November 4, 2015

Public Healing Monotheism and Violence: The Religious Encounter in African History

a Mijikenda sacred grove in East Africa

The various teachers of precolonial African history I've had the privilege to learn from all emphasize that “public healing” is a useful descriptive to understand how a variety of people in Africa understood the connected realm that Western scholars separate into religion and politics. Public healing in Africa symbolized and symbolizes the collective aspiration for harmony, social reproduction and abundance. Public healing was about healing the political-social body. One of my mentors calls this dynamic discourse of public healing “a moral aspiration for community.” And it is very very old. For instance, if you go back and look at the identity of the earliest dynasty in Great Lakes history, the progenitor to all the subsequent kingdoms, that dynasty is not really a dynasty at all, but a coalition of healers, mystics and wisemen called the Cwezi.

Till today, the Cwezi continue to be venerated, as what some might label as gods, or perhaps more accurately, ancestors or spirits. In some places in the Great Lakes region, the place where this veneration happened was a territorial shrine. In 1996, the Ugandan journalist Geoffrey Kamali described a fleet of seven taxis filled with people who left Kampala in the middle of the night following an “ancestor guide”, someone who had the ability to communicate with these spirits. They sought a shrine on a hilltop outside Kampala, a place with many caves. They brought cash and coffee berries to give to the omusambwa of that place, the territorial spirit. During the fire, some people became possessed by the spirits and the ancestor guide moved through the fire without being burned. Afterwards she took the people to the shores of Lake Victoria, where she tattooed their right arms and asked them to confess their sins to her and swallow several of the coffee berries.

The Great Lakes experience is not unique. Similar kinds of shrines exist at the East African coast. The Giriama are one group among the Mijikenda, a people who have lived near the Swahili coast for many centuries. In the precolonial era, they most often lived in rural areas adjacent to the coastal towns. They had their own forms of sacred enclosures/shrines in the form of groves of trees, called kayas. In 1914, the British, in response to Giriama resistance to British colonial taxation and labor policies, demolished one of these sacred groves. The main trees and gates were blown up, all the dwellings and trees inside the kaya burned, and the entrance dynamited and barricaded. This prompted a rebellion by the Giriama, in which 5000 houses were burnt and 150 men killed. Harming religious-political space touched to the core of Giriama conceptions of the good and the sacred.

Nor where such sacred shrines confined to the continent of Africa. They were also found throughout "Arabia" both before and after the arrival of Islam, and constituted an important part of how people related to the divinity. When we think of the ka'aba, we usually think of a place in Mecca, but a ka'aba could potentially be any sacred place where people would gather to seek intercession. It was a plural religious space, where violence was forbidden. This is not to say that people always respected these boundaries, but there were rules elaborated about coexisting sacred spheres.

For monotheistic visions of divinity, public healing can look a lot like polytheism, paganism or shirk. Where it gets controversial for African and Islamic history is when the Prophet Muhammad is directly implicated in the destruction of such sacred places. Hisham Ibn al-Kalbi, the famous Kufan scholar, in his book Kitaab-ul-asnam, reports the following passage:
"When the Apostle of God captured Mecca and the Arabs embraced Islam, among the delegates who came to pay their homage was Jarir ibn-'Abdullah. He came to the Apostle and embraced Islam before him. Thereupon the Apostle addressed him saying, "O Jarir! Wilt thou not rid me of dhu-al-Khalasah?" Jarir replied, "Yea." So the Apostle dispatched him to destroy it. He set out until he got to the banu-Abmas of the Bajilah [tribe] and with them he proceeded to dhu-al-Khalasah. There he was met by the men… who resisted him and attempted to defend dhu-al-Khalasah. He, therefore, fought them and killed a hundred men of the Bahilah, its custodians, and many of the Khath'am; while of the banu-Qubafah ibn-'Amir ibn-Khath'am, he killed two hundred. Having defeated them and forced them into flight, he demolished the building which stood over dhu-al-Khalasah and set it on fire." 
This incident is also in Sahih al-Bukhari :
"During the Jahiliya, there was a house called Dhu-l-Khalasa or Al-Ka'ba Al-Yamaniya or Al-Ka'ba Ash-Shamiya. The Prophet said to me, "Won't you relieve me from Dhu-l-Khalasa?" So I set out with one-hundred-and-fifty riders, and we dismantled it and killed whoever was present there. Then I came to the Prophet and informed him, and he invoked good upon us and Al-Ahmas." 

