If my circumstances had not been so dire – or rather, if my circumstances had been drier – I might never have found myself at the Zanzibar Curio Shop.
At first glance, the store did little to distinguish itself from other trinket purveyors besieging the tangled lanes of Stone Town, the historic quarter on the coast of Unguja, Zanzibar’s main island. In any other city, I’d breeze past. But sodden from the fury of a downpour, feigning interest in refrigerator magnets seemed a small price to pay for shelter.
“If you want to see the real history of Zanzibar, you have to come upstairs,” said Murtaza Akberali, who, with his brother, runs the store their father opened in 1968.
And so I followed him through a portal to Zanzibar of yore: Hand-carved wood-and-brass trunks teetered against one wall; vintage cigarette ads from India and political posters from Tanzania formed a retro pastiche on another. The ceiling was an inverted necropolis of timeworn lanterns and teapots suspended from the rafters. Cameras and African tribal busts were jumbled in some nooks; others were orderly archives of domestic ephemera. A wall of grandfather clocks; a cluster of rusting keys.
I flipped through bundles of black-and-white Indian matrimonial headshots, the subjects’ bouffants, curlicues of eyeliner and flared pants suggesting a 1960s provenance. In one room, I paused before a glass cabinet of daggers glinting with bejeweled and mother-of-pearl hilts.
I’d landed on the first day of a delayed rainy season. Swimming in sapphire seas might have been out of the question, but I hadn’t considered swimming down streets that had been transformed into gushing canals.
Undeterred, I brandished my umbrella like a shield and waded through the waterlogged streets of Stone Town.
As someone who’s lived in the Middle East, India and Africa, I’ve long been curious about the confluence of the three cultures on an archipelago just off the coast of Tanzania. The Swahili language spoken here is a composite of Bantu and Arabic, with tributes to Persian, Portuguese, English and Hindi. The architectural dialect is also complex, dulcet dialogue between African, Arab, Indian and European influences.
The briny air gnawing patterns into walls, the serpentine lanes shaded by filigreed balconies, and the ornately carved teak doors – all lend Stone Town a dreamlike beauty that even sheets of rain can’t obscure.
Where Far-flung Corners Converge
“Zanzibar is not just one thing – Arab, Indian, Persian or Bantu. It’s what they call Swahili,” fashion designer Farouque Abdela said.
Abdela designed the Emerson Hurumzi hotel’s jewel-box interiors and holds court most mornings on a divan in its lobby.
“It’s very difficult for people to place Zanzibar. Is it the Orient? Is it African? What is it?” He paused. “I think that’s what makes it interesting.”
You can trace the cultures that mingled in Zanzibar through Abdela’s lineage: He is a native Zanzibari of Comoran, Indian and Arab descent, who spent much of his life in England before returning to Stone Town 16 years ago.
“Zanzibar is the most peaceful place in the world,” he declared. “We are all one. I can’t go against Arabs, because I have a little blood of that. I can’t go against Indians, because there’s a little blood of that. You can’t pick a fight with someone because of their ethnicity or because of their faith.”
It’s a noble sentiment but one that plays down Zanzibar’s complex and often tragic history. Straddling strategic coordinates for ancient trade routes, Zanzibar was settled by Bantus from mainland Africa, then Persians, Portuguese and Arabs, each wave leaving indelible influences on the language, dress, food and religion.
Today, Zanzibar’s population is almost entirely Muslim. For two centuries it was part of the Sultanate of Oman; for a brief period in the 1880s, the Omani capital was moved from Muscat to Stone Town.
The archipelago became immensely wealthy from the brutal slave trade to both Europe and Asia, and was also a hub for ivory and spices. Europe’s scramble for Africa saw Zanzibar become a British protectorate in 1890, then finally, a violent 1964 revolution led to Zanzibar’s union with Tanganyika, now known as Tanzania.
Of Pepper and Cinnamon
Spices remain one of Zanzibar’s calling cards, although things have changed quite a bit over the centuries.
“Back in the day, pepper had as much value as cocaine today,” said Raphael Flury, a Swiss lawyer who is now the director of the spice cooperative 1001 Organic in Stone Town.
These days, Zanzibar’s purported spice farms tend to mainly be for show, staging tours and performances geared toward visitors. In fact, many of the spices on sale in Zanzibar’s markets are imported. I joined Flury and Ethan Frisch, a New York-based entrepreneur whose company, Burlap & Barrel, imports spices directly from farmers around the world. Frisch was in Zanzibar on a sourcing trip and I tagged along as they met with farmers growing nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper.
“Spices have been ignored in the global food revolution,” Frisch said. “There are heirloom tomatoes, single-origin coffee – I’m trying to find heirloom spices.”
A Culinary Adventure
But what really drew me to Stone Town, and what kept beckoning me out into the spongy air and sleepy offseason streets, was the food. In Zanzibar, fusion is a creed, not a craze.
“A mixture of culture, rather than food,” is how Abdela described urojo to me. The stew, popularly known as Zanzibar mix, is hearty, rainy-day food. “It’s all the cultures of Zanzibar in a little bowl.”
The dish that had inspired my epicurean exploits, however, was the curiously named Zanzibar pizza.
You can smell Stone Town’s main culinary destination before you see it: The nightly open-air food market at the sea-facing Forodhani Gardens. It’s usually a festive affair, but on my first visit, the weather put a literal damper on the market and washed the vendors out.
I returned to satisfy my craving on another drizzly evening. I watched as a jovial chef rolled out a mound of greasy dough, slick with oil and likely more than a few dashes of perspiration and rainwater. Against that gleaming canvas, he scattered minced beef, sprinkled a chiffonade of onions, tomatoes and green peppers, dressed it all with salt, mayonnaise, cheese and achaar (a spicy condiment), then cracked an egg on top of it before slapping it on a griddle until it attained that optimal level of chewy-crispy communion. The concoction was more crepe than pizza, but the result tasted just as delicious as its laundry list of components might portend.
I’d barely finished my last bite when I felt the unmistakable splat, first on my shoulder, then on my cheek, then on my head – then everywhere, all at once. The rains were back without warning. I splashed my way back out into the sticky night, soggy but satisfied.