Avaes Mohammad

Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

India: SALAAM BOMBAY 3 (250509)

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Salaam Bombay 3 


My first afternoon in Bombay.  After a wash and a change of clothes I’m ready for the city.  My first stop…Haji Ali.  A floating mausoleum of a Sufi Saint, built off the Bombay coast upon the Indian Ocean itself.  An elevated, crumbling path leads the way, which when the tide comes in is swallowed whole by the water, leaving only the mausoleum visible: an enchanted, floating palace.  As is the tradition with Sufi sites, it’s a sacred place for people of all castes and creed.  In 1990, when I was 12 years old, I made a wish here when I visited with my mother.  The wish came true.  I thought one of the first things I’d do on my first trip back is pop in.  Say hello, say thanks.  Maybe make another wish. 


I walk for two hours down the majestic city coast of Bombay, street kids competing to out-strut me as they walk past.  When I finally make it the place is heaving…like carnival.  The crowd pushes, dodges and swerves around itself in an effort to maintain forward progress on this narrow stretch.  The ocean glides itself all around us and we feel as though we’re gliding all over it.  The edges of this stretch hosts a whole industry maintained purely by the Saint’s mausloeum.  For visitors to adorn the tomb with, vendors sell flowers and elaborately decorated sheets of cloth with verses of the Qur’an sewn into them (Chadars). There’s also music, food, drinks and even a guy who’ll engrave your name onto a grain of rice.  I think it helps identify which grain goes where on the dinner table.  Where there are no vendors, there are beggars.  Of all age, affliction and gender they sit as manikins of meekness: filthy and with clothes torn in all the right places so as to show off amputated limbs and shocking skin conditions with full appropriateness.  It’s all part of the industry, feeding off the visitors desire to look good in front of the saint and God, they make good business. 


The tomb itself is mad crazy with a rush of people pushing, crashing and crushing against one another around the raised grave: desperate to approach and kiss one of the Chadars adorning it.  People arrive seeking blessings for newborn children, pleading for their deepest wishes and desires to be met, generally praying for a better life.  Directly outside the tomb, Qawwali singers sing songs of divine praises and after a private moment inside, I sit listening with five delicious samosas: my first Indian meal for 10 rupees only.   


As I walk back along the path on water there are less people…I see the beggars better.  One man sits topless and motionless displaying a shocking skin condition as though he were an exhibition piece (Turner Prize worthy?).  Five men, all rocking, lie on their sides, forming a well-structured circle: one singing praises to God, the rest providing a chorus, two of whom are frantically waving their handless arms in the air: a well choreographed piece all in all.  Just a little further on, one man simply sits alone, by the side of this path on the sea, gently waving his own handless arms.  My hand reaches into my pocket as I feel compelled to give a couple of coins, not entirely sure whether it’s charity or whether I’ve just paid for a freak show… Salaam Bombay.                     


The following Monday morning I run around all the banks I can find for some over the counter assistance.  None can help…none can give me money on either my bank card (the signature had faded) or my credit card (the signature didn’t match my passport).  One fella tells me there’s a Barclays in the Worli area of Bombay.  A one hour bus ride later and after frantic running around trying to find it, I finally spot the blue eagle. 


‘Sorry…we don’t have access to UK accounts…you’ll have to call your bank in England’






‘Can I at least use your phone…I’m not sure I have enough for the phonecall.’


‘Come with me.’



I’m brought sweet tea and cool water but after speaking to someone who confirmed my account had indeed been frozen, I was put on hold.  I remained on hold.  For fourty-five minutes.  It was Bank Holiday Monday in England.  Eventually I was asked to put down the phone.



‘Come back tomorrow though and I’ll help you out.’



At least I’d sorted free phonecalls to the bank.  So my 4 hundred and something rupees were all mine…to eat, drink and travel with.  I had a gorgeous and filling Indian Thali for 28 rupees only!  I bought a packet of cheap Indian beerees instead of cigarettes for eight rupees.  Tea for three rupees only.  I could live like a king!  My greatest expense was regular water for twelve rupees a bottle and one coca cola a day to ensure I didn’t feel like a complete tramp: twenty rupees.  I had everything I needed.