Keep in mind here, we are talking about the destruction of a very similar type of shrine to that of the Cwezi shrines or the Giriama sacred groves. In fact, Dhu al-Khalasa was simply a carved piece of white quartz, resting in a place called the ka’aba by the local people who tended it. People used to come to this shrine when faced with difficult decisions and seek advice. It was sacred to those people, as showed by their determination to defend it.

The above incident raises several uncomfortable questions for the Islamic tradition and, beyond that for all monotheistic traditions. What is the difference between ancestor veneration and idolatry, and who gets to decide what that difference is? What are the limitations of the concept of toleration in dealing with the religious other? How does monotheism construct its other? I wonder if we regard the Prophet Muhammad’s need to destroy other people’s holy objects as a form of necessary evil on the way to monotheism. Were the tribes and the men a form of collateral damage in the march of the progress of the deen?

Forms of ancestor veneration and spirit possession have been a nearly universal part of all cultures and civilizations. The ancient Egyptians venerated ancestors, through a panoply of shrines, gods, idols, statues, figurines. One wonders however, if the ancient Egyptians worshipped their gods as a community in Mecca under the Prophet, would they have been regarded as rank idolators? I don't know the answer, but the above incident made me think about the likelihood that their buildings and shrines would have been burnt down and destroyed under those circumstances.

I would suggest that we need to interrogate the epistemological assumptions at the root of 1) the categorical move to create people whose beliefs place them beyond the sacred law, and thus in natural rebellion 2) the logic that makes it necessary to kill hundreds of men, simply to destroy an idol, and the moral calculus that makes figuring that possible. More is at work here than mere “Arab ethnocentrism” or “Arab racism” versus “African” religion. In fact what is at work is a profound devaluation of other forms of epistemology, cosmology and meaning making about the sacred in Africa.

For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad is understandably the moral exemplar of a virtuous life. This is not an attack on the Prophet. As a human, he was truly great, a man who rose above the times he lived in. As a prophet, he was no doubt inspired. As a political leader he often dealt with difficult situations with the greatest sensitivity to human personality. But on the coexistence of monotheism with what we understand as “polytheism”, paganism, shirk, or iconoclasm, I believe the overwhelming historical evidence doesn’t support the way he linked polytheism to disobedience to the one God.

The great scholar of religion Talal Asad has done much work denaturalizing the secular, as something that the West created to help it imagine itself as civilized, and those still stuck in religious orthodoxy as barbarous. In fact, Asad and his many students have said and have demonstrated that secularism created religion, as a category with which to consign forms of non-rational belief. But Asad and his students have not gone far enough. Just as Euro-Americans have had difficulty recognizing that their experience of the Enlightenment was particular to their cultural and historical trajectory and its categories, so the Abrahamic traditions have had incredible difficulties recognizing the particularity of their own experience of universal religion. It would be interesting to get Asad's thoughts on how the Abrahamic faiths have created a category of shirk or polytheism,  filled it with a host of negative, immoral meanings which do not correspond to what we actually find in the historical record, and then constructed themselves in distinction to it. This process of meaning making has had profoundly tragic consequences for non-monotheistic aspirations for moral community and divinity.

