Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Bedu of Tel ' Atij (Syria, 1992)

The Bedu of Tel ‘Atij (1992).

Our camp and dig house, Bedouin shepherd.
There is an old Yemeni saying that goes: Choose your neighbour before building your house, says the city dweller. Choose your companion before choosing your route, says the nomad. This proverb may especially hold true for a community of nomads that lived in the upper reaches of the Fertile Crescent in North-Eastern Syria. In 1992, I had the pleasure of working and living amongst a group of sedentary Bedu in the village of Tel ‘Atij. As an ethnoarchaeologist, I had to, overtime, grapple with the impending fate that lay ahead for these Bedu of Tel ‘Atij, whom I had become friends with. In a way, they became my Bedu.
L-R Our camp and the tents, Tel 'Atij. 
I spent a little over three months in the field, working on a salvage archaeological site on the Khabur River in north-eastern part of Syria. A salvage archaeological site means that the historical record and material culture will be lost forever and we will be the last ones to dig here. I would be excavating in Mesopotamia—that land that lies between the two greatest rivers in antiquity, the Tigris and the Euphrates.
I had been fascinated by the ancient Near East since I first travelled to these lands in 1982. From there, I enrolled in my first class in Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Calgary. My professor, Dr. Celeste Peters, had studied the long lost languages of Akkadian and Sumerian at the University of Toronto’s Near Eastern Studies program. She inspired me to pursue this profession and even recommended me to another Canadian professor from Laval who was running a dig in Syria. How could I resist?
Our Bedouin caretaker and family.
Our team consisted of four student site supervisors (three of them PhD candidates), a photographer, an old Cypriot surveyor, a renowned palaeoethnobotanist, a student architect and the mudhir (the boss)and his family. Along with the other three grad students, I would also be a "site supervisor" which was unusual since I was only a lowly undergrad at the time. In addition, we had a support staff that included a Syrian Antiquities officer who was a Druze, an Aramaean Syrian cook, a Bedouin night watchman and his wife, and a Bedouin caretaker who lived with his family at the back of our dig house. All told, there could be almost twenty of us around the dig house at any one time.
We feasted on a diet which included mounds of rice pilaf, all-you-can eat stuffed grape leaves, endless French fries, and fresh baguettes, croissants, and other fresh-baked delights from Hasseke's bakery. This was a carry-over from when the French ruled here after the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
 The dinner conversations were as varied as the food that we dined on daily as there was polyglot of languages spoken at our table—Arabic, English, French and Aramaic. Our Bedouin workers were suspicious of our cook—they were suspicious of anything or any one who was not from their village—because her spoken Aramaic sounded quite similar to their Arabic, but they couldn't actually understand what she was saying. Moreover, to heighten their suspicions, our cook would speak in hushed tones to her friends and family who came from Hasseke to visit her from time to time, dressed in provocative clothes, even in high heels.
The Aramaeans are part of the Syrian Orthodox Church who probably fled from Turkey during the past few centuries to escape the pogroms against Christians by the over-zealous Turks. The Syrian Christians differed from their Muslim compatriots both in dress, customs, religious freedom and morals. This was quite evident when we would drive into the nearest town of Hasseke, on our days off and we would be shocked at these brazen Christian girls who walked around scantily clad in hip-hugging blue jeans and eye-catching halter tops trying to walk in high heels almost causing our Druze antiquities driver guy to have an accident in our VW van.
Muhammad, our handyman.
Our living accommodations consisted of Syrian army tents pitched on platforms of concrete, and a mud brick dig house without air conditioning where we ate and wrote up our daily notes. There was also a porch whose shade provided relief from the blazing afternoon sun and from where we enjoyed viewing Syrian sunsets whilst sipping our sundowners. Some year’s back, a perimeter mud-brick wall had been built to protect us against neighbouring packs of vicious pariah dogs, deadly scorpions and poisonous snakes that were common in this part of the Syrian Desert. Unfortunately, this did not stop the huge, venomous ankabotha (camel spider) from climbing over the wall and wreaking havoc on our Syrian tenting experience. Being a fearless sort (at times) it was my duty to try and roust these blighters before the womenfolk entered their lodgings for the night. In my own tent, I had a symbiotic relationship with the spiders as I felt they would keep the more sinister looking scorpions at bay. by eating them However, this did not allay any fears amongst lesser souls in our camp!
Night watchman at Gudeda site.
The landscape around our camp was stark and desperate to say the least. This should hardly come as any surprise since the northern Syrian Desert has been this way for at least 5,000 years. It’s funny what you find out from archaeology, which is essentially a destructive science, but maybe a necessary evil in trying to understand the past—especially if we know very little about it in the first place. Take for instance, our site—Tel ‘Atij. If one were to look at where we were going to excavate, one would get a different perspective of how things might have looked in the past. The top of the tel offered me the best vantage point for miles around. A tel is the Arabic word for a man-made mound or hill, which is formed by the accumulated remains of ancient settlements covered in sand which was our job to remove. As I stood on the top of our tel, all I could see was a very dry, almost treeless and an unbelievably flat piece of land stretching as far as the eye could see, until interrupted by a bump on the horizon, which usually signalled another tel.
However, during the course of excavations, we found the carbonized remains of acorns that could only have come from great stands of oak trees, which would have covered this part of the Akkadian Empire in antiquity. One day, Dr. Joy McCorriston, our paleoethnobotanist, and I sat on the tel and discussed the likelihood of this parched land before us once covered in deep, cool oak forests. It was hard to imagine a single oak tree here let alone a grove. According to Joy, the closest oak trees were to be found 70 kilometers north of here on the slopes of the Taurus Mountains in nearby Turkey.
Local Bedouin kids.
Standing in the merciless afternoon sun it was difficult to envision that this bleached, dun landscape had once been verdant and alive with birds. However, now there was but one lonely tree that stood out on the dusty foreground. It was perhaps the last living monument to past glories and an important landmark for the village community. It offered the only sanctuary from the sun after a hot day in the fields or a cool spot to have a lunch with your family or to meet a friend. The reality was that no matter which direction you came from, all the dusty tracts led to one place—the tree. It was a visible focal point for the Tel ‘Atij village life and probably for their folklore. I never actually sat under it, but from time to time, I would often see people sitting under it.
I shared the tel with Lisa Cooper, one of candidates for PhD, and our job was primarily to coordinate excavation, record any artifacts found, tag and bag them, and to supervise local our Bedouin workers. As “site supervisors”, we were in charge of roughly seventeen workers and over the course of the season we excavated some six meters of soil from Tel ‘Atij. None of the workers understood a stitch of English, and me, with only a smattering of Arabic, communicating with each other was going to be a challenge. It was a great start! Ha.
L-R Hani, baby Muhammad, our helper, Linda, junior architect.
Located on the east bank of the Middle Khabur River, Tel 'Atij, it is one of 60 sites which were destined to be flooded after the completion of a downriver dam four years hence, and time was running out for the villagers. As an archaeologist, I understand the complexities of revealing a buried civilisation through the excavation of their associated material culture. Yet, during excavation, I pondered the fate of my fellow village workers. The dam would not only impact these 60 sites, but, more profoundly, the Bedouin's traditional way of life. I feared that  these village Bedu will end up like their hapless kinfolk who live in squatters tents on the outskirts of Hasseke and Damascus, and ultimately lose their tribal identity. As an ethnoarchaeologist, I felt that these questions needed to be addressed before the ethnohistorical record of these Bedu, who live along the banks of the Khabur River, are lost forever to the flooding waters.
Lisa's workers
Initially, what changed my mind was a discussion that I had with one of my workers, Ali, during a particularly hot morning of excavating. He was one of my better workers , and had been a pick man on previous digs, and for this he was given the privilege of being the pick man. My usual work day started with me stumbling out of my camp cot at four am, shaking the scorpions out of my Israeli-made boots, tripping over tent lines in the dark, chasing a few mangy pariah dogs out of the compound, mixing Nido, and eating crunchy Turkish corn flakes. Next came organising the crews, fighting over tools, the exchange of hostilities with unwanted workers, then heading up to the tel and try to get my crew to do most of the grunt work before the blistering Syrian sun fried us all to a frazzle. However, this day was different. There was a commotion at the site and the air was alive with electricity. The workers were more vocal than usual—which was hard to imagine because they were a noisy lot to begin with! The racket seemed to be emanating from Lisa's area next to mine, so I asked a worker what all the hubbub was about.
Lisa Cooper and the mudhir, Prof Fortin

