I spent a good part of the last week in Musandam Peninsula, which is the Arabian prong of the Strait of Hormuz. My real goal in going there was to see Kumzar, which is the outermost inhabited point, on the far side of an island off the peninsula, only 45 kilometers from Iran. Here are a couple of maps for purposes of orientation.
Do you see Kumzar in black at the top of the more detailed map, in one of the island’s inlets? It is isolated, in the strict sense that you only get there by boat, even today. Their oil and water and other necessities all come by boat. And that means it is also a cultural and linguistic island. The language, Kumzari, which is unwritten, is a mish-mash of Farsi, Arabic, and…Portuguese. The Portuguese ruled this coast 400 years ago. Kumzari is a linguistic archeology of this place. I wanted to hear it spoken.
I spent my first day on the peninsula walking (and walking, and walking) in Khasab, on the mainland. Even the small towns here are distinctly unfriendly to pedestrians. Things are not very modern, but they want to be modern, and so everything is designed for cars to use, in anticipation of some suburban future. It is a tiring place to walk around in. So when I saw a “Coffee Shop” appear on an otherwise fairly desolate coastal road, I approached with joy…only to find it closed. There was a group of locals standing around in front of it. I threw up my hands, the universal sign for frustrated coffee desire, and one of them who knew a little English told me he would take me in his car back to the souk where I could have some. He and a friend of his and I got into the car and started talking.
After the usual “where from?” preliminaries, he asked why I was there and I told them I was planning to go to Kumzar the next day. (To get to Kumzar you need to book a private boat all day, a really, really expensive proposition. I had gotten the tour guy down from his starting price of $500, but it was still going to be a lot.) When my new friend heard me say that, he laughed and said, “We are Kumzaris and we are going there tomorrow. You can come with us. There is a wedding.” Then he asked why I wanted to go, and when I said that I really wanted to hear the language, he laughed and said, you can hear it right now, and proceeded to talk with his friend the rest of the way.
Now here are some highly unprofessional phonetic observations. Arabic is a dry language and one has the sense that words tend to be broken up into fairly regularly sized syllables. There is a staccato that is particular to it. Kumzari is much more liquid, and also much more irregular in its tempo. I recognized those long, elegant, slightly undulating A’s of Persian, closer to an O than our A but not an O at all. I was listening hard for the Portuguese, but I have to admit I didn’t hear it. That said, I often find Portuguese (not Brazilian Portuguese but Portuguese Portuguese) pretty hard to pin down anyway.
When he dropped me off he said, “Yes, we meet at the coffee shop where I saw you first time at 9:30 tomorrow and we will go in the boat about 10. You don’t pay me, but we are all day there. OK see you.” I think it’s fair to say that when he drove off he assumed I wouldn’t show up. And to be honest, I wasn’t certain I would, either. Did he really mean it? Wouldn’t I be intruding on the wedding? Should I really cancel the boat I had booked? What if I canceled that and then this fell through? What if his friends weren’t down with it?
Pretty soon, of course, it was settling in my gut that I was going to give it a try. I was being offered a Patrick Leigh Fermor-type experience and there was no way I was going to miss my chance at it. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in Khasab and getting increasingly excited about what the next day would bring.