Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Of Sultans and Slaves

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I was looking through an album of photographs I took in Zanzibar a few years ago. I wanted to remind myself of that languorous, deeply sensual island with its coral fringed reefs and steamy tropical vegetation because I’d just finished reading Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Admiring Silence. 

gurnah It’s a tale of a man hopelessly enmeshed in a trap of his own making. After fleeing Zanzibar for England, the nameless narrator fathers a child by an English woman and struggles to come to terms with the racism he must confront as well as his ambivalence toward becoming part of English society. The brittle and fragile existence he builds for himself comes crashing down during a visit to his native land after many years away. There he realizes that he is an outcast from both worlds. Admiring Silence is a bitter and often bitterly funny look at the struggle to belong in an alien world.

Gurnah’s descriptions of the island are not as romantic, idealistic  or as fanciful as my memory of Zanzibar and its capital, Stone Town……….

 

THE MUSIC OF MEMORY

Some places whisper, some shout and some prattle incessantly like meaningless dinner-party small talk. Zanzibar sings.

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It sings of sultans and slaves, of lateen-rigged dhows driven by monsoons past coral-kissed coastlines. It sings of unspeakable cruelty, unimaginable wealth, palaces dedicated to pleasure and the elopement of a love-struck princess.

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Zanzibar is the stuff of grand opera; it's a score from the wildest imagination, composed from a rich melody of aromatic spices and ivory.

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But the tale of Zanzibar is also written in blood and rooted in historical reality. The principal players have long since vacated their dressing rooms and the audience has gone home, but the orchestral strains of the opera linger on through the narrow, labyrinthine streets of Stone Town.

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Like women in full purdah, each dilapidated shutter hides a story, each carved wooden door tells a tale. The island's legacy of trade hangs heavy over the market place where mangoes, tomatoes, chill is and bananas - as long and curved as Persian sabres - provide sensory relief from fly-ridden fish entrails, octopus tentacles and cow's heads.

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You can almost hear the tragic chorus of thousands of slaves at the Anglican Church, erected on the site of the infamous slave market. The damp, claustrophobic dungeons make your skin crawl, as do the tales of suffering and inhumanity.

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Out in the squares the chorus singers are still in fine voice. "Jambo, habari" they greet passers by. “Karibuni, you are welcome again," chime in the traders and curio sellers. High above the hum of dala-dalas and the shrill of bicycle bells, muezzins call from the town's 50 mosques. The spine-chilling yawl of scrawny cats fighting over a rotten morsel of fish adds a discordant note.

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It's all part of the melee of cultures, sights and sounds that are Stone Town. For Zanzibar is a pocket of contrasts - there's squalor among the splendour and spicy aromas rise above the stench of sewage.

39 comments:

Sarah Laurence said...

What stunning photos! I can see why you revisit your album. I love how you use photos to illustrate the book. I hope to see Zanzibar in person one day.

lakeviewer said...

You are a magic weaver of tales, my dear Tessa. Your photos and narrative sensuously draw us in this land of rich hues, strong smells, and enchanting sounds. I've just traveled thousands of miles.

Ces said...

I think we focus on the things that we want to see. For eaxample when I go home I take photographs of ordinary people and people who live in poverty because they are so forgotten and are always never a part of the brochures but they are the people I worked with when I was a student nurse, the people who helped shape my views and philosophies.

However, that said, there is no masking the beautiful colors, the smells, and architecture that you captured because they are what they are and you saw them and that is how you view the world with those magnificent and beautiful eyes of yours. My you remind me more and more of Isaac Denisen with a modern twist. You must get that book published. I will make an exception and read a modern author's novel.

Elizabeth said...

Zanzibar has always been on our list.
These pictures made me think that we had better actually go there.........soon.

pink dogwood said...

I never thought of Zanzibar as one of the places I wanted to visit - but your words and pictures are magical. I love reading everything you write :)

linda said...

your writing is full of such deliciousness, I can taste where you've been, see the sights that fill your mind and palette, sigh at the heartbreak before your eyes...thank you for bringing this part of the world to life for me...

blessings to you...

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Lovely words, amazing photos. Even the name, Zanzibar, is fetching and exotic.

Holly said...

The young woman in blue and yellow? Tessa! She is stunning. I love this photo best of all of them. I will never go to Zanzibar, but thanks to your story telling and photography I visited there briefly.

kj said...

it's getting to be habit that i find myself whispering, "oh tessa..."

your photos and words honor a place i have never been so richly it's as though i'm there and i understand.

what a talent you are. do you know?

"Zanzibar sings"

that's my favorite line. and then you take me on a journey of repetition that builds on itself.

yay tessa! xo

Amelia said...

These are incredible photos. Wow! I loved the journey back you took us all on today.

Yoli said...

