LETTER FROM ZANZIBAR

Bank Holiday Weekend, Idd el Fitr.
lOam. I’m sitting on this balcony with a wrought-iron railing, nicely symmetrical and painted green. The floors are dark planks of wood and I feel it could be Cuba although I’ve never been there. Perhaps it is something about the mugginess in the air, the tropical heat. The goat-skin chairs give the game away: skinned branches curled to make an uncomfortable frame on which the skin of a goat lies stretched in two parts, the seat and the backrest. I am sure it took a long time to make. It is certainly handmade. Yet it cannot escape being a particular kind of tourist African kitsch.

In Zanzibar, the buildings carry the exotic elegance of old age and times past. The church opposite my Cuban balcony has lost its magnolia starting colours, now dominated by a sooty grey­blackness. It does not look dirty though, more experienced. Below the church, between it and my balcony, lies the old slave market. Now it is a quiet place, like a London suburb before the kids come back from school. It is still, calm, with a young tree gently swaying in the centre of a roundabout. The roundabout is large, and dominates whatever went on there before.

4pm. It was time for lunch. Paying a visit to the families we once stayed with on our respective study periods here, Linda and I started in Michenzani. We climbed to the first floor of the high grey block of flats that are something out of the Mao era. There we met Linda and family. The Honourable CCM MP Remedius Kissassi of Dimani Constituency was immediately obvious as a man of political power and stature. Stockily built, he had that magnanimous yet steely aura of a man used to social occasions and the proper reception of guests. The Hon. Kissassi keeps a humble home for his wife, but an active hand in island entrepreneurship. He is looking for investment in a number of tourist ventures here for someone with the capital and incentive. After eating we moved to the tin-roofed entanglement of Mwembetanga, to see Ibrahim, one of the family I stayed with in 1997, and the original conspiracy theorist. To Ibrahim, the Americans remain the bullies of the world, and the English the tricksters. The French he respects for at least resisting the States, while the Germans remain a silent entity who keep menacingly quiet after the scar they have left on the world. His life-long respect of sorts for the English is tempered by their weak leadership, which hangs on the arm and every word of the arrogant Americans. He says he smells in the air the scent of a third world war, because of that article in NATO that brings all members into battle. I say I think he is being a little pessimistic. He raises his eyebrows. He is concerned the Americans may try and bomb more sand, dust and poverty in Somalia. Ibrahim sees both America and bin Laden/AI Qaeda with one eye: as terrorists, and supports neither, if indeed bin Laden can be shown to be guilty. He says he supports no man or group that kills or injures innocent people. His support lies with the cause of social justice and representation. As a man once made to stand up to his neck in a room full of shit with only the flies for company, as part of a seven year sentence for his political associations, it is not hard to understand his fascination for power, politics and human rights.

So we put the world to rights and agreed to a celebratory lunch tomorrow for the second day of Idd el Fitr; the feasting after the fasting of Ramadan. A relaxed feeling grew with Ibrahim’ s generous manner of warm speech and open interest in people, and really settled upon us as we returned in the warm afternoon sunlight to the St Monica hostel for coffee on the balcony.

Ibrahim’s view of international politics was to some degree paralleled in an alleyway on our route home. Three wizened old men in long white kanzu said they did not take sides in this war on terror. They were just waiting for some evidence as to who had actually done what before they made judgement Another man, this time a Christian with a straw hat, sipping coca-cola, was fatalistic. We don’t have a part in what goes on abroad, it is nothing to do with us, he said, but we do believe in peace here. Back on the balcony, the church had become home to a practicing choir, and the dulcet tones of well-known Christmas carols took us downstairs and past the roundabout and into the church to hear the harmonies. Their soulful rendition of Silent Night with bases, tenors and sopranos perfectly pitched made me feel for once a long lost childhood spirit of Christmas. As the afternoon wears into evening and the call to prayer resumes, the mellow feeling will no doubt continue, but accompanied with a more exotic feel.

6.38pm. Dusk falls, and the muezzin (prayer callers) have begun, simultaneously with the revving of engines, and an alarm call to bring all men to the mosques for the dusk prayers of Idd el Fitr. At least three mosques near the balcony compete for maximum sonic vibration while the choir sings valiantly on. Their harmonies return to the ear in the gap between the call itself and the beginning of prayers, then are drowned again.

Zanzibar picks up at dusk, the place is cool enough for people to walk around again and visit friends and relatives; the deadening heat kept at bay until the morning. Celebrations for Idd should have begun now, but an outbreak of Cholera that is only just dying down, has meant the colourful candlelit stalls at Foradhani and Mnazi Mmoja have been called off.

With dusk, the birds and bats add their flying performances to an increasingly social fray, but unfortunately do not eat the mosquitoes whose sudden presence mean moving off the Cuban balcony to somewhere with a stronger sea breeze.
Paul Harrison

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