to protect them.
Shipping and shipbuilding are ancient traditions in the Persian Gulf. Qeshm had a strong reputation for trade and navigation long before the introduction of Islam and, in Iran, there are still many Lenj boats being used for fishing, by pearl divers and for trade. Originally, Lenjes were used for long distances (between India and Africa, for example), but now embark on shorter journeys in the Persian Gulf for trade between Dubai and Oman and the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Everything from dates, fish and sheep to electronics and textiles are transported by Lenj.
Not all the cargo is legal, however, as smuggling is the biggest commercial activity on Qeshm. At night you can observe feverish activity on the waterfront, where men swiftly bring small boats ashore. In broad daylight at Loft, the largest port on the island, we see electronics of all kinds being unloaded from speedboats, and pick-ups coming and going with refrigerators, TVs and computers. Qeshm has been a tax-free zone since 1990, which was a way of partly legitimising the smuggling.
We stay for a night at the house of Assad, who smiles when asked what his father did for a living: “He was a smuggler, like my grandfather. Qeshm has always been a smugglers’ island.” His brother is currently away on the family’s Lenj. “He is on a journey to Dubai with our Lenj full of sheep,” explains Assad. “He will be back the day after tomorrow — luckily the weather is good, otherwise the sheep would be sea sick.”
The knowledge of sailing a Lenj was traditionally passed down from father to son. Sailors navigated by the sun, moon and stars, using special formulae to calculate latitudes and longitudes, as well as water depth. Each wind was given a name, which, along with the colour of the water or the height of the waves, was used to help forecast the weather. Journeys were planned based on the seasonal winds that blow from north to south in the region for six months of the year. Specific songs were also sung to mark the rhythm of work on board.
Today, traditional techniques are still practised alongside modern ones. Sailors write on their compasses the names of the 17 stars that have been used for navigation for centuries. Yet it’s the older captains, sailors and fishermen who are keeping these ancient skills alive as a hard life at sea appeals to fewer and fewer young people; on a mountain hike we meet Adil, a young fisherman dreaming of a new job as a mountain guide for tourists.
To many Iranians, Qeshm is now best-known as a shopping paradise. On the car ferry from Bandar Abbas, passengers embark with empty suitcases, ready to be filled with clothes, shoes and electronics from the shopping malls. Small traders also come here to replenish their stock. We encounter a businesswoman heading home with a bundle of textiles to sell in the bazaar at Kerman, one of the largest cities in southeast Iran.
Visitor numbers will be even greater once the 2.2km road-rail Persian Gulf Bridge, linking Qeshm and Bandar Abbas on the mainland, is completed in 2018. This may help traditional Lenj building, since the demand for goods will increase and the supposedly more advanced fibreglass boats transporting merchandise are less durable than the wooden vessels; a Lenj can have a working life of up to 100 years.
Further along the beach of Gouran, we see the annual maintenance of a Lenj. The engine is dismantled and taken to a workshop, the hull is cleaned and gets a new coat of paint. A week later, we see the refreshed boat leave the mangrove bay where is was repaired.
Such is the skill and expertise of the shipbuilders of Qeshm that in 2011 UNESCO added the tradition of Lenj construction to its list of cultural heritage “in need of urgent safeguarding”. While Ali Pouzan’s shipyard survives for now, he tries to remain optimistic. “All my family members and my whole village have been shipbuilders for generations,” he says. “I hope I’m not the last one.”