I bump into Raju the guide where I met him the first time.  He’s pleased to hear the cops helped out, said he was praying I’d be okay and took me for tea.  My half smoked beeree lies on the table for me later.  It rolls off…I’m about to pick it up.



[Following In Hindi]


‘Let it go manhey!look!…if you need anything…don’t be shy, just ask me!….money, food, charas, drink…if you wanna smoke a cigarette instead of these fuckin berees…if you wanna eat Non-Veg I’ll take you Bare Miya’s, the best Non-Veg place in Bombay…you just let me know…just make sure you don’t squash the heart my friend…you have to do what the heart says always …always do what the heart says!… here…have a cigarette.’






‘Thanks yaar…[I put my arm on his shoulder]


‘Mate, when I came to this city there were people who kept me upright.  I know what it’s like…I’ve seen those days and it’s not easy and I only came from the village…you’ve crossed waters to get here…no-one is anyone’s in this city…[Beat]  maybe if I have to go abroad one day, someone’ll help me out.’



As we walk, two men in their fifties sat on parked motorbikes call us over.  They’re friends of Raju and he tells my story.



‘The hotels here don’t want anything to do with Pakistan anymore.  The Taj has a fuckin sign at reception…’No Pakistanis!’.  It’s sister-fuckin right though…I’ll tell yer straight…if my nephews even came here from Karachi I’d tell ‘em fuck off…Mother’s Cunts!…they ain’t staying with me…fuck that!…Pakistanis…they’re the biggest fuckers on earth…I know coz I know them!



This is Musa.  A skinny, sweet looking guy.  ‘Man of the world!’  Nice smile, generally gentle, friendly and very funny.  He’s a Muslim with family in Pakistan.  Maybe that’s why he feels he has to make a show of condemnation.  Maybe he means it.



‘Oi brother in law! (i.e…I’m having your sister) Not all fingers on one hand are the same are they?…so not all Pakistani’s are like that lot either…some of ‘em are good….these were only a handful of  lads.’



This is Prem…’With love, people call me Prem Chopra’ (a famous Indian Film Villain of the 70s/80s)…a short, dark, funny fella with dark glasses…always smiling and always succeeds in making me laugh…He’s Hindu so maybe he feels like he has to make a show of understanding.  Maybe he means it. 



What the fuck you goin’ to Pakistan for anyway?’


‘Same reason I came to India.  I’m a writer.’




‘…He’s gonna write…’








‘You’re not going to meet with any terrorists are you?’



Paranoid that everyone in Colaba is listening for my response, and not unduly, I bow my head, put my palms together in front of Prem and shake my head from side to side.  We laugh.



‘So get your parents to send you some money man…through that Western Union there.  You got parents ain’t you?’


‘Yeah I got parents…but I’ve got my own money in the bank…I don’t wanna ask them if I’ve got my own money…if I can’t get it in a few days I might.’


‘Tension’s not to be taken!  This shit happens…you need anything…you let us know yeah…fuck tension though…don’t take that fucker!  Money, charas, drink, food…we’ll sort it for you…just say!  Pay us back later or don’t, makes no difference to us…we’ve seen it all man…every fucker in the world comes through Bombay…and when they do every fucker comes through Colaba…they got to…we stamp the passports nowadays Mothers Cunts!’



They all laugh like there’s an angle to the joke I’m missing.



‘There was this one white fella.  German I think.  Been robbed…took everything the bastards…didn’t have enough to eat even…I said come with me…took him Majestic…got him a thali…12 rupees back then…’Eat Thali!’ I said.  I gave him a whole tola of charas (1oz), cigarettes, papers, a few thousand rupees.  Got him a nice room too.  When that fucker’s money came in, you wouldn’t believe it…he gave me a thousand dollars sister fucker!  Thousand dollars!  Now…whenever he comes Bombay he looks us up…isn’t it Musa?’



Musa smiles and rocks his head agreeably from side to side.  They laugh.     



‘Then there was this other sister fucker…German I think…been robbed…I did the same yeah…sorted him proper…gave him a whole tola of charas, thousands of rupees…good room…looked after him…but this fucker legs it…he just did one…don’t even know where or how…never seen him again!…isn’t it Musa?’ 