I do not think these anecodetes exhaust the possible entailments of Islam, Muslims or Islamic epistemologies. But they do highlight the degree to which force, conquest and a deliberate violence, both epistemological and literal are part of attempts to secure a particular tradition as sacrosanct. How do we avoid linking the sacred with a concept of governing exclusion? In reforming society a prophet has to participate in public life, in the affairs and concerns of the many, rather than in the cultivation of the one. The prophetic has to combine the ethical with the political. As the philosopher Muhammad Iqbal describes it, the Prophet returns: ‘to insert himself into the sweep of time with a view to control the forces of history, and thereby create a fresh world of ideals.’ To make a "fresh world of ideals" is a political act; the creation of a world is inherently political. But such a world cannot be sustained, if it continues to instantiate such a profound disregard for epistemologies that do not share in the logocentric assumptions of the dominant Abrahamic religions.

Finally, I want to suggest that we not be so quick to justify the Prophet’s actions above as necessary or divinely inspired. By apologizing for them, we create a direct connection to imagining and modeling the type of world we want to create, support and live in. If we as scholars of Islam want to challenge the rhetoric of ISIS and Salafism, if we want to imagine a world where we create enough room for “other ways of knowing”, for traditions which challenge the narrow technocratic ways of knowing of the modern world, and its attendant domination over nature, then we cannot afford to ignore some acts of profound violence and disrespect of other ways of knowing, at the root of ‘our’ tradition. In reckoning with these acts, I think we will be led into new definitions of tawhid, in which we are not so quick to think that we know the difference between tawhid and shirk. Inshallah, that will lead us into a profound humility and care in our encounter with the religious other.


October 14, 2015

The Art of Hubbing: The Role of Small Islands in Indian Ocean Connectivity, October 15-17, 2015

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

International Conference

The Art of Hubbing: The Role of Small Islands in Indian Ocean Connectivity

Organiser: Burkhard Schnepel


Thursday, 15th October 2015

15.00 – 16.00    Registration at the MPI

16.00 – 16.15    Welcome Address by Chris Hann, Director of the MPI for Social Anthropology

16.15 – 17.00    Welcome and Thematic Introduction to the Conference by Burkhard Schnepel

17.00 – 18.15    Keynote Lecture
Andre Gingrich, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna
Smallness and Insular Hubs: Some working hypotheses from historical anthropology

19.00 – 20.00    Dinner at ‘Prager Bierstuben’

20.00 – 21.30    Wrap-up and discussion

Friday, 16th October 2015

Chair: Mareike Pampus

9.15 – 10.00    Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle
Ambon, a Spicy Hub

10.00 – 10.45    Jürgen G. Nagel, Fernuniversität Hagen
Commodities and Creeds: Changing connectivity of Makassar (South Sulawesi), 16th to 20th century

10.45 – 11.15    Coffee break

Chair: Gita Dharampal-Frick

11.15 – 12.00    Ajay Gandhi, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen
Specks that Speak Loudly: The view from Mumbai and Ilha de Moçambique

12.00 – 12.45    Beatrice Nicolini, Catholic University of Milan
Global Indian Ocean Ports: Sailing from Arabia, to Zanzibar, and to New York

13.00 – 14.00    Lunch break

Chair: Hermann Kulke

14.15 – 15.00    Burkhard Schnepel, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg
Port Louis (Mauritius) and the Making of a ‘Hub-Society’

15.00 – 15.45    Tansen Sen, City University of New York
Small? Big? Island?: The perceptions of Sri Lanka in Chinese sources

15.45 – 16.15    Coffee break

Chair: Burkhard Schnepel

16.15 – 17.00    Edward A. Alpers, University of California Los Angeles
Islands Connect: People, things and ideas among the small islands of the Western Indian Ocean

17.00 – 17.45    Godfrey Baldacchino, University of Malta
Displaced Passengers: States, movements and disappearances in the Indian Ocean

19.00 – 20.00    Dinner at ‘Wildschütz’

20.00 – 21.30    Wrap-up and discussion

Saturday, 17th October 2015

Chair: Himanshu Prabha Ray

9.15 – 10.00    Iain Walker, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle
Zanzibar: A Hub in Comorian diasporic networks in the Western Indian Ocean

10.00 – 10.45    Kjersti Larsen, University of Oslo
Multifaceted Identities, Multiple Dwellings: Connectivity and flexible household-configurations in Zanzibar Town

