November 11, 2011

Zanzibar- blog

Wow! This last trip to Zanzibar was action packed! 
I arrived in Zanzibar July 1st, after an amazing retreat where me, Denise Marino, and Fathe brought five women into Egypt's Siwa Oasis. That magical oasis never fails to present something new and wonderful. I always feel that I am truly living in the moment while rolling down a sand dune, being buried for a sand bath by Berber women in traditional dress, or drinking the deliciously syrupy Siwan mint tea at sunrise.


Immediately, after the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Cairo to Zanzibar,  Suleiman Mauly of the Zanzibar Sober Houses and Maryam Ohlsen, event planner extraordinaire set about organizing the last details of "Orientalia Zanzibar" before the big group of international bellydancers arrived to spread sparkle and cheer in Zanzibar. 
Orientalia is a festival, aimed at showing Middle Eastern dance as an art form that everyone can enjoy no matter if they are rich, poor, or if they have any notion of what our dance form means. It is to erradicate the silly thoughts about Oriental dance being "just for men."
We have done forteen Orientalia festivals, in Miami Beach, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, and now Zanzibar. They are either free to the public or fundraisers for a good cause with free tix available for those who cannot afford. 

Orientalia Zanzibar, 2011 featured the following artistss; Tamalyn Dallal, Bozenka, Zayla, and Malia (USA), Leilaa Hiromi (Japan), Aida (Taiwan), Susan Molina (Argentina/USA), Alessandra (Venezuela/USA), Simbiya (Brazil),, Angela, Nathalie and Bianca (South Africa). The Tausi Women's Orchestra (Zanzibar's first ever orchestra where women play the instruments), and the Ikhwan Safaa Orchestra (Africa's oldest band, formed in 1905). 

This year's Orientalia was a dream come true. Imagine, nearly fifty musicians and Oriental dancers from around the world all under the stars in an ancint Omani fort in the center of Stonetown Zanzibar. We were all performing for a common cause- recovery from drug addiction. Those of you who read my book "40 Days and 1001 Nights" will remember the poignant story of my neighbor, who I called Taariq, but is actually Suleiman. I had previously changed his name for the book to protect his identity, but now he is a public figure and everyone knows the story of all he has overcome. In 2006, when I wrote the book, he was instrumental in helping me find my way around Zanzibar, mainly getting me in contact with the Ikhwan Safaa band, whose music I had been searching for. I was sad and shocked when he turned out to be a heroin addict since the age of 17 and seemed to have no hope for the future.

His story transformed into a happy ending. He went to Kenya to a recovery program as there was no help for the thousands of addicts in Zanzibar. (Zanzibar is a major part of the herion trade route that goes from South Asia to Europe and South Africa). He was successful in his recovery and through a miraculous set of coincidences went to the US to train with the Detroit Recovery Program. He started Drug Free Zanzibar and the Zanzibar Sober Houses. Also instrumental in this effort was a woman named Bi Fatma and a woman in California named Maggie who funded the first sober house. Soon this addiction recovery grew from a few guys being sent to the mosque to detox cold turkey through prayer -to hundreds of addicts recovering and several sober houses, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, etc. There is now a women's sober house, which I will tell about later in this blog. 

The director of Detroit Revocery Program, Calvin Trent came to Orientalia 2011 and gave a speech. The director of MEWA, the program in Kenya where Suleiman came clean was there too. The director of Culture for Zanzibar and the Consul of Oman sat in the front row with Suleiman. The Omani Consul sponsored elaborate decorations for Orientalia Zanzibar. At least 500 people were in the audience. This included a group from the Bohori community. They are a conservative group who said "We came to support recovery, and never expected to like bellydancing. But now we give it our stamp of approval too."

We were informed that our costuming would have to be approved of by a censor, who never showed up. Anyway, all dancers dressed in covered costumes. The dances were just as beautiful in costumes that were deemed acceptable in this conservative culture. 

The most special moment of Orientalia was when the stage filled with former addicts from the various sober houses, thanking Suleiman for saving their lives. 
You can see this powerful and poignant moment on http// 

See this Youtube link;

It was my dream to share the beautiful culture of Zanzibar with music and dance lovers from around the world. After a year of planning, participants came from all over the world. Some were dancers and others enthusiasts. One was even an enthusiastic husband! I had a couple of nights of lost sleep due to people missing flights, and making sure everyone arrived safely.
The retreat began at 4pm, July 5th-  "Shauri Ya Moyo", an amazing dance troupe, originally from the island of Pemba performed on the street, just outside Emerson Spice Hotel, nestled among the tiny pedestrian only stone streets of Stonetown. All the dancers and retreat participants were treated to a surprise as the street came to life with drumming and traditional stick fighting. They went inside and continued with an array of folkloric dances on each landing until reaching the roof- where gourmet island food was being cooked and the party continued in full force. 

