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The Last Shipbuilders

On Qeshm island, at the narrowest part of the Straits of Hormuz, an ancient ship building tradition survives that is reminiscent of biblical times in its simplicity and workmanship. The Lenj is a traditional wooden boat, made with planks, that has been used in the Persian Gulf for fishing, travel, trade and pearl diving for centuries. With a sharp decline in the number of people with the knowledge of how to construct and maintain a Lenj, UNESCO inscribed the tradition in its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2011. In the village of Gouran, the last shipyard still making traditional Lenjs survives against economic odds. The knowledge of how to make these formidable craft has traditionally been passed down from father to son and Ali Pouzan, the last Lenj Shipbuilder, is determined not to let the illustrious tradition die. Not only is it much more time-consuming to make a Lenj, averaging at about two years. New fibreglass technology in shipbuilding is easier and cheaper and has had a devastating effect on traditional methods. Most of the shipyards on the island now repair older Lenjs and build the new fibreglass boats. Economic sanctions against Iran that were only just lifted in January 2016 also took their toll on Lenj construction, with many parts and engines hard to come by.

Mr Pouzan has 10 Pakistani carpenters working for him. They come to Qeshm on four year contracts and sleep in the workshop behind the local mosque. For their work, they are paid about 1,000 euros a year, with each boat taking about two years to make. A finished boat sells for between 300,000 and 500,000 euros. Qeshm is a desert island without any trees so the wood is imported from as far away as India and Burma, with tropical teak the favoured material for the hull.

The Lenj workers have no insurance or union to fall back on if they are insured or incapacitated and the methods employed in construction have changed little over the centuries.

Shipping and shipbuilding is engrained in the culture of coastal dwellers around the Persian Gulf and Qeshm has for centuries been a hub of trading and navigating knowledge. A full size lenj could easily cover longer distances - between India and Africa - and would sometimes stay at sea for up to a year. These days they ply shorter routes - mainly across the Gulf to Oman and Dubai and on the mainland over to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. They carry fish, sheep, dates, electronics and textiles and not all the trade is properly regulated. The most lucrative activity on Qeshm remains smuggling and in 1990, the Iranian government decided to make the island into a "tax free zone", partly to formalise the import and export of smuggled goods.

Though fibreglass boat have become widespread in the short distance trade around the gulf and traditional methods of navigation have been replaced by modern equipment, many sailors maintain their maritime traditions.

They still write the names of 17 stars used for navigation on their compasses and sing traditional sea-fearing songs. The community of those perpetuating seafaring traditions, however, is shrinking fast and many young people prefer to look for more lucrative jobs.

Qeshm's traditional way of life is threatened in other ways as mainland Iranians flock to the island for shopping, making the most of its tax free status. They arrive with empty suitcases and return with clothes, shoes, cosmetics and electronics. The movement of people between the mainland and Qeshm has become so brisk that the government is planning the construction of a bridge to make the journey easier and quicker.

The hope for the few lenj shipyards still surviving on Qeshm is that the boats durability of up to 100 years will mean that they continue to ply the waves of the Persian Gulf as they have done for centuries.
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