He came to with both eyes stuck shut with sleep. With some effort, he tried to get out of bed and vaulted onto the floor, his shoulder breaking the fall with a resounding crack: he’d flipped out of the hammock he’d fallen asleep in — a short nap that had turned into a fourteen-hour marathon.
Beneath the hammock, on hands and knees, he gazed out at the gray sea beyond his balcony and watched the sun rise slowly and the day creep in. Below him, fishermen in wooden dhows were out at sea. He turned to see servants in the home next door collecting jasmine and frangipani from their garden, getting ready for the day. Sea water tumbling onto the sand and retreating back to its home only threatened to seduce him back to sleep. He had woken to the enchanting rhythm of the isle of Zanzibar.
He had arrived late yesterday afternoon full of misgivings.
His father, though born here, had died this past winter on the forlorn Canadian Prairies, wishing, as always, to return home just once. To honor him, he had returned after — 30 years? 40 years? To a place he had last visited as a twelve-year-old, to a home not unlike the one next door where the malis still gathered flowers in the early morning for the breakfast table.
His annual summer sabbatical to Cyprus would have to wait.
He had expected to find the old town destroyed and masses of newly transplanted people overrunning the whole place, as in Dar-es-Salaam. To his surprise, the island still possessed its age-old tranquility, its populace seeming to have declined from the hubbub he had experienced back then upon landing at its harbor on a fishing dhow.
Washed and dressed, he wandered down the stairs of his Zanzibari hotel aching for that solace of long ago, the more poignant because of the reason he’d returned. He sidled up to Reception, seeking that singular key to the island — an accredited, English-speaking dragoman.
“Mr. Moses, could you find me a guide, someone who speaks English?”
“Of course, sir,” the manager replied, as if he’d been waiting for just such a golden opportunity. “He will be with you immediately.”
Felix, the certified guide, arrived on cue. Thank goodness he was the same height — five foot nothing (in Canada, his neck ached from constantly looking up at this tall people). Dapper and sporting a half-inch wide salt-and-pepper moustache immediately beneath his nostrils, Felix was quick to pontificate over the twelve years he had studied to obtain his credentials, unlike those others, completely uneducated, who hounded you on the street. He must have been in his late thirties.
Once fees had been negotiated — US $60 for the day — he asked what his guest would like to see.
“A tour of Stone Town. I was here thirty years ago and nothing seems to have changed. Can you show me some of the best brass tacked doors? I’d like to buy a copper coffee carafe and a Zanzibari chest. Do you have a store in mind? I’d also like to visit a traditional coffee shop to taste some Zanzibari halwa and then end up at the fish market.”
The officiousness melted off Felix’s face. He actually beamed upon learning that this tourist had once lived in Stone Town. “I’d be glad to take you to the fish market, sir. I’ve never been asked before.”
They crossed the square in front of the hotel to enter a warren of runaway, intertwining, meandering streets. Disorienting though it was, Felix’s confidence was reassuring.
They stopped at a set of doors, nine feet tall, carved from teak. Embedded in them were thousands of brass tacks in all shapes and sizes. Attached to them were large bulbous door knockers also in brass.
“The design of the doors was introduced by merchants from India who came to trade and then stayed on.” Felix began. “Similar solidly built doors in India were studded with tacks to ward off charging elephants.” He lovingly caressed a knob as though greeting one of his children. “The door knocker was the equivalent of a family coat of arms or a guild of craftsmen.”
Felix took a moment’s break to insist on taking a picture of his guest holding one.
“Sometimes you will see whole areas of Stone Town displaying the same type of door knobs. These relate to specific trades, such as goldsmithing, that congregated in that one area. Arab Muslim traders had their tacks shaped into texts from the Koran, hardly discernable in their intricate flowery shapes.”
Felix sighed and took a breather to allow his guest time to examine a door.
Something weighed uneasily in his mind. Yes, everything was as it had been. In fact, Stone Town was in better shape now than he had remembered from his previous visit. The exteriors of the homes were spotless. There was no garbage on the street — unheard of in a town in Africa. But for the tourists roaming the streets in twos and threes, there was no bustle. On his last visit, he had landed at the harbor in a dhow, just a few streets away. Then, it had taken his party of a dozen men over an hour to negotiate these streets, filled as they’d been with traders and beggars and coffee vendors, Arab women dressed to their eyes in abayas, leading their children by the hand through the maze of locals packing the unpaved alleys they called streets. Where were they? The black abayas and their men’s white thobes had disappeared, replaced by tourists in dazzling Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses and Nikon cameras — all in an awed hush as though visiting the sights of Pompeii. But the buildings still stood and looked as lived in and cared for as they had always done.
Marauding black birds hung in the air above them, waiting for an opportunity to grab whatever scraps the tourists discarded.
Around the corner from St. Joseph’s Cathedral stood a solemn five-year-old boy, still as a statue. He guarded the steps to the Abeid Curio Shop. His mother, all in black, sat within, tending an Aladdin’s cave of Zanzibari chests (each equipped with its own hidden compartments) and cabinets of all sizes. They, too, were made of teak and decorated with brass studs, the same as the doors outside. Along the twenty-foot-high walls stood coffee carafes, filigreed copper salvers, carved wooden dividers, and 18th century compasses and sextants. Silver and gold bangles and bracelets glittered within their glass enclosed cabinets. All manner of merchant wares stood on display. The store could well have stood untouched these past centuries save for a round, black rotary dial telephone, still being used by Mrs. Abeid while her husband worked in the backyard assembling, varnishing, and polishing.
