One day in my blameless youth, circa 1985, I heard Billy Joel’s ‘Zanzibar’. It was the only song of his I could tolerate—at the least the lyrics meant something. Or so I thought. From the muffled noises that passed for music in those days, this much I knew: Billy Joel was singing about a man named Ali, a bar, and a place called Zanzibar. I wasn’t quite old enough to go to bars but I knew that when I could, I would want to go to one that was dimly lit, with a thatched roof, on stilts, reached by walking across cool white sand.
I’ve got the old man’s car
I’ve got a jazz guitar
I’ve got a tab at Zanzibar
Tonight, that’s where I’ll be...
Okay, so the song was romantic in a corny kind of way, and despite my dim sense of geography, Zanzibar became a Place. I knew that it was in a far corner of the globe, and I knew that the island was bathed in permanent sepia-twilight, with soft lights, caressing breezes, gently lapping waves, beautiful happy people and mysterious tropical bars playing mysterious tropical music. Reading the lyrics from that song now, for this article, I realise that old Billy was referring to a bar in the United States of Manhattan, not an island in the United Republic of Tanzania. But never mind: part of the romance of Zanzibar was that I didn’t know what it was, and that I didn’t think I would ever get there anyway.
Strike one for youthful folly. Dar es Salaam is a couple of flying hours away from Bombay, and the journey only a little more expensive than travelling between Bangalore and Delhi. I ended up visiting Tanzania from Johannesburg, where I was based. It was an official trip, with an official reason, and I was packed off to Arusha for a week. En route, I stopped in Dar es Salaam, and took some time off to go and see Zanzibar.
My itinerary was complicated and I was extremely careless. I’m sure the Tanzanians have seen more intelligent travellers, but they never once made me feel ashamed of my bungling ineptitude. On the way back from Arusha to Dar es Salaam, I fell asleep, exhausted by the just-concluded conference. When the plane stopped, I jumped out and strode all the way to the arrivals hall, waving aside the curious airplane staff, only to find that I was back in Zanzibar—this was just a refuelling stop—and then wound my sorry way back to the plane and its giggling occupants. When we reached Dar es Salaam, I realised I couldn’t fly back to Johannesburg because I had lost my ticket along the way. Many implorations of “I need to use your phone but I have no money” and multiple variations thereof later, I was finally on my way back home.
My hosts, the harassed staff of the Tanzanian Ministry of Health, were probably having a party to celebrate my departure.
My arrival in Tanzania was much, much better. For one thing, Indian passport holders can get a visa at the airport. This is a very civilised practice. I spent a day in Dar es Salaam, waiting for my flight to Zanzibar, and discovered a familiar, laidback city. There were autorickshaws on the street, Bajaj scooters in the driveways, and second-hand books for sale along the wide corridors of buildings that would have fit smack into Connaught Place. The city looked like Delhi, the air felt like Bombay, and the bureaucrats were pleasantly lazy like in Bangalore—as though they would smile if only it didn’t involve moving so many muscles.
Later that evening I was on my way to Zanzibar, in a rickety little plane that flew low enough to render every bit of the aquamarine below visible. Technically, Zanzibar is the name given to a small archipelago of islands, consisting of Unguja, Pemba, Tumbatu and Mafia, among others. Unguja, however, is also known as Zanzibar Island—and, since it’s the only port of call for many tourists, is often confused with ‘Zanzibar’.
Well, sovereignty and identity have caused more than a little confusion in these islands. In 1963, Zanzibar wrested independence from the British. In 1964, a bloody war ensued between competing ethnicities: the African on one side, and the Arab/ Indian on the other. Thousands were killed, thousands of others fled, and by the end of it, a nervous Zanzibar agreed to join the confederation of mainland Tanganyika, now Tanzania. Among the Indians who escaped were a couple called Bomi and Jer Bulsara, and their children, Farrokh and Kashmira.
Farrokh Bulsara was only 18 when his family fled the Zanzibar riots and migrated to London. In 1991, at the age of 45, he would die a very public death, but remain etched in the memory of millions as Freddie Mercury, the charismatic rock star.
There are literally a dozen sites in Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historic capital, that claim to be the birthplace of Freddie Mercury. I didn’t bother investigating. I had just read that Queen was one of the bands that violated apartheid sanctions against South Africa to play a gig there, back in the bad old days. When I returned to South Africa, I spoke to a loosetongued former activist of the African National Congress, who told me that a whole bunch of exiled revolutionaries had violated their banning orders (and the very sanctions that they had been calling for) to sneak a peek at Queen. I felt better.
The guidebooks will tell you that Stone Town is East Africa’s only surviving ‘ancient city’. It’s charming—as much for the winding cobblestoned paths as the surprises that lay in wait around every corner. The guesthouse I was staying in—Jambo (a somewhat disused, touristy way of saying “hello” in Kiswahili) lay deep inside this maze, and every time I left or returned, I would lose my way. But each time I ventured anywhere, whether to chomp on spicy seafood at the Forodhani Gardens, or to watch the dhows coming home at sunset, I would hit upon something new. One night, I came across a group of young men and women huddled around a television set. It was the Arsenal- Chelsea match, and every self-respecting person in town was watching it. I was invited to join in, and someone poured me a cup of spicy black coffee, from a saucepan that was kept hot by coals placed inside a hollow black stone.
The nice thing about Zanzibar is that it’s living and breathing independently of the tourist trade. The markets are functional and familiar, and reflect the island’s multiethnic population—African, Indian, Arab and otherwise—with everyone speaking Kiswahili. Most tourists give Stone Town a day or two, and then head out to the north. Newfound Zanzibari friends told me, without irony, that I could choose from German, Italian and French. Cuisines? No, they said, hotels. I decided to go anywhere else.
I ended up in Bwejuu, in the southeast. It was stunning, affordable and lonely (I had arrived in March, technically offseason). The men who ran Evergreen Bungalows had a cheerful manner and great taste in music. From Zanzibar? I asked, when I just arrived. No, they said. From Tanzania.
Old habits run deep. Much of Zanzibar’s privileged difference from the continent came from its role in the slave trade. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, it lay at the confluence of Africa, Europe and Arabia—and consequently played a central role in the exchange of currencies, commodities and human cargo. For the descendants of American slaves, Zanzibar is a place of cruelty. For African mainlanders today, it’s a place that is treated with some suspicion for its superior Arabic airs.
Bwejuu was all good food, sparkling beach and stunningly transparent water. I could see the occasional Mzungu (Kiswahili for Caucasian tourist) and they were a nice lot. The ones I met were partners of local men and women, who avoided speaking in anything but Kiswahili—which they seemed to have perfected—and spent their evenings under a heavy herbal cloud. It was really quite nice to see tourists behaving well, and taking Jaaved Jaaferi’s advice sincerely: when in Rome, do the Romans.
As for me, I did as Indians who’ve been working really hard do. For three days, I woke up early, went jogging on the beach, greedily gulped down fresh fruit juice, slept all afternoon in hammocks, swam in the sea, ate fish with manic gusto, cultivated pulpy literature for company, drank too much beer, and closed every night with dazed revolutions to sputtering dancehall at a seedy village bar with a Rastafarian friend.
So when I eventually left on an evening ferry, the sun slowly descending over prayer-capped young boys kicking a football on the shore, dhows anchoring in the distance, I found it hard to recall what exactly I had done in Zanzibar—which, I suppose, was just as well.