November 12, 2007

Behind every unique door …

Sean Badal visited the legendary African island and found a place of mystery and history

THE defining moment came not on the white beaches, nor in the middle of the calm ocean, but in the back of a rickety Vietnamese truck with a troop of unwashed Germans.

Outside, it was pelting so hard with rain that the truck was shaking, not to mention being mired in the mud. We were shaking too; with fear. The lush greenery did not look so bucolic anymore.

Then the tarpaulin flap was lifted and a tray thrust inside, covered with what looked like a Basuto hat. A second tray followed. Underneath were thimble-like cups brimming with potent, bitter Arabic coffee. The other tray contained hot, ambrosial doughnuts redolent of cardamom and cloves. Suddenly everything else diminished in significance.

Zanzibar is that kind of place. Unsanitised, it robs you of balance and imposes surrealism instead. And it has been doing so for hundreds of years. Like Damascus, Tashkent, Casablanca, its very name resonates with the mystery of its origins and history.

The travel writer William Dalrymple summed it up when he wrote: In most parts of the world today, the traveller tends to get a sneaky feeling he has arrived too late; in Zanzibar the traveller is rewarded with that rare feeling that for once he has got there in time.

From a distance, the citys profile is stirring, its eclectic mishmash of Arabic, Indian and European architectural styles lending it the air of an ancient city. Turretted fortresses, minarets and spires vie for attention.

Fringing the city are clusters of palm trees swaying in the breeze. It is easy to see why the Omani Arabs moved their capital here from their dry lands. The name Zanzibar is derived from the Arabic phrase Zayn zalbarr, which means fair is this land.

We arrived by plane, but skimming the ocean waves on a dhow at sunset, skirting the edges of the city, was an intensely pleasurable experience. The old dhow harbour still functions at the top wedge of Zanzibars old Stone Town. It is not a gentrified tourist attraction, though. Here, the sights and smells of Zanzibar are encapsulated, their intensity multiplied many times over. In the broiling sun, glistening bodies, naked to the waist, haul their cargo out of the ancient, garishly decorated dhows, shouting out in Swahili, Arabic, French, Hindi. The dusty air reeks of distant lands and exotic places.

The Stone Town is a small strip of the island crammed with so much history it takes your breath away. It is bordered on the one side by the ocean and on the other by Creek Road, a thoroughfare that separates the old town from the new. Within this stretch lies the detritus of Zanzibars 2000 years of recorded history, built largely on successive waves of conquest and migration.

The main buildings along the promenade (the main road along the beach is Mizingani Street) reflect the cultural impositions of the towns conquerors more than anywhere else. You could call it vanity construction.

The only building with a recent lick of paint, however, is the Ithna sheri Dispensary, built as a dispensary for the poor by an Indian merchant, Sir Tharia Topan, in honour of Queen Victorias golden jubilee. It has recently been renovated with a grant from the Aga Khan Foundation (which thankfully is also planning to renovate other sites in the town). The building is now the Stone Town Cultural Centre and contains dull shops designed to fleece tourists. There is, however, an excellent book shop, The Gallery, in the centre.

Mizingani Street encourages a deep, profound indolence. The temptation to sit under a tree at the Sea View cafe in the Forodhani Gardens and watch the dhows, yachts and ocean liners weaving across the ocean is great.

After the spectacular sunsets (best seen from the deck of Pychies, a popular tourist haunt, and the only pizzeria in Zanzibar), food vendors come out selling a range of unidentifiable fried objects. Following them are the coffee sellers with their brass coffee pots and charcoal burners. The best meals, however, are to be had at Radhas, an Indian restaurant around the corner from the Sea View Cafe. It serves deliciously spiced vegetable curries for about R35. The dafu sellers on their bicycles also ply their trade here. They expertly hack the tops off young coconuts and offer the sweet elixir inside to passers-by.


Also on the waterfront is the Palace Museum, which houses an impressive collection of sultanate memorabilia. Most fascinating is the room devoted to Princess Salme, the daughter of Sultan Said, who eloped with a German merchant to Hamburg in 1866 and wrote a book, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess, about her life.

Plunging into the maze of dark and narrow streets of Stone Town is to immerse oneself in another world. Most of the houses were built in the 19th century by Arab and Indian merchants and traders. Facing the street, they look like unpleasant concrete blocks with narrow windows. Inside, they open up into cool airy courtyards with large dark rooms.

It is the doors of the houses that capture the imagination. They were built to display the owners status the more money he had, the more richly intricate were the designs and show a confluence of Swahili, Indian and Arabic styles. Some are ancient there are doors that have lintels with Egyptian fertility symbols although most have Koranic inscriptions. Caution: the houses are occupied, so it is not very polite to spend too much time peering inside, or at the doors.

Below the living spaces are the shops, piled high with goods from every corner of the globe. You can find everything from the latest London magazines ( exorbitantly expensive) to old Roman coins. In between you will stumble upon garishly decorated stores overflowing with Hindu videos (Indian movie stars are accorded the same hero worship in Zanzibar as they are in India).

If the outsides of the buildings in Stone Town are less extravagant than their waterfront counterparts, they are no less magnificent inside. Nondescript entrances lead into stunning mosques (you can spot the mosques by the posters outside denouncing Salman Rushdie) and temples, the most notable being the Bohara mosque and the Vedic Arya Samaj temple.

Christianity is represented by St Josephs Catholic cathedral and the Anglican cathedral. St Josephs is remarkably animist, containing a mixture of European and African religious figures done up in vivid colours more befitting an eastern religion. Anglican missionaries in Zanzibar purchased the old slave market after the closure of the slave trade by Sultan Barghash in 1873. They built the church on the site and the altar is reputed to be on the spot where slaves were tied and whipped.

At the edges of Stone Town, a major chunk of Creek Road is occupied by the town market. It is a colourful, noisy and smelly place, but also the best place to shop. It is not for the squeamish. Shark carcasses are strewn on the ground next to bloated corpses of cows. Fish lie flapping futilely in the heat and even the smell of the spices becomes overpoweringly nauseous. It becomes clear here why David Livingstone referred to Zanzibar as Stinkibar.

At the airport, a sour-faced Indian bride, bedecked in glitzy gold jewellery and covered in henna, looks like she is about to jet off to 100 years of servitude. Beside her, her husband beams like the proud possessor of a new car. It is easy to feel her pain, wrenched from the pleasures of Zanzibar to be subjected to the slums of Mumbai.


One Response to “Zanzibar”

  1. A. Walli Says:

    Wonderful article – sounds like a great experience! I also loved it when I visited.

    There was one error I think is important to point out. You wrote:
    “The only building with a recent lick of paint, however, is the Ithna sheri Dispensary, built as a dispensary for the poor by an Indian merchant, Sir Tharia Topan, in honour of Queen Victorias golden jubilee.”

    The error is that the building was not originally the Itna Ashari Dispensary, as Sir Tharia Topan was not an Itna Ashari. Rather, He was an Ismaili (hence the link to the Aga Khan, who is the currently leader of the Ismaili community). Many people mistakenly refer to it as the old Itna Ashari Dispensay because after Sir Topan died, his widow sold the building to an Itna Ashari fellow, who then operated it for a number of years. The building was actually originally called the “Tharia Topan Jubilee Hospital”.

    Some background on the history of Zanzibar and this specific building can be found at the AKDN web-site at:

    Click to access zanzibarprojects.pdf

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