10.45 – 11.15    Coffee break

Chair: Eva-Maria Knoll

11.15 – 12.00    Gwyn Campbell, McGill University Montreal
Kilwa Island and the Western Indian Ocean World

12.00 – 12.45    Martin Ramstedt, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg
Bali and Indian-Indonesian Connectivity: Why a small island has mattered

13.00 – 14.00    Lunch break

Chair: Boris Wille

14.15 – 15.00    Vijaya Teelock, University of Mauritius
The Emergence of ‘Local Cosmopolitans’ in Port Louis: Migration and settlement in early 18th up to mid-19th century Port Louis

15.00 – 15.45    Steffen F. Johannessen, Norwegian Business School, Oslo
From Coconut Trade to ‘War on Terror’: Connectivity and disconnections in the Indian Ocean

15.45 – 16.15    Coffee break

16.15 – 17.00    Final Discussion on Conference Themes, Future Collaborations and Publication
Moderation: Burkhard Schnepel


May 27, 2015

Write and Live Forever (inspiration from ancient Egypt)

from Ancient Egyptian Literature, edited by Miriam Lichtheim

"As to those learned scribes,
Of the time that came after the gods,
They who foretold the future,
Their names have become everlasting,
While they departed, having finished their lives,
And all their kin are forgotten.

They did not make themselves tombs of copper,
With stelae of metal from heaven.
They knew not how to leave heirs,
Children to pronounce their names;
They made heirs fro themselves of books,
Of Instructions they had composed.

They gave themselves [the scroll as lector]-priest
The writing-board as loving son.
Instructions are their tombs,
The reed pen is their child,
The stone-surface their wife.
People great and small
Are given them as children,
For the scribe, he is their leader.

Their portals and mansions have crumbled,
Their ka-servants are [gone];
Their tombstones are covered with soil,
Their graves are forgotten.
Their name is pronounced over their books,
Which they made while they had being;
Good is the memory of their makers,
It is for ever and all time!

Be a scribe, take it to heart,
That your name become as theirs.
Better is a book than a graven stela,
Than a solid tomb-enclosure.
They act as chapels and tombs
In the heart of him who speaks their name;
Surely useful in the graveyard
Is a name in people's mouth!

Man decays, his corpse is dust,
All his kin have perished;
But a book makes him remembered
Through the mouth of its reciter.
Better is a book than a well-built house,
Than tomb-chapels in the westl
Better than a solid mansion,
Than a stela in the temple!


January 14, 2015

Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean

Had the privilege to travel to Washington, DC in November to participate in the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art's roundtable entitled "Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean." Lots of great nuggets to chew on here. Thanks so much to Nicole and the Smithsonian staff for inviting me!


October 15, 2014

Making Udi

Dear readers, I am extremely pleased to present to you an udi recipe from Azanian Sea reader, anthropologist and fellow Zanzibar-phile Helen Peeks. I was lucky enough to sit in as several experienced Zanzibar udi makers showed us the basics. What follows is "the basics" of making udi, Zanzibar style. I am by no means an expert at cooking udi, and I doubt Helen would claim to be (although her M.A. thesis on the subject is an invaluable resource). There are many other ways (you can google them). As some of you know, I am mildly obsessed with all types of incense. It is happily an obsession shared by many others in Zanzibar.  Enjoy!

Ingredients for incense (udi)
1 kilo of white sugar
1.5 tea cups of water
0.5 cup of rose water
Boil in a large saucepan with handles

A small packet of white ubani (2oz) of which add several pieces are mixed into the shira (boiled sugar and water) before the wood shavings are added.  The rest will be ground and added to the dry mix.

Add ¼ 
¼ kilo of aloe wood shavings or chips – or any aromatic wood such as agar wood or sandalwood.

After the sugar and water has boiled continue and keep checking it until it forms long threads between your thumb and forefinger.

