Thursday 23 August 2012

Zanzibar is a poem


The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass production throughout the Near East, Middle East, Far East, U.S.S.R., the Pampas, el Gran Chaco, the Danubian Basin, Equatorial Africa, Hither Further and Inner Mumbo-land, Gondhwanaland, Lhasa, and the villages of darkest Berkshire, how happy we shall be. At any rate it ought to cut down travel. There will be nowhere to go. So people will (I opine) go all the faster. J.R.R. Tolkien

I was not sure I would like it but I absolutely love Zanzibar. It would have to be amazing to equal Ethiopia and it is.    

I had no dollars at the airport to buy my visa. They sent me to take some cash from the  airport hole in the wall but it didn't give me any. The boy at immigration let me in anyway, beaming and saying 'This is Africa!' He told me to return the next day with the dollars. 

I have found a wonderful, old fashioned hotel, the Abuso Inn, kept by a Muslim with a long beard which gives him a look of extraordinary prescience and wisdom as if he were carved from ebony. The hotel is not thank God grand, not expensive, not full of holidaymakers (it seems empty) but I am in the centre of Zanzibar town, otherwise known as Stonetown, yards from the ocean and my window overlooks the sea. Old 19th century wooden furniture and a bed  with mosquito nets. A single room costs me $55 and I do not have the heart to try to cheapen it.¹

The view from my bedroom in the Abuso Inn. No beer was available on dhow rides because of Ramadan so I skipped them.

I felt a sudden surge of happiness as I glimpsed Stonetown as my taxi driver took me from one hotel to another. $10 buys a lot of taxi time it seems. My God, the very houses seemed asleep on a hot (but not unpleasantly hot) afternoon. 

I walked out of the hotel and found the quayside a minute away and the dilapidated Arab mansions of the merchants who waxed rich on the proceeds of slavery and ivory in the nineteenth century before the British stepped in to put a stop to the slave trade and to seize the island.  Zanzibar to my relief is very shabby and run down despite the restaurants. It is a nineteenth century poem. You would think there cannot be a place as beautiful as the name Zanzibar suggests but Zanzibar the town very nearly achieves it. It is the most inexpressibly romantic town I was ever in.  It has a remarkable flavour but I cannot say of what. Of spice - which is appropriate because I was told more than half the world's spices originate from here. It has shadows. This is a Joseph Conrad story but with beautiful architecture. It is Arabic and African with a slight tincture of Indian in the mix. 

Although not old, it feels as old as time. (Bucharest's broken streets make a similar impression.) Until 1830 what is now the town of Zanzibar consisted of a fishing village and a seventeenth century fort built by the Portuguese when they ruled here so it is less old than my home town Southend-on-Sea that ceased to be a fishing village thirty years earlier. 

Now Zanzibar is a city of 200,000 souls, most of whom live in the new city where tourists never venture. 16,000 people live in the mostly narrow streets of the old town, Stonetown, which feels like an old Arab town. Despite the souvenir shops and people selling CDs in the street, it is not a museum and has not yet lost its sense of identity.

I suppose I am ghoulishly attracted to the detritus of Communism. Zanzibar flourished under the Omani Arabs and the British but like most African colonies it did not flourish after independence. Independence in 1964 was very swiftly followed by a bloody left-wing uprising in which 12,000 Arabs and Indians were murdered and most of the rest fled.   Arabs and Indians  constituted the rich class of the island and one fifth of the population - they, not the British, were the colonists. (How very similar fascism and communism and their victims are: the bourgeoisie; Jews; capitalists; Indians.) This is much of the reason Stonetown is seedy and run down today, not the passage of time: the houses were abandoned by their owners. 

The revolutionary government was shunned by every country except their neighbour, newly independent Tanganyika, with whom they merged to become 'Tanzania' for lack of any other source of support or money.Tanzania became a friend of the Soviet Union and I remember Nyerere, the disastrous dictator, was widely admired among British Labour MPs. Stonetown is now ringed by jerry-built tower blocks like the ones in Eastern Europe built as aid by East Germany.

Evelyn Waugh described Zanzibar as being “insufferably hot and full of starched young men in public-school blazers.” It is not insufferably hot today, or at least it is much cooler than Bucharest in the summer. However, there are still a fair number of English people but not with public school accents. There is a big group of them dining at Maharajah, the Indian restaurant where I am eating, speaking in the slightly nasal twang of the home counties - is it racist to hate other British people abroad? 

'An Englishman does not go abroad to meet Englishmen.'
Or as the Master asked,
 'Why do the worst people travel, while the nice ones stay at home?' 
But this is not true - lots of nice people travel. Usually they are in their twenties because people in their twenties are nicer than older people and almost always they travel independently not in pre-arranged itineraries.  

