August 05, 2010

Hi. I'm back from Zanzibar- update


Welcome to Planet Zanzibar as I Invite You Into Another World.

Every time I leave Africa, I feel like a tree, yanked from the ground by it's roots. There is a comfort in seeing all the people who once seemed so exotic to me; women swathed in black "bui buis" and head coverings, the men in white robes (kanzus), and elaborately embroidered hats (kofia). Indians in traditional dress, some in pastel ruffled frocks and frilly head coverings, much like Sally Fields  version of "The Flying Nun". Now there are more and more Arabian women in rich, rhinestone studded "abayas" (like a bui buis, but from the Arabian gulf), and a recent influx of "Masai warriors," the young men who leave their homeland in the savannahs of Tanzania to know the world before marriage. They are wrapped in red cloth and wear lots of beaded jewelry with silver discs dangling. Many say they are city boys dressed as Masai to look more colorful as they work security for tourist hotels, and sometimes pose with spears as part of the wedding party when foreigners come to Zanzibar to get married. Then there are the foreigners- lots of us, running around with cameras or doing volunteer work. Other than a few clueless characters who defy the local's requests that they dress modestly and respect local customs, Zanzibar is a fascinating and congenial mix of traditions and modernity. 

Tea (Chai)

In this blog I want to share daily life on this most recent 4 week trip to Zanzibar. It felt like a year had passed since I'd arrived, yet the time flew by far too quickly. The nightly ritual, which I rarely missed was "Babu Chai". Every evening the man who goes by the nick name "Babu" sets up a table in the street selling spiced tea and spiced coffee (everything is spiced in Zanzibar because it is one of the historical "spice islands" in the Indian Ocean.) He cooks omelets full of chopped veggies over an open fire, and tempts passersby with a plastic container full of chapatis, mandazi (Zanzibari donuts), or other goodies. An eclectic crowd sits on barazas. Barazas are stone benches built into the walls of old buildings… an integral part of the Arabian stye homes. The heart of Zanzibar town is called "Stone Town". Its narrow maze of streets are made of stone. They are not wide enough for cars, but these days more and more used bicycles and motorbikes are arriving, so you always have to listen for the beeping horns warning pedestrians to move out of the way. Meanwhile, street vendors push wooden carts of fish and ancient men collecting garbage push similar carts, like huge, flat wheelbarrows, in hopes of getting something before the cats and rats scatter debris everywhere. Cats are a common sight. It is not uncommon to see them running away from other cats with a mouse in mouth.

Sipping at Sunset

I was renting an apartment at the home of Emerson. Emerson, a native New Yorker who has lived in Zanzibar for 21 years, is the man who helped create all the major arts events in town, opened schools and clinics and three hotels. He has a taste for traditional Zanzibari furniture, wood carvings, and fixing up the most architecturally divine buildings. My apartment had two high wooden four poster beds. Zanzibari beds are built several feet off the ground so the area underneath can be used for storage. As part of the malaria eradication program, all mosquito nets on the island are treated with mosquito repellant. Everyone sleeps under a net, which is not just for decoration. The place had a balcony overlooking our small street, hand woven Middle Eastern kilims and a mirrored antique armoire. On the roof of Emerson's place was a tea house where we would watch the sunset. Another eclectic array of people would pop by to say good bye to the sun. I met a man from the US Embassy, a scientist who travels the world as much as I, researchers, business folks and the like. Always someone with lots of information to share.    

Kahawa (Coffee) and Tangawizi (Ginger)

As if I didn't do enough socializing, I rarely went an afternoon with out visiting "Jaws Corner". It is a small plaza surrounded by barazas. An elderly man sells tiny cups of Arabian coffee, flavored with cardamom, and always served without sugar. A large woman swathed in black with a colorful "kanga" on her head would sell cups of sweet ginger boiled into a pungent brew and brought from home in a large thermos. Coffee cups and tea glasses were dipped in a pail of water then served to to the next customer. Arabic and Swahili men played lively games of dominos on a rickety wooden table, and a television was often set into a wall at night. Jaws Corner was known as a place where folks from the opposition party would hang out and discuss politics, but that has waned because peace and unity are just around the corner. A new referendum was voted on the day I left to unite both parties and give Zanzibar more autonomy from mainland Tanzania. I didn't meet anyone who was voting against it. 

