Door, spice and everything nice: Zanzibar-a culturally rich experience
Every five year’s once Tanzania hosts its national elections to elect a new President and members of their office. I happen to be in Tanzania, on my PULSE assignment during this historical event. Elections here are not always peaceful and this has been made apparent by the shortage of supplies and drinking water, extended periods of blackouts and scarce internet access. The entire nation is on lock-down mode until the new President is sworn in with businesses, offices and schools shut in anticipation of violence and riots (there have been a couple of riots in the past few days). The once jam packed roads of Dar es Salaam is now all but deserted. The deafening silence is broken only by sirens of military vehicles being deployed to ensure peace. Having stocked up on my supplies, I am currently riding out the storm by watching movies, reading books and doing office work. Thanks to my week of obligatory isolation, I have categorized and memorized every crinkle and peel of the wallpaper in my apartment (the categories are-big tear, small tear, big wrinkle and small wrinkle with occasional bubbles popping in around the corners). During one of my “lets-look-at-some-pictures-of-the-outside-world-to-retain-some-sanity-phase”; I came across pictures of my trip to Zanzibar last month. A 2.5-hour ferry ride across the majestic yet choppy waters of the Indian ocean transports you to the beautiful island nation of Zanzibar. I could still feel the warm salty sea breeze caressing my face while simultaneously frizzing my hair. Sitting on the beach watching life go by with powdery white sand between my toes and admiring the colorful sea critters wallowing in turquoise waters was a therapeutic experience. But what stuck with me the most about Zanzibar was its rich cultural history and this was evident in every aspect of its life, be it art, music, food or architecture. I could write a book about Zanzibar’s cultural history but for this post I have restrained myself to sharing about two of my favorites-spices and doors.
Why spices? Those versatile little aromatic bags of flavor with the power to evoke every sense was an obvious choice for an Indian. Zanzibar also known as Spice Island was a hotbed of spice trade from the 16th century, when Portuguese merchants set up base to trade spices between Asia and Europe. However, it was the Omani Arabs who harnessed the fertile soil, tropical climate and regular rainfall bestowed upon Zanzibar to cultivate spices. Today the island is peppered with spice farms which are not only used to cultivate cash-rich crops but also serve as tourist hot-spots and it is not difficult to understand why. Those sweet smelling exotic spices being dried out in the sun can lure anyone in with its tantalizing aroma. Entering a Zanzibari kitchen, one is instantly hit with a heady concoction of savory-sweet fragrance of the spices which make up its cuisine. The use of spices and herbs is however not limited to Zanzibari cuisine alone, from treating everyday ailments to the luscious red lips and the dark henna on the hands of the brides to the thatched roofs, baskets and ornaments made by braiding palm tree leaves-it is a way of life for the locals. Sure, the entire experience in the spice farm was a commercialized and dramatic show staged by the locals to entertain us while earning some extra cash. But I thoroughly enjoyed it and learnt how the use of spices varied from my own culture (some of them are detailed below).
“That evening we called in at Zanzibar where the air was filled with the amazing spicy-sweet scent of cloves, and I stood by the rail at the old Arab town and thinking what a lucky young fellow I was to be seeing all these marvellous places”. –Excerpt from Roald Dahl’s memoir “Going solo”.
Okay, but doors? In the meandering alleyways of stone town, ancient buildings stand steadfast whispering tales of its once glorious past. You need look no further than the doors of these buildings to get a glimpse of its vibrant history. Make no mistake, Zanzibari doors are no ordinary doors, each one ornate, hand-crafted and intricately designed- true works of art. Zanzibari doors, it turns out, also have deep rooted history with my ancestors. Many of these doors were imported from India or Indian craftsmen were shipped into Zanzibar to carve them. The door and the frames were carved first using Burmese teak/East African teak or mahogany and then the building was built around it. Many of these doors date back to 18th-19th century and at its peak, Zanzibar was home to 800-odd doors. Because of its beauty they are of high value and many were removed illegally and exported out of the island. Today, the Stone Town Development Authority is responsible for maintaining and tracking the remaining 500-odd doors in the city and they do so by photographing each door periodically to check for signs of tampering and wear and tear.
The doors are primarily of two kinds-Arabic and Indian and they can easily be differentiated by their iconography. The Arabic doors have Quranic scriptures engraved on them whereas the Indian doors have brass knobs and spikes (In India the doors were spiked to ward of elephants and although there were no elephants running amuck on the streets of Zanzibar, the Indian craftsmen retained the spikes for decoration). The doors also reflected the rank/status of the owners, the richer the owner, the more ornate his door. The doors also served the purpose of a business card- each symbol on the door representing a trade or virtue. For example: Beads indicated that the owner was a jeweler, fish scales meant a fisherman resided inside, geometric designs meant that the owner was an accountant and of the disturbing kind were the chains- symbolizing that the owner traded slaves.
I spent most of my time in stone town gawking at these doors admiring their beauty and trying to interpret the symbols on them only to be peeled away by the whistle of my ferry departing. I wish I could have taken back one of the doors with me, however, I had to make do with souvenirs instead which paid homage to the originals in the form of magnets, key holders, paintings and miniature replicas. As I sit in my apartment cursing myself for not taking enough of souvenirs, I hear a knock on my mundane factory made door with a faint dent of a flower etched on it pulling me back to reality. Well, at least for now I’ve found a new hobby to keep me entertained for the next few days- categorizing and interpreting the symbols on each door I shot a picture of (better than working on the wallpapers don’t you think?).
P.S: As I write this, there are reports of severe unrest in Zanzibar. I hope and pray that peace is soon restored to this beautiful island nation.
A big thanks primarily to the locals and guides of Zanzibar for their wealth of Knowledge.
Zanzibar Doors by Nancy Ingram Nooter. Source: African Arts, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Aug., 1984), pp. 34-39+96