Nailed against one wall stood framed photos of past customers — the Clintons, the Blairs, several Hollywood stars — and letters from personalities that he had only seen on television. One in particular drew his eye — a signed still of Yul Brynner in full cowboy attire from the movie Westworld, an ordinary looking old Western town in the US that had been turned into a theme park run by robots indistinguishable from their human counterparts. A frisson trembled through him.
“Felix, those carafes are making me thirsty. Where are the coffee vendors that used to walk the streets?”
“Come, sir, I’ll take you to a cafe. It’s close by.”
They left the curio shop to enter what looked from the outside like a traditional coffeehouse he had always gone to before. When he opened the door, however, instead of Arab men sitting drinking coffee, drawing on hookahs while playing backgammon on rickety tables, elegantly dressed European women in white linen sipped café au lait and bit into dainty profiteroles or French croissants. He turned around rapidly to exit and stumbled into a music stand holding up a stiff white placard, its graceful calligraphy welcoming him to Café Parisienne. He reached out to steady it again and hurried out.
“But sir,” said Felix, raising his hands to cover his face. “Madame serves the best coffee in Stone Town. All my guests love to come here.” He went to apologize to the French proprietress — now glaring at them — before following his client out.
There were no children playing in the streets, no crying of babies from the homes they passed. An entrance door stood wide open as he passed. Desperately wishing it to be the home he had spent such a happy week in so many years ago, he dashed in, only to find it nothing but a shell, within which stood a five-star boutique hotel.
“Felix,” he implored, “where’s the old fish market?”
“Patience, sir, we’re almost there.” They hurried on.
And there it was — on the very edge of Stone Town. This time, it really was the same. He could hear the noise and hubbub several streets away. He could smell it. It was exactly as he had left it: old men in dirty white thobes, with bidis, inch-long cigarettes, dangling between browned and broken teeth, the market overcrowded with patrons from the whole community. He got a flashback of once white ceramic tiled cubicles reddened with the gore of gutted fish, parts of the floor silver-gray with fish scales. It hadn’t changed.
“Where do all these people live?” he asked Felix in bewilderment. “They certainly don’t live in Stone Town.”
Then, through the haze across the road behind Felix’s back, he saw the answer to his question: block after block of five-story apartment buildings, the same ones he had seen in Iron Curtain countries, but on a smaller scale.
“Stone Town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We are given twenty million US a year for its upkeep. Too many hotels wish to come to Stone Town, so our beloved Sheik Karume built us those new homes.” Felix smiled weakly and looked away, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the apartment blocks.
Before the day’s end, Felix insisted on showing him Beit-el-Ajaib (The House of Wonders), the palace of Qaboos, the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar before the revolution. He was aching to see it, as it was in front of this very building that he had landed in a dhow on his first visit.
Its facade was crumbling, as were the stairs they took to the second floor where a large verandah jutted out to sea. It was deemed too dangerous to step out on to it. Worn red carpet, patched in places, led past a red cordoned suite of furniture — large yellowing white sofa sets with their stuffing hanging out, upholstery filthy with dust and dirt, a portable porcelain and gold water closet to be transported on the Sultan’s every visit abroad. Those who bore it, however, were required to use a simple hole in the ground. Each floor and stairwell was covered in giant gilt frames of black and white photographs of past Sultans and even one of a German mistress who became a consort to one of them.
“Felix, with twenty million US dollars’ worth of aid a year, why can’t they fix this place up?”
“The Omanis have promised ten million US dollars to refurbish the palace, but will not part with their money until they are given complete control over the project.”
It was all too much. He literally ran down the stairs, Felix close on his heels, and through the front gate onto the harbor below. It was a picture postcard of the same harbor and vessels he’d seen 30 years before. Even today, stevedores were hauling brown gunny sacks bearing red lettering to and fro.
The sprawling sea brought back that earlier voyage from Dar-es-Salaam: Uncle Sherali admonishing him for not holding onto the cross poles for support, “You’ll fall into the deep if you let go.”
He came to an abrupt halt before two dhows that were listing at the shoreline, half in, half out of the water. Without thinking, he climbed in, instinctively grabbing for the cross poles as the boat rocked with his weight. The grayed wooden poles were so splintered, they dug into his skin, forcing him to let go. Off balance, he toppled back out onto the wet sand, ending where he’d begun, on hands and knees staring at the sea.
About the Author
Born in 1955 to middle class East Indian Muslim parents in Tanzania, Emil Rem immigrated to England at the age of five and was fostered by a working class Church of England family. He spent his formative years commuting between the two communities, eventually settling in Calgary, Canada, as an accountant. He began writing in 2014 upon the death of his Indian father, the latest of many voices cut off by death in old age that had guided him and their community at large. The loss of these voices and the destruction of their community impelled him to preserve their wisdom for future generations, including his two teenage sons.