Apparently, Lisa’s oldest worker, Aishe, had his six-week-old baby die suddenly in the night. The commotion and chatter was thus explained—the ensuing discussion had been over where the young body would be buried. I found out later that it was considered a great honour to be asked to attend the burial and even greater, to be asked to shovel or toss dirt into the grave. Everyone was related to everyone else in this small village and as a result, they all petitioned Lisa and me to let them participate in the burial. However, we had a job to do and the workers were paid to work, and not to take time off for a burial regardless of who it was.  Lisa had allowed Aishe to attend to the burial, but no others.
Two of my workers, Ali and Abdul got into a shouting match with me over this: they in their broken English, and me in my poor Arabic. They both implored me, ‘Min fadlak Emerse. Mumkin rua gabr ’ (Please, Emerson. We want to go to the burial).
Local Bedouin kids.
‘Not on your life! Forget it and get back to work!’ I replied, and in Arabic, Bas. Khalas. Shugul kathir. Yallah!’ (Enough. Finished. Lots of work. Let’s go!)
My stern reply made Abdul back off, but Ali continued, ‘Min fadlak, Emerse.' (Please, Emerson). He was starting to grovel. At this point I wanted no part of this charade.‘La! Inta lazem hoen, la hanek ’, I said, raising my voice. (No, you are needed here, not there!) And before Ali could answer, I laid down the law, Mafi shugul, mafi faluus!' (No work, no money!)
My four words struck terror into Ali's heart. Ali’s eyes widened and he realized that it was futile to try and argue the point anymore. Both Ali and Abdul knew that I commanded the mudhir’s ear and that I could have either of them fired for the slightest infraction. Not that I would ever do such a thing, but over here, I had the wasta (influence), and besides, I dearly wanted their respect as their boss. I was not the dig's head honcho overall, but on this site, this day and every day—I was at the top of the pecking order. My job was to make the rules and their job was to obey.
Things eventually subsided. Like it or not, Ali and Abdul realized that my word was the law. I was "He who must be obeyed." I gave them my parting shot on the subject of taking off for a burial. ‘Inta majnuun? Shugal lazem!’ (Are you crazy? Work is necessary!)
My crew
To my amazement, Ali shot back, ‘La, athzar majnuun !’ (No, archaeology is crazy!). He continued to pick away meticulously at our crumbling 2,500-year-old mud brick wall.
Meanwhile, my mind was reeling as I pondered his heartfelt statement. Suddenly I realized, here I was imposing my will, my North American work ethic on these Bedu’s way of life. My workers endured a seven-hour day under the hot sun, before heading back to their homes for lunch, after which they worked in their own fields till sundown. Somebody had died, a relation no less, and here I was forbidding the two of them to not to attend a funeral. Who the hell was I? Was I really an unsympathetic bastard? I didn't recognize what I was becoming. It could be said that my attitude bordered on being rude—at any rate, it was downright culturally insensitive. What the hell kind of an anthropologist cum ethnoarchaeologist was I starting to become anyways? Ali's comment that 'archaeology was crazy' had caught me out. Moreover, I knew he was absolutely right. 
I started sweating buckets, so I went up to the top of the tel to catch a cool breeze and to sort out the storm in my mind. But once on top, I saw Aishe’s relatives trying to dig the grave for his daughter, but without a shovel. I could see a procession heading to the burial site being led by Aishe who was carrying his pitifully small bundle wrapped in a traditional white burial sheet. The gravity of the situation dawned on me—life here on the Syrian steppe is harsh and unforgiving in a way we western people can't really appreciate, medical treatment is hours away if there is any at all. There was always a line up of local villagers would come from miles around to our ‘dig house’ in the hopes that we would provide medicine or medical help for their particular ailment. The professor’s wife (mudhira) was usually doling out free medicine for the locals. I suppose if a traditional cure was not successful then it was Inshallah, the will of Allah. Such is the fate of a village Bedouin.
Finally, after some serious soul searching and reflection, I climbed back down our rickety ladder to where Ali and Abdul were still busy working. I called them over. I supposed they feared that I was going to fire them. ‘You are right,’ I said to Ali. ‘Athzar majnuun.’  (Archaeology is crazy.) Then I took a gulp, ‘You and Abdul can go to the burial’. Ali looked up at me, and for the first time in days, he was actually smiling. Both men kissed my hand as a sign of respect then thanked me profusely and the womenfolk on both sites nodded approval. As a way of endearing myself further to them, I told them to take a pick and shovel to help Aishe dig the grave. They were just about to leave the tel when I noticed a huge discarded white limestone slab that might have been the lid on one of our excavated Ninevite 5 burials c. 3000 BC. I knew that this tradition was still in use as modern burials often use an old limestone slab as a burial marker on a tel. Both Ali and Abdul jumped at this suggestion,  I helped them load the heavy slab into a wheel-barrow, and told them to get it in one piece to the grave.
My confrontation had taught me a greater lesson than just human respect for life and that I was not so omniscient after all. This experience had both humbled me and made me look deeper at the reality of our excavation here and at archaeology in general. It reminded me of one of my first lectures on archaeology that was given by Dr. Scott Raymond at the University of Calgary in 1989. In summing up his hour-long lecture, Dr. Raymond concluded that, ‘Quite simply, archaeology is a destructive science and in order to understand a site, one must destroy it.' 
Three of our Bedouin workers from Tel 'Atij.
At our Tel ‘Atij site, the sequence was, first you excavate to expose a mud brick wall or down to a supposed floor surface or wall, then you articulate the feature and from this record, you photograph, collect, tag and bag all the material culture that was exposed then survey it for its provenience. After this is done, you begin the whole destructive process again. No wonder Ali thought archaeology was crazy—it was!
Here we were, in the middle of nowhere with overwhelming dust and heat, excavating a long abandoned tel for remnants of the structures of dead people built by people who had left no written record. We know very little about these Ninevite 5 folk except of what we can extrapolate from a few pottery sherds, some broken-down pots that have been left on a vacant floor that has been subsequently buried under meters of sand and numerous destruction periods. While visions of plumbobs danced round in my head, I was brought back to reality by the noise of a screeching wheelbarrow that Ali and Abdul were using. I stood up and yelled after them—‘Allah Karim!’ (Allah be Merciful). I hoped that it was not too late for a little mercy for myself. On this day, I changed my opinion on archaeology to one of ethnoarchaeology—I was more interested in the people who I was working with, the Bedouin, than they people we were excavating.
                                                        *             *             *           

