My former life as an Army officer afforded me a myriad of opportunities to travel and see the world. My journeys to Iraq and Afghanistan may have added to the rich tapestry of my life experience, but they are far from what I would consider “enjoyable” adventures. Despite these experiences, I continued to immerse myself in the culture, language, and political affairs of the Arab World. For my efforts, I was rewarded with the opportunity to travel the middle east and work with the State Department for over a year. Digging through my records, I’ve uncovered some of my older pieces of writing on the matter (circa 2013-2014). Hopefully, it provides some interesting insights into the region.
Objectives of my Trip:
The purpose of my trip to Zanzibar was to gain a better understanding of the historical influence that Oman had exerted throughout the Indian Ocean as a maritime power and to assess its enduring effects on modern Omani Society.
I understand that Zanzibar is in Africa, not the Middle East, however, it was a fascinating trip further exploring the Middle East Influence in its history. Call it…”MIddle-East Adjacent.”
Prior to embarking on my journey I had read Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon and Zanzibar: Personalities and events (1828-1972) by Nasser Abdullah al-Riyami. The former proved to be an excellent primer on understanding who the Omanis were and how their geography has shaped their unique culture that distinguishes them amongst their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors. Al-Riyami’s work on Zanzibar provided some historical context, however, on continued reading of this volume it became evident that it was not without bias. Regardless, it still provided some unique insights into the Omani viewpoints in regards to Zanzibar, which I will illustrate further in this report.
My analysis and assessment began almost immediately as I regarded the composition of the travelers going to Zanzibar from Muscat. The number of Omanis travelling was higher than some of my other trips throughout the middle-east. It was, however, the customs and immigration form that caught my immediate attention. The form itself was in French, English, and Swahili…and though my study of Swahili was minimal to say the least it was fascinating to see how many words I recognized on the form. Many of the words I found were familiar Arabic words but pronounced in how one would imagine a “Swahili accent” would pronounce the Arabic words. Since every letter in Swahili is pronounced, the Arabic words have additional syllables that one may not hear in the original Arabic, additionally the language itself indicates the master-servant relationship between the African and Arab. The word for thank you in Swahili is Asante (derived, I would postulate, from the Arabic أحسنت), for as an owner of a slave, why would I thank a slave for performing what is expected…at best you give them positive reinforcement to ensure quality of service continues: “Well Done!” Over time, I imagine this relationship of word meaning eventually became associated as a form of “Thank you.” It is a fascinating aspect of how language not only changes its sounds and appearance but how meanings shift over time. I, however, digress; this note is primarily meant to emphasize the significant role Arab Traders have had in the region.
Are you a Polyglot or would you classify yourself simply as a lover of language/language nerd? Well, here’s my un-expert analysis on Swahili and Arabic Similarities included as part of an additional enclosure to my report.
Swahili عربية Arabic Tarehe (Date/History) Note: the softening of the Arabic خ تاريخ Tarikh Mahali (Place) محل Mahal Idadi (Number/Amount) عدد Aadid Sababu (Purpose Reason) سبب Subub Asante (Thank you) أحسنت Ahsent Karibu (Used as You’re welcome)…Perhaps, we become nearer to someplace we are made welcome…? Again, an interesting phenomenon surrounding mutation of word meanings over time. قريب Qarib Hatari (Danger) خطر Khatar Habari (What’s Up? How are you? News) خبر Khabar Wakati (Time) وقت Waqt Rafiki (Friend) رفیق Rafiq Tafadhali (Please) تفضل Tafadhal
Two of the most important features to note in Stone Town (Zanzibar City’s “Old Qarter”) was the Palace Museum (which was the former Palace of the Sultans of Zanzibar, the last one to have resided there being Sultan Abdullah Bin Khalifa al-Said), and the Old Fort. The Palace museum is dedicated to the history of Zanzibar under the Sultans’ rule (up until 1964), and the Old Fort is a Portuguese fort that the Omanis took possession of. The fort itself is fascinating, as it has the appearance of many forts seen in Oman, with the exception that it is built from coral stone as opposed to the brown adobe one sees in Oman itself.
