Gifted with white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, aromatic spices and ornate Arabic architecture, Zanzibar is considered the cultural pot of Africa, says Hasan al Lawati.
We arrived in Zanzibar in the afternoon and were greeted by its warm tropical air as we left the airport. You smell history and feel its rich culture the moment you step on land.
Over the last 2,000 years, the island has been in contact with Persia, India, Arabia and the coast of East Africa, resulting in nothing short of an impassioned history. “Zanzibar is African, yet different from Africa. It is Arabian and Persian, yet different from Arabia and Persia; and Indian, yet different from India,” Ismail Jussa, a Zanzibari friend of author Robert D. Kaplan, was quoted in the American’s book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. I found that to be very true. There is no “ethnic theme” in Zanzibar, it is an organised cultural chaos. However, the Omani cultural influence is visible in Stone Town, a historic business hub. Here, you see many locals sporting Omani headdress and dishdashas.
Stone Town is the old part of Zanzibar, and it got its name from its ancient stone-made buildings. The tropical paradise is gifted with white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, aromatic spices and ornate Arabic architecture. I visited the breathtaking Changu Island (prison island), which is home to giant tortoises that can live up to more than 200 years. Their ages are written in blue paint on their shells. Later, I snorkelled off the coast. The cold water felt good with the baking summer heat. There are very few branded hotels in Stone Town and poverty has taken its toll on the outskirts of the ancient city. It is hard to recognise the car brands they use and the roads, including the double-lane highway, are damaged in most places. The airport is worn and the city lacks shopping destinations or malls. Despite all this, Zanzibaris live by ‘Hakuna matata’, a Swahili phrase that means ‘no worries’. People smile at strangers and respect tourists. I met a bunch of Zanzibaris who said tourism was really helping the country to curb unemployment.
Later in the evening, I strolled through Forodhani Gardens, a popular street food market that attracts thousands of picnickers in the evenings, and saw teens jumping off the corniche to hit the cold, dark waters of the Indian Ocean as spectators cheered to every loud splash. As we walked past the gardens along the seafront, we saw the House of Wonders, which was built by the former Omani government. The century-old building was the first in East Africa to have electricity. The House of Wonders is a cultural museum now. Adjacent to it is the Old Fort. Now a cultural centre, it was once an Omani fort built to protect the town from European invasions.
Stone Town is simply made of tall buildings with narrow allies snaking through markets on the ground floors and residents in the upper stories.
Painting is very popular in Zanzibar. Colourful, original works are sold at cheap prices, in addition to wooden frames and accessories. You could take home paintings of African animals and tribal people at really cheap prices. The bananas, star fruits and oranges tasted quite different from the ones we have in Muscat. The market’s similarity to Souq Muttrah is remarkable. The tall buildings protect shoppers from the baking heat and their shadows keep the market dark through day time. My blood ties with Muttrah made me love the Souq more than any other place on the island.
There is one place that is impossible to love: the former slave market which displays the dark history of slave trade. The tiny low-ceiling rooms that were meant to keep slaves chained inside remind us of the horrible tales of the eerie past. The rooms that housed 50 or more starving men provided not even enough oxygen for them to breathe in and they had no toilet. According to our guide, the slaves were used to carry ivory and many died during long trips from sickness or harsh weather. It doesn’t rain much in Zanzibar, but when it does, it is between March and May. Weekend holidays here are on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Zanzibari economy depends mainly on tourism and spice trade but it faces major economic challenges. Many government buildings are poorly maintained and the streets are too narrow. While the Omani influence is part of Zanzibar’s history, Indian influence is part of its present.
Our driver was talking passionately about Bollywood, saying it is more popular than Hollywood here. “I love Shah Rukh Khan, he is my favourite star, Indian films have nice romantic stories and really beautiful music,” he said. “I have a cable connection that allows me to watch 180 channels, majority of them are Indian,” he said. He explained that many Zanzibaris are unemployed and many of them left to Qatar for better job opportunities.
While 95 per cent of Zanzibar’s population is Muslim, the people are religiously tolerant. You can see churches, temples and many mosques neighbouring each other in Stone Town.
Peace is not restricted to just humans in Zanzibar: cats roam freely everywhere and the locals pet and feed them.
I have no doubt that I will be flying to Zanzibar again very soon – it is unfair to visit this historic and natural paradise only once.
My favourite place- Prison Island. For less than US$10 you can explore this rare tortoise sanctuary. Visitors can get close to the majestic animals and feed them, or take a cool selfie. There is a small resort in the island which was never actually used as a prison, but rather as a quarantine before it was turned into a tourist attraction.
Highlights- The Souq! The cheapest and most colourful market I have ever been to. The merchants sell vibrant paintings at really low prices that you would not think of bargaining.
Lowlights- Poverty. It is visible around every corner. People live on handouts and many do not make more than $2 a day.
Souvenirs- Traditional African handicrafts are easy to find anywhere in Stone Town. Men and women sell African clothing and kummas, yes the Omani kummas and animal teeth (fake ones, but cool to have).
Getting there- Oman Air, flydubai and Qatar Airways fly daily to Zanzibar. It is around four hours from Muscat to the island.
Where to stay- Park Hyatt, the one and only luxury hotel in Zanzibar, which is located by the sea side.
1. Stroll through Forodhani Gardens, a popular street food market
2. Visit Changu Island and take a selfie with giant tortoises
3. Stop by the former slave market
4. Buy colorful paintings at throwaway prices at the Souq
5. Snorkel off the beach and explore the turquoise waters