Maharajah is the best of the Indian restaurants but not anything too special and overpriced by local standards. Archipelago and Pagoda are, I am told by a Canadian restaurateur who has lived here for many years, the two best restaurants of those that remain open in Ramadan.  I thank God because of Ramadan quite a few tourists are away even if several good restaurants are closed.

In fact, I had assumed it was too late to visit Zanzibar because it had been discovered and then suddenly realised it would be much worse in a decade. This proved a very wise decision. The town is what brought me here and most tourists it seems prefer the five star resorts and hotels along the coast and pay only visits to the town. And many come to the island only for a few days after a safari on the continent. It is not too late for Stonetown. It will be, but it is not yet.

We travel to find what we are looking for and ultimately to discover ones subconscious mind. I look for myself or for beauty beauty in the gutter, not in places which are gleaming or luxurious. This is not because of nostalgie de la boue but because I grew up in genteel seaside resort in Essex in the plastic and nylon 1970s and want to find the Other. I suppose some people from my home town are attracted to five star resorts for the same reason, but for me real life is life which feels like a book, which life in Southend-on-Sea rarely or never does.

The devout porter in the  Shangani Hotel where I use the internet has become human now that I sit with him and watch the subtitled prayers from Mecca. The chanting is beautiful and so is the faith of the believers but the prayers are not particularly impressive and I feel my esteem and affection for Islam, which was once considerable, is fading.  

Islam has a lot in common with Christianity which is why the Muslim world is intelligible to me but also I suspect one or two things in common with Marxism-Leninism. It feels synthetic, for all its beauty.
'God loves those who praise Him.'  This is does not sound exactly like the God I believe in. As King George III said of Shakespeare, 'It's sorry stuff, but you cannot say so.'

I should read the Koran. 


I drank my first five delicious glasses of tamarind juice on the roof of my hotel beside  a wonderful view of the Indian Ocean. Who knew you could make juice from tamarind? I am glad my hotel is not a grand one full of dull people but a nice little one. They even have black guests, darling.

The Catholic Bishop of Zanzibar, with whom I have a friend in common, is always busy but he finds time to give me coffee. 

Do Muslims ever convert to Catholicism? He frowned. Yes, some. it takes three years, he tells me,  to instruct a local Muslim. They cannot refuse to do so "or I would lose my seat"  - but they fear the consequences for community relations. I suspect he fears inter-communal violence and feel for him. Muslims from the mainland or abroad are received into the Faith much more quickly. 

Mixed marriages do take place and the Catholic church marries mixed couples, so long as the couple agree to bring the children up as Catholics. Girls who marry Muslims always convert to Islam but Muslim girls never convert to Christianity.

He prefers Zanzibar to remain in Tanzania, for the mainland has many Christians whereas in Zanzibar 95% of the population is Muslim. As a separate country, Zanzibar might have sharia law. Yet I feel this island, a former Omani colony, does not belong in Tanzania and wonder how it would fare alone, subsidised by the Gulf monarchies and enriched by tourism.

He wants to know what people in the West think of Islam and I explain the concept, as far as I understand it, which is not very far, of Islamophobia and say it is about white guilt. Westerners should see how Muslims behave where they are the majority, he warns.

He tells me a powerful local Muslim organisation has recently been complaining that the museum of slavery at the Anglican Cathedral in Zanzibar, which was built on the site of the slave market, makes Muslims responsible for the Zanzibar slave trade and Christians responsible for its abolition. These two things are undoubted facts but I wonder if the Muslims have another theory.

I tell him about the Muslim prayers I watched on TV last night and we agree the Muslim god is not attractive. I make my adieux knowing his time is precious.

Downstairs Abdullah was eating on my tick 150 shillings worth of food and got me to give him another 500.

Ali who drives me to the airport to get my visa has six children and two wives, three with each and divides his time equally between them. I say two families must be expensive but he does not reply. For a moment I see the appeal, I who could not manage one wife or one child.

I am writing this in the internet cafe. Near me a pale American father and son, white legs in shorts,  backpacks, the son wearing a baseball hat, convince me that Zanzibar has been in one long decline since the Omani emirs ran the slave trade here. We live in a degenerate age.

I suddenly see clearly I was born to be a historian to rewrite the history of colonialism from a conservative point of view - so very easy to do and so very urgently necessary. I feel an utter failure.

Very good Chinese food at Pagoda as I was told - delicious lobster. 

Benediction in the Catholic Cathedral, which is tucked away cheek by jowl with a mosque. I found the seminarian, Proces, and invited him for a beer. For the first time in my life, I very badly wanted one. Instead of going out though, we drank warm beer (I don't really mind as I am English) in the sacristy, with two charming girl medical students from Northern Ireland who gave me good advice. They said I could do everything here in Stonetown and had no need to go outside. Yes.  They also told me patients in hospitals on the mainland  starve to death if they have no family to feed them  - hospitals in Zanzibar are better but not good at all.