Mtoni Palace is also a fascinating relic of Omani Colonial Rule. It was built by Sultan Sayyid Said to house his harem and family when he moved the capital of the Omani Empire from Muscat to Zanzibar. It is now a ruin. A combination of the weather and vegetation has destroyed the palace and efforts are being conducted to restore the site. The poor condition of the site has been attributed (as the guide at the museum said) to the Omanis using Omani Building Techniques in a very wet, rainy, and humid climate. These techniques, meant to be used in a more arid climate, simply did not mesh well with this tropical location.
One cannot visit Zanzibar without seeing the two staples of the Omani Empires Economy: Spices and Slaves. The Old slave market is not particularly impressive, though a memorial has been built for the slaves and the holding pens still exist.
One point that al-Riyami makes in his book in regards to slavery (in the dubiously titled chapter: “Media Distortions of the Slave Trade”) is that: “[Western] writings were rife with stories of maltreatment…without any allusion to the teachings of Islam that regulate the relationship between the master and his slave…verses from the Holy Quran that exhort Muslims to emancipate the slave.” (Riyami 242). Though I hope not to sound overly cynical to this passage; the abhorrence of slavery certainly did not stop the Omani Empire from taking advantage of it as a lucrative business venture. Additionally, when one sees the old Slave holding pens one can see no particular compassion in their design. The rooms, small cells carved from stone, were un-ventilated and cramped areas that were sweltering with just myself in the room…one could only imagine the feeling of fifty souls penned into a space barely equipped for ten persons…added to that, there’s no drainage to speak of and at times during heavy rains or high tide slaves would drown in these hellish stone prisons. So, it is a fascinating look at the Omani viewpoint towards its historical relationship towards slavery in that al-Riyami doesn’t try to apologize for Oman’s significant role in the slave trade, but makes every effort to downplay it and claim that Oman is a victim of exaggeration. Many Omanis I’ve spoken to are simply reluctant to speak on the matter at all.
In regards to the spices, the spice plantations are a fascinating way to see how the Omani Empire traded in spices and why they employed slavery. These vast plots of land are a hodgepodge of various spices, herbs, and fruit trees that are not organized in any particular way as to what grows where. Though, an amazing site to see…it is a highly inefficient system that, to me, wastes both time and manpower.
I will close by revisiting Al-Riyami’s book on Zanzibar. This particular book is an excellent example of academic writing in the Middle East (at least as I’ve experienced it), it’s dry, heavily biased, and draws on far too many assumptions.
In the interest of fairness, my own writing could be equally described as being dry, biased, and draws on assumptions. I will justify my critical view of Al-Riyami’s book by saying: While I consider myself to be intelligent (I might go so far as to say “intellectual”), ultimately I’m not a historian or academic researcher. I’m an avid writer with very strong opinions.
For instance he assumes that Omanis have long held a presence in Zanzibar because when the defeated al-Uzd Tribe fled Oman, they would have sought a safe harbor known to them; Naturally, no right-minded Omani would imperil his entourage, family, and women! Though it could be true…it is not grounded in fact but based on current mores of Omani society that al-Riyami is applying to his ancestors that emigrated from Oman out of necessity, not by choice. It’s also intellectually negligent of al-Riyami to blame Israel for the revolutions in Africa as well; which he is happy to do. His strongly worded chapter: “Ethnic Cleansing (The Massacre of the Century)” that colors the Africans from the mainland as thugs as they sought to purge the island of their Arab Overlords. Though forms of violence in this manner are reprehensible and not to be forgotten, one gets the impression that al-Riyami is failing in his duty to inform the reader of these events by loading his prose with such venom and bias that one has difficulty believing if he is in fact telling the whole truth. The book itself is an interesting window into the history of Zanzibar, and grants us a look into the mind of the Omani Intellectual of Today…but as a true work of unbiased historical research, I find it to be unreadable, and regrettably, al-Riyami bills his book as such. Like many documents and publications in the Middle-East, the book is designed to appear well-endowed with academic research (though the unbiased nature and quality of that research could be up for debate). With its almost forty pages of Introduction, Letters from the Sultan Qaboos University praising his efforts, dedication, special dedication, acknowledgements, Forward, and research plan. It reminds me of the formulaic Memorandums and Letters that I was forced to write during the Royal Air Force Junior Officer Staff course where formatting and appearances took precedence over content. Despite my comments about al-Riyami’s book, I would recommend it, if only to gain a perspective into the viewpoints of the Omani towards Zanzibar.
