At the House of Wonders or Beit al-Ajaib, now a museum, I picked up a copy of the ‘Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar’ which recounts the true story of a daughter of Sultan Said the Great and a Circassian slave, who met and eloped with a German trader. Born princess Salme, she was one of the very few women in the household, or indeed in Zanzibar, who was literate - after her father’s death she became embroiled, somewhat unwittingly by penning notes, in the escapades of her half-brothers who were vying for the throne, an event which split the family into bitterly feuding factions from which unity was never regained. The young princess, bereft after the death of her mother and separated from half of her family who had retreated into warring camps, began an affair with a German merchant who lived in a nearby house. It seems they met across the rooftop balconies.
She is said to have become pregnant and was thus forced to flee Zanzibar by ship - for the time and place it was deliciously scandalous, and annoyingly she gives very little detail about this monumental episode in her life – perhaps because, as she explains, it was written for her children so they would know something of this unknown part of their heritage and not necessarily the racier bits of their mother’s history….. En route to Hamburg she converted to Christianity and was baptized in a small English church in Aden in Yemen. Taking the name Emily, she was married for only three years when her husband died in a tram accident.
The three-storey Beit Al-Ajaib, the first building in Zanzibar to have both electric light and an elevator - was built in 1883 by Salme’s half-brother Barghash, one of the schemers for the throne from the legitimate heir Majid. It was bombarded by the British in what is termed the shortest war in history – 45 minutes - in August 1896, when on the death of Sultan Hamid, his nephew Khaled Ibn Barghash, tried to grab the throne by occupying Beit al-Ajaib. The British had another more compliant candidate in mind and issued an ultimatum to Khaled. When it was rebuffed they shelled the building, hostilities ceased when Khaled sought shelter in the
German Consulate, and the British got their man on his throne. A decorative wooden screen at Beit al-Ajaib
One evening I had dinner at Mercury’s, an oceanfront restaurant named in honor of former Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar of Iranian parentage. The house in which he was born and raised now houses a shop called Zanzibar Gallery. I became aware that when local musicians were not playing, Michael Jackson’s music was played all night. The following day a street seller of local CD’s began to sing, calling himself the King of Pop of Zanzibar. “So, you’re the Michael Jackson of Zanzibar?” I asked “Yes”, he replied, “but you know he’s dead?” I did not, but from then on I realized his music was being played everywhere. Zanzibar is known for its taarab music, a fusion of African, Arabic and Indian music which is performed all over the island. I heard and saw an exuberant performance at the Zanzibar Heritage House, drawn in from the street by the unmistakably African-influenced drumming.
The Arabs brought Islam to the East African coast but local people kept many of their animist practices. New-born babies may have had the call to prayer whispered into their right ear and the standing prayer whispered into their left, but they were linked forever to the land by a tree being planted at their birth under which the placenta was buried. Spirits – who were imprisoned during Ramadan - had to be appeased, and makeshift shrines sprang up in caves and under trees with little bits of cloth tied to branches and offerings of incense and food left.
Healers and diviners cured the sick by writing out Koranic verses on to a plate in saffron then washing it with pure spring water and having the afflicted drink it. Another favored cure was to have the feverish victim recite 40 times certain suras of the Koran – after each recitation a knot was tied into a long piece of cloth and the whole submerged in boiling water, which was then drunk. If the treatment failed, upon death the eyes were closed, arms were straightened and feet brought together, the body was wiped with oil of cloves, camphor and incense, paying particular attention to the points of the body used in prayer, the deceased was placed in a shroud and buried with the head facing Mecca and the right side of the face touching the earth. Three days of mourning were declared and on the 40th day a feast was given with food being given to the needy. A widow was required to be in seclusion for a minimum of 4 months and 10 days. (Not certain the same was expected of a widower?) Forty days was also the length of time a new mother was required to remain isolated from society, after which she was taken to the hammam for ablutions from her ‘impure’ state, her eyes were kohled, she was painted with henna and - of course - she received jewelry from her husband. Henna decoration of the body was considered to be of such potent sexual attraction, that unmarried women were not allowed to use it.
Ibn Battuta may not have set foot in Zanzibar but he was well acquainted with the coconut. This astonishing tree was an integral part of life for people who lived around the Indian Ocean. Its trunks were used in construction and for making furniture, the fronds were used for thatch; for fencing, roofs and brooms, the dried shells were used for kitchen and bathroom utensils, the husks were used for coir to make rope and to make Swahili-style beds, the meat of the nut was eaten, the liquid was drunk, the sap used to sweeten dishes or to make toddy, the meat was dried to make copra used to make soap, the oil used for boatbuilding and to add luster to women’s hair, and when dried, chemicals were extracted which were used to make such things as shampoo and modern day brake fluid. The coconut was, and remains, so central to people’s lives that new-born babies are sprinkled with coconut milk and coconuts are smashed at weddings upon the appearance of the bride. As for Ibn Battuta, of the coconut he noted wryly, “As for its aphrodisiac quality, its action in this respect is wonderful.”
Coconut palm outside the Omani-built fort, Zanzibar