The following day, Bozenka and I started teaching four days of workshops at the Dhow Countries Music Academy. The class room was idyllic, facing the ocean with a wooden balcony. (see this Youtube link)

Each night, we had different parties with amazing food and some of Zanzibar's best live musicians. One afternoon, we visited the Ikhwan Safaa clubhouse and watched them rehearse for Orientalia. Then we headed to an area called Mtendeni and saw Maulidi Ya Homu, a group of young men and boys who celebrate the birth and life of Prophet Mohammed PBUH through song and choreographed movements. 

We were invited to visit some of the sober houses. Many in our group were moved to tears upon hearing the tragic stories of the women who were struggling to break free of addiction. (See these same women singing for the first lady of Zanzibar- It sounds like an amazing African version of the blues). 

After Orientalia and an action packed week of workshops, parties and witnessing rare cultural art forms, we relaxed on a "spice tour". Zanzibar grows 70% of the world's cloves, plus a wide array of other spices. We went into the countryside to see all the trees and plants, and taste the spices as they came out of the ground. After a magnificent lunch of traditional, spice infused delicacies, the Fahari Acrobatic Troupe performed incredible feats before our eyes.  We then rushed to the ruins of an Arabian palace (Mtoni) so the dancers could don their costumes and have a photo shoot with famed dance photographer Denise Marino. 

The last event was a climax to a week where there was a climax around every corner; The Tausi Women's Orchestra held a home made lunch for us. The women played traditional Zanzibari taarab songs. We all danced together with them. 
Bi Kidude, Zanzibar's eldest and most famous singer, dancer and healer was the guest of honor. She is approxomately 100 years old and an icon throughout Tanzania. She danced for us, finally going into a trance in a tiny crumple on the ground. It was one of those most rare moments that few are priviledged to witness. 


After a smaller group of us went on safari in nothern Tanzania and everyone left to their own countries, I set about making sure everyone in my film got to see the finished product. Each group recived the film in its entirety, with permission to reproduce their part and use it for promotion. In one village they asked "What are we going to do with this? We don't have electricity or anything to watch it on!" That is when, along with Tawakal of Zanzibar Rent a Car, who had been an incredible help with the retreat and two years of filming, we brought a projector, generator, sheet, and bags of popcorn to each village. It was amazing to see the reactions. Lots of giggles when they saw themselves and their neighbors on the big screen (a sheet secured onto a wall with heavy rocks). 

We traveled by boat to a highly religious island called Tumbatu where one needs a pemit and approval of the shaikhs to enter. Although the elders knew what the film was about, we were only allowed to show the devotional dances. Tumbatu is desperately poor, but the children were some of the most beautiful and pure that I have ever seen. 

Finally, we had secured all the permits to show the film in Stonetown. Yet, there were a small minority of disgruntled naysayers who didn't approve of films being shown in public. They said "Once someone showed a film with people kissing. We don't know what your film is about. If you show it, we will break the projector and beat up the man who arranged this." We were urged to cancel, and did so to avert an incedent. I was disappointed that, after repeated success and several weeks of constant high points, the last moment was strange, to say the least. 

Soon I was off to Ethiopia, on a week long stopover before going home. I met a man named Tesfai who teaches circus arts to children and teenagers, then sends these incredibly talented and focused kids around the world to perform. He really encouraged me to do my next dance film in Ethiopia. 
While Zanzibar has been exposed to many cultures and is truly a melting pot, where traditions from Bantu tribes and the Middle East have melded together, Ethiopia seems to have developed in a vacuum. The dances, food and language seem unrelated to anything else in Africa. 

I am still trying to decide whether the next "Dance on Film" will be in the province of Aceh in Indonesia (where many dances are done sitting down). Orphans from the tsunami of 2004 were instrumental in preserving traditional dances after the tsunami destroed villages and killed many of the masters of their dances. ...Or will it be in Ethiopia? If there is support and interest in preserving and sharing these unique dances, perhaps I should make a film in Ethiopia and another in Aceh, Indonesia.