Musa smiles and rocks his head agreeably from side to side.  They laugh.     



‘Makes no difference to us.  So…if you need anything, let us know yeah’


‘Thanks.  I will.  But I’ve got three, four hundred in my pocket still. I wanna make that last.  When it runs out and I need some, I’ll ask then.’


‘Yeah…Yeah…it’s important!  Look…for this day or two, eat thali’s, eat vada pau’s, instead of Marlboros for 100 rupees, buy beerees for eight.  Take buses…look…a person…a human…is that which can cope with any situation…who knows how to handle themselves with little money and also knows how to handle themselves with lots of money.  That’s a person!’



I got through to the fraud department the following afternoon and had access to my money within ten minutes of speaking to them.  Within the first half an hour of having my money back, I’d got a taxi back to Colaba, bought a glass of fresh pomegranate juice and a box of 20 Marlboro Lights.  Within half an hour I’d spent the equivalent of what I’d spent in the last two and a half days:  300 Rupees!  I sat laughing to myself, drinking juice and smoking a cigarette…Salaam Bombay, Salaam!                     


India: SALAAM BOMBAY 2 (250509)

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Salaam Bombay 2  


The cash machine in the Indian airport doesn’t want to be my friend either.  So I walk away and change my fourteen dollars into rupees.  Even the money exchanger looks disappointed at the amount I have.  Our hands cross and I’m left with just over five hundred rupees. 


I’ve been to Bombay once before: with my family in 1990.  We stayed on Mohammad Ali Rd, I remember as it’s named after my father’s favourite poet and my favourite boxer.  Okay…Mohammad Ali Rd.  With three bags and a drum I walk out of the airport towards the bus stop.  The airport is the same as any other airport.  Beautifully clean, polished and trolley-friendly flooring that provide a deceptive introduction to the city.   Beautifully moustached and dominating Armed Guards that don’t.  I make my way to the bus stop and after jumping on and then being thrown off a few buses, I finally figure out which bus I’m to get and board successfully. 



[Following in Hindhi]


Avaes:             I wanna go Mohammad Ali Rd 


Conductor:      10 rupees.


Passenger:      Give him twenty rupees day pass…you can go round all Bombay, all day with that!


Avaes:             Er..yeah…twenty rupees day pass please


Passenger:      [with a huge smile]  See…I just saved you money!



Mohammad Ali Rd is filthy but glistening.  Harsh but friendly.  Cut-throat but life affirming.  Very damn quickly I discover this is true for most of Bombay. 



[following in Hindhi]


‘Salaam.  Uhm…I’m from England!  I’ve been travelling across East Africa for a couple of months now and I arrived in Bombay this morning.  You see I have an English bank account but it’s been frozen. Now there’s no problem. I have money!  The ATM even showed my balance.  I reckon they just think it’s got stolen so all I have to do is call them.  Today’s Sunday though right, so I can’t today, but tomorrow.  Tomorrow I will and when they free my account I’ll have money again.  I can pay you then I promise.  Tomorrow or the day after.   But I can’t pay up front.  I can’t pay today.  500 rupees is all I have in my pocket and I’ll need it for food and the phonecall tomorrow.




…500 rupees. Pay up front only!


…Pay half up front!


…I’m sorry…we can’t help…No-one will.



One fella just purses his lips together, looks down as though reading an imaginary book and flicks his hand at me like he’s shooing a mosquito.  I tried all the guest houses in Mohammad Ali Rd, but Bombay demands you pay up front.  I even managed to get myself in and then out of a minor scuffle and so thought it best to leave this area full of merciless Indian Film Villains.  As I try to figure out my next move I walk past a guy with one eye sat by the side of the road who gave me directions to a guest house earlier. 



[Following in Hindi]


Did you find the guest house?


Yeah.  None of them’ll take me





I explain.



Oh.  But you have the money?


Yeah.  I do.  I reckon I’ll get it by tomorrow even but no-one here wants to know.  [Beat]  Maybe I’ll just have to stay out tonight.


