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The Strait of Hommus; there's more to the Persian Gulf war than geopolitics, a report from the scene.

The Strait of Hommus

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates--The shipping agent from Bombay lowers his teacup and whispers. "I know a vessel that leaves the Gulf tonight," he says. "From the Dubai Creek at three. If there is no Iranian trouble, you will reach the Strait of Hormuz after dawn."

Outside his office, along the creek that winds through Dubai and into the Persian Gulf, Iranian traders are unloading pistachios and Persian carpets, ferried illicitly from Bandar Abbas. Outgoing sailors pile their teakwood dhows with Marlboros, Levis, and Panasonic boom boxes for the 12-hour return to Iran.

"You have never met me and do not know my name," says the agent, who traffics this night in contraband reporter. "I do this for you only, as a favor." He nods his head toward the door.

I have come to Dubai like a thousand other journalists to see the war firsthand. It is here, in an oil-rich port 50 miles from Iranian territory, where shellshocked supertankers limp in for repairs. It is in Dubai, too, that television networks rent helicopters for $2,000 an hour, to hover above the water for shots of Iranian speedboats and burning oil rigs.

But at the creek in Dubai, there is another Persian Gulf, one that doesn't often appear in nightly newscasts or geopolitical thinking. Each night, a workday fleet of fishing trawlers, traders, and supply boats jostle for moorings between shifts on the open water. Every war has them, little people, caught in the crossfire. I joined a supply boat carrying dried goods to ships off the coast of Fujairah. Through the eyes of the crew the conflict looks completely different.

The dockside customs official weighs my passpor and visa in his hand, barely glancing at their contents. "Your papers, I think maybe they are not in order," he says, looking as if he might bite one corner to test for counterfeit.

I force a smile. "Perhaps I have cause some inconvenience by arriving at this late hour." Flowery language is the Muzak of Arab officialdom. "Gertain arrangements of a financial kind can...."

"...Please, no," the man says, his face wrinkling in disgust. Here in the world's wealthiest nation, even to offer a bribe is insulting. He waves toward the water.

The Bombay agent's boat is a 65-foot workhorse, snub-nosed and broad across the beam. On the deck stands a muscular young Indian with curry on his breath. "I am Lawrence of Goa," he says. "Do not be afraid. The captain knows where the mines are. Maybe," Captain Kochrekar, a fine-boned man with long black curls, sits crosslegged before the wheel. Still chewing on Lawrence's "maybe," I ask him about the danger of traveling through the Gulf at night. "Wherever there is lightness there is also dark," he says in a lilting Indian accent. "A man must make his own map for the shadows." Lawrence of Goa unties the boat and Captain Kochrekar steers us toward the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf. Neon Arabic blinks from the buildings lining the Dubai Creek. Offshore terminals blink back. Then we are swallowed up by the night. Kochrekar navigates without lights. The Gulf isn't the sort of place where anyone wants to attract attention.

Workers caught in war

Not that there is much of an audience. Except for a lonely coast guard patrol boat sweeping past us in the dark and a few container ships at anchor, we sight no other traffic for the first two hours at sea.

But the quiet is deceptive. Gunboats and rockets pose little danger to Kochrekar's craft, an Arab-owned supply boat that provisions oil tankers with spare parts, fresh crews, and food. It is mines strewn indiscriminately across the shipping lanes that threaten destruction. "A mine is like a snake," Kochrekar says, studying the dark water through binoculars. "It does not think before striking."

The captain's engineer, Jesudasyn, studies a nautical map while munching a chapati. The chart shows a legion of penciled circles stretching from Dubai to the Hormuz Strait. Each dot marks a mine the crew spotted before.

"What would happen to this boat if it hit a mine?"

"Like this," Jesudasyn says, brushing crumbs from his trouser leg.

I decide to add my own eyes to the night watch. There is a momentary flare as gas burns off at a distant oilfield, then black sea and black sky stretching all the way to Iran. We could be sailing through an inkwell.

Kochrekar tells me that on his last trip south another supply boat exploded a few hundred yards ahead of him. He ended up lifting a corpse from the sea. "The man was not broken but he was swollen with water, like a fish," he says. The rest of the crew came ashore in ieces.

