December 19, 2012


Chicago is the nickname of a once notorious neighborhood over the mountains in Amrat. It's official name is Medinat al-Nahda, but it acquired the name Chicago after an ambitious and rich city planner moved thousands of Omanis (many of them newer arrivals from East Africa) from al-Ghubra where they lived in makeshift dwellings (often tents) to government tenements over the mountain in the wilayat of Amrat. "The New City" became a center for drugs, crime and thuggery, although it is hard to discern that anything ever happened there now. In fact it is quite a lovely area. I drove there at night, from Wadi Adai, passing to pick up my friend's son and his friends. We drove past donkeys grazing on the roadside, and everything was quiet, dark and still. It seemed sleepy and very remote. We reached my friend's house; I could smell BBQ. I had been invited for mishkak, the Omani version of a BBQ, and a favorite weekend activity in Muscat. I sat with S. at a long table in the front part of the courtyard, with women around the fire further back, and S's uncle in the back BBQ-ing. A group of parrots chirped and sang in their green cage next to the table; in another green cage a group of small chickens pecked at each other. Kids ran around playing with each other. The atmosphere was totally peaceful and a pleasing and cool breeze came off the mountains as we talked. S's brother walked in and joined our conversation, with me talking broken Swahili, mixed with Arabic and English. Older children brought us lemongrass tea and Omani halwa. S and I talked of his childhood in Pemba, of his father's decision to leave Pemba, of life in Pemba after the revolution. I found myself thinking of his house as an extension of the kind of life in Pemba he had grown up with. Then the mishkak was brought, and they served me long skewers of tender meat on beds of greens. I dipped the meat in honey and wolfed it down. Afterwards we took a tour of the garden of trees and plants, that again evoked the distinct flavor of a Pemban shamba--jasmine bushes, cassava trees, lemon trees, frankincense trees, cardamon, and the "mti wa arobain", so called because it cures 40 different types of diseases.

I left that night with Zanzibar on my mind, and as I drove down the mountain, I thought of the heroic efforts of the Zanzibari diaspora to recreate home in Oman. The Swahili have a proverb, "You always return to where your umbilical cord is buried." Though some may never be able to go back, or don't wish to, they enact their own kinds of metaphorical return through organization of space and place.


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