Hey!…Look!!  Sleeping on Bombay streets is no easy thing.  The city’s teeming with street kids.  They’ll rob you of all your stuff and there’ll be nothing you can do about it!  Listen to me and get yourself inside somewhere!     






Where you from?




England!  You have a British Passport?


Yeah.  I was born there.


So you have a green card then?  You can work there?




Can I see?  Your passport?



He looks at me like a child wanting sweets and although I know it’s the stupidest thing to do, I still find myself taking my passport out of my pocket to present to a one-eyed stranger on the edge of a rat infested Bombay street.  He stretches his hand out.  I stretch my passport out.  Holding firmly.



I won’t run away with it.



And I choose to trust him.  Because trust is currency between strangers.  So I let my grip go and his eyes light up as he delicately caresses through the pages in my passport.  He returns it.



Look!  You need to stop carrying that around with you, d’you hear?!  Someone’ll run away with it and get 10, 000 rupees for it on the street. 



He gives me directions for Colaba, the area where most tourists stay.  Maybe the hotel owners there’ll be more understanding.



Take the 124 or the 125 from that bus stop opposite.  And if you need anything, I’m here.  My name’s Kader.  I’m here everyday, I look after this parking lot.



I arrive at Colaba and the sun has started to blare.  With all my luggage and not having eaten yet, I’m tired and desperate to find a place to put my stuff down in.  I search for a private agent I’ve been told can give me some money, provided I show him my bankcard.  Sounds dodge I know.  As I’m looking and asking for him, a hawker walks over to me. 



You okay?  Want hotel?…I’ll take!



I ask about this agent after explaining my situation.  He’s never heard of it, thinks it sounds dodge too but helps me find it nonetheless.  We don’t find it.  Luckily I think.  So he takes me to the local cheap hotels. 


This hawker:  He’s called Raju.  He’s 32, though he looks 25, married and with two kids.  The eldest is 15.  He’s skinnier than me even and lives in the slums nearby making his living as a guide for tourists.  Raju, is the informal version of the name Raja.  Raja means prince. 


Raju takes me to a hotel explaining my situation. 



[in Hindhi]  ‘He’s in trouble man…sort him out…he’ll pay you later for sure innit…do him a favour man.’



The lad at the counter says the manager’s asleep and he’s afraid to wake him in case he gets a beating.  We move on.  Raju’s helping me with my bags now.  He runs off ahead through a crowded narrow bazaar, with a bag that has my laptop, camera and documents in.  But I trust him.  As I turn around the corner he’s waiting for me, ushering me up a steep, dark stairway. 




[Following in Hindhi]


‘Help him out man.  He’s in trouble…he’ll pay you…when he gets the money he’ll pay you for sure but he has nowhere to stay for now…look he’s been running around all Bombay all morning man!…do him a favour.’


[The lad at reception stretches himself, thereby appearing as cool as possible]:

‘Go on then…what the fuck?…even if he eats a couple of thousand, what the fuck?!  I’ll pay for it out of my own pocket… the guy can stay.’



Fuck it!…Who’s seen what tomorrow looks like?…If I help you today, maybe someone’ll help me tomorrow…Life’s a bitch enough…No tension!:  This!  This is the spirit, the huge, throbbing, pulsating heart of India that I know.  That I love…Salaam Bombay!   


He shows me around a room.  It has my own bathroom, a working TV, AC and a fan. 



[Following in Hindhi]


Will it walk? 


It’ll run.



I drop my bags in and a security guard follows me.  He wants to check my bags. 



‘I’m sorry…we have to do this now.  Since you know…what happened.’



He’s talking about the 4 day siege last year in Bombay, where allegedly Pakistani terrorists had been implicated. 



Yeah course you do.  No problem man.  Look.



I help him through my stuff.






I walk back up to reception to sit with the lad at reception (also called Raju) and Raju the guide.  An Indian film is playing in a corner and traffic screams its eternal presence three floors below us.  As we’re sat, chatting, Raju the receptionist goes through my passport to record details in his book.  Suddenly, his face changes.  It’s all screwed up like a little boy just been slapped.  I hear a Duh! Duh! Duh! from somewhere: maybe the film on TV, maybe the film in my head.  He calls Raju the guide over and whispers stuff…I hear:  Take him and Pakistan



Is there a problem?