Lisa  Cooper and her crew.
Our workers were not paid a lot by western standards, but by Syrian accounts, this pay was nothing short of a windfall. Upon our arrival at Tel 'Atij, news got out that we were looking for local labourers and they came from far and wide. Fathers brought their sons, mothers brought their daughters, uncles came with their brothers, and in-laws jostled with out-laws in the line-ups. The thought of extra money would translate into additional staples like grain, rice or sugar plus some luxuries such as, tobacco or some new material for the unmarried daughter’s trousseau. Pay day was another exciting day with all the relatives coming to watch the goings-on. There was the usual banter over who got what and how much. There was also haggling going on between husband's and wives particularly between those who both worked on the site. The working wives always wanted to keep more money for themselves and their kids than for their husbands—after all, they worked for it.
My oldest worker Muhammad and me.
Smoking on the site was strictly forbidden, yet, the worst offenders were my older women who smoked like chimneys. I was forever telling ‘my girls’, who worked harder than the men, that if they wanted to smoke they would have to do so off the tel. The ash from cigarettes creates problems for archaeologists, especially when one is trying to get uncontaminated carbon samples for C14 (radiocarbon) dating. On one occasion, my favourite pick man, Muhammad, was entrusted to pick out carbon samples from a layer of destruction material in my section. In order to collect a carbon sample, one needs to be quite meticulous as you don’t want any contamination of the black ash either by human hands or cigarette ash. Muhammad was very conscientious about retrieving the carbon sample, and one morning I set him to work extracting the ash with a cooking spoon and collecting it carefully in aluminium foil. I told Muhammad to take his time and do it slowly.
Shway, shway!’ I said. (Slowly, slowly)
He concurred, ‘Aiwa, shway, shway!
 As he handed me a large and desirable piece of 4,000-year-old carbon on the spoon, I noticed on the end of his 1992 Syrian-made, Reem cigarette that he had his own giant ash—so much for my carbon sample. I had to toss it.