Three Weddings and a "Taarab"

One night, I had a special invite from the 105 year old  Ikhwani Safaa, an orchestra specializing in "taarab" (Arabic derived music that soothes the soul). 

It was a special evening of "old is gold", as people in Zanzibar often call their much loved music. Women in elaborate gowns and men dressed in casual attire filtered into the Haile Selassie school's courtyard. This outdoor space, surrounded by Arabic archways is where many a special event is held. The first impression of Taarab is that there are no women, only about thirty men playing instruments. It is quite a sight when the singers, mostly elaborately clad women in bright colors, jewels, and perfectly coiffed appear one by one from behind the orchestra. A row of such elegant women are sitting onstage, hidden behind the musicians at all times, but they are not seen until it is their turn to sing. 

Women from the audience approach the stage, lip syncing their favorite songs, hands do gentle movements, holding 500 shilling notes (worth 35 cents) then putting them into the singer's hand and dancing with subtle hip movements for the rest of the song. 

There is a table where the bills are recycled as change for more people to gather and bring tips. For all the times I have come to Zanzibar, and even been given a passport like membership card as one of the Ikhwani Safaa band, this was the first time I'd seen taarab played in it's true context. 

The following week the band invited me to a wedding. It was a women's party, in which only the band, videographers and photographers were men. I worried about being under dressed, so I wore one of my bellydance skirts and rhinestone jewelry. The women surrounding me were dressed beyond what you would find at the Academy Awards. Colors, sequins, glitter and stones were astounding. They truly looked like princesses. Some even had dresses cut to look like princesses of days gone by. it turns out that clothing is a source of competition among women. One man told me "Many of them are poor." I asked how they could afford these clothes and he replied "Money from overseas. They have family in Oman who send them clothes. Those with family in England send them money to go to the 'fundi' (tailor)." I had noticed a disproportionate amount of tailor shops, often open doorways with someone pumping an old treadle sewing machine and scraps of sparkly fabric littering the floor. Their style of makeup was another interesting phenomenon. Pancake makeup several shades lighter than their skin was set off by bright pink eyelids, orange cheeks and other powders that matched the dresses. Elaborate hairdos and headpieces were also in vogue. Each woman was a work of art.   

Every wedding experience was different. In previous years, I've attended village weddings on dusty streets outside cinder block homes. I still believe that those are the most common. 

This time, I went to a most uncommon wedding party. It was for the girl marrying the son of an "Unyago" dancer. Unyago takes intensive training, and celebrates the art of love. Older women teach the young bride what to do to be a good wife. Movements are often done reclining or on all fours, showing eroticism with pride. 

A cement courtyard was full of sparkling women, though no match for the elegance of the women who hired Ikhwani Safaa for their wedding. The bride, who was around twenty was escorted to the stage by her future mother in law and several older women. Four suitcases full of gifts sent by the groom were opened and a group of women hastily inspected the clothing, kangas, perfumes, toiletries, and so on. "Changas" which are beads that are worn around women's waists before sex are considered a must. A large woman took each item and demonstrated how it would be used, I.E. what parts should be shaved (literally all parts below the neck) while doing suggestive movements to recorded music. She modeled kangas, pretended to spray perfume on her special areas, etc. The bride was completely overshadowed. Only four men were present - all videographers shining blinding video lights on the dancer. She ended up laying on the floor, shimmying. 

No refreshments were served until the end of the evening. It is customary not to serve food until people are ready to leave. They often take it to go. At this wedding, orange bags emblazoned with "Shop in Dubai" were given to each guest, containing water, a soft drink, and a box full of fried pastries. 

The President's Son's Wedding

This wedding, at the home of Zanzibar's president Karume, was tame by comparison. A band of Tanzanians playing American country music and vintage Latin hits entertained on the lawn of the "White House". Strings of white lights were strung overhead. Then came the cover tunes, and finally, they played a famous Swahili wedding song that the president's daughter sang. There were no doggie bags. After a sumptuous buffet followed by waiters passing out trays of ice cream bars, the band played African songs for everyone to dance. On the dance floor I met the presidents of both Tanzania and Zanzibar. 


Food is one of the great pleasures of Zanzibar. Every morning, I had tea and a plate full of fruit for breakfast; mango, papaya, tangerines, tiny bananas, and avocado, washed down by milky, sugary tea. 