When the sugar and water mixture is ready add the wood shavings or chips and stir until the mixture starts drying out and turning white.  Spread the mix out on a large tray and then mix in the following ingredients:

Grind and add:
1, Remaining ubani to perfume the incense
2, Kucha otherwise known as Kome which is the trap door part of a sea snail – this is used to make the scent last longer when it is burned.
3, Uvumba which is a lower grade ubani is a grey coloured frankincense – just a pinch as it has an overpowering smell which can overpower the final product.

Perfumes -
1, Half a cup of rose water sprinkled on the dry mix.
2, A bottle of perfumed oil to be added to the mixture (mafuta ya kupikia in Swahili)
3, Three small essence bottles filled with a different coloured oil – yellow, blue and green.  These bottles of oil were bought from the shop ‘Kwa Sharifa’ without any further information.  Names that Izam’s wife suggested for a good quality incense were Channel, Pompier and Riverdoor.  These were later translated to me as cheap oil based versions of Chanel, Reve d’or and Pompeya, all popular French perfumes.

Once the incense had been dried it should be kept in a glass or metal container for longevity.  Most people selling incense pack it in plastic with the expectation it will be used quickly.  The more expensive incense’s are sold in glass jars.

Tools used
Large saucepan with handles to boil the shira.
Large wooden spoon to stir.
Large metal tray to dry the incense.
Jars or plastic pots to store.
Hands to test the shira and mix ingredients.


September 25, 2014

Mweso (called Bao in Zanzibar, or Hawalis in Oman)

Mweso, a Buganda variant of Bao

Click links for bao and hawalis

Each player has 32 men. The object of the game is to capture all the opponent’s men or so to reduce them that he cannot move. The centre horizontal line of the board divides it so that each player has two rows each of eight squares. He may play only his own men on his own side of the board and may not interfere with those of his opponent except to count them or take them. When he takes any men from his opponent, a player adds them to his own men and thereafter plays them exactly the same as his original 32.

Each player moves in turn. A move consists in taking up as many men as are in any one square on a player’s own side of the board (provided there are two or more) and dropping them one by one in each succeeding square, travelling in a counter-clockwise direction and starting from the square next to the one which the men were taken. If the last man drops into an empy square the move is finished but if it drops into an occupied square then that square is emptied and the move continued from the next succeeding square. This process is repeated until the last man in the hand falls into an unoccupied square. It should be noted that a move cannot be started from a square containing only one man. This means that when a player is reduced to sixteen men or less, should then happen to be situated only one to a square, the game is lost. Of course, he may be reduced to only ten men, but provided that one square at least contains two or more men he can still move and possibly win the game.

The way in which an opponent’s men are taken is easy to demonstrate on a board but hard to describe. No men are ever taken from the board and the whole 64 remain in play from start to finish; they are merely transferred from one side of the board to the other. When, during a move, the last man from a player’s hand drops into a square in the row nearest the centre line containing one or more men, and it so happens that the two squares on his opponent’s side of the board immediately opposite are occupied, instead of continuing his move in the ordinary way the player takes whatever number of men are in those two opponent’s squares and continues his move with them on his own side of the board. But, and this is important, he does not start from where he left off but from the square next to the one last left empty on his own side of the board.
When this has been done, the player’s move may or may not be finished. If the last of these captured men falls into an occupied square the player continues his move in the ordinary way, unless it should so happen that this occupied square is in the row of squares nearest the center line and that the two squares of his opponent’s half of the board opposite are occupied: in which case he again takes what men are there and proceeds to play them on his own side of the board starting from the square next to the one last empty. It is thus possible for a player by a combination of relayed moves and moves made with men taken from his opponent to travel round his side of the board several times before falling out of play through his last man falling into an empty square. The skill of the game consists in working out the moves well ahead so that the opponent’s men are taken whilst as few openings as possible are left to him.

