Friday, April 19, 2013

Zanzibar: lost pages of Oman's history

Stonetown, Zanzibar, today.
Zanzibar, circa the 1900s
Etching of Stonetown in the 1800s
One of the countries I wish were still a part of Oman, is Zanzibar. And the Congo. Wouldn't the Congo be better off if it were Omani?.
I have a love of Zanzibari culture, to the horror of my Omani inlaws, some of which have declared upon the tragedy of me not being an Omani woman yet married to a man of the family, that "alhamdulilah, at least you aren't Zanzibari!" lol. The first good Muslim I ever met was Zanzibari-Omani, so my experience of "Zanzibaris are so wild, and they mix and dance and are totally far from Omani culture" simply does not hold for me. I love how relaxed, okay, admittedly sometimes even so far as lazy, my Zanzibari friends are. It amuses me, how slow to finish anything but how quick to laugh they are, and help one. I love their food, I love the colours of their dresses, and I love their proverbs.
A rather embarssing gift from Queen Victoria... an English carriage for the Sultan (as the carriage was seen by the Omanis to be more fitting for women)
Anyways, back to the point of this post... Since 1698 Zaznibar had been a part of the Sultanate of Oman (Muscat). The Arabs forced out the Portuguese who had been brutalizing the locals (as they had a tendancy to do back then). Though these particular locals were kind of a chanegable lot, being like, save us from the Persians Oman! Save us from the Portuguese! Then of course, being like, save us from the Omanis! to the British---who eventually grew tired of them, when they realized they had no care to end the slave trade either. Anyways...
Slave market in Zanzibar, 1887
An old Mosque
Cloves harvest
Trade in ivory and slaves became important, clove plantations were established by the Arabs on the Island, and Oman's East African Empire came to include more that just Zanzibar itself... also the Eastern coast and ports, and territories towards Central Africa. This territory was known as Zinj.
Sayyid Said ibn Sultan al-Busaid (yes, that's right, one of Sultan Qaboos' ancestors---pictured above)  moved the capital of Oman from Muscat to Stonetown, Zanzibar, in 1840. That's right, the capital of Oman was Stonetown, not Muscat in those days. After he died, his sons, both vying for the Imamship/Sultanship and fighting with one another, caused the seperation of Oman into two territories, the East African (Zinj) and Muscat. Muscat, much poorer, always seemed jealous of the relative ease of life for those in Zanzibar.
Majid ibn Sayyid Said ibn Sultan al-Busaid became Imam/ruler of Zanzibar (pictured above). He established a palace called Mtoni whose ruins are pictured above, along with a portrait of the man. His palace life and children actually are some of the most colourful characters in Zanzibar's history (which include pirates, and Dr. Linvingstone). I enjoyed immeansely reading the following two books, both available on Amazon:
"Princes of Zinj" by Genesta Hamilton. A history told in bright narrative, the first page had me laughing, and the history was so gripping, and experience of Arab life and slavery and politics and war so honest and not even the least bit orientalist in mindset, that I couldn't put it down and finished it in an afternoon. Definately recommended if you want to know about the end of the slave trade in an easy read. And...
"Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar" by Emily Reute, aka, Majid's rebel princess daughter Salme, who aided in freeing her brother from imprisonment to later lead a coup, and ran away to marry a German merchant. I especially love her observations about life in palaces Bait Sahel, and Bait Ajeeb, and Arab women as opposed to Western women. A well recommended history, available in Arabic as well.
Princess Salme experienced life in the two palaces, Bait Sahel (Shore House) and Bait Ajaib (Hous eof Wonders), both of which are museums well worth a little visit if ever you happen to be in Zanzibar.
Sultan Barghash, photo courtesy of Mauli and Fox, London
I honestly have little love of Sultan Barghash, who ruled Zanzibar in a time of increasing pressure from the Colonial powers at large. Mainly because of how he treated his own family, forgetting the sisters who comitted treason to aid him, and imprisoning his own brother, Khalifa, who was probably the ONLY male family member Barghash could have trusted. When they were young, Barghash dropped his dagger, and Khalifa picked it up and handed it back to his brother instead of killing him, which would have been the usual familial tradition. Yet, sadly, when Barghash came to power, he sent poor Khalifa to a prison where Khalifa was forgotten for years and left to go nigh mad in a horrible condition.
Sultan Barghash pictured center.
imprisoned brother of Barghash, Khalifa, who became Sultan after his death

After the death of Barghash, his brother Khalifa, became Sultan. Many actions taken to limit slave trade were done under Khalifa's rule. After Khalifa came Ali, then Hamid, and then Barghash's son, Khalid, staged a military coup after the death of Hamid Al Thuwaini (who had died, the British having favoured Humaid, the British favoured for succession).