The plight of Kochrekar and his crew is made more cruel by their not being a party to the Iran-Iraq war. Like most Gulf proletarians, they were carried here in the subcontinental drift that swept millions of Indians and Pakistanis to oil-rich Arabian shores. At the oil boom's peak, "guest workers" in the United Arab Emirates outnumbered native five to one.

But the relationship has always been one of economic convenience, which is now being threatened by falling oil prices and by the tanker war. Already, Iran and Iraq have sunk more than a third of the total merchant tonnage sunk in World War II. Most of the 300-plus human casualties have been Korean, Indian, Filipino, and Pakistani, including one Indian mechanic killed in November by American Navy fire.

"I chose the sea because it is a peaceful place," says Kochrekar, a fifth-generation seaman who sailed from his native Bombay 30 years ago. =It this is, what do you call it? I think it is Russia Roulette."

To Lawrence of Goa it is mostly tedium. While his mates stand watch in the wheelhouse, he shalls crabs in the cabin, peppering them from spice jars labeled Tang, Nescafe, and Super Chunky Peanut Butter. When he isn't stirring curry, Lawrence adds to an already epic-length letter to his wife in Goa, on India's west coast. He pauses to show me a snapshot of his sari-clad bride, standing in what looks like a tropical paradise of white sand, blue water, and waving palm trees.

I ask him what he has to write about these long empty nights at sea. "Nothing," he says. "So I write how I love her and how I count the days until we be together in Goa again."

Today's count is 210.

The crew's salary--$900 a month, plus board--is far more than what they'd earn in Bombay. But the men squirrel their pay away for the three months they spend each year with their families in India. When docked in Dubai, they sleep in bunk beds on the boat, cook curry in the cabin, and watch Indian movies on their VCR. It is as if they've never really come ashore.

"I am not interested in these Arabs," says Jesudasyn, a sturdy Tamil from Madras. "Only in their money."

Economically at the bottom of Gulf society, the Indians consider themselves morally and culturally superior. "We are not so barbaric as this," Jesudasyn says, showing me a news clip from Dubai about an Arab man who has two wives and 32 children--and wants more of both. Even more contemptible, the crewmen feel, is the Islamic law that permits Arab men to shed their wives by saying "I divorce thee" three times in succession. "In India a man and woman are one until the funeral pyre," Kochrekar says.

At daybreak, the Guld becomes a whitish haze, and we churn across it as if through a giant bowl of milk. As the mist clears, the water turns a brilliant cobalt blue, the color a child paints the ocean.

And the water remains astonishingly empty. The Gulf of nightly news clips is a cluttered bathtub, with tankers and warships packed so tightly they barely have room for incoming Exocets. The reality is an azure expanse almost twice the size of New York State. There are a lot more sea turtles than frigates.

Battleships and fisherman

Supertankers, some the length of several football fields, are indecently exposed in waters so open. It is not surprising, then, that when a morning rush hour finally forms on the horizon, the tankers are bunched in convoys of three and four and tailed by battleships bristling with cannon and radar. It reminds me of walking to kindergarten with my older brother.

"This is the U.S. warship 993," crackles the party line on Kochrekar's radio. "Ship on starboard, please identify yourself, and what is your intention?"

Nearby, a more collegial show-and-tell is in progress. "British warship this is Soviet warship. Thank you for identifying yourself. We wish you a bon voyage."

"Cheers, captain," a toffish voice replies. "A safe journey to you and your crew."

But the Tennessee drawl on warship 993 is still questioning its starboard stranger. "Who are you and what is your intention?"

There is an ominous silence. Then a high-pitched cackle fills the airwaves. "It's the Fil-i-peeno Mon-key! Who wants some Fil-i-peeno ba-NAN-a?"

Kochrekar laughs. The voice, he explains, belongs to a renegade radio hacker, code-named Filipino Monkey, who likes to break in at tense moments with obscenities and animal noises.

"It's the Mon-KEEEEE!" the voice shrieks again. "Come and get my ba-NAAAAAAN-a!"

Shippers have been trying to trace the Monkey for three years, without success. "You see, even in wartime a man can find laughter," Kochrekar says, turning off the radio.

