Legend has it that, a long time ago, the Queen of Sheba was travelling aboard her royal boat escorted by war ships along the Swahili coast of Africa. Imperiled by a sea storm, the convoy was struggling to sail back to the African mainland coast. The Sea requested: “Promise now that you’ll return to me again”. The Queen threw her pearl necklace into the sea as a sign of pledge. “That is not sufficient”, retorted the Sea. Then the Queen threw two treasure chests into the sea which sprang open. From the pieces of jewellery was created a beautiful archipelago, whose two main islands are called nowadays Unguja (Zanzibar) and Pemba.
While I did not spot Zanzibar from the sky, I smelled already its tropical and rich scents. Those scents are made of perfumes and essences but also of spices, flavours, foods, not to mention lights, sounds and ambiances. Upon landing, I crisscrossed Stone Town historical neighbourhoods to capture those vibes.
Street life in Stone Town is vibrant, colourful and memorable. It can be also over-busy in the touristy areas. However, this is not where Zanzibar smells guided me. Narrow streets and alleys are plentiful, where authentic social life is still at play. Although Stone Town streets nurture plenty of different vibes, traditional Muslim social codes continue shaping local behaviours. Zanzibar has opened to international tourism, but stands firm on its cultural roots – Islam faith and lifestyle, strong family traditions, remnants of pre-Islamic traditions such as ancestors’ cult.
I spent very special moments in Jaws Corner – a traditional social hotspot in Stone Town. While I was sitting to observe the scene, a local man invites me for a coffee, which sparks a spontaneous and warm conversation. The social moment is more precious to my memory than any local material souvenir.
Also, this young girl walking nonchalantly to the coal shop, in order to feed the cooking fire at home. And the boy playing the big boss in front of his friend, which prompts ironic smiles amongst the local audience. And the young Superman apprentice who bursts into tears in front of his local audience. Not to mention the enigmatic little girl who approaches me theatrically with a wooden mask, playing a role unknown to me. Or the curious boy raising his neck out of the door to assess my presence. I could tell dozens more small but meaningful social stories which fuel Stone Town vibes.
Stone Town scents are indeed plentiful in local markets. Zanzibar archipelago is famous for spice production, as most of the oriental coast of Africa. Cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, curcuma, turmeric, pepper, ginger shape the savours and the smells in Zanzibar cuisines. More than spices, my camera preferred the explosion of shapes, colours and smells of the many tropical fruits and vegetables.
Stone Town stands next to the Ocean. Every step in the old town reminds us about this fact, to start with the air loaded with iodine. Fresh from the saline water, sea products sell on local markets. I will remember my long face-to-face with a swordfish that ended only when the fish was sliced into pieces for sale.
Rastafarian and Swahili cultures
Trekking in Stone Town is propitious to social encounters, including with Rastafarian people. Born in Jamaica in the early 20th century, the Rastafarian movement rejected British colonial and cultural rule and advocated for a new identity based on their African heritage. Rastafari ideology also promotes the return to Africa’s promised land and endorses pan-africanism. Stone Town streets display numerous references to Rastafarian culture, including in Swahili-style paintings. From there, I was also lucky enough to witness snow falls on the Kilimanjaro volcano cone.
As a former cabinet maker, I love fine woodwork. Stone Town spoiled me with strong smells of tropical woods and beautiful art pieces. Stone Town’s traditional entrance doors are built with tropical hard woods to resist against humidity and salinity. Long time ago, they were built with teak or ebony wood imported from Africa’s mainland. More recently, mahogany or teak wood, and even jackfruit or mango tree woods are used as well. Muslim and Indian references prevail in carved artwork, while Swahili culture inspires the sculptors.
Freddy Mercury and Taraab music
Freddy Mercury’s tremendous voice and his iconic songs travel with me since decades. I learnt only recently that the lead vocalist and songwriter of the British rock band Queen was born as Farrokh Bulsara in Stone Town in 1946 to Indian parents. The Parsi family from Gujarat state practiced Zoroastrianism. Farrokh was born as a British citizen as Zanzibar was a British protectorate at that time. He attended school in India and returned to Zanzibar only for a few months before fleeing with his family the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964 to resettle in England. Freddy Mercury’s unique charima and style on concert stages borrows certainly from his multiculturalist and turbulent background.
Stone Town also introduced me to Taraab music when I knocked the door of a local music school. Like much of the island’s culture, Zanzibar’s traditional music is a mosaic of various influences from all of the Indian Ocean and beyond. Taraab music was imported in Zanzibar from Egypt by the Sultan in the late 19th century. It quickly evolved into its own style. The Taraab music exemplifies this cultural blend of Arabic, Indian, Indonesian and Western musics with Swahili poetry and melody. It orchestrates a variety of instruments including zither, Arabic lute, flute, violin, accordion and drums.
Local architecture in Stone town can be as delicate and beautiful as awkward and messy. Walls often defy the verticality principle and lack maintenance. Historical buildings sometimes require bulky stakes not to crumble. However, Stone Town exhales an inescapable charm.
I also love the delicate beauty of the inner yards and corridors in historical mansions. The immanent serenity of those places nurture a wonderful peace of mind, propitious to enjoy Stone Town scents.