It is listed as the shortest war in history, lasting only 38 minutes, as Khalid sent troops numbering 2,800 to march against the British navy.
Above pictured is military genius Khalid ibn Barghash. Khalid retreated into an embarrassed but privellaged exile and Humaid was installed as Sultan. The line continued and the country was assigned to be a constituional monarchy in 1965 previously under Humaid having been a British protectorate. Slave trade was abolished. ***Some scholars argue that the manner in which the abolition of the slave trade in Zanzibar caused the destruction of the country's economy and a class system to arise that had actually been less brutal during the slave trade.
Above pictured is the 80th Sultan, Sultan Khalifa ibn Harub's Austin in 1969.

Whether or not this is one's take on Zanzibar's history, there is no doubt the rift that had arisen by British classing of citizens as "Arabs" "African" and "Indian Merchant class" was the seed for revolution planted. Colonialism in Africa was disasterous, as the aftermath's in Belgian Congo and Rwanda might be exampled. Many Omanis are alive still who remember the revolution. Hiding in trees while family members were killed on the lawns of their homes. Many of them still choose to live in Zanzibar, and do business there, and have family there. For others, memories are too painful. I watched a very powerful documentary in Kiswahili about the revolution recently, which talked about that phase in history from many sides. Beyond the tragedy, in 1964 Zanzibar emerged as part of what has become Tanzania, and the last Sultan, Jamshid ibn Abdullah, fled into exile. The old palaces are now museums, and well worth a visit if in Stonetown. The museums:

One of the most popular exhibition's here is Princess Salme's apartments, where old photographs and many of her personal items are on display.

Also, the state rooms; very ornate carved furniture:
More than one period of Sultans' apartments:
It is often noted the the museum is in ill-repair, due to lack of funding, but I think that lends a certain charm.
Anyways, I know Zanzibar is a bit far to make it to OPNO's day-trippin'/weekend get-away things-to-do-and-see outside of Oman section, but since it was once the capital of Oman;) I think we can make an exception for this wonderful, relaxed country. 
Election held after the Zanzibar revolution


Boxie said...

Such an interesting post. I never knew any of that. Inshallah I can borrow that book one day. But first we must finish the books we started. Bwahahah

Albie said...

Asalaamu alaykum OPNO,
How interesting! I will definitely try to pick up these books, they sound intriguing. Princess Salme has a very interesting face! She looks like a bit of a character...

MJ said...

Thank you for these pictures, I'm also fascinated by this rich culture. I ordered "Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar". Love books like this!

MJ said...

Love this post. The pictures are great. I got both the books, as I am also fascinated by everything Zanzibar. Thank You.

Omani Princess (not Omani...yet) said...

Boxie: For sure. My memoirs of Salme is in Arabic though;).

Albie: Wa alaykom e salaam. For sure she (and her whole family for that matter) were all very much interesting characters.

MJ: Me too, I love Zanzibar, no worries. Thank you for enjoying the share.

Muslimah Delights said...

So interesting, will deffo keep the books in mind for future reading insha Allah.

Husna S. said...

I've read Memoirs of an Arabian Princess! It was so fascinating! They had such a lavish life those times. I'm from Mombasa so I'm really interested in the connection between East Africa and Oman since so much of the culture has been borrowed by Omani culture.

Thanks for the post it's awesome :)

Anonymous said...

Revolution was overdue. Omani's were as colonial and caste/class oriented as the Portuguese and British. The irony is that it took a Kenyan man to show Zanzibari's that freedom is never free.

The glossing over the lives that were subjugated through slavery is shocking. Keep on focusing on the glamour and glitz of a few, while the majority live in servitude.

Anonymous said...

This post is in reference to the post of :Revolution was overdue. Omani's were as colonial and caste/class oriented as the Portuguese and British. The irony is that it took a Kenyan man to show Zanzibari's that freedom is never free.

The glossing over the lives that were subjugated through slavery is shocking. Keep on focusing on the glamour and glitz of a few, while the majority live in servitude.
February 24, 2014 at 3:53 PM.

This negative post will never change the course of history instilled in Zanzibar by the Omani's whom lived there for may centuries and even inter married in to the native population, or improve relations between Oman and Zanzibar in the future. With deepest regrets for the pain and hurt which happened from ourpat generations. The Omanis whilst their learnt to speak Kiswahili and made Zanzibar a paradise on earth. As the numerous Historical records found in world libraries and the Internet,Ornate Buildings, Agriculture etc.In which the omani people left behind after the bleak moment in our history of the two entities, The most important way to improve relations is for all to recognize that History cannot be changed. The future can. Most omanis today recognize this and want to improve relations with our sister country and assist in any way we can. As we have many of our people living there and their are many living in Oman. Also similar cultures plays a role. Let us all join hands to improve relations so that are children and future generations can enjoy the fruits. Long live Oman and Zanzibar.