Last day of work: Lisa and my crew's doing the dubke dance.
I remember the last day of the dig when Lisa and I brought our used clothing and other goodies for the workers to have as parting gifts. By mistake, I brought three packs of Reem cigarettes that I thought they could share. This was not to be. Everything was going smoothly until I came to the three packs of cigarettes. I intended to hand out the packages which I thought they would divide amongst themselves. Instead there was almost a full-scale riot over the cigarette packs because each smoker wanted a whole pack for themselves. After my protestations, they did indeed become orderly and shared the cigarettes amongst themselves.
The memories of my friendly workers and their traditional Bedouin hospitality will be forever etched in my mind and in my heart. Moreover, I had often been welcomed into their mud brick homes, snacked on dibbis (date spread) and khubbs (bread) with my fingers, shared mensaf (rice pilaf with chicken) with our landlord, drank endless cups of chai, talked politics, shared a laugh with them, danced to Kurdi music in their homes, and in the end cried with them as we embraced each other in the traditional Bedouin farewell.
 Like the mysterious Ninevite 5 people before them, the history and their stories of these Bedu of Tel 'Atij too will be lost to the murky waters of the Middle Khabur. I considered my workers as good friends, but most of all, as my Bedu.
I only hope that they choose wisely between their new “neighbour” in the city or the new “companion” that will be needed for their unknown route ahead of them.
                                               *            *            *   
Since the 1990’s, the Syrian government has embarked on mega water control projects and dams along the Middle Khabur River basin. This put at threat, many ancient sites and of course, the people living there like my Bedu of Tel 'Atij. Consequently there was a proliferation of these salvage archaeological projects. Near Eastern archaeologists were commissioned to excavate any possible sites that the dam system would endanger, in fact, that was what we were doing at Tel 'Atij. In recent times, a number of scholars and political experts have prophesied that the next war in the Middle East will not be over land, but over water. (* The emergence of IS has changed that as they are at war over land)
The Turkish government funded by IMF had already built the massive Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates River on Turkish soil and therefore controlled the flow of water into Syria. The effect of that was that the Syrians started their own dam projects. The problem is that with the building of these dams, the local Bedouin would have to be displaced—but, to where?
The majority of these Bedouin had originally been forced to settle here in the Khabur Basin during the mid-1950’s by the Syrian Baathist government under Michel Afleq .
Roving Bedouin workers who harvested wheat for locals.
Now, these same Bedouin were being forced to uproot their stable village life once again to relocate perhaps to a city where they would exchange their comfortable mud brick homes and sheep pens for noisy crowded streets with no livestock, just cold, concrete apartment blocks. Very little had been written about their plight and I had been warned by the professor not to write for fear of retribution: both to myself and more importantly, on the Bedouin. I feel I have remained silent long enough on this issue.
                                                     *            *            *


Bedouin shepherd in nearby town of Hasseke
My professor later updated me; the Syrian government changed its mind and will now either (a) offer the Bedu money to buy land, or (b) give them a parcel of land outright. Originally, the government had loaned the Bedu this land in the hopes that these nomadic pastoralists would then settle in an area where the government could then control their movements and undoubtedly tax them. The land in the Khabur Basin, that’s destined to be flooded, is by far the best arable land in northern Syria, and it has been cultivated seasonally as far back as perhaps 4,000 BC! Moreover, many of the Bedu villagers that I talked to, planned to take the money, leave their traditional mud-brick houses and move into cinder block houses in the nearby city of Hasseke.
Some of our Bedouin workers.
In doing so, the Bedu will have abandoned a lifeway that has existed down through the millennia. These Bedu had settled down to village life in Tel ‘Atij after generations of a nomadic lifestyle on the unforgiving Syrian Desert. Yet, the villagers still harbour mistrust of outsiders, particularly those who have no tribal affiliation. As a carryover from their nomadic days, they have their brutish mastiffs, some with studded collars, that in previous times, they were used to ward off desert wolves and hyenas, and more importantly, to scare off any intruders who might try to steal their livestock. I thought it was odd that they would retain this tradition since the wolves and hyenas were probably long gone, and everyone in this vicinity were related after all. This distrust of the other reminds me of an old Bedouin proverb—
Me and my brother against our cousin. Me, my brother and my cousin against the stranger.”

