BY MARGARET CARSON HUBBARD
Thirty-five minutes by air from Dar es Salaam, time leaps ahead six hours. The clock in the tower above Beit el-Adaib (the House of Wonders) points to four when, for Westerners, it is ten in the morning. This is an official reminder that one is on Arab time where the plain red flag of the Sultan of Zanzibar flutters in front of his walled palace. The briefest visit to the island dispels the popular illusion that Africa was untouched before Europeans came to the continent, for all around there is stone and mortar, flesh and blood evidence of east Africa’s long association with the East and with Islam.
Bearded Arabs go about their business on loot or bicycle, dressed in white kanzu and carrying daggers. African women who worship the Prophet flap along the wide road by the seafront enveloped from head to toe in black bui bui. Men in turbans stride by, and women drift along in saris that bring to the streets the colors of the bougainvillaea flowering behind the walls. The fragrance of cloves hangs on the air. A dhow bears down on the harbor under its huge lateen sail, borne all the way from the Persian Gulf or Bombay on the northeast monsoon, and laden with the endless temptations which lure tourists to the “Stone Town” beyond the arched gate. The mark of a tourist who has visited Zanzibai is a precious or semiprecious stont in the old Persian setting still used b the Zanzibari for the jewels the dhows bring from India and Ceylon It would take a man or woman of iron to resist all the treasures in the murky shops along the narrow streets, which wind behind lime and coral buildings with great carved and brass-studded doors. There are brass-trimmed chests from Surat. Malabar, and Bombay, known as Zanzibar chests; copper trays and beakers from Arabia; beaded stools from neighboring Pemba Island; silks from India, and from Red China as well; silver worked in ancient Persian designs and rugs from Iran and Iraq; Arab swords and daggers, amber, and carvings from the mainland. Nor is shopping cut-and-dried. Price is determined between the shopper and a soft-voiced man from Cutch or Kathiawar who watches from under his long lashes for a covetous glint in one’s eye, or for the hesitation of one’s finger poking among semiprecious stones.
There is no luxury hotel on the island, merely a hotel of sorts, contrived from two old Arab houses knocked into one — the Zanzibar Hotel. In most rooms slatted doors open onto a balcony, where one can catch the breeze. Only a few rooms have private baths, and chintzcovered chairs and couches must be approached with care, or their broken springs will drop one to the floor. But to most people it is hotel enough. The proprietors are hospitable; the bar is liberally stocked, even in this stronghold of Islam;and Zanzibar is well worth the inconvenience of climbing up and down stairs.
Only small European cars can squeeze through the streets of the Stone Town, but there are rickshas in the hotel courtyard for those who find it too hot to walk. From the carved hotel doors, turns to the right, the left, and the right again, between high white houses streaked with purple shadows, bring one to Main Street — a banal name for this cobbled passage. Before reaching the gate Portuguese Street twists to the right, and here the shops are murkier and piled to the rafters with greater “bargains.” Behind them, ivory carvers squat next to goldsmiths and silversmiths, and one may watch them work, for the asking. I saw a dour, bearded old man, turning out ivory elephants, who used his toes as easily as his lingers to hold his tools and polishing cloths. His ancestors probably worked in the same fashion long before the Portuguese came to Africa in the sixteenth century and found old settlements along the coast and on Zanzibar.
The island enters recorded history with a mention in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in 60 A.D., though no doubt Phoenicians, Assyrians, and other ancient traders put in for water, as ships do today. For centuries, too, dhows have been sailing to and from Zanzibar on the monsoons, returning to home ports in India, Arabia, or the Persian Gulf with gold, ivory, and slaves on the same wind that now carries dhows laden with cloves, copra, and mango poles. Historians think the very oldest records of this trade with the East may be somewhere in China. Between the eighth and tenth century Arabs brought Islam to the coastal settlements, and at the end of the century Persians also established outposts. On a drive into the countryside, one may visit the dainty, domed Persian baths decorated with delicate bas-relief, which still stand witness to various Persian occupations.
Every Swahili, or “man of the coast,” is the offspring of the long association with Arabia. Originally, the name was given only to true Arabs settled in Africa. Then, with time and crossbreeding between Bantu, Arabs, and Shirazese of the Persian Gulf, the men of the coast who speak Kiswahili became more African than Arab and took the name to themselves. With the slavers. their language spread up and down the coast and as far into the interior as the eastern Congo. So, today it is the lingua franca from Aden to Durban and to the Mountains of the Moon, and has won a place among the world’s great expressive languages. It is spoken in its purest form on Zanzibar, among the poets who gather crowds to hear their poetry and who vie with one another for popularity in all Swahili settlements.