There is one complication to mention: “going back.” In certain circumstances it is permissible to move back, in a clockwise direction. Notice the diagram highlighting the four squares on the left hand of each player. If a player sees that the number of men (being two or more of course) contained in one of these squares will land him when travelling clockwise into one of the squares in his second row (the row closest to his opponent), which is occupied and has two occupied squares of his opponent immediately opposite, he many move in clockwise direction and take the men. The men which he takes he then proceeds to distribute one to each square in the usual way, starting from the square on the counter-clockwise side of the square last left empty (one of the four left hand squares), unless he finds that the number of men which he has taken, will, if started from the square on the clockwise side of the square left empty land him in an occupied square in his second row which faces two squares of his opponent both occupied. In this last event he takes the men and goes back to the square left empty and continues his move in an anti-clockwise direction unless the requisite conditions for moving backward again prevail. In moving in a clockwise direction a player may not move beyond the right hand end of his second row of squares even though he may be able to relay until he comes round again to a square in the second row which is conditioned to permit him to take some opponent’s men.

There is one move which counts as a win. If a player, in one move (including a relayed move), succeeds in taking his opponent’s men ins squares 1, 16, 8 and 9, he wins.

The board is divided into four rows of 8 squares, for a total of 32 squares. Each player begins the game with 32 men.

Before the game proper starts each player distributes his men four to each square in his first row. The object of this is to ensure that each player has the correct number of men Having checked this each player allots his men between his sixteen squares as best pleases him. There is no rule as to the number which may be placed in any square and any square may receive any number of men or none at all. One common arrangement is the “seventeen game” (photo). In his own interest he will not place men in squares in rows one and two which are opposite to each other, as this is the position in which his opponent can take them.

A player moves by taking all the men which are in any one square (provided there are two or more) and distributing them one at a time to each successive square starting at the square next to the one vacated and moving in a counterclockwise direction. It does not matter whether a square traversed by the hand is occupied or vacant, each square receives one man and no more. If the move falls into a square already occupied, then the move is relayed and the men in that square together with the one which has just arrived are taken up and distributed one at a time, still moving in a counterclockwise direction, and starting from the square on the counterclockwise side of the square just vacated. (Left hand side in second row, Right hand side in first row). If men are taken from the left hand end square of the second row, the first man is dropped into the left hand end square of the first row. If taken from the right hand end square of the first row, the first man is dropped into the right hand end square of the second row. Movement continues with taking until it is no longer possible, at which point he may relay his men until his last man falls into an empty square.

It is only permissible to move backwards under the following circumstances:
a. Starting from the two squares at the left hand end of the first row or the two squares at the left hand end of the second row.
b. The move must immediately result in the taking of some opponent’s men.
c. The distribution of men taken may be started from either side of the square last left empty, but in the case of a start from the square on the clockwise side of the empty square the move must immediately result in the taking of some more opponent’s men. Having taken all the men possible by moving clockwise, the player continues his move in a counterclockwise direction by starting to distribute the last lot of captured men, relaying where possible and finishing on an empty square.


September 24, 2014

Dates in Oman (excerpt from Unknown Oman, by Wendell Phillips)

“Depending on one’s state of mind, the state of the weather and the time of day, a graceful date garden can be a scene of exceeding beauty. Oasis life is more refined than life on the open desert, with certain oasis tribes proudly referring to themselves as “ahl an-nakhl” (people of the palm). As a general rule, the Omanis eat their dates raw. They claims to possess over one hundred varieties of dates, which are both the ‘staff of life’ and ‘bread of the land’, and they assert that a good wife can place before her husband a dish of dates differently prepared every day of the month. As first noted by Carsten Neibuhr in the late eighteenth century, Arabs classify dates into hot or cold depending on the taste. Oman produces a dozen first-class types of soft dates, with those from al-Batinah noted for their flavor and maturing earlier than those from Basrah. The main variety on al-Batinah (not found in the interior) is the umm silah which, packed in the palm-frond basket, is well know in the markets of South Arabia. The mabsali is not restricted to al-Batinah (found in the interior and on the coast); it is boiled when it reaches the red stage and it is the type which brings the highest price. The most celebrated Omani varieties are the Fardh, Khalas and Khanaizi. Pliny stated in his Natural History that if he could remember their barbarous names he could list forty-nine varieties of dates. In all, over 500 different names and epiphets are used in Arabia, for the date reigns supreme as the queen of trees. Truly the one-humped camel and the date palm are the symbol of Arabia.