Just take him.


But what’s the problem?


I can’t do it…not now…just take him back…somewhere else…I want nothing to do with this.  Nothing!  I want fuck all to do with it.


What’s the problem man?!



Raju the receptionist takes my passport and flashes one of the visas at me…









And?  And what? 






Look its not as though I’ve been…check…there’re no entry or exit stamps…I’m gonna go to Pakistan after India!  It’s not like I’ve just come from there.


I want nothing to do with Pakistan or Pakistani’s…not after what happened.  Now it’s best if you just take your stuff and find someplace else.



I shrug my shoulders and take my passport back.  I have no desire to waste time upon bullshit prejudice.  ‘But then…where the fuck you gonna go fool?!’, a foul-mouthed voice in my head shouts out.  ‘Nobody else even wants to give you a room and that’s before they’ve seen your Pakistani Visa!’



I ain’t gonna do anything am I?…. 


Look man…he’s not even been to Pakistan…He’s British isn’ he? 


But his next trip’s Pakistan!  It’s got nothing to do with you doing anything…every night a copper comes here to check the passports and the books…if he sees anything to do with Pakistan he’ll rape my arse!  Fuck that!  It’s better you just go…I want fuck all to do with it!


Look…You’ve trusted me this far…so what’s wrong now? And what the fuck’s wrong with going to Pakistan anyway?  Indians go too.






Where do you think I can go from here anyway?






Look…The only way I can let you stay is if you get a letter of no objection from the Cops.  I don’t want my arse raped…Simple!  If you get that we can talk…But if there’s no letter, find some place else!



Raju the guide offers to walk me to the police station, so I pack my bags again and put them back on my shoulders.  As we walk to the station, only five minutes away, I recognise the streets suddenly.  I look to the left of me…I recognise that building, that red tiled dome…those small towers…that architecture…I’m in the shadow of the Taj Hotel!  That’s exactly where the gunmen were based last year, where they wreaked their bloody four day havoc from.  I walk on and that’s Leopold Café…another scene of murder and wreckage during the siege.  No wonder.  This is the centre of where it all actually happened!  Where the allegedly Pakistani gunmen were based and distributed death from.  No wonder they’re uptight. 


Raju won’t come into the station but wishes me luck.  From the films I’ve seen I walk in expecting to find torture scenes, coppers with their feet up drinking tea and power hungry mini-dictators.  But disappointingly there are no torture scenes and the copper I speak to is actually rather helpful.  Although cops sitting around drinking tea are to be expected globally I think.  I’m speaking to the big boss man…I don’t know his rank but he’s the only one with no uniform and walks like he own the place.  He was on TV during the siege too, I recognise him…he spoke no English then and he speaks no English now.  After explaining my situation and what happened at the hotel, I say the hotel staff are scared of the cops and what they might do if they let me stay.  He smiles from under a bushy moustache but says he can’t issue a letter of no objection as he knows nothing about me.  I badger him a bit more… ‘My only option might be the street for a night!’…



‘Oi!  Come here!!’



He beckons a cop away from his tea and orders him to personally escort me to the hotel and then assure the hotel staff into letting me stay.  No sooner has he given the order than he walks away abruptly, utterly confident in the power of his command. Suddenly I’ve gone from being a broke backpacking bum to having a personal Police Escort to handle mine very own affairs.  Rather!  The hotel staff make a point of saying they’re letting me stay purely on the Police’s instruction and then order tea for me and the Cop.  This, ladies and gentlemen, the tale of my first cup of sweet, sweet, Indian tea…Salaam Bombay.


In Uncategorized on June 20, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Bada’i Zanzibar…Salaam Bombay!


Yesterday, Sunday morning, May 24th 2009, 4.45 am, we’re awakened by the pilot. 