Starch, oil, fish, and spices were the basic ingredients for lunch. There was a choice of Biryani or pilau, both essentially the same thing but one is rice, meat and sauce served separately and the other is the same ingredients mixed together. With a banana on the plate and oranges for desert, there was no need to have dinner. Other times, I ate lots of little green bananas boiled in coconut milk with tiny fried fish on top, or "ugali", a thick ball of cornmeal mush with fish, beans or spinach cooked in coconut milk on the side.

Every night, Forozhani, the garden area that was recently renovated by the Agha Khan foundation lights up with torches and fish vendors. A lovely soup called "urojo made with spices, coconut, "badjia" (dumplings), potatoes, kebabs and eggs, is sold as well as "Zanzibari Pizza". This crepe, with meat, veggies and mayonnaise in the middle has expanded into other varieties; chocolate, fish, etc.  

Miraculously, with all the pleasures of Zanzibari cuisine and cups of sugary tea, I actually lost weight. I attribute it to walking everywhere and lots of steep staircases. 


I arrived n time for the eight day ZIFF (Zanzibar International Film Festival). What had been a festival that set the town ablaze with activity and excitement several years back has deteriorated into a lame affair. Most of the time attendance was spotty. I went only one day, with several local women. They were delighted because there are no movie theaters in Zanzibar. We sat through a couple of South African films that, though they were in English I couldn't figure out what they were about. My friends were smiling, so I asked if they understood. They didn't, but they enjoyed seeing the images on big screens. 

My Film

One of my purposes for being in Zanzibar was to film an anthology of traditional dances. I managed to document over twenty dances, ranging from village traditions to wedding dances, professional dance companies, trance/ exorcism dances where people's "sheitans" came out to be on camera. Particularly compelling were "Maulidis", which are celebrations of the birth of Prophet Mohammed PBUH using trance like music, movements and vocals that can resemble blues or gospel. 

It has taken multiple visits over the past four years to go as deep as I have into the Zanzibari culture. People involved in the filmings are enthusiastic as I will be showing them the edited versions of their dances, then giving each group the final copy. 

Adventures included visiting the highly religious and traditional island of Tumbatu, where foreigners are not allowed unless the village elders approve them.  I also went to Mwaka Kogwa. Mwaka Kogwa is a vestige of ancient Persian New Years celebrations in which they first bathe in the sea to remove all the negativity from the past year. If anyone is angry with another, they can beat them with banana stalks while singing aggressive songs. Then both sides must forgive and forget. All the year's troubles are cast away as a hut is burned. One man is inside and not allowed to exit until the hut has nearly burned to the ground. Then he runs so fast that you can barely see him. 

This is my first plug for the film "Zanzibar Dance, Trance and Devotion." It will be available in June, 2011. 

Belly Dancing

My second motive, other than eating, drinking, filming and otherwise exploring the culturally fascination landscape of Zanzibar is to be a dance missionary, spreading the joys of bellydance. Once upon a time bellydancing was taught in schools, but that was over 35 years ago. Now, few people remember the steps. They know the words to the songs and often sing along when I am teaching. Favorites are the original, Golden Age versions of Egyptian songs Aziza and Zenouba. Everyone knows the famous Egyptian singers of yesteryear. Most of my classes were at the home of Maryam Hamdan and the students were also learning to play music. Maryam and her husband, Mohammed Ilyas (Ikhwani Safaa's artistic director) lead Zanzibar's first women's taarab band. it is called "Tausi", meaning "Peakock." Zanzibar's most famous singer, the nearly 100 year old Bi Kidude, even showed up for some of the classes. Her talents are many, as she plays special drums for "Unyago" (see 'weddings' above).She teaches Unyago as a dance, has an extremely powerful voice that takes her around the world for concerts. Earlier this month she sang in Poland. And she is a traditional herbalist who is known for curing asthma in you children and remedying a variety of illnesses from ulcers to leg pain. One day i was sitting with her when a man came and she taught him how to boil special herbs for asthma. The first time she came to bellydance class, she practically taught the class. Later she was content to sit in a chair smoking cigarettes, jumping up periodically to tell students to "slow down".

There are enclaves of Yemenis from different tribes who have special dances. I am awaiting my next trip to Zanzibar in February when I will have more time to spend with these women. They are more secluded and private than the Swahili women. I was invited to a four day wedding on the mainland, but it conflicted with my flight home. But we have agreed that I would get to see and hopefully learn their dances next time, although I was warned "Absolutely no filming or photography." 