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Spice Island, 1984.

The Spice Island

Not having sea legs, sailing is the least acceptable way of travel for me, especially when you are getting coated in salty spray accompanied by the searing African sun beating down on you. Our travelling quintet consisted of my two Aussie mates Phil and Michael, the California surfer gal Loy, Lars the Swede and me. We were sailing to Zanzibar. None of us had been here before so this was terra incognita.
Most of us had sought the shade of the sails but there was no comfortable place to sit except for some rough-hewn wooden planks. The trip was monotonous and the only diversion was a school of flying fish and a pod of porpoises that accompanied us for a brief part of the voyage. Nevertheless, between the antibiotics and the fresh salty sea breeze, my sinuses and chest had cleared and I felt my old self again—ready for another adventure.
     After two hours on the choppy sea, there it was in front of us on the horizon, the outline of Zanzibar's  
 fabled Stone Town. An hour later, we docked but we would not be allowed off the boat for another hour. Finally, like a bunch of rats we scurried off the boat  and headed towards the Customs Office to get our passports stamped. Amazingly, we were told to come back tomorrow. What a contrast to the surly, drunken Tanzanian customs officer we had encountered earlier on our train ride at the border.
What a relief! We were finally on the island of Zanzibar.
Zanzibari kids
The island of Zanzibar, or Unguja as it is in Swahili, and sister island, Pemba, had their own distinct history. They were part of the Zanj, "the Land of the Blacks" that included the Swahili Coast that stretched from Mombasa down to the Zanzibar archipelago.This was the foremost Swahili town on the southern end of the Swahili Coast. I had already been to the northern towns of Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu. Having said that, the Islamic islanders have always fancied themselves as a separate entity from mainland Africans of Tanganyika. Even today the islands are considered as a semi-autonomous region. 
 From 1698 to 1890, the Sultan of Oman ruled both islands, controlling their lucrative slave, spice, and ivory trade. All commerce and travel by sea into this part of East Africa originally came through the port of Zanzibar where many foreign consuls had located. John Kirk, the British consul , was one of the first to hear of Doctor Livingstone’s abhorrence of slavery and his subsequent damning reports that were sent back to the British parliament. No doubt these reports hastened the end of slavery. In 1873, the Sultan was finally persuaded to ‘close’ the slave market in Stone Town’s main square after Britain’s Royal Navy threatened to bomb the his palace on Zanzibar. In 1890, Zanzibar officially became the British Protectorate of Tanganyika.

Doctor Livingstone at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
When the ‘winds of change’ swept through Africa in the 1960s, this former protectorate gained independence under Julius Nyerere in 1961. In December 1963, Zanzibar prematurely gained independence from Britain with the Sultan forming a short-lived constitutional monarchy. One month later, African insurgents, led by mainlander John Okello, overthrew the monarchy and formed the Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba. Okello, who was supported materially by East Germany, wanted to end the Arab-Indian control of the islands and its politics. According to some accounts, as man as 20,000 Arab and Indians may have died in the ensuing conflict.

The island enjoyed this brief independence from the mainland but then pressure from Britain and Tanganyika’s mainland political party, TANU, weakened the new republic. Eventually, Zanzibar succumbed to Julius Nyerere’s socialist party TANU and formed Tanzania in 1964. The word TANZANIA is a portmanteau of the former British Protectorate of Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar.

Despite being part of the ‘new’ Tanzania, Zanzibar still remains a semi-autonomous region beholden to no one, especially to mainlanders and their African-dominated politics. Truth be told, Zanzibar’s roots are in the Islamic sultanate of Oman. Zanzibari families, the ivory and slave trade are historically tied to Oman rather than to the Christian and animist African cultures of mainland Tanganyika.

It was into this rich history that we first stepped off the ferry and onto the fabled island. Accommodation in historical Stone Town was minimal. We thought we had lucked out when we found Malindi Guest House, but all the rooms were taken? I think the hotel manager took pity on us as it was getting dark so he said that we could sleep on the marble floor in the lobby for a small fee.

We dropped off our gear then enjoyed a local favourite, mishkaki or sticks of BBQ meat, as we walked around Stone Town where we ran into a local guy named Zakwan. We mentioned to him our fear about getting stuck on the island. In conversations over a warm beer, he told us that he had friends at customs and the port authority who might be able to arrange our later transport back to Bagamoyo.

*            *            *

Stone Town kids
Many Zanzibaris we met still perceived themselves as separate from ‘those mainlanders’ primarily because they were Muslim much like their distant cousins on the Islamic island of Lamu in Kenya. Like Lamu, Zanzibar was a polyglot of languages and people: Omani, Shirazi, and Yemeni mixed with their former African slave’s bloodlines from the mainland. Perhaps this individuality accounts for them wanting us travellers to have a separate entry visa for this island. Zanzibar’s famous son, Freddie Mercury of Queen, was also born here in Stone Town.

