February 16, 2024

Why read Zanzibar Was A Country?

Why should you as an English language reader from the United States (as a large portion of my friend circle is) choose to read a long(-ish) non-fiction book about two small islands off the coast of East Africa?

In truth, this book was written primarily for Zanzibaris, wherever they may find themselves. In particular, it is for a diasporic Zanzibari community--East African-born Swahili-speakers in Oman, with whom I did oral histories during a Fulbright fellowship in 2012-2013.
Second, the book is written for East African Muslims more generally. My hope is it might assist them in thinking about their historic relations with Indian Ocean states, religious and cultural pluralism, and comparative approaches to integration and dialogue within the civic arenas of those countries.
Third, historians may be interested in the book as a new historical synthesis of modern Zanzibar history, written emphasizing the interdependence of material and ideological factors and focusing specifically on the transnational, diasporic, and extraterritorial dimensions of Zanzibar nationality.
So what about the average reader then? Well, in essence, my approach has been to weave real life stories of escape, covert travel, border crossings, detainment, and dilemmas of separation, into the narrative. These stories are extremely compelling in their own right, though I have had to anonymize a number of them. I treat the subjective dimensions of experience of my interviewees as evidence for several interwoven theses about historical change in the littoral societies of the western Indian Ocean:
1. There was a notable economic divergence between East Africa and the Gulf between 1950 and 1970 which drastically shifted patterns of migration between the two regions.
2. The migrations out of Zanzibar after the 1964 revolution are connected to this divergence and reflect its growing practical effects: the movement of littoral communities, especially those of Arab descent, to the Gulf.
3. Zanzibar nationalism has had an extraterritorial dimension in the modern era, which is also connected to the deeper history of Oman in East Africa.


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