Then Abdullah appeared for the third time like a character in a pantomime and I buy him a drink and give him a dollar to get some supper. A professional parasite but someone to talk to, amusing enough, unmanly, on dope. He has visited England twice where he used to have an auntie. This place is not as exotic or remote as it seems. He wants to live in England - to do what I wonder.

He pays he says $15 a month for his room from someone who is sorry for him  - $50 is the going rate.

August 11

I take it back about the British abroad. I just had breakfast with a very nice Englishman and beautiful Englishwoman, BOTH INTELLIGENT. But he says he is half Iraqi and half Irish and she is half Australian and half Italian. She is hitchhiking across Africa which is such a good thing to do instead of a job. He works for McKinsey in Dubai and says everyone there is from Essex.

Near my hotel. 
The British imperial-Arabic buildings are very beautiful - mostly built by the gifted architect J.H. Sinclair, who was accused of going native. They distantly remind me somehow of the smarter parts of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, built contemporaneously. In former British colonies the 1930s seems long ago and exotic and in Britain it seems recent and banal.

The Hotel Tambo at 5.30 was a revelation, the beach, the milkshakes, so easy - do I really have to do the spice tour a snip at $15 with lunch where I could talk to my fellow tourists instead of lunch alone reading about Tippu Tip the Zanzibari slaver who visited and ruled much of Central Africa? Yes I want to be alone tomorrow.

But Proces has other plans and wants to show me the town tomorrow and then we drive to the north to swim on Sunday

He takes me on a long circular walk and I see I have seen nothing of Stonetown yet. The market where as night falls people are breaking their Ramadan fast with dals and chapattis in almost darkness. I am put in mind of the unlit streets like Bucharest in 1990.

He is nice but I found his English hard to follow - on the cusp of intelligibility - though he talks about Heidegger and Aquinas.

Proces, the Catholic seminarian who showed me round, standing in front of the Grand Mosque which was built by Sinclair and is currently being refurbished.

Next day

Real coffee is hard to find in Zanzibar so I went to the 5 star Hotel Serena across the road and drank a cappuccino for $3 overlooking the Indian Ocean. A pleasant, sterile place, but 'luxury requires an aristocratic setting to make it attractive' (Santayana). A couple of pale blonde guests both had tattoos on their legs of a curious design. 

Everyone is a short story I suppose, though few of us would make readable novels. Actually their story I realised later is very short  - hennaing is available for tourists in the town.

Am enjoying myself! I do not need to snorkel or lie on the beach or look at how spices are farmed. I just mooch around Stonetown = Zanzibar Town and eat and drink and read and meet and avoid people.

Zanzibar is too touristed but nothing compared to Kotor or Tallinn in August to say nothing of a Greek island - let alone of course a beach town anywhere. Lots of tourists it seems prefer 'resorts'. If I wanted beaches I would visit the neighbouring island of Pemba which is still innocent of tourism.

Drinking sugar beet juice crushed for me by a street vendor in Zanzibar and flavoured with ginger and lemon. He says it's non-fattening.

Monsoon - a nice place unlike the awful famous place I went on my last night. This is a restaurant that the Sunday Times would like - a restaurant as a concept . it felt like an opium dream by Flaubert or Delacroix.

Last day

I am happy.

Happiness is not complicated.  

It is (many) vanilla milkshakes by the beach, by the aquamarine ocean.

Though if I think about it, which I do for a second, I feel very unpatriotic and priggish about not having taken cognisance of the Olympics yet.

In Zanzibar the Christians abolished slavery but Christian Ethiopia abolished slavery in theory only in 1925. And in the British Empire, indentured Indian labourers were not so dissimilar from slaves in Mauritius and other colonies. Had the Emirs of Zanzibar really colonised Central Africa as they could very easily have done slavery would have been
entrenched there for a while (why are Muslims not good at institutions or administration, unlike the English?) but the white man would, thankfully, have conquered Africa in any case.

Whatever happens we have got 
The Maxim gun and they have not.

The white man had of course previously done very much to encourage the slave trade. I suspect to be enslaved and taken to the Americas was a less bad fate than to be taken to the Middle East where many slaves were I am told castrated to stop them breeding (I do not understand the logic.) At least the ones in the Americas became Christians and their descendants acquired civilisation. Was it better to have been a slave in Africa? I wonder.

I relented and did the famous spice tour which was fun mostly because i got to see the villages of rural Zanzibar and go to the beach. Interesting to see where cardamoms and cinnamon come from I suppose but I am allergic to these kind of things (tourist trips not cardamom or cinnamon which I like). Someone on the tour said she had taken part in a spice tour which was exactly the same in every detail a few weeks earlier in India. I am not sure all the spices in this model farm are usually grown in Zanzibar but it was reasonably enjoyable.