The islands of Zanzibar and Pemba are also known as the Spice Islands because of the abundance of cloves, pepper, cardamom and nutmeg plantations. At one time, Zanzibar controlled 90% of the clove trade in the world. As we were walking around Stone Town, depending on which way the wind blew, there was the unforgettable scent of cloves. It was much like being around a freshly baked pumpkin pie.

*            *            *

Between mosque and rooster calls, I was up early, so I ventured into Stone Town for something to eat. Overcome by humidity, I sought the shade of a huge baobab tree near the town’s center. While enjoying a pre-breakfast snack of spicy potato samosas, I noticed a Japanese tourist haggling over something with a local in fluent Swahili no less. The food seller next to me caught my perplexed glance—it begged a question.

‘I don’t see many Japanese tourists here?’ I asked.

He just nodded.

I had been aware that spoken Japanese and Swahili had some similarities in their languages, especially the word endings—kawa, dawa, sawa, and from overhearing the haggling, I assumed that this man had picked up the local lingo.

‘I’m surprised,’ I said. ‘Where did this Japanese guy learn Swahili so well?’

The local Zanzibari laughed, ‘He’s not Japanese,’ he said. ‘He’s from here!’

My interest was piqued. As far as I was concerned, he was either Japanese or Chinese and I could not fathom how he had learned Swahili so well. Later, I found out that there was an island along the northern Swahili Coast that had an unusual population of Asian-looking locals. This was the island of Siyu, which is part of the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya that borders the most southern most part of Somalia.

According to the legend, in 1405, the famous Chinese seafarer, Admiral Zheng’s, ship had crashed on the Kenyan coastal reef and the sailors came ashore where they found villagers who were being terrorized by a giant python. They killed the beast, and subsequently, the villagers accepted the Chinese sailors, with even some intermarrying, thus creating a new mixed race. Hence the Asian features of this Swahili guy. Well, it’s a marvelous story and judging from the ease that this Asian-looking Swahili guy conversed with the local Arab guy—who could argue? Perhaps this guy’s family had migrated down to Zanzibar on one of the frequent jifrazis (ocean-going dhows) that ply their trade up and down the Swahili Coast.

Abandoned beach house on Chwaka Beach

Loy had arranged renting a beach house on the other side of the island for our growing group of eleven: the original quartet, Lars, two Brit gals, two American guys, and a Dutch couple.

After buying some groceries, we schlepped our backpacks quite a distance to get to the bus station. Somewhere along our route, our two groups got separated. I thought the Brit girls knew the way but we took a wrong turn and lost the others. We arrived to an empty bus station. Unbeknownst to us, the others had lucked out and already got a lift to Chwaka Beach.

We eventually caught a ride on a dala dala or a wooden frame bus which took us on a milk run to Chwaka Beach. En route, we drove past lush coconut and banana groves, and spice plantations—all verdant and musty. An hour later, in the dark, we finally arrived at the beach house but we were still pissed off at Phil and the gang for not waiting for us.

Loy and the other girls had prepared a tasty curry and vegetarian dish for dinner. To prevent legions of cockroaches invading our dirty dishes, Phil, Michael, Lars and I washed our dishes in well water that was brackish and not potable. After that, we played card games late into the night accompanied by some spirituous libations on the verandah.

The rooms inside were too stuffy to sleep in so we dragged the mattresses off the beds out to the verandah. I hung my mosquito net out there hoping that I could catch whatever evening breeze was present. Since leaving South Africa, I used my mosquito net every night. Everyone but me thought that being on the malaria prophylaxis was enough but that soon turned out to be false. In all of Africa, Zanzibar was probably one of the worst places for getting malaria, as the coastal mosquitoes had, over time, become chloroquine-resistant. Nevertheless, we all doused ourselves in bug juice but I was the only one who slept under a net.

*            *            *

Both Phil and I found the weather debilitating so were just content to laze around on the verandah and take turns in the hammock. At any rate, someone had to guard our valuables as locals had been eyeing our gear and for that matter, we were the constantly the centre of attention wherever we walked.

Michael Collins at beach house, 1984.
While playing Frisbee on the beach, I accidentally stepped on a sharp shell and cut my foot. I thought nothing of it at the time and I thought the salt water would cure any wound, big or small. However, even a tiny cut in Equatorial Africa, neither dries out nor heals completely because of the moisture in the air.

It was not a big deal at first, but it did not heal, and a few days later this innocuous cut had become septic. Luckily, Loy had some disinfectant soap and antibiotic cream to treat my wound. However, I was still worried about getting a tropical ulcer so to protect my foot while wearing sandals, I cut the toes off the end of a sock. Later in the market, while I was wearing the sock and a sombrero tilted at a rakish angle, I looked so odd, like a demented dandy on holiday. Phil just had to take a photo of me.
L-R. Michael Collins, Bionic Lars, and me with my gammy foot, Stone Town, 1984.

Our Chwaka Beach House had bugger all for amenities: no running water, no indoor plumbing, never had electricity, it was just a shell of a former grandiose beach house. It had a huge kitchen with blackened spots, plenty of airy rooms and, best of all, a wide verandah at the front. We used stinky hurricane lamps for light.

