Y Magazine

Travel: Escape to Zanzibar

With Fulk Al Salama lighting up the coastline of Zanzibar, making people smile and reconnect to their shared past with Oman, Hasan al Lawati mingles with the crowds and marvels at the relics.



Illuminating the coastline of Zanzibar with its yellow and emerald lights, Oman’s royal cruise ‘Fulk Al Salamh’ has become the talk of the town in the African island.

From the moment we landed in the small, worn airport, locals kept mentioning the Omani luxury yacht to us.

Locals eagerness to take a closer look at the ship mirrors a deep-rooted tie between the Sultanate and Zanzibar.

The eastern African island, like Oman, is a home to a glittering mixture of ethnicities, as it was once a melting pot of religions and nationalities.

“Zanzibar is African, yet different from Africa. It is Arabian and Persian, yet different from Arabia and Persia; and Indian, yet different from India,” said Ismail Jussa a Zanzibari friend of the American author Robert D Kaplan as quoted in his 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 a visible at Stone Town, a historic business hub.

Here, you see many locals sporting Omani headdress and dishdashas.

“We used to be one nation, there is so much history between our two countries and you can see that in the architecture of Zanzibar’s old buildings,” Mohammed, a taxi driver told me on our way to the hotel, the first and only Park Hyatt in Africa.

The five-star hotel used to be owned by a rich Arab who challenged his mates to build the biggest house in the island.

After accomplishing his dream in 1847, the businessman named his new home ‘Do not imitate’, and is now registered as a UNESCO world heritage site.

No one knows whether his friends built other houses or if they were demolished later, but Milvas Burnice, marketing communication manager of Park Hyatt says the hotel management renovated the 170 year-old building.

“The owner mixed eggs with soil when he built the house which made it stand still for more than a century,” said Burnice.

While many rich people live in the outskirts of the city, poverty has taken its toll on Stone Town.

Young men would openly (but politely) ask tourists for some cash, especially at the popular tourist traps.

“Do not be too friendly,” my tour guide advised.

But despite that, Zanzibaris live by ‘Hakuna matata’, a Swahili phrase that means ‘no worries’.

It is impossible to find an empty field, was it sandy or grassy. People here adore football and they play at all times.

At Forodhani gardens, a popular street food market that attracts thousands of picnickers in the evenings, we saw teens jumping off the corniche to hit the cold, dark waters of the Indian ocean as spectators cheer to every loud splash.

We enjoyed the scene as we ate spicy Zanzibari food and dirt-cheap ice cream from the street stalls.

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 and the first in Zanzibar to have electricity. House of Wonders is a cultural museum now but sadly it was closed for renovation so I could not go inside.

Adjacent to it is the Old Fort. Now a cultural centre, was once an Omani fort built to protect the town from European invasions.

Stone Town is simply made of tall building with narrow allies snaking through shops in the ground floors and residents in the upper stories.

Its similarity to Souq Muttrah is remarkable.

The tall buildings protect shoppers from the baking heat and their shadows keep markets dark through the day time.

The two historic sites are only a five-minute walk from the hotel, which itself, embraces a historic natural wonder, a 200-year old mango tree that still bears fruit.

The Souq, offers a variety of fruits and locally made artworks.

Painting is very popular in Zanzibar, original and colourful works are sold for cheap prices in addition to wooden frames and accessories.

My blood ties with Muttrah made me love the Souq more than any other place in the island.

But there is one place that is impossible to love. The former slave market, which displays the dark history of slave trade.

It shows the tiny low-ceiling rooms that were meant to keep the slaves chained inside.

The rooms barley provided enough oxygen for its 50 starving men and they had no toilet.

According to our guide, the slaves were used to carry ivory during business trades, many died during the long trips due to sickness or harsh weather conditions.

It doesn’t rain much in Zanzibar, but when it does, it is between March and May and sometimes in November.

Weekend holidays here are on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Zanzibari economy depends mainly on tourism and spice trade but it suffers major economic challenges. Many government building are poorly maintained and the streets are too narrow.

But Park Hyatt helps the community to overcome their financial struggles.

“It is the first luxurious hotel in Stone Town. The law here does not allow people or companies to buy private beaches, which is good because we care for the community here and guests like to see the locals enjoying their beaches,” Julia Gimadyeva, director of sales of Park Hyatt Zanzibar explained.

Park Hyatt sponsors a football team that plays by the beach.

“This is how we give back for the community. We work on providing jobs for locals, promote artists and fund elderly houses,” Gimadyeva said.

While the hotels was internationally awarded for its interior design, it did feel more like a home to me.

It is design is inspired by traditional Omani-made houses, which looked quite like my grandma’s house in Darsait.

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 even more popular than Hollywood here.

“I love Sharukhan, he is my favourite star, Indian films have nice romantic stories and really beautiful music,” he said.

“I have a cable 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 the vast majority of Zanzibar’s population are Muslims, 95 per cent, they are very religiously tolerant.

You can see churches, temples and many mosques neighbouring each other in Stone Town.

But peacefulness is not restricted to humans only in Zanzibar. Cats roam freely everywhere and the locals pet and feed them.

I have to doubt that I will be flying to Zanzibar again very soon, it is unfair to visit this historic and natural paradise only once.