I go talking to a Canadian student studying International Development Studies who told me 'You have to be on the Left to study International Development Studies'. There had been one conservative student whose 'jackass remarks about women' shocked his peers but he changed subjects. There seem to be many academic disciplines where being conservative is impossible and many of them end in the word studies. The students of these disciplines are remaking the world while the conservatives worry about making money.

Village life.  The pump in their village had been broken a week so they wash their clothes at a spring and carry them home.

My only glimpse of rural Zanzibar.

Mangapwani. I finally made the beach on my last afternoon. We reached this by a climb down the side of a cliff and had it to ourselves. Black market slaves were hidden in grim conditions in a cave here after they abolished slavery. 
it was far more beautiful than this shows - here it seems rather dark

My last night. I walked around the streets and found there were so many I had not entered.  I constantly received offers of help from people in the street but was surprised to do so from a white man seated outside a hotel who turned out to be the owner. The hotel turned out to be the famous  236 Hurumzi, formerly called 'Emerson and Green'. He encouraged me to watch sunset from the roof of the hotel. This was not a bad idea and the margaritas were huge though very weak but it was a mistake to eat there. The food was unmemorable and terribly overpriced. Just go there for a drink, people.

Home flying by night to Addis, then crashing out in a de luxe hotel in Dubai (the obsequiousness of the employees is so Oriental - you have to stay in a hotel to really be in Dubai in spirit as well as body), then a stopover in Istanbul.

And home flying low above the Danube and the lakes around Bucharest  in the evening sun. The woman beside me returning from the fleshpots of Bodrum (what are fleshpots and does Bodrum have them?) could not believe that an Englishman could speak Romanian or earn his living from recruitment or holiday in Ethiopia. I wonder what she thought I really did.

A wonderful journey. 'The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.'

For the first time coming home Bucharest seemed slightly - just slightly - dismayingly normal - but Blanari, even gentrified, always perks me up.


¹ A Rough Guide that I buy second hand (they are better than Lonely Planet books which seem to be written by cretins for cretins, but Bradt are best) tells me $30 is the least you pay for a room. This is not true. I saw a very good room close to my hotel for that money and I presume I could have haggled. I later drank with a German who had found a room in a place in the centre called Annexe 2 for EUR 13. Ignore also the self-interested 'advertorial' by a travel agent in the Rough Guide that advises that you need to book accommodation before you arrive. The place is full of travellers who arrive without doing so.


  1. As usual, your travel insights and prose are engaging and interesting Paul. Thanks for sharing. I know first hand how you appreciate the "under-belly of a country" vs the glamour well-traveled tourist spots... You really do a fantastic job illuminating the true essence of the places you have visited.

  2. Thank you very much. All holiday making as travelling is 'inauthentic'- you should really go to a place for a purpose other than going there. But what can you do? Life is short.

  3. Correct. Great reading, I am on my way there in two weeks time.
    I have a large budget but my brother(who is coming with me - party animal...)says to wing it and not book anything just walk to we find something. Interesting and usually fun, we like the idea of going there just to see the eclectic exotic. Explore the back streets etc...thanks for the insight cause yes life is short. Keep it up.

  4. I like to see insight that is shared. Life is short.

  5. You can have a beach holiday but I just wanted to hang around the town...till my last day. Go to Pagoda, avoid 236 Hurumzi formerly Emerson & Green) which is a complete waste of money. Monsoon is fun. I wish I had given myself more than five days.

  6. To call President Julius Nyerere a dictator is to be dumb and ignorant of what the definition of dictator is! Western education is such a system of bigotry that unless you are super intelligent you may be taught foolishness based on the Dark Continent full of devils and of black monkeys without a SOUL! This article is an abuse of intelligence in many aspects and can only be appreciated by one who does not know the facts about Zanzibar and Africa at large! Pathetic!!!!

  7. He ran a one party state - that makes him a dictator in my book. Wikipedia says:

    During the first years Nyerere created a single-party system and used "preventive detention" to eliminate trade unions and opposition.
    Nyerere issued the Arusha Declaration, which outlined his socialist vision of ujamaa that came to dominate his policies. The policies led to a collapsing economy, systematic corruption, and unavailability of goods. In the early 1970s Nyerere ordered his security forces to forcibly transfer much of the population to collective farms and, because of opposition from villagers, often burned villages down. The campaign pushed the nation to the brink of starvation and made it dependent on foreign food aid.

  8. Nice photo of Zanzibar village,shop,resorts.....all r very beautiful place including beach......

    Zanzibar Beach Holidays