April 26, 2011

Zanzibar Blog, Feb., 2011

February, 2011


Whew! Getting to Zanzibar took some determination this time! Trying to get out of Egypt during the revolution was a challenge. My Ethiopian Air flight was cancelled- but there was no way of knowing till three hours before flight time. So I went on a Thai evacuation flight to Jordan, then bought a ticket to Dubai, then Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. It took a couple of extra days and was expensive.

Yemeni Wedding in Zanzibar

The day after I arrived, I was invited to a Yemeni wedding.

            Faiza, Aisha, and Afrah were among the Yemeni women I met in Stonetown, Zanzibar. People from different Yemeni tribes left several generations ago. I was told it may have been their great grandfathers time or even great great grandfathers. I've met people of the Yemeni diaspora along the coast of Kenya as well as in Indonesia.

What is remarkable is how strongly they adhere to their heritage and customs.

            There are many tribes, including Al Mahra, originally from Hadramut, and Hazaram from Mahala.

            The home I visited is one of the ancient stone houses in old Stonetown, Zanzibar. To enter, I rang a doorbell. Aisha pulled a string from the second floor to unlock the door. Everyone who visits understands. A woman cannot be seen opening the door unveiled.

            Asaa, who works with Emerson in the house next door knows the family well. He was asked to stay downstairs, as it was Friday and Aisha was seated in prayer. I entered and she was wearing the white headscarf and body covering that is typical for women all over the Muslim world. After her silent prayers were over, she greeted me warmly. Asaa was allowed upstairs.

            On my last visit, I had expressed interest in dances of the Yemeni diaspora. This was my first day in Zanzibar, and already there was a wedding for me to go to. They explained that it is not one with dancing as they usually do. This couple got married in Dubai, but wanted to do something in Zanzibar. They chose to celebrate with "Maulidi"  a group that celebrates the birth and life of Prophet Mohammed. In most countries, I was told, they don't have mauled groups as wedding entertainment, but in Zanzibar it is common. I have filmed male mauled groups. But had never seen an all female group.

            One of the women, who was visiting from Dar Es Salaam explained that there are many types of wedding celebrations. Many involve dance. In the past, one group of female dancers would perform at all the weddings. They did a "pearl dance" with strings of pearls on their ankles. The moves were generated by their feet, but the whole body moved. There are other traditional dances as well. These women in Dar know the dances, and they play drums. They are not hired as much now. Taped music is more popular. Also, weddings that used to last four or five days last one or two in these days.

            She told me about a special style of Hazaram dress called "budel". It has a tail in the back. In the old times, budel were mid calf length in front and reached the ground in back. Women wore pants underneath. it was then decided that women should not show their pants and the dresses should be full length in front.

            We were given passion fruit juice and cake, then i was told to return in the evening.

            That evening, I sat with Aisha for a long time, eating all sorts of delicious Zanzibari breads. Eventually, a group of women came to take me to the wedding. Aisha was not feeling well and didn't come.

            Most Yemeni women I met were married at 15 and started having children soon after. They were extremely heavy, though attractive. Being big seemed normal and not shameful for them. One of the women was expertly made up and coiffured. She wore the budel style of dress. It was black velvet, like a large caftan that was long in the back. It was adorned with elaborate rhinestone flowers. Her sister said that people get their dresses in Yemen, but have to special order ahead and have them made. The mother wore a bui bui (black abaya) and headscarf, but younger women wore an extra veil covering the face. When not in use, it was flipped atop the head.

            A car was waiting to take us to "Batul Yamin" (House of Yemen). It was a small stucco building with pink writing. About ten teenage girls sat in a circle on the floor, playing frame drums and singing into microphones. They had matching dresses and woolen head scarves.

            The room filled with large women in bright colored chiffon dresses, heavily bedecked with rhinestones. They were extremely glamorous, with all kinds of head wraps.  They would shuffle up to the group of girls who sang qasidas (songs about prophet Muhammad, PBUH). With a bill worth 30 to 70 cents, everyone tipped the mauled group and did a very subtle shuffling dance in front of the group. Although these women are very private, especially when unveiled, two male videographers circulated among the crowd with bright lights, attached to long cords that everyone had to be careful not to trip on.

