017. Mercurial


I’ve tried to write about Zanzibar so many times and failed. Maybe it’s because only some of the things I recall are good, and many are bad things. Nightmare stirred carelessly into the rapture.

I guess I’ll start with the basics: Zanzibar is a small and deeply Islamic island located just off the east coast of Africa, lapped on all sides by the warm Indian Ocean, beset by hot hurricane weather for most of the year. When it rains, the thin streets of Stone Town start coursing with high, brown water and cackling pirate spirits. It’s a tiny civilization stranded in the hot wide sea, moving at a speed wholly unrelated to the rest of the known world.

The streets of Stone Town are too narrow to drive a car through, and the buildings rise up tall on all sides, labyrinthine. The atmosphere is all thin, filtered sunlight and wet shadow, like the inside of a cave or a darkly canopied rainforest.

When a bicycle comes through, the handlebars stretch across the whole width of the street, so pedestrians must step into the nearest doorway to make space. The streets are packed mud, jeweled with Coke bottle lids, shells and shreds of plastic–economical mosaic. When you’re standing in a doorway, avoiding bicycles, your nose gets pressed right into the smoky Arabian doors that made the island famous. There is always ganja ash on on the stoop.


Let me try another tack:

On this very same and ancient island, sixty-seven years and eleven months ago, a boy named Farrokh Bulsara was born into a Zoroastrian Gujarati immigrant family. He grew up to become Freddie Mercury, flamboyant British performer and glittering voice of one of the best-selling rock & roll bands of all time. When he was seventeen, his family fled the bloodbath of the Zanzibar Revolution and, as far as we know, Freddie never returned to the island. I wouldn’t have come back either.

Thanks to Freddie’s “leanings,” he was publicly disowned by the Zanzibari government, even as his popularity swelled everywhere else on the planet. A few years ago, on his sixtieth birthday, local officials forcefully ended a Mercury festival; one spokesperson solemnly told the press that he had “tarnished the island’s reputation & culture, and promoted homosexuality.”

What a strange, quiet kind of heartbreak–to be unwelcome in the very place of your birth.

But Freddie isn’t the only one unwelcome on the island of Zanzibar. It’s true that one of its two major industries is tourism; but outsiders are only tolerated, kept eternally at arm’s length.

Maybe it’s a kind of defense mechanism–a way of dealing with a rotating carousel of newcomers. Maybe it’s cultural or religious purism–a way of staying undiluted. Maybe it’s simply a learned distrust–a familiarity with exploitation. All I know is that I lived there for three and a half months in a kind of spiritual quarantine, broken only by rare brushes with vulnerability, or glimpses of an unveiled heart here in the half-light.


Beyond the mazy womb of Stone Town, everything is sunlight. Dhows made of sunlight and ropes. Shores of sunlight. Awnings of sunlight. Sunlight tides, sunlight stains on the docks, sunlight snack-carts, silky sunlight nets studded with sunlight fish.

It’s hard to be sad in a world like that, but it’s possible to feel alone, which is what I felt. It began as a regular aloneness, like I’ve felt in many other times and places–but in the past, aloneness was bearable because it was always broken by moments of great and resounding communion that carried me like small rafts to my next communion. In Zanzibar, communion was utterly elusive, and it began to wear me down, fray my edges. There were weeks I felt frantic, the frenzy of solitary confinement, silent fists falling on a silent wall in a no-eared night.

I remember writing letters to my best friend in California–letters that were littered with small pleas, early gasps of disorientation. I’ve been blindly acting and reacting to everything… Everyone must think I’m so strange… I feel like a racquetball bouncing off the six walls of the court, just reactive…There are nights where I’m a total stranger to myself.

A stranger in a land of strangers: shadows interacting.


I guess that wasn’t the whole story. During my third week in Zanzibar, I met Mama Anti–the ancient, anorexic sage who knew all the great works of Swahili literature as thoroughly as her own pulse, who could intuit the rises and falls of their cyclical relevance with the same ease she could predict the city’s uprisings, riots, unrest. She knew the pulse of everything. She was a hawkish, warm-souled seer.

Our first conversation was a negotiation: how much for three months of your mornings, how much for the transfer of poetry? Priceless, but five hundred dollars will do. Five hundred? So much. Priceless, but let’s make it four-fifty. That will work. Then it’s a deal. Priceless, you say? Time will tell.

She became my mighty linguistic governor. She began by forcing me to study grammar for two weeks (I was outraged, I felt swindled), but she said I’d never learned Swahili’s formalities and I needed to. Of course, it made all the poetry better, and I grew unexpectedly glad for her authority, for her oldness and how it quieted me. I was grateful for her stinging eye contact, and her laughter when I said something inappropriate, and our heads bent over pages of tenses. She asked me about the kids’ slang these days. I asked her for Swahili, sliced open and still pumping.


One more story, and I’ll put Zanzibar back on a high shelf–for now.

If you took a dala-dala taxi-bus for fifteen minutes into the jungly inland, you came to the Police Canteen, an outdoor beer-garden where famous taarab singers would occasionally perform. The Zanzibari population is 99% Muslim, but the Police Canteen is one of the island’s loose and decadent “Christian” spaces–a place where public drinking and dancing are not just allowed, but encouraged.

I am there to see the most iconic taarab singer of all time, Bi Kidude, who would die a short five months later. She is backed by ten voluptuous young women dressed in starchy parrot colors. The night begins demurely, song wails rising up like incense into the night. Tales of betrayal, scandal, jealousy, cuckoldry.

One woman pantomimes her song, pointing at a man in the crowd, turning the shy spectator into the villain of her love-story. He rises reluctantly from his plastic chair, shakes his shoulders, winks at the woman, gives her a kissy-face. An impromptu actor in this unfolding song-drama. He transforms into the song’s dishonest lover, and the crowd is tense with interest. As soon as music tapers off, the man grows self-conscious and hides his face with a long swig of beer. His friends clap his shoulders.

The singers send their wails up and up and up, and the night grows. More characters are born from the crowd of watchers: Cheaters, hopers, revengers. A messy, rising heap of loves-gone-wrong. Each song ends with a new casualty.

Soon people refuse to sit, and the cement dance-floor grows warm and packed. Men are dancing together. One young man is the star of the floor, with his pendulumic hips and his white shirt open to the waist. He takes a rotund Muslim man by the waist and whisks him into the light. Their hips are smushed together and the older man throws his head back in beery delight, his grip on the world suddenly loosened.

I think Freddie would be at home here tonight, at his birth-site, where we are being sung open. We are seeds in a wind-current, borne along. We are reborn, helpless as babies.