Drug Free Zanzibar

I am pleased to report about the man I called Taariq in my book, who had had a heroin problem. He is now in recovery for more than four years and is busily spreading soberiety all over the island. Addicts call him "Mr. President", as he has spearheaded the recovery movement in Zanzibar. He has opened two "sober houses" where addicts enter and cannot leave while they detox for a month. He has introduced Narcotics Anonymous 12 step programs, meetings, and even soccer games. Recently, the using addicts played soccer against recovering addicts and those in recovery won. One day, while sipping coffee at Jaws Corner, a man complained that his brother was a heroin addict. I told about the sober houses, but he was resisting the idea. Just then two guys lifted their t-shirts, proudly revealing NA key tags attached to their belt loops. Another came and proudly proclaimed that he was drug free for 6 months. 

Scores of people have come clean with the grass roots program "Drug Free Zanzibar." There is still a problem with drugs but, one day at a time, they are helping each other to heal. This is the beginning of a happy ending. 

Exiting in Style!

The final week was busy with social engagements to say goodbye. I had a lovely assistant named Bikombo, who worked hard translating and helping me set up over twenty filmings of dances. She was also one of my students, as were her three younger sisters. They invited me home to their cinder block house outside of town. We ate lunch of beans, rice, fish, and boiled bananas, then the sisters put on a bellydance show. I was so happy to see that they had been practicing since my last visit in February. They invited a neighbor to come and draw traditional Swahili designs on my hands, arms, feet and legs with "pico" (Chinese hair dye that mimics black henna). The rest of my stay in Zanzibar, people on the streets called out "Harusi" (bride), "Ume pendeza." (Beautiful.)

One evening, I planned to meet Juma, who had been the musical director on my first Ikhwani Safaa recording in 2006. He now has a trio of musicians called "Baba Tatu" (Three fathers), that play trumpet, guitar, violin and maracas. Their music is a combination of old latin songs; Besame Mucho, etc., Zanzibari taarab, reggae. Egyptian, and Indian film songs, all with a Cuban-Zanzibari flavor. Earlier in my visit, while attending an Egyptian TV producer friend's birthday party on a dhow (Old Arabian style sailing vessel), Baba Tatu played songs by Amr Diab for me to do my bellydance show. Among my last evenings in Zanzibar, Juma was waiting on the baraza below my apartment. He said "The others are coming." Little did I know that they had planned to serenade me, as they put it "to make sure you come back to Zanzibar."

Kwaheri (goodbye in Swahili) to Zanzibar. Tuto a nana tena (See you soon).

Getting back to the US from Zanzibar often takes two days. including a night spent in Dar Es Salam, Tanzania's main metropolis, a five hour layover in Egypt, a night in London, and a transfer in Philadelphia. It is on the flight to Philly that I am writing this blog. 

I had the gracious hospitality of a Zanzibari family I have known since the days of "40 Days and 1001 Nights," the book I wrote in 2006 about life in the Muslim world. They showed me around Dar. Indians set up plastic chairs all over the sidewalks and cook chicken tikka with chips. We then went to Oyster Bay- more Indians selling yummy street food- and had hearts of palm stuffed with mashed potatoes, coconut chutney and chili. It was amazing!  The culinary tour included a visit to an American style shopping mall complete with fast food.

Although Tanzania is not exactly first world, I felt a bit of culture shock at my re entry to the modern world. Every time, after leaving Zanzibar, I cannot believe that such a magical place exists. It is as if it lives a completely different rhythm… like being in a parallel universe that is caught in a time warp. One hardly knows whether they are in Africa or the Middle East, whether they are in a bygone era or the computer age. It is like stepping into an alternate, highly seductive, mysterious and ancient world where one is part of the earth. You dance in the earth, sit on the earth, wear fancy dresses that drag across the earth. You smell the earth everywhere and it does not smell dirty. One even smells like the earth, and upon leaving, the scent vanishes, like it was only a dream. 

Until the next Raqs Africa Update (March 2011).

Please feel free to read past issues of this blog. It goes back to 2005 and you can find so much depth and so many changes in perception along the way. You are welcome to ask me to use any quotes from the blog entries and share them with your friends. 

Tamalyn Dallal