            This went on for hours, until everyone stood up. Udi (Arabian inscence) was carried through the crowd. Everyone waved the perfumed smoke toward their bodies as the burner with charcoal and aromatic scents was put in front of them.

Another woman brought perfume oil and put it on the back of each attendees hand. A third had a bottle of perfumed water which was sprinkled on each of us. We were urged to sit again. Taped music was played and people did another shuffling dance from Dubai.

            A tray of shish kebabs was passed around and everyone took a skewer. Later, as is traditional in Zanzibar, take away food is brought to everyone at the end of the party. One bag contained a soda and water. The other had a plastic container with several cakes and savory snacks.

            The bride entered. She was beautiful and slender. Wearing a white wedding dress covered with silver rhinestones, she carried a large rhinestone covered circular amulet, stepping slowly and solemnly while being filmed. She ended on the stage, seated in a fancy chair. People took turns posing for pictures with her, three or four people at a time.

            Finally, the groom entered. A tall, slender and handsome young man in a turban and robe with a long vest with gold cording. He took his place next to the bride on a chair. After more videotaping and photos everyone left. 

            Sadly, Aisha passed away ten days after this was written. I knew she had high cholesterol, among other health issues. What I didn't know was that she had throat cancer. She went to India for an operation, and passed away there. Her husband had passed not long ago. She had two grown sons and a twelve year old daughter. Her daughter is now an orphan. When I was at their home, ten days earlier, the daughter said she wanted to go to college. She said her father and grandfather had thought that good girls should only study till about 6th grade. She said her brother feels the same way as he adheres to the old traditions. She wants to go to college. Her mother agreed that she should be able to go to college. Without her mom, I wonder what will happen to her education now. I can only hope for the best and hope that she is determined to accomplish and follow through with what she wants in life.


Drug Free Fundraiser

I spent four days preparing the Swahili Sisters to perform at the Drug Free Zanzibar fundraiser. One of my former students, a well known dancer named Virginia in Miami donated a set of sparkly Egyptian beledi dresses for the Swahili Sisters to perform in. They chose a lively Arabian Gulf pop song and we made a skeleton choreography.

            Trisha Tinsley, a dancer from Seattle and her husband James came to Zanzibar just on time for her to perform at the fundraiser. The whole event was a smashing success.


Touristy Stuff

            After all these years in Zanzibar, I had not done the typical tourist sights; Prison Island and a Spice tour. After five years, I took my first rickety boat ride to Prison Island. Upon disembarking from the bumpy boat ride, we found ourselves in a sanctuary full of giant land tortoises, then swam at a pristine beach.

            The wind picked up on our way back. Just after we landed in Stonetown a huge wind storm whipped up swirling torrents of dirt and dust. Pieces of corrugated metal flew from rooftops, and the electricity went out- for two days.

            The famed Busara Music Festival, where I performed last year, started that evening. Last year there had been a complete blackout for three months. This year, they thought they had light, but no. They whisked in the generators and scrambled to get it under way as people waited in the dark.

            We took a spice tour. This is where you go to a spice farm and see all the spices we find in our supermarkets- cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, nutmeg, and the like- in their plant form. We learned about how each one is used, and its healing properties.

            Afterwards, Trisha and I took a cooking class. This was organized by a young man named Simai. He is trying to bring tourism to the outlying suburbs where people live in cinder block homes and have little contact, and even less financial benefit from the onslaught of tourism that pours into Stonetown daily.  We made fish biryani, bananas in coconut milk- which involved half an hour of sitting on a special tool and rubbing a coconut against a saw like contraption, then adding water and squeezing the coconut meat until the water became white.

            Part of the proceeds from Simai's tourist business goe to his center, where he teaches computers and English to people from his neighborhood. His is a self styled grass roots empowerment program.



            Trisha and I taught bellydance classes for the Tausi Women's Orchestra. We toured the four Sober Houses started by Suleiman Mauly and the organization he founded, Drug Free Zanzibar.  What is amazing is that last year, the fundraiser that I performed in raised enough to open a second sober house. The year before, Mr Mauly opened the first sober house. Before that, there were thousands of heroin addicts in Zanzibar and no one to help them. Now, hundreds can be helped- and hundreds have become clean as a result of these sober houses. Another example of grass roots empowerment. Outsiders can bring money and try to do something good in Africa, but when it comes from the local people, even with few resources, but lots of heart, that is really effective.