‘…With a temperature of 17C, the weather in Mumbai is hazy…’



Out of the window it’s still night.  Butterflies crash like a crescendo against my stomach walls as lights are cued into the frame.  The plane descends slowly and Bombay: City of Dreams, spreads herself open to me: Bright yellow and white streetlights sparkle against the black like an Indian Film Heroines’ Sequenced Sari.  Enraptured, a little boy, my celluloid dreams manifest to greet me.  The plane, descending lower and lower, follows a dusty amber hue.  The dust clears.  From an aerial view, all the glory of a Bombay slum is revealed and begins to give chase relentlessly all the way to the runway edge…Salaam Bombay!       


The plane lands and I wait outside it for Sreenath whom I met at the airport in Zanzibar.  If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have made it this far…


…One day earlier…Saturday 23rd May 2009, approximately 11.30 am, Zanzibar.  I’m due to fly in just over 4 hours so it’s as good a time as any to run to a bank and get cash for India.  Sorry.  This transaction has not been honoured!  I go to another bank…No money.  Still another bank….still no money.  I desperately halt a taxi to rush me out of the winding, confining alleys of Stone Town and to the Central Barclays branch…No blasted money!!  Charging inside, I plead with the Bank Staff…I’m a UK Barclays customer for God’s sake! 



‘Sorry sir…we’re affiliated with Barclays in name only really…unfortunately you’ll have to call your bank in the UK.’



Except I don’t have enough cash for the phonecall.  The paradox is lost on those in uniform and I’ve gotta leave soon anyway.  I haven’t even packed!  With the cash I have on me, I pay the taxi.  The rest isn’t enough to pay my hotel bill anyway so I agree with the manager to pay half for now with a promise to pay the rest when this has all cleared up.  Everyone at the hotel wishes me a warm goodbye and Abu, the hotel carpenter helps me out with my bags.  We embrace and hope to see each other again.  Bada’i. 


The Tanzanian shillings I have left, I convert to dollars.  Fourteen.  I’m about to enter a country, a new city where I know no-one with just fourteen dollars.  A little voice of mischief in my head laughs, ‘let’s see what happens’


After check-in at the airport I impress myself by talking an official into letting me onboard with a drum I bought.  As I and my world take a moment to celebrate this small victory (Avaes: 1, Authority: 0) the earth suddenly halts.



Take it then.  But check in the big bag.  And then go pay your airport tax before immigration.



Airport tax!  What in funk’s name is that?! 



In Zanzibar you pay it in cash at the airport sir…Thirty dollars!           



[Once the earth resumes rotation]



Look mate…I’m not being funny yeah, but I can’t pay it…simple!  The machines aren’t giving me any money today…I’ve tried them all…and you lot only accept cash.  I’ve got fourteen dollars and that’s all, and I’m gonna need that for India anyway.  So look, I’m sorry yeah?…but I just can’t pay!






They won’t let you on the plane without paying sir.


Look brother!  What exactly d’you expect me to pay with?  No-one told me I gotta pay thirty dollar to leave… all I got is what you see…fourteen dollars…take my shirt and my shoes if you want but I ain’t got thirty. 



He thinks long…I think I’m winning again…My minds eye sees the scoreboard about to flip over…(Avaes: 2, Authority: Isn’t playing!)



Well sir…You’ll just have to borrow it…there are people here going to Bombay…borrow it from someone.


You what?  How’m I gonna ask someone for money who I don’t even know?…I’ll tell you what…It’s your idea!…So you lend me the money!  Go on!!  You lend it us then and I’ll pay you back!’



Eventually I walk away.  To think, as arguing isn’t helping.  I met someone in Zanzibar who might be able to help.  Upon calling, she says she can give the money but has no car.  Wait! she says.  I’ll see what I can do and call you back.



The flight leaves in about an hour.  The guy at the counter comes over to me. 



Any luck?


I’ve called someone.  Dunno.


Look sir.  That fella over there.  He’s going to Bombay. Ask him!


But I don’t know him man!


[frustrated] Okay!  You do it your way then!!



I stand looking at the man texting into his phone.  My height, short haired Indian fella.  Not much older than me.  He seems dismissive, aloof.  He seems gentle, friendly.



Excuse me.  Hi.  Are you travelling to Bombay?




Sorry to have disturbed you but I’ve been instructed by that gentleman over there to ask if you can help at all.  I’m also travelling to Bombay today but can’t pay the airport tax.  I don’t have enough and no machine in Zanzibar will give me money today.  Now I know I have the money there…


…You sure?