I absolutely love this post dear Tessa. For the longest of time, Zanzibar has haunted me.

Janelle said...

gorgeous! i LOVE zanzibar! we're headed to pangani..mainland coast opposite zanzibar..on saturday..can;t WAIT! lots love xx j

jinksy said...

Jewel bright set of photos, Tessa, good as any royal gems...

MONICA said...

These pictures made me smile and know wonderful views of Zanzíbar. Thanks for sharing your photos.

Caroline said...

This is a simply wonderful post, Tessa! Your photos and words conjure up the most magical and exotic destination, complete with aromas both good and bad! Of course, I'm bound to love it, aren't I? There is such a flavour of Oman in those photos - the door carving, the embroidered hat, the dhow ... Gorgeous photos, all, but my favourite photo is the one of the woman and child - that touch of colour is stunning!
Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

DEB said...

How beautiful Tessa! You always make places seems so exotic and inviting with your prose. I'm a chicken, and content to experience Zanzibar vicariously through your blog. Thank you for sharing!

Reya Mellicker said...

Beautiful photos and thoughts. Even the word "Zanzibar" is exotic. Feels like it's a million miles away from DC.

Thank you for this.

Love the new blog look ... or am I just seeing it differently?

Merry ME said...

Not sure which is more beautiful - your words or photos. I was drawn in with "Zanzibar sings."

I love coming to you blog. It's like traveling the world without leaving my couch!

The Green Stone Woman said...

Well loved Tessa, because you are well loved, is there anything you can not lay your eyes and hands on and not make magical for your readers? You are a privileged woman in a privileged position and to them you are a queen who rises well above the ordinary. You are gracious in the adoration you receive. Others would let it go to their head, yet I smile when I read all the accolades and I wonder what you do?

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Ooh, wonderful and inspiring photojournalism, Tessa - such a richly evocative post - gorgeous!

soulbrush said...

never been there, magical...

Silke said...

Oh, what inspiring and magical photos. Thanks for sharing!! Made my day! :) Silke

Lori ann said...

Incredible, gorgeous, amazing.

really.

xoxoxoxoxo

elizabethm said...

Very beautiful photos and words. I love the very name of Zanzibar.

Grace Albaugh said...

Tessa, these photographs! I particularly love the one with the little girl in the yellow skirt. Fantastic. And your text.

Really, really nice post.

kj said...

it's always good when it's the little things that bring happiness...like, for example, getting into your blog without a problem that too often forces me to try, try again. :)

have a good day, tessa. mwah!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, the colour. It floods the imagination!

Madame DeFarge said...

This looks amazing. You've captured some fabulous images here.

Cynthia said...

"Zanzibar" sounds like a wonderful book, Tessa. I will look for it at Borders. I love the spices photo...such richness of color and abundance.


I read your touching comment @ Soaring Impulse...sincerely, you inspire me.


Can you get into my blog yet? Use a browser other than Explorer...like Mozilla Firefox and it won't fly off...into the cyberspace Netherlands

Cynthia said...

Tessa, is the year of donation to the people of Swaziland- related to the sale of your art work- finished? I'm updating the Oasis Writing Link (OWL) blog sidebar and want to make sure that I got the facts right. You can email me at cpittmann@gmail.com to answer. Thanks. <3

A Cuban In London said...

What a fantastic review and what amazing photographs! I can identify with the main character of the book you just read. Those, like me, born in developing nations, when we go back home we're seen differently. Like tha man I'm caught between a country where I have no longer a present or a future (Cuba) and one where I have not got any past beyond 1997. I loved your narrator's voice. Proper BBC or Channel Four's presenter style. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Lulu said...

I'll have to add Zanzibar now to my bucket list!!!!!!

It's looks wonderful.

Thanks so much for the peek.

Michelle said...

Gorgeous post.
I've used a portion for my quote section here -
http://crows-feet.blogspot.com/2009/07/newsflash-for-mid-summer.html

karen said...

Hi Tessa. I've been going back and catching up on everything, from Pimm's to the great news about your novel, brave you for entering the poetry contest - and these are such beautiful pictures of Zanzibar! x

Hayden said...

Hi, I'm visiting via Michelle's blog. I've always fantasized on visiting Zanzibar... approaching by sea so I could smell the cloves long before landing.

Don't even know if it is possible any more... I read of it many years ago and the notion embedded itself permanently in my memory.

Woman in a Window said...

These are your photos? They're incredible! It seems in the most beautiful places you can find the largest contrasts. Isn't that odd? I guess the rich flood to grab the bounty and the poor, well, they just stay poor.

Terri said...

What amazing photographs... and words... I think I want to go there now.

cuileann said...

My God, what magic.

pRiyA said...

for me, zanzibar like timbuctoo is a place in fairyland. just the fact that you have set foot in it floors me...one day, i will travel to all these places...one day...