            Another good cause I visited was the ZAASO Donkey project. One woman from Holland's heart was bleeding for the abused donkeys of Zanzibar. She now has a large plot of land in the countryside where abused and ill donkeys can go for recovery. This has expanded to include dogs and cats. Once a week people can bring their farm animals to Zaaso to see a vet and get vaccinated. We saw a man who had been riding for miles with his goat in the basket of a bike. Farm animals and their meat and milk spell survival for many families.


"Zanzibar Dance, Trance, and Devotion"

I finished filming dances on my last trip. I went to Miami on three separate occasions to edit each dance segment. In all, there were 27 dances. Now, it was time to revisit each group and show them what I had edited. Much of this trip was spent revisiting each village and meeting with each local group. I filmed them watching themselves. They gave feedback on what they liked and what they would like to see changed. We also added a lot more information, including lyric translations for the songs in most pieces. When I return in July, I will go to each village with my portable projector and a speaker, extension cords, and a sheet to show the film in its entirety to those who took part in it. I hope it will elicit some of the wonder of traveling cinema of days gone by.

            Every group was happy with their section, only suggesting minor tweaks here and there. One group was the exception. I had filmed the Mwaka Kogwa Festival in an area called Makanduchi last July. This is descended from the ancient Persian New Years festivities, but has changed over hundreds of years. Now, it is a three day event where cows are slaughtered, there is ritual bathing in the sea, special feasts, and people fight with banana stalks if they have a beef with someone. Afterward, they must leave past grievances behind. The festival culminates in the burning of a hut- with a man inside. Not completely covered in flame proof fabric, he runs out in the nick of time. There are rituals, ceremonies and meanings every step of the way.

            Most places I filmed were a surprise. I didn't know what to expect, and was thrown into the middle of whatever each group or village wanted to show me. I often would not know if they were going to do a folk dance or go into a trance. But each group was in control of what they thought was important for me to film, and answered my questions afterward. Not so with Makanduchi. I was among the throngs of tourists, TV cameras and onlookers from other towns. I was told to talk to the head committee after I had the piece ready,, and something to show them.

            When I saw people beating one another with banana stalks and singing bawdy songs, it all seemed so outrageous. Now, I met with the 22 "clans" (leaders), I was nervous. It was in their library, which was filled with books. There were positive affirmations in English all over the walls. Some of these leaders were retired teachers and bankers, who spoke English quite well. Not quite what I was expecting. They wanted to see every group in the film. In the end, they did not approve of their section. I was told that I had better guidance for the other filmings, and they wanted to be represented equally well, if not better. I was asked to return for Mwaka Kogwa this July and film again- under their direction. They said I must start a week before, with the slaughter of the cows, and continue through the three days of the festival- including the rituals and all customs. I want to- but the film will already be out. We agreed that I will film them, to add to a later edition of the film.


Orientalia and the Zanzibar retreat

In July, in addition to bringing copies of the film to everyone in it, and showing it in villages, I am planning to share Zanzibar with folks from the bellydance world. It is a week long retreat in which me and Bozenka will teach workshops, along with the Kariako dance Co. of Zanzibar. We will have dinners and experience many types of local dance and taarab music. Setting this up takes tremendous coordination. Already there are 17 people signed up, so the trip is full.

            As part of this event, we are going to have a festival called Orientalia- open to the public at an ancient Portuguese fort- ampitheater. It will be a fundraiser in support of the Sober houses of Zanzibar, which are now five and will be six by the time the festival takes place. There will be about 14 dancers performing, and both taarab groups- Ikhwan Safaa and the Tausi Women's Orchestra will play.

            This trip in July will be the last trip I have planned for Zanzibar, as my film project will be finished, and I don't have any more music recordings or filmings in the works for the island…But it will soon be revealed which will be the next place (from the travels of "40 Days and 1001 Nights") where I will film traditional dances.