Yes.  I’m sure.  The bank must have frozen my account coz they think it’s got stolen.  English banks do that sometimes when it’s used abroad a lot…so I need to ask someone to lend me the money…


[while texting]  I’ll pay.




[looks up]  I’ll pay.


…Thanks… Thank you very much.  I’ll of course pay you back when we get to Bombay.





And that was how I got to Bombay.  ‘Filmi’ even before I arrived.  So when we landed I was waiting for Sreenath outside the plane and we walked through immigration together, where he told me about his wife and son that he hasn’t seen for three years.  He gave me his contact details before catching his connecting flight to Hyderabad.  Another debt I’ve collected.  Another act of kindness from a stranger.    


I walk towards the exit, ready to lose myself in the folds of that Sequenced Sari I saw from above, as much as fourteen whole dollars would allow.

















In Uncategorized on June 12, 2009 at 12:51 pm

coffee and politics at Jaws Corner
coffee and politics at Jaws Corner
This is a door.  It is an Indian Zanzibari door
This is a door. It is an Indian Zanzibari door
This is a street.  It is a Zanzibari street.

This is a street. It is a Zanzibari street.






sufis sufi-ing

sufis sufi-ing






Night Food Market


last kahawa in africa

last kahawa in africa

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 13 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 1:15 pm


[From a conversation with a Zanzibari woman I met.]

X: …I was married at 15. Only because of the revolution. The army and the people were threatening Indians that they would have forced marriages with the Indian girls. Rape really. So my father made me get married and we went to live in England.


He was doing his PhD there.

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 10-12 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 1:11 pm

[I have very distant family in Zanzibar: A second cousins, stepfathers uncles dog had fleas. One flea, Yaqoob the magnificent, mated with the flea of a horse, despite the social stigma. The horse belonged to the great uncles second wife’s adopted nephew, of the people I met. The following sketches are conversations I had with members of that distant family.]


Yaseen: You see that guy just gone? He’s crazy…used to be okay…but he’s total crazy now. You saw right? With no shoes? Before he was in police…you know trumpet?…he played it…really good…in police band! But people get jealous. They don’t like to see other people doing good. They say why him? Why not me? So they did black magic…you know? Now he’s crazy man.


Liaquat: The revolution! I was a boy then. Just a boy. But I remember…I remember it. We didn’t even know there was a revolution today. It was Diwali that day…we were getting ready to see fireworks. My uncle said go and buy bread. So I went running to buy bread. A guy stopped me in the street. He said what are you doing outside? Go inside! Go back home! I said no…I have to buy bread. He started shouting louder…said I have to go inside…it wasn’t safe here he said…I said No! I said I came out to buy bread for everyone and that’s what I’m going to do. So he slapped me. Really hard. It really hurt…I was just a boy and he was a man. So I looked around for a stone or something to throw at him…then he started chasing me….and I ran…I ran home. I told my uncle that this man had slapped me so he came out with me to find him. The man told my uncle that today was a revolution. They were going to kill every Arab and Indian they could find. The man told us to hide. We stayed inside for three days.


Yaseen: They don’t like it that Indian Zanzibari girls won’t marry them because they like Indian Zanzibari girls. There’s not so much intermarriage with Black African Zanzibaris and Indian Zanzibaris. Nowadays it’s mainly between Indian Zanzibaris and Arab Zanzibari’s.

Avaes: Oh. [Beat] What about your sisters’ husband then? He’s Black African Zanzibari?

Yaseen: Huh? No man…he’s Arab.


Avaes: Oh.

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 8-9 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 1:09 pm


[In an off licence in Nungwi, a large village on the northern most tip of Zanzibar Island, home to some of the most picture postcard perfect beaches on the Island.]

Avaes: 20 camel lights please.

Vendor: 3000.

Avaes: ‘Ah! Hapaana! 2500 Raffiqui…you always take 2500…here!

[gives cigs]

And a lighter?

Vendor: Lighter supermarket…[looks straight at me]…where from?

Avaes: England.