September 19, 2014

China to build railway linking East Africa - Africa - Al Jazeera English

Man, they are literally building a new Kenya-Uganda Railway. (Almost 2,500 people died when the British built the original). The symbolic capital involved in this project is HUGE.

China to build railway linking East Africa - Africa - Al Jazeera English


June 16, 2014

Zanjibar: Wa Akfān min Rahim al’alam (Book Review)

Laura Goffman is a Ph.D. student in Middle East and North African History at Georgetown University. She also holds an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from New York University. Her research focuses on the cultural and social dynamics of militarization in twentieth-century Oman. Check her out on

Al-Ghonaimi, Sheikha. Zanjibar: Wa Akfān min Rahim al’alam. Maktaba ḍāmirī lilnashar wa at-tawzī‘. Sultana Oman, 2012.

The cover of Sheikha Al Ghonaimi’s 2012 novel Zanjibar: Wa Akfān min Rahim al’alam (Zanzibar: Shrouds from the Womb of Pain) is an outline of the map of Zanzibar, splattered haphazardly with blood-red blotches of paint, spilling from the island into the surrounding Indian Ocean. We learn in Ghonaimi’s introduction that this blood represents the Omanis of Zanzibar who were slaughtered during the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. This uprising led to the death and expulsion of thousands of Arabs and South Asians, including the Omani Sultan who had been placed at the head of a constitutional monarchy when the British Empire granted Zanzibar’s independence in 1963. He fled the island on his yacht—many others were not so fortunate.

While Ghonaimi’s narrative focus is on the social life and political events of Zanzibar, the orientation of her characters firmly remains in the Omani homeland. Ghonaimi structures her novel in the form of a letter written by her narrator, Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Harthy, to his older brother, whom he has not seen since he departed from Oman some 30 years earlier. Like many Omanis of the impoverished interior, the fictional Mohammed left Oman with his father in the early 1950s in search of greater prosperity in East Africa. Mohammed is only 8 years old when he and his father arrive in Zanzibar, and the first part of the novel is built around a child's nostalgia for an idealized home in Oman. The dramatic focus of this section is Mohammed's recollection of his mother's reluctance to agree to her youngest son's departure, and his father's persistence in convincing her that their son would benefit from learning the ways of trade. Guiltily, Mohammed describes his childish ignorance of the gravity and permanence of his departure, and his mother's rare display of tears as he left. His mother, we learn, has long since passed away, and he longs to have been able to tell her goodbye.

This melancholic nostalgia for his family colors Mohammed's depiction of life in Oman, which Ghonaimi describes, through the lens of his memories, as a pure and simple existence among an intimate circle. The predictable rhythm of trips to the mosque, agricultural work, and religious education structures Mohammed's early life. This Omani community emerges in his memory as majestic in its commitment to these daily rituals. For example, he describes his first trip to the mosque with his father, "I entered the mosque for the first time at dawn...there the men were as though they were illuminated...they were dressed in the Omani way, which reflected the purity of their was beautiful to see human beings participating as angels in that atmosphere of spiritual purity" (17, quotations are my translations).

Some troubles do seep into Mohammed’s memories of this well-ordered world of Oman's interior: the father and the teacher both feel justified in beating mischievous children, who in turn harass Antoor, a homeless wanderer who lost his entire family in a fire that started while his wife was cooking. Also, clear hierarchies prevail, as girls cook and boys carry tools to work on the date farms, and Mohammed recalls his mother sadly reminding his aunt after she learns of Mohammed's approaching departure, "I had no say in the matter" (29). His aunt is horrified that her sister is forced to relinquish her youngest son, but the necessity of covering her face and retreating from view as the men arrive to take him away prevents her from expressing these feelings to Mohammed's father, so away they go, over the mountains with their caravan to catch a ship to Zanzibar.

