Bandar Abbas smells of fish, and of sticky dates, of scented melon and ripe tomatoes. By ten a.m. rivers of sweat flow down from our foreheads, and the scarf keeps the heat stuck to my neck. I resist with visible discomfort the will to rip the clothes off my warmed up skin and dip into the sea, to lift the long skirt and let some breeze flow. But the calls of “Hey Mister” singing as a cacophony from every corner remind us we are always watched, and that I should not, that I must not, that it would not be wise. So I re-comfort my itchy mind with the thought that this veil prevents sun-burn. And we walk into the covered streets of the bazaar, searching for some shadowy relief.
The first lane of shops is inhabited by men in all sorts of attires, selling home-ware and electrical appliances that have crossed the seas despite the sanctions. A level deeper, fabrics fall down like curtains over the shop displays, offering Bandari women their colourful wears. We walk a bit further, looking for fruits and dates, and the alleys become a carnival of floating synthetics and shiny gardens, where we are met by curious glances of women under bright masks – different versions of the south iranian burqa. They look at us (strangers with burnt skin and with funny rasta hair), and we look at them trying to spot the brown colour of the eyes behind the disguises of black frames (the masks from these region) or red embroideries (from the east of Hormozgan), the latter looking more interesting for our crafts search. Some women, with covered heads and mouths complement their looks with a mysterious piece, a rigid rectangle of machine-embroidered red cloth that marks their features with a hump at the nose line. They sell lumps of sugar, oranges, bread or fine samples of fresh fish, while sucking their nargileh in between one customer and the next.
Who are these women? What do the threads and sequins conceal? Some of them say they are Bandari, others come from Queshm Island and a few from the nearby region of Baluchistan – a mix that reflects the actual melting pot of Bandari people and the confuses us over the geographic origin of the burqa that we thought was local. But borders are not stitched with cotton thread over the land, and the mask seems to have travelled all along the Gulf coast of the country. The limited research we can access on the go speaks of many places, of types of mask and various histories, making us doubt whether it was from Oman or from Qatar that this vogue came from, or even pointing out that the Portuguese might have brought it in their imperial ships. We learn that indeed the masks can tell a lot about each woman – her ethnic origin, her town and even her religious faith being woven into its shape and colour. The thinner black and golden mask from Queshm is traditional fom this part of the region, but the heavier and embroidered red mask from the east looks more common among the market folk – at least today.
Although in theory some of the masks are not of islamic origin, they seems to fit pretty easily within the trends of the locally imposed hijab. While I complain with gestures about the heat, the ladies reassure us that their garment is a sort of old-times suncream, while pointing at my peeling skin in a critical manner. Aided by signs and improvised translation they tell us that the hands that make the pretty red masks live in Minab, a nearby town to the east, and that we won’t find makers in this bazaar, but can get some samples a few corridors down the road. We follow a cat leading to other ladies that display curious underwear next to their conservative apparel, and they giggle while tying a mask on my covered head. It sits well, clamped behind my ears, but I can barely breathe and even less believe in the comfort of their outfit.
However, the pretty patterns and unmatchingly colourful dresses with which the Bandari ladies adorn this market give me a feeling of celebration – an everyday carousel of women hidden in rainbow patterns that contrast with the blackness of chadors walking the streets in other cities, with the shades of dark worn by university students, with the ironed manteaus of the city folk and the layers of make up with which the Iranian women conceal and reveal their beauty across the country.
Note: All women in these photos consented to being photographed. When tanybody rejected we did not use any zoom to capture them. And we would like to recommend other travellers to establish contact with the people they would like to keep memories of – as a matter of respect and as the best way to avoid making others become postcard objects. Happy encounters!