Handyman scaling the coconut palm.
The beach house came with a handyman who helped us with cleaning, getting firewood for cooking and who scaled the nearby palm trees for fresh coconuts. His wife cleaned the place but it seemed to have been uninhabited for a long time. If it wasn’t for them, we probably would not have paid anything, just merely squatted. Cheap backpackers that we were.

The main attraction of our beach house was the wide verandah at the front of the house which gave us an unhindered view of the Arabian Sea that was just a few feet from the beach house. The verandah also afforded us a superb view for watching spectacular sunrises with our breakfast and marveling at fiery sunsets with our sundowners.

Of our newfound Brit companions, Val was a bra less, buxom blonde with a punk haircut which pre-dated Sinead O’Connor’s buzz cut—this was 1984 after all. She was a bit cheeky and could be a smart-ass. On the other hand, her long dark-haired friend Jenny was timid by comparison but attractive nonetheless. At times, they came across as a gay couple but maybe were just close friends. This was no big deal for our group but this was the 1980s and we were in an Islamic culture after all. If they were openly gay this might have created serious complications on conservative Zanzibar. Perhaps that is why they were travelling with us.

Compared to Loy, these two Brit gals came across as louts. Perhaps Loy’s intelligence and no nonsense American panache made them uncomfortable in her presence. At any rate, Loy had been a real trooper from the get go, slugging it out from Malawi with Phil, Michael and me. For that matter, because she had a great heart and a wonderful sense of humour, she was an ideal travelling companion.

After a few days in paradise, Phil, Michael, Lars and I decided we’d had enough of this bohemian beach life and we would be leaving the following morning. The three girls decided they would stay for an extra day—they were welcome to it.

The hurricane lamps on the verandah were flickering low, the mosquitoes were buzzing around, our liquour was drunk as were we—I passed out in my mosquito net as a soft tide washed in from the Indian Ocean and lapped close to our beach house.

*            *            *

The next morning, our last morning at the beach house, Neil came up from downstairs where he had been sleeping. We were all slightly hung-over from the merry-making last night and were still shaking off the cobwebs of alcohol. He looked slightly perturbed.

‘Have you guys seen my flashlight?’ Neil asked. ‘Did you guys use it up here?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘Where did you leave it?’

‘I thought it was by my bed,’ he said, ‘I’m also missing my shoes, my jeans, a t-shirt...’

Phil, Michael and I looked at each other, wondering what he was on about. Then we frantically checked our own packs that were scattered carelessly on the verandah.

‘Hang about,’ said Phil, checking through his pack, ‘someone’s nicked my cigarette lighters and a t-shirt.’

Then I remembered that I had leant my Swiss Army knife to Lars to scale and gut the fish for last night’s dinner.

‘Did you give me back my knife?’ I asked Lars.

‘Yah sure,’ he said.

‘Damn!’ I said, rummaging through my pack, ‘Someone’s stolen my Swiss Army knife.’

So, in our drunken sleep state last night, some light-handed (and light-footed) thief had made off with our valuables. Not a good way to begin our morning. I guess it was time to leave after all!

In deciding to leave, our neat little quartet of travellers, Phil, Michael, Loy and me, had come to its end, and unfortunately, under bad circumstances. We exchanged hugs and addresses with Loy. We bid her farewell as she’d been a good sport throughout our trip that began back on Lake Malawi. We’d been through a lot together in our short time and I would miss her spirit and great meals that she made us along our tough borderlands trek.

We made tentative plans to all meet up back either in Dar or Nairobi but we never did see her again. A year later, I received a postcard from her and she told me she was stricken with malaria while staying in Dar.

Back to Stone Town

After farewells, we grabbed what stuff we still owned, hurried over to the dala-dala station for a ride back to Stone Town. While Neil went to report our stolen goods at a nearby police station, we had a cup of chai at a nearby duka. Unlucky for Neil, our dala-dala arrived while he was still in the station. Remembering what had happened a few days before, we hopped on and sped towards Stone Town thinking he could catch a later one.

Zanzibari door, Stone Town.
An hour later, we were back in Stone Town where we dropped off our gear at the Malindi Guest House. We still thought we could catch a boat back to Dar but hedged our bets by tentatively booking rooms for the night.

Zakwan had previously said he could find us transport off the island but when we found him he said there was nothing leaving today. He did find us two captains who were going to Dar later in the afternoon. We jumped at the chance and all of us went to the Immigration office to get exit stamps. While there, Zakwan introduced us to two officers on duty: a younger and older guy.

‘When are you leaving?’ Asked the older officer.

‘Today. On a dhow,’ said Phil.

‘You are not allowed to travel by dhow!’ He said. ‘It’s too dangerous.’

‘You are allowed to travel by motor boat,’ added the younger officer.

‘But you must first get permission from the Tourist Office,’ said the older officer.

That office was at the other end of the town—sheesh!

After telling him of our ordeal in Zambia, just being robbed last night, the older officer seemed to soften and we got written permission from him. We moseyed around town, then walked back to Customs & Immigration offices around 2pm. They told us we had just missed a motorboat going to Bagamoyo which really pissed us off. We were sweaty and tired from the heat and the walking.

‘Are there any other boats leaving today?’ Phil asked.

‘No, but come back tomorrow,’ said the older officer with a smile.

Phil, Michael, Lars and I were shattered by this news. We treated ourselves to some freshly crushed sugar cane juice which seemed to revive our spirits. Still dying of thirst, I ordered some fresh tamarind juice which seemed to temper it momentarily.

