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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.