To see just such dhows as Sinbad must have sailed when he plundered ships and settlements on the Indian Ocean. I went to the anchorage beyond the new wharf and the clove sheds. It was a forest of masts and lianalike rigging, made from the fiber of the local coconuts, and cross-legged men sat on deck smoking water pipes under palm-thatched shelters. Other men, like sailors everywhere, were coiling lines or washing clothes. To reach the lively Malindi quarter, where the dhow crews do their trading, I passed a reeking shark market. Beyond it sprawls Estrella Market, where I picked my way among piles of coconuts, chilis, sugarcane, mangoes, avocados, and green jackfruit from the trees used to make the famous Zanzibar doors.
The Persians left their baths on Zanzibar, but the Portuguese conquerors. who stayed for two hundred years, left a massive walled fort. Their Fort Jesus in Mombasa is being turned into a museum, but the Zanzibar Fort of His Most Christian Majesty, where Arabs once slaughtered Portuguese soldiers, has been transformed into a club for Muslim ladies in purdah and for the Girl Guides. Bullfighting is another Portuguese legacy which can be seen on neighboring Pemba Island, although it is said to he less of a fight than a harmless rough-and-tumble, as the Swahili name implies. Literally, it means “game of the bull.”
After the Portuguese came the Arabs of Oman; and even before the Sultan moved to the island, they used it as both trading center and resort. Many ruins of the palaces the Sultans built for their harems or favorites can be seen in a short drive. Some of them are said to be haunted, and why not? It was an Arab custom to bury slaves alive in the foundations. Because of the demand for slaves for Mauritius and other sugar islands, the nineteenth century was the heyday of the slave trade, and in 1833 the United States was the first nation to open a consulate on Zanzibar. Its site is marked by a plaque on a building in the Stone Town.
Modern Zanzibar began when Sayyid Said bin Sultan transferred his capital from Masqat to the island in 1852 and started the clove industry. which supplies most of the world today. Just outside town one begins to see the drying platforms, and the little brown buds are piled to the rafters in the clove sheds, where Africans scoop the cloves into sacks before they go by sail or by steamship all over the world. New schools, hospitals, playgrounds, libraries, housing, and mosques are financed by the wealth from cloves and also from copra.
In the mid-nineteenth century, too, came the British explorers Burton, Speke, Livingstone, and Stanley. The house where Livingstone lived while outfitting for his last journey is in use today as a research laboratory. Beyond the arch into the old town a trading firm has its offices where Sir John Kirk, the British consular representative, negotiated treaties to end the slave trade. The Anglican cathedral stands where the last slave market flourished, and the altar rises on the site of the old whipping post. Anyone over sixty years old today was alive when the legal status of slavery was abolished and slaves could apply for their freedom. The children and grandchildren of those slaves still live across the creek in Ng’ambo, where on Saturday nights, by the light of the moon or hand lanterns, tourists go to see the younger generation execute dances brought by slaves from the Congo or Angola. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a dance I had seen in Barotseland twenty-five years ago; unmistakably the same, though with improvised masks and costumes.
When Africa was partitioned, both Great Britain and Germany recognized the Sultanate of Zanzibar, but in 1887 the Sultan chose to hand to the British the administration of his territories, which include Pemba and a two-hundred-milelong strip on the mainland of Kenya. So Zanzibar continues to be an Arab state ruled by the Sultan Savyid Sir Abdullah bin Khalifa (Whom God Preserve) and administered by a British resident with the assistance of Legislative Council. However, the Arabs have dwindled to about one fifth of the population, which is largely African. The rest are Indians and others: men from the Hadhramaut, Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Oman. Goa, Ceylon, and who knows where else.
After so long, violent, and varied a history, and with ill-feeling between Africans and Arabs, one wonders what may come next to the island; it is certain only that the trade with the East will continue as it has for more than a thousand years. Meantime, Radio Cairo blares day and night.
But, Allah be praised, the doors which are Zanzibar’s pride still stand. The art of making them has almost died out in this machine age, though not very long ago men built their houses around these jackwood works of art carved with the lotus, fish, and texts from the Koran. Some of the most elaborate and beautiful examples can be seen in the Beit elAjaib. The House of Wonders itself is a square white monstrosity built as a palace in the Victorian eighties and used now for government offices. But it is open to the public, so one may wander from floor to floor to examine the gilt geometric and flower designs of the frames, the texts from the Koran in gilt Arabic script, and the huge brass bosses, said to be the largest in the protectorate. Then, as a last exercise in imagination, one may climb to the roof, where the view embraces Zanzibar’s history: the sea, and dhows coming into port, part of the Sultan’s garden, the old fort, the roofs of the Stone Town, minarets and the cathedral’s towers, a cluster of masts, and the lush trees.
When I left I took with me a pink-budded twig from a clove tree, along with my aquamarine and brass coffeepot, as reminders of this garden island where so much has happened since the first traders discovered it.