*            *            *   

Slave Square, Stone Town, Zanzibar
Later on, I went to the infamous Slave Square in Stone Town by myself. In the shade of a huge palm tree I contemplated the memorial dedicated to the slaves. It was a square pit about three meters a side and one meter deep. In it were five grey stone statues with rusted iron rings chained around their necks. These represented countless slaves. I reflected on the misery that so many East Africans had endured at this very site, where so many were cast adrift from these shores into some desperate life of servitude in an unfriendly distant land. These slaves were not destined for North America but rather for Persia and the Middle East. I came to appreciate why Doctor Livingstone had fought so hard against the evils of slavery. I had witnessed apartheid on this trip and slavery is another thing, but both may be the offspring of the same mother.

It was ironic that the Anglican Cathedral of Christ Church, finished in 1873, overlooks the former slave square and monument. Some say the cathedral’s altar was built directly over the spot where the slave whipping post had been. As it happened, I was the only one there. No locals came by to pester me, and I wondered if for the locals, perhaps, the shame was too much to bear.

*            *            *

Back at the Malindi Guest House, we paid up for the night, took a shower, met Neil and hung out chatting about getting off the island. In the evening, when it was somewhat cooler, we strode down to the beachfront for some grub. My favourite refreshment was freshly quartered slices of green mango, slathered in red chili paste and slaked with freshly squeezed lime juice. In this torpid climate that seemed to do the trick. The deep fried plantain with red-hot chili paste also hit the spot naturally followed by tamarind juice.

Some guys were loading boats, and after talking to the captain, they said they would be heading to Dar tomorrow morning at 9am.

‘How much do you charge?’ Phil asked.

The captain laughed, ‘there’s a few more people going so you can go for free.’

We could not believe our luck because by this time, we had given up hope of finding a boat to Dar anytime soon. Between the humidity, being ripped off, the mosquitoes and hassles with the boats—we just wanted to get off the island.

Buoyed by our newfound luck, Phil, Michael, Lars, Neil and I found a pub where we hoped to drown our earlier sorrows over a few cold beers. We also enjoyed a fine seafood meal at the Blue Dolphin Restaurant, then went to the Africa House Hotel where there was a solemn crowd watching someone’s picture on the TV. Sadly, the Prime Minister of Tanzania, Edward Sokoine, had died in a tragic car accident. The atmosphere was intense and sullen, so we withdrew back to our guest house.

*            *            *

Up and early the next morning, Phil, Michael, Lars and I hot-footed it back to the Immigration Office to get our passports stamped for leaving, telling them we had found a motor boat to Dar. As duly instructed by the captain the day before, we arrived at the boat at the agreed time. They were not leaving yet as they had to wait for the tide to come in.

‘Come back in an hour and a half,’ said the captain.

Just then, we met an old Zanzibari guy named Ali who offered us a guided tour of Stone Town. We had an hour to kill so what the heck, besides you never know when you might get back here again if ever?

He took us to the house where Speke, Burton, Grant and Livingstone had lived during their many heroic explorations of Africa’s interior. There was a bronze plaque on the side of the house commemorating it as a heritage house. This was also the house where British Consul, John Kirk resided. Next, we also walked over to see the house of Africa’s most famous Arab slave trader—Tippu Tip, but it was unfortunately in a state of disrepair.
Tippu Tip's house

Tippu Tip
Like Lamu, Stone Town was also known for its elaborately hand-carved teak doors. I had photographed them in Lamu in 1982 and now recognized their distinctive Islamic, Persian and Indian influence with brass studs embedded in the door, sometimes Arabic cursive script on the lintel and always a huge brass lock at the foot of the door. Perhaps this island is best known for its Zanzibar chests which are usually made from teak and mahogany with intricate brass metal hammer work on the outside. Many of the carpenters who make them are descendants from Yemen, like the Al Tamimi family, who still proudly carry on the tradition today.

*            *            *

Zanzibar’s heydays had been during the Victorian era explorers and adventurers used it as a base for their expeditions, especially for their porter who were mostly slaves. However, over the years, both the island and its accommodation had fallen off the charts and it seemed now unprepared for the onslaught of travellers in the 1980s. The guide books mentioned only a few places to stay and, we got almost all of our information from other travellers.

In 1984, Zanzibar was not exactly “tourist friendly”. It would be about ten more years before it became one of the ‘big’ tourist attractions on the East African coast usually included in a safari package. During the 1980s, it was the Kenyan coastal towns of Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu that were the destinations of choice for holiday seekers and weary overlanders.

I preferred Lamu to Zanzibar because Lamu was quaint—no vehicles, narrow streets, donkeys as the main form of transport, and it was a lot easier to get to. Moreover, Lamu had kept its Swahili heritage by adhering to strict building codes that maintained traditional rag coral construction, boriti (mangrove) roof supports, and palm frond roofing material; Zanzibar had switched to more conventional building materials, i.e. concrete blocks, corrugated metal roofs and breeze-block construction. I was to find out later that film companies used modern-day Lamu as Victorian-period Zanzibar, i.e. in the Mountains of the Moon.

We finally arranged a boat that would take us off the Spice Island, but that’s another story.