The Omani community in Zanzibar is apparently close-knit and guards its communal privileges by maintaining a tight control over its network of families. Ghonaimi illustrates this protection of their own when Muhammad and his father arrive in Zanzibar as bedraggled immigrants, but are immediately taken up by Al Barwani, a prominent Omani merchant with an elegant home and a host of black servants. Mohammed and his father have no connection to Barwani except for their shared Arabic language and Omani heritage, but he becomes their willing patron and invites them to be his guests after Mohammed’s father asks him for help translating the Swahili spokenon the dock. Barwani supplies Mohammed with a black servant boy, Youssef, to teach him Swahili until he is proficient enough to enroll in the local school, and he helps Mohammed’s father to start a business.

Youssef becomes like family to Mohammad, yet he holds a separate status as a non-Arab “native”. For example, when Barwani first suggests that Mohammed learn Swahili from Youssef, his father worries about his son mixing with blacks.Barwani assures him, “Don’t worry, Youssef has been brought up in my house, and his manners and morals are excellent” (61). The implication here is that Youssef, despite his race, is an acceptable companion due to his cultivation in an Omani domestic setting. When violence erupts on the island in 1964, Youssef's family saves Mohammed, now 18, and his little brother, Ahmed. In an ultimate act of loyalty, Youssef decides to accompany Mohammed and Ahmed as they smuggle themselves off of the island in the storage cabin of a ship, and when Mohammed questions his willingness to leave his own family, Youssef asks him angrily, "How can you say that there is a price for friendship?" (127).

Friendship between a black former servant and an Omani immigrant may be priceless, but it does have its limitations: after they have reached Dar es Salaam, for example, Mohammed spots an older Omani woman on the docks, and switches from Swahili to Arabic. When Youssef protests that he does not understand, Mohammed replies that he is using Arabic because "I want her to feel that I am close to her" (156). Just as Barwani took in Mohammed and his father in Zanzibar, in Dar es Salaam Mohammed immediately forges a connection with an Omani he identifies by language and appearance. As Mohammed and his brother settle into another enclave of the Omani diaspora, only Youssef’s exceptional loyalty to Mohammed and his upbringing in Barwani’s household grant him entry to this community.

As Nate Mathews noted in another post on Coverage of East Africa in the Omani Media, nostalgia for Oman's East African "empire" has become widespread in Omani media today. Ghonaimi adopts the standard points of this narrative. Through the voice of a minor character (a man who helps Mohammed and his companions to escape Zanzibar during the uprising), Ghonaimi offers an elaborate account of the history of Omanis in Zanzibar. The crucial points here are the propagation of Islam in East Africa through Omani efforts, the primitive nature of Africans before the Arab arrival (even alluding to acts of cannibalism), and the gracious, cultivating influence of the Omanis (138-139). The legacy of slavery is hardly mentioned, and after this historical rendition, Mohammed asks indignantly, "Why do the Omanis deserve all this pain in a country they improved so much?" (141). The answer to this query is at the didactic heart of the novel, and Ghonaimi assures us that the horrors of 1964 came about due to officious British colonizers and demagogic mainlanders (in the final section of the book, Mohammed even lists the names and crimes of specific political leaders), whose combined influence, she suggests, tragically disturbed the harmonious and cosmopolitan balance of pre-1964 Zanzibar.

The most engaging parts of Zanzibar: Shrouds from the Womb of Pain are Ghonaimi’s vivid descriptions of family and community life in Oman and Zanzibar. Here, her enthusiasm for Omani history and her sensitivity to the textures of daily life make for fascinating and compelling reading. Ghonaimi’sinsistence on Omani benevolence and victimhood in East Africa is, however, somewhat one-sided due to her reliance on racial and cultural stereotypes of "Africans" and to her neglect of the historical reverberations of slavery and ethnic chauvinism. Ultimately, these shortcomings are detrimental to her innovative attempt to use the epistolary novel and the complex power of memory to make some sense of the horrific violence of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution.


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