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Dancing strictly sitting down

In Iran's tourist showpiece, not quite anything goes

By CNN's Hala Gorani

Gorani (right) with "Inside the Middle East" producer Schams ElWazer on their arrival in Tehran.
Middle East

KISH Island, Iran (CNN) -- I had slipped into my black abaya and headscarf on the plane to comply with the Islamic Republic's dress code from the moment I entered Iran.

On the tarmac at Tehran, and despite the early morning hour -- it was 2 a.m. -- the heat was stifling and an extra layer of synthetic fabric was the last thing I wanted to wear.

I was in Iran filming for the latest edition of CNN's "Inside the Middle East," which airs Friday, October 1.

Iran is among the three countries U.S. President George W. Bush refers to as the "axis of evil" -- a phrase the American leader coined in his 2002 State of the Union address that only added to the diplomatic bitterness between the two countries.

Recent disputes over Iranian nuclear sites and the war in Iraq certainly haven't helped relations.

So, as the holder of a U.S. passport, I am routinely targeted for special treatment at the immigration desks of countries like Iran.

This time, all the while smiling and remaining courteous, customs officers led me to a back office and fingerprinted my 10 fingers and both palms.

I was later told that Iran fingerprints U.S. citizens because America fingerprints Iranian travelers on arrival in U.S. airports. A bit of customs tit-for-tat, it seems.

I officially entered the Islamic Republic of Iran with black hands (there was nothing to wipe my hands with) and the lost look of someone in a completely foreign land.

I quickly found my translator and drove off with him to the Homa Hotel, one of Tehran's tired-looking luxury hotels that used to belong to the Sheraton group before the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Our "Inside the Middle East" crew was not given filming permission on the Iranian mainland. We were to fly to the vacation resort of Kish the next day: the only location in Iran, it seems, that officials were happy for us to film.

Freer - but not quite easier

Kish is an island south of the Iranian mainland in the Persian Gulf. I was told it was a freer, more open version of the Iranian mainland.

Indeed at the airport, there was a live Western-style band welcoming passengers, something that is technically illegal in the Islamic Republic. There was a man dressed as a big bunny to amuse the kids.

Kish Island's dress and behavior codes are more relaxed -- shown by this couple together on a jetski.

But the dress code for women was barely different. I could show a bit more hair, but not much. And the 45 degree heat and 100 percent humidity on the island made any extra layer of clothing almost unbearable.

Two million people and billions of dollars left Iran after the revolution in 1979. Kish authority officials are hoping to attract some of them and their money back to the free-trade-zone island.

For Iranian nationals, there are several tax-free malls with Western products that are either difficult or impossible to find on the mainland. From Fruit Loops cereal boxes to Moulinex kettles, it's all there.

Iranian nationals are given a tax-free allowance of goods to take back home. About 1.3 million Iranians come to the island every year, and officials here want to increase that number to 2 million.

In Kish, there is no morality police. There are female mannequins in the shop windows with uncovered heads, which is not allowed in shops in Tehran.

Hot dog stands

There are coffee shops and hot dog stands that wouldn't look out of place in a European shopping center. The women push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable with smaller, more colorful hijabs that barely cover their heads.

I spoke to Myriam and her veil-free 12-year-old daughter in the mall.

"Here, she can wear what she wants. That's why she likes it here," Myriam says.

On the mainland, the Islamic Republic requires all girls over the age of 9 to cover up from head to toe.

And although alcohol is illegal, I am told that all I have to do is ask for it, and it could be delivered to my hotel room within a few hours.

Two years ago, the first five-star hotel opened in Kish. The Dariush Grand is an enormous complex built in the image of the ancient city of Persepolis in southern Iran. It smacks more of pre-revolution grandeur than stern Islamic Republic.

There is more freedom in Kish, without a doubt -- but not enough, according to some. Almost everyone I spoke to criticized the status quo in the Islamic regime. Some would do it in a subtle manner; others would openly call the ayatollahs crooks.

Having spent much time in Arab countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia and Syria, where openly criticizing the government can mean a considerable period of time in jail, I knew this was something powerful.

When I told Iranians in the UK about how openly some were critical of their own Islamic government, I was told that, in recent years, there is less fear of honestly slamming the regime.

Live pop music

In a country of 70 million, with a crushing majority under the age of 30, some observers wonder how long the current system can last without being challenged in some way.

During my stay, I visited one of the island's restaurants, where guests are allowed to enjoy live pop music in public. Some patrons hide their faces, uncomfortable being filmed while on a fun night out, but 27-year-old Hamed tells me why he likes Kish.

Men and women riding bicycles together show the freer lifestyle on Kish Island.

"Everywhere else, they catch you. Here, you have a little bit more freedom," he says.

Dancing is outlawed in Iran, so guests have an interesting way of moving to the music: arms up in the air, torso undulating, fingers snapping, while staying solidly seated in their chairs.

On the beach, men and woman are segregated. Females can wear the skimpiest bikinis on their beach, as long as men steer clear. There are big signs written in fat red letters -- "NO MEN ALLOWED" -- at the entrance to women's beaches.

"We're aware of the limitations," said Bezhad Shenandeh of the Kish Free Trade Organization, "but you have to work within the Iranian context."

He added that their immediate goal was to attract more Iranian expats, not too bothered with the republic's stringent interpretation of Islamic law, rather than Westerners who might find the stringent rules too difficult to deal with while on holiday.

Shopping festival

Officials were eager for us to film an outdoor music concert, complete with a raffle competition to win a car. There was a DJ who played club music, an MC on a big stage facing a parking lot filled with hundreds of seated men and women clapping to the music, live singing acts, even a fireworks display.

The open-air party was to celebrate the end of a two-month shopping festival. Often suffering from an image problem abroad, the Iranian government seemed intent on having us tell the world that this is a much more laid-back country than some in the world might believe. Perhaps it's a desire to counter-balance the daily trickle of stories on Iran's nuclear head-to-head with the West?

Kish is hoping that the British bank Standard Chartered will open an office on the island soon. It would be the first foreign lender to operate in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

Authorities there say this would help outside money trickle back into the country, helping tourism projects and trade between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the region.

The hope, for some at least, is to test things out on the island to determine how well they might work within the existing set of rules that govern the rest of the country.

"Kish has become a model, a pioneer," adds Bazhad Shenandeh, "And this is a place where things are tested and if it fits within the context of the regulations, then things could move onto the mainland."

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