In addition to my historical and cultural tour of Zanzibar Island, I also enjoyed a well-organized foray into the Jozani Forrest to take in nature and more specifically seek out the Red Colobus Monkeys; which was worth the hiking and sweating.
Regional and Cultural Knowledge:
Everywhere one goes you will find the distinctive Omani Dishdasha and Kuma being worn in Zanzibar. Many Omanis make Zanzibar their home. Many maintain families (perhaps a second-wife from Zanzibar) on the island and hold business interests here as well. In some regards, I imagine there is a romantic pioneering sense of adventure among some Omanis that still yearn for the halcyon days of yore when the fortunes of the Sultanate were driven by the Monsoon winds and dhows laden with spices, frankincense, and slaves sailed off into the distance towards far-away and exotic lands; a nostalgia fantasy that recalls a time when the influence of the Sultans extended throughout the Indian Ocean. Though oil has provided moderate wealth to the Sultanate, many Omanis (most importantly His Majesty the Sultan) are keen to realize that this source of wealth is temporary and unstable, so there is a certain amount of romance surrounding the “good ol’ days.” As a side note: In a time of Oil by Mindana Limbert is an excellent book regarding the transitional period between the old and the new in Oman as they began to reshape their economy to exploit the fossil fuels in their lands. Some Zanzibaris will also dress in a Dishdasha and Kuma, my assessment is that in some way they feel that if they dress as an Omani they elevate their social status slightly.
Travel Tips for Zanzibar:
While travelling on my Official passport, the normal $100 fee was waved. Additionally, be sure to bring an ample amount of US Dollars. Zanzibar uses the Tanzanian Shilling, but most places prefer to deal in Dollars and most prices quoted to you will be in dollars.
This should go without saying…but…use some common sense when travelling with cash. I do NOT recommend wondering around Stone Town (or any tourist locale) with a thousand dollars in cash in your pockets. Again…common sense, but felt it necessary to say it.
Pack light when travelling. The Zanzibar International Airport is one of the smallest and worst “international” airports I’ve traveled through. It’s mostly un-air conditioned and airport security will hand-search baggage as the x-ray machine is not always working. Much like how I found Morocco, you will find yourself hassled for Taxis…Tour Guides…Shopping Tours…offers to sell you cigarettes…or just outright demands for money, so be prepared. Utilizing a minimal amount of Swahili, some Arabic loan words, and English will set you in good stead and distinguish you from your fellow tourists as someone not to be cheated or scammed like a “normal” tourist.
As part of any planning involved with Zanzibar, it’s important (I feel) to call out that during my travel to Zanzibar I stayed at the Hotel Kiponda. It was reasonably priced, had a lovely open-air balcony and rooftop dining area that reminded me of an Agatha Christie Mystery abroad; a place where Hercule Poirot would rest his laurels between his expeditions to the local archaeological dig and ultimately reveal “Whodunnit” at the end of his sleuthing and strenuous exertions of his “little grey cells.”
Disclaimer: These writings constitute my own observations, opinions and viewpoints seen through the lens of a military veteran and shaped through my interactions with my professional colleagues. It in no way reflects an official statement by the US Government nor are any details being revealed that could constitute a breach in confidence or security.
Thank you for reading. Hopefully you liked this light departure from current US Domestic Affairs ravaging our country. More will follow as I continue to unearth my old records. Please comment, like, and share at your leisure. You can, as always, also follow me on Twitter @streamingdan82