For my headquarters in Zanzibar, I have adopted the old British Consulate on the waterfront at Stone Town. Most of the building is grimy, crumbling and shuttered, but part of it has been renovated into a first-rate bar and restaurant called Livingstone. The owner lets me wander the derelict rooms upstairs, where Livingstone, Stanley, Burton and other great explorers gazed across the white beach and sapphire sea, plotting their expeditions into the African interior. Traditional dhows still sail past, unchanged in their design for 19 centuries, and the fish they catch goes straight on the menu.
The old Consulate is also a good place to rest the boggled brain after a day in the maze of old Stone Town. Tourism is the lifeblood of the island now and it’s turning Zanzibar into a modern, sanitised version of itself, but in Stone Town at least the process still has a long way to go. Arriving here, I was braced for Starbucks, but instead I take my morning coffee at a busy little crossroads deep in the labyrinth, where a kind-faced old man prepares it on a charcoal brazier and pours it into tiny cups. The air smells of cloves and freshly peeled oranges, old fish and bad drains and, as the morning progresses, the crossroads turns into a wild parade of colour, activity and chaos. Here comes a red-robed Masai warrior with elongated earlobes, a knife and club on his belt, a lion’s claw necklace and a pair of white plastic sunglasses. He intersects with a woman in a full black robe and veil, who is talking on a mobile phone. A boy in rags cycles past with a huge fish tied on to his bicycle. The streets are far too narrow for cars and get jammed up with handcarts, motorbikes and donkey carts. There’s much shouting and pushing and pulling until the jam unclogs and everyone smiles.
Swahili women sway elegantly through the chaos in gorgeously coloured kangas, bright as butterflies against the dirty old buildings. The kanga is a rectangle of patterned cloth printed on the border with a proverb or riddle: ‘The eyes have no curtains’, for example, or ‘Sweetness is subject to be tested’. One kanga is worn as a skirt, another as a shawl and a third as a baby sling. Wonderfully versatile, the kanga also serves as a curtain, towel, shopping bag and something to sit on when women gather. It weighs nothing, costs about £3, is cool in the heat and female tourists here don’t last long without winding one around their hips.
At first, the geography of Stone Town is bewildering. Why are the streets so narrow? Why do they twist and turn? It seems secretive, a way of disorienting outsiders, but first and foremost it’s a way of maximising shade. The fierce equatorial sun never gets in for long and then only in patches. The labyrinth also encourages fellowship — it is impossible to ignore your neighbour when you can talk to him window-to-window across the street. Living in such close quarters also generates tensions and conflicts, and a peculiar Zanzibari ritual has evolved to diffuse them. At the turn of the year, men go out in the streets and whack each other with sticks, raising welts and bloody contusions, clearing away all their neighbourly tensions so the New Year can start fresh.
Most people come to Zanzibar for the beaches on the east and north coasts, but I can’t seem to tear myself away from Stone Town to investigate them. Lying down at night in my traditional Zanzibari bed — a four-poster with an elaborately carved frame, painted panels and draping mosquito net, at the small and lovely Beyt al Chai hotel – my mind races and whirls with everything I’ve seen and heard. Women’s hairstyles, for example. Where else do they have such fantastic names? At the House of Wonders, a magnificent old sultan’s palace turned into a museum, I learnt about hairstyles called Dress the Bed, Under Your Feet Grandmother and Evil Eye of the Second Wife.
Until I came to Zanzibar, I had never found anything remotely interesting about doors. But here the doors are elaborate social statements, intricately carved with patterns, symbols, verses from the Koran, and often studded with brass knobs or sharp spikes. You also see chains carved around the door’s perimeter to prevent evil spirits from entering, and fish scales to bring fertility. Traditional Arabic architecture values modesty and simplicity in a building’s exterior but, in Zanzibar, where transplanted Arabs from Oman made fabulous fortunes from trading slaves, ivory and spices, the need to display wealth and status was too strong and became manifested in their doors. The brass spikes were introduced from India, where they were invented to defend buildings against war elephants. In Zanzibar, where war elephants were never used, they are purely decorative.
The essence of Zanzibari culture is this mixing of African, Arab, Indian and ancient Persian influences and bloodlines, and this has given rise to a widespread geographical confusion about the island. The name Zanzibar is as famous and evocative as Casablanca or Timbuktu, but where is it exactly? The island lies off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean, a modest ferry ride or tiny plane hop from Dar es Salaam. It was first populated by African fishermen and in the seventh and eighth centuries they were joined by traders and refugees from Arabia and Shiraz in Persia (now Iran), and in later centuries by Indians. In the 18th century, Zanzibar was conquered by the Omani Arabs, who built most of the mansions and palaces, and left behind the most chilling reminder of the island’s history.