Vendor: England? No…really! India?


Avaes: Well…my mother was born in Mombasa…

Vendor: Mombasa?

Avaes: Hmm…my grandfather was born here though…Zanzibar…

Vendor: Zanzibar?

Avaes: Yeah…my father’s from Pakistan, but everyone comes from India. Muhindi.

Vendor: Henh? Wewe Swahili kabeesa (Yeah? You’re absolutely Swahili then!)

Avaes: [laughing] Hapaana kabeesa…Mimi kidogo Swahili (Not totally… I’m a little Swahili)

Vendor: ‘Ah! Kidodgo!! Wewe Swahili saana, saana Swahili! (You what?! A little!! You’re Swahili a lot, very Swahili!)


[I’m walking along the coast one afternoon, making my way back to my hotel. Boats and ships sit waiting to my left. Random fella, mid-twenties, decides he’s gonna walk with me.]

Random fella: Hey…Jambo!

Avaes [disinterested]: Jambo.

Random fella: Mambo Vipi? (How are things?)

Avaes [disinterested]: Poa. (Cool.)

Random fella: Still here?! I seen you around few weeks now…Like it Zanzibar? Where your friend?


Avaes: Who?

Random fella: Mzungu (White Person)…you used to go Night Market for eating.


Avaes: He’s gone.

Random fella: Oh…He gone! So you alone now…


…and today you were walking with Suleiman, huh?…around 2 o’clock?

[I look at him sharply. He smiles]

You know…[twisting imaginary bits of hair at the back of his head] dreadlocks!

[I continue issuing my sharp gaze]

[smiling] So what about Suleiman?

Avaes: What the fuck is it to do with you man?!



[He stops walking.]

Random fella: Just go. Hakuna Matata…Just go.

Avaes: You what? Nah mate!…I asked what it’s got to do with you, who I walk with?

Random fella: Look…I’m just talking okay. I’m just talking with you…I never asked you for anything…I never asked you for money or for buying…I was just talking!

[We stand for a moment or two, facing each other.]

Avaes: [with a little more politeness] You know Suleiman?

Random fella: [smiles again] Yeah I know him.

Avaes: How do you know him?


Random fella: What were you doing with him?

Avaes: I met him for lunch. How do you know him?

[We start walking again]

Random fella: We all know him.

[I look at him to prompt him into finishing his sentences]

He likes boys.


Avaes: Right.


How do you know?

Random fella: [laughing] Coz he asked me.


Avaes: Okay.


Random fella: So where you from?

Avaes: England.

Random fella: Your friend from England too? Who gone?

Avaes: No…America.

[By this time he’s followed me off the main road and into the intricate network of tight alleys]

Avaes: Don’t you have somewhere to go fella? What you following me for?

Random fella: Just walking…not following.


Listen…don’t walk with Suleiman again.

Avaes: Why not?

Random fella: Because he’s gay!

Avaes: And you don’t like that?

Random fella: None of us like that…none of us like them…we just fuck them but we don’t like them!


Avaes: What?! You fuck them?

Random fella: Yeah! We fuck them!!

Avaes: Doesn’t that make you gay?

Random fella: What?!

Avaes: If you fuck them, then you’re gay too right?

Random fella: I’m not gay! I just like to fuck…I’ll fuck anything…Coz I like it to fuck!


And you?

Avaes: I don’t fuck men.

[He takes a right as I take a left]

Random fella: But you ask a lot of questions?!

Avaes: Just interested.

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 7 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 1:00 pm


[I’m sat at a coffee shop. Having coffee. Black and pungent, like my favourite jelly babies. At the other table are two fellas having what seems like an interesting conversation, the type spoken across a table but meant for all the powers of the world to hear. One leaves, the other walks over to the counter to pay.]

Avaes: Are you German?

George: Yes.

Avaes: Thought so. What you doing here then?

George: I’m a historian…Researching the politics, culture, of Zanzibar.

Avaes: Excellent! I really need to speak to you…would you have some time, like now, by any chance?

George: Er…yes. I suppose so.

[There is known to be much variation amongst the human species. Contemporary evidence has successfully demonstrated that some are even capable of great generosity.

