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.



November 12, 2007

Stay there again, Sam

Decadently refined Casablanca is an intoxicating throwback to the past, writes SEAN BADAL

  ON THE train into Casablanca, the civil engineer I had struck up a conversation with offers me cologne from a small glass phial. “To freshen up,” he adds decorously.It’s a gesture from the past – from the seedy milieu of Eric Ambler and other 30s thriller writers who managed to evoke so brilliantly the kind of exaggerated refinement beloved by Middle-Eastern despots.

It lingers in the mind, a memory inflated and embellished by literary allusion. Casablanca is that kind of city. It wants desperately to remind you of something, but everything is out of place, disjointed, ragged, fragmented. Casablanca is resolutely behind the times – as if 1945 was the year before – chaotic, unruly and tinged with a slight air of menace.

Not that it’s any the worse for it. The billboards may exhort the masses to buy computers! Buy cellphones! Buy Nike! But no-one is taking any notice – it is a culture that has elevated ennui into a national pastime.

An afternoon in the city becomes both comedic and scary. Enter seedy restaurant to soak in authentic city ambience. Discover after substantial meal that owners don’t accept travellers’ cheques and are getting decidedly edgy. Race to Hilton Hotel near the Place Mohammed V – the city centre – to convert cheques to dirhams. Surly youth behind metal grating says “come back Monday” and refuses to make eye contact.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice wealthy Saudi businessmen casting disdainful glances at the hoi polloi and knocking back expensive drinks in “Rick’s Bar” in the hotel – the only “authentic” Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, says the notice. It has a badly drawn Humphrey Bogart on the outside. His trench coat makes him look like a flasher. The film, incidentally, was shot entirely in Hollywood. The closest Bogart ever came to anything vaguely Moroccan was probably the hashish he was alleged to have smoked.

Race back to the restaurant. Get lost and panicky amidst the narrow, winding streets. Not helped by the fact that all of them seem to be preceded by the word “Rick’s”. Eventually find restaurant and send colleague to the Hilton this time as she is prettier and more persuasive. Colleague returns, triumphantly waving local currency. Huge sighs of relief all around. Incipient menace dissipates like the early morning mist that envelopes the city.

Casablanca makes very few concessions to the ordinary tourist. It’s a living city, unlike the glacéed brashness of New York or Amsterdam. Some may bemoan the lack of tourist offices, public toilets and neat little signs in English – others revel in its unabashed exoticism. Its physical structure is unprepossessing, almost utilitarian. There are kilometre upon kilometre of satellite-capped buildings seemingly on the throes of collapse.

The guidebooks say the lack of monuments is because Casablanca was (and is) a largely commercial city, dedicated to Mammon. The truth is somewhat hazier. It is almost axiomatic that, as soon as businessmen accumulate wealth, they aspire to cultural pretensions – Venice, London, even Dallas lately.

Casablanca’s population is different. It’s a transient population, hankering to be somewhere else – the glitzy streets of Paris, the crisp hills of the Atlas Mountains. Nowhere was this more succinctly evoked than in the film Casablanca – although its protagonists did have to worry about an imminent German invasion.

Then there’s the smell – fetid and briny, a mixture of diesel fumes and a few hundred years of accumulated garbage hang in the air. It’s both revolting and intoxicating because, somewhere in the malodorous soup, there is a hint of sea. The primeval stirrings are inexplicable, but there is something reassuring in the knowledge that an ocean is lurking in the background. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that it provides an escape route to other worlds.

There are olfactory compensations. Wander through the back streets and, in the fuliginous haze of the dying day, you encounter a troop of women sashaying down the street, djellabas swaying in the breeze, heads swathed in florid towels. They leave behind them a trail of ineffable freshness – of jasmine, saffron and citrus.

If they smell as if they’ve just come out of the bath, it’s because they have. The hammam is a public bath. Once a Roman institution, here it’s given a uniquely Arabic twist. It’s where most of the working classes go daily to get clean.

I smuggle a hotel towel into my rucksack and head for the nearest back street. Inside, it’s a Stygian hellhole – steam bellows from orifices in the walls and hot water gushes from a rusty pipe into an equally ancient stone bathtub.

I make my way to the first room (hammams are divided into three sections according to varying degrees of heat), acutely conscious of the good-natured sniggering behind my back. A wizened figure materialises from the steam and offers to wash my back. Around me, young boys gambol on the slippery floor like seals. Unlike the female hammams, the male counterparts have a pervasive and overpowering odour of unwashed feet.

Along the corniche Ain Diab, the strong Atlantic breeze is a refreshing elixir. The Ain Diab is Morocco’s Cannes, according to the publicity bumph. In reality, it’s closer to Blackpool. In the warm afternoon – there is no other kind of day in Casablanca – the area is packed with locals and tourists.

Like everywhere else, how much money you have determines how good a spot on the beachfront you get. The French have pretty much colonised the wealthier clubs. Middle-class families stay closeted in their compounds, rarely venturing outside the walls – which makes you wonder why they didn’t drive to the south of France instead.

The gay Frenchmen are a bit more adventurous. Muscular studs in tight, lurid shirts (Jean Paul Gaultier, no doubt) – looking as though they come from the same pan-European genetic pool that bred Jean Claude van Damme – mince their way through the streets, one eye on the naked torsos that pass their way.

Morocco was, of course, the gay capital of the world. Joe Orton, Tennessee Williams, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs have perpetuated enduring images of the rakishness of Morocco’s cities, luring a steady stream of men to the country. In theory, homosexuality is illegal, but neither the tourists nor the locals seem to care.

In the restaurant Zahoun on the Boulevard D’ Anfa, a large man in a white dinner jacket weaves his way through the tables, a nod here, a handshake there. His name is Rick – and he is as black as ebony. The Romans would have called him Nubian. It’s hard to tell if he owns the restaurant or is managing it, such is his proprietorial air.

Zahoun serves the best Middle-Eastern food I’ve ever tasted. Olives, handled as reverentially as gold, are ladled onto plates. Meze plates are piled high with exotic delicacies.

Zahoun also seems to function as a brothel. The tables are largely populated by males. It’s communal and festive, unlike the forced, testosterone-driven rituals of male bonding normally seen in pick-up joints. They sit around hookahs, drenching the air with the sweet smell of tobacco. Arriving women are prodded and kneaded as if they were ripe fruit, and then encouraged to join the table.

It is bizarrely retrogressive, like a Hollywood set from the 40s. It’s perhaps a fitting finale, enduring as another one lodged in memory. At the end of Josef van Sternberg’s Morocco, Marlene Dietrich – in an act of masochistic unselfishness – stoically takes off her sandals and plunges into the desert sand after Gary Cooper’s disappearing train of legionnaires.

In Casablanca, the warm, soothing night air reminds you exactly what lies beyond the city’s boundaries.