The tension on board has eased with the passing of night. By day, a mine should be obvious at 100 yards or more Kochrekar even lets me take the wheel while he goes below for breakfast.

Playing captain proves much more difficult than it appears. I point toward an island on the horizon, but the bow keeps bobbing, like a compass needle. By the time Kochrekar returns, I'm trying to pull us out of a skid straight at the Iranian coast.

"You must let no current move you from the path you have chosen," he says, taking the wheel. It occurs to me that no matter how simple, Kochrekar's statements seem lifted from the Upanishads.

Jesudasyn's inspiration comes from the Bible. A recent Christian convert, he spends the morning reading aloud from a fundamentalist text written in Tamil. The cover shows a crowd of copper-colored sinners, moving towards a burning pyre. Only a few emerge from the flames to ascend towards a shimmering crown.

"I do not understand these Christian gods," Kochrekar confides as Jesudasyn mumbles in Tamil. "But it makes no difference. Each man must find his own map for the lightness and the dark."

It is midday when Kochrekar shakes me awake at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. He knows this is the highlight of his passenger's journey. Like any location that has been in the news too long, the Gulf--and the Strait in particular--is angling for some kind of record in the cliche stakes. During a typical week last fall, I read that the U.S. is Engulfed and All at Sea and Steering into Rough Water because Iran might mine the Oil Chokepoint, Straitjacker It, Turn Off the Tap on the Free World's Energy Lifeline. The Strait of Hommus, one colleague calls it. I must see the real thing before I drown in the metaphorical one.

What I find, staring into the midday sun, is a seasnake slithering past our bow and a dolphin poking its nose above water. The rugged cliffs of Oman rise on one side of the channel, the softer hills of Iran are shrouded in haze on the other. And the 49 miles between are an untroubled stretch of aquamarine.

A long, grey supertanker crawls through the Strait, spitting water and belching black smoke. Silhouetted against it is a wooden Omani fishing dhow, with a broad white sail and upturned prow, like a miniature Viking ship. As I watch through binoculars, six men in white robes and turbans drape hand-held lines in the water, calmly reeling in one red snapper after another. The men are smilling. "At night they burn paper fires so other ships won't run them over," Kochrekar says. Otherwise, the fishermen carry on as they have for centuries, oblivious to mines and missiles.

When I look through binoculars again, the boat has moved off and all I see is a flash of white robes and red fish against blue water. It is the most contented vision of labor I have ever clapped eyes on. Stepping onto the deck, the breeze tastes fresh and salty, the sun is warm and soothing. The Gulf looks clear enough to drink. seagull circles overhead. And I feel a sudden urge to go swimming in The World's Most Dangerous Waterway.

There is a shout from the wheelhouse. I turn around to find Jesudasyn pointing at the water, just ahead. Kochrekar swings the wheel and Lawrence rushes to the rail to peer over the edge. A circle of light flashes in the water, just off our port bow.

"My God!" Lawrence cries. The boat is directly over it now. "Sardines! Thousands of them! Oh what I'd give for a net!"

We come ashore in Fujairah at dusk, just as a small Fleet of fishing dhows heads out to sea. I duck below when the Coast Guard appears and again as the harbormaster steers us into port.

The men tie up at the dock and settle in for another evening aboard their odd little capsule. Lawrence starts a fresh round of curry. Jesudasyn flicks through a collection of videos and chooses The Ten Commandments. In eight hours, they will take on supplies and head back to sea to service oil tankers off Fujairah.

"Next time we meet in Goa, with my beautiful wife," Lawrence says, offering me some incendiary curry.

Kochrekar is sitting crosslegged in the cabin again, studying charts beneath a 20-watt bulb. I point at the weak light and he smiles. "Tomorrow there will be more shadows!"

There is much dark and little lightness as I walk away from the water. Ahead lies a low concrete hut marked "Immigration," then the long trip overland to the journalists' ghetto in Dubai. It has been a peaceful day on the water.

I turn to watch the sun sink into the Gulf. In the gathering dark, the sea and sky wash together in a canvas of blue. Then the last bit of light drains away. And one by one the fishing boats ignite their paper flames, fanning out like fireflies across the night.
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Author:Horwitz, Tony
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1988
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