Pictures: Kerman Province, Iran

All Photographs Copyright © Ben McKechnie 2010

The Lake Van Ferry – Eastward bound: Part One

“Come to dance, my friend… yes, yes. You there! Now to dance!”

The seating lounge is becoming a sea of hijab. Women everywhere are preparing for entry to the Islamic Republic as though there was an Iranian intelligence agent on board. Justified or just paranoid? Five hours of pleasant cruising lie ahead before anyone really needs to cover up.

The man imploring me to dance is the ship’s owner and possibly the informer the women are afraid of. They nervously glance in his direction and wince each time he barks. Anyone that accepts his invitation to dance could be photographed doing so and reported to the Iranian morality police. I’ll keep my entrapment hunch quiet for now and concentrate on avoiding his attention.

His hands are the size of bear cubs and could burst my head like a plump blister. My travelling companions sitting to my left appear to be exempt from his harassment. His attention is only on me. This has been a recurring theme on my travels. What about me arouses the attention of sadists? Whatever it is, his persistence makes it hard to keep pretending that I can’t hear him.

Not long ago one of his subordinates pressed play on an ageing CD player unleashing a frenetic wave of Middle-Eastern dance beats over the audience. I look up – mistake – his eyes are now locked to mine. Like a sheep in a tractor beam, I’m rising slowly from my seat. I plead at the others to join me but they’re examing the floral pattern on the carpet like labotomy patients. His paws clamp around my wrists, no backing out now for sure. A last ditch attempt to lure Shirazi school director Maisam up to the front with me is in progress, but his eyes are beaming back a message that this experience is no one’s but mine. It will be a priceless moment. There’s nothing to fear, they seem to say.

I’m dumped in front of one hundred men, women and children, inside a spotlit circle that I suppose marks the spot where I am to perform. Lights are being dimmed around the room making heads buried in books have no choice but to look up. Everyone here – looking at me, studying me – the bass surrounding me, invading every orifice and vibrating my internal organs.

He hand picks two Iranian women and brings them to the front. They look genuinely terrified at the prospect of dancing with me. At least the playing field is even in that respect. The orchestrator of this display is obscenely animated. He’s barking dance related orders in an effort to get us moving, while all the time clapping his hands and shaking the top half of his torso like an obese, balding belly dancer on amphetamines.

No one in the audience is clapping along. People look fidgety and nervous. Here’s a curious thought. What if I can feed off their apathetic vibes and channel them into something resembling a hint of confidence? They are palpably expecting very little of me. In fact, they couldn’t lower their expectations any more if they tried. I’m never going to see these people again, so to hell with it, let’s go!

A few people begin to clap. It’s an awkward, out of time clap like Koreans clapping along to Happy Birthday – if you’ve never heard that then you haven’t lived – but it is lifting the atmosphere. I’m nodding my head to every second beat and clapping too. Buying some time while I figure out what to do next. The two hijab ladies are facing each other to dance which leaves me edging towards them like an asteroid heading for earth – in that I’m either about to cause some serious dancefloor damage or break up upon entry.

I’m noting their every move in the hope that a little of their exotic Middle Eastern style – which to an outsider seems to involve a comical over-use of the arms – rubs off on me. Any second now I’ll bust out with it, I can feel it brewing up inside my chest like a dark storm cloud on the verge of shedding its load. I hope it’s that and not a heart attack. Their arms are raised high above their heads, each one moving independently of the other, hands forming shapes like birds’ heads. You can just look at their hands and ignore the rest. Squint and you can imagine two pairs of flamingos locked into an intense mating ritual. I think I’m ready to show my feathers.

My shoulders are convulsing, arms flailing and mouth grimacing into an idiot grin. Lights and teeth flash, beats and hearts thump, the ladies won’t turn to dance with me but that doesn’t stop me from trying to infiltrate their personal space. I’ve done this more times than I care to remember in clubs around the world and it usually ends in rejection. I’m thinking tonight will be no exception but one of the women, the shorter and more nervous of the two, goes to sit down, leaving me alone with the more gregarious one. She’s got a bright pink and purple headscarf – in direct contrast to the absconder’s mud brown veil – what does this even mean?

I’m staring into her eyes and she into mine. I have no idea what is appropriate in this situation. Should we inch closer? Is her husband watching me, ready to pounce if I overstep an unknown fine line? The mere thought brings waves of self-consciousness flooding to me. Am I thrusting my hips too much? I am definitely thrusting my hips too much. Of course, she is not. Without realising, I’ve switched from my attempt at an Iranian style to something straight out of a hip-hop music video. This deeply conservative corner of the world requires that I switch back immediately.

I wipe my brow and look into the crowd to find two or three couples slapping each other on the arms, pointing at me, throwing their heads back and letting rip with laughter. I’m just relieved to be getting some kind of reaction. Over in the corner where I left my companions, I can see Tom and Seb fist-pumping the air and shouting encouragement. Anna is laughing and shaking her head. I take a bow and return to my seat, fighting the urge to offer an apology to the families in the room.

“Maisam. Be honest. How did I do?”

“Well Ben, it certainly was interesting. I’m thinking you’re new to the Persian style!”

I get the feeling I’ll be familiar with it soon enough. Before I’ve time to think, the ship owner is back with renewed resolve in his eyes, scanning the audience like a terminator and once more straying too close for comfort. What could be the benefit of dragging me up for another round – if only to satisfy his insatiable need for human suffering? I’ve just answered my own question. I look away, open bag, root around, find nothing, panic, sit on hands, feign narcolepsy – and it seems to have worked. He lunges straight past me and seizes an old Iranian man by the wrist. Using Bruno and the Americans for comparison, I’d place him at seventy-six. Despite his age, he’s perfectly capable of defending himself against his tormentor, but to my surprise he leaps into the air laughing. It’s as though he can’t wait to blitz the dance floor. His skin is tanned a golden brown, his full head of white hair is bouffant and his energy levels are reminiscent of a Border Collie. He is the archetypal advert for a life-long Mediterranean diet. Except he’s from Iran. Perhaps the place is full of old men like him. Do Iranians love to dance? Only time will tell.

The crowd is warming up from their rigamortis. The ageing Persian stops by my side and tugs me from my seat with a smile so white it could dazzle a fox. The recently administered endorphins stop my heart from sinking. He must want to teach me a thing or two about Persian dancing. Time seems to slow down as he looks into my eyes. As with Maisam, I can feel some message being communicated. He can tell I’m uneasy but just go with it. I’ll guide you. Is this some ancient Persian art of telepathy?

I don’t feel the slightest bit nervous any more. Adrenalin in my veins has been replaced by tingling on the back of my head. I’m ready to get back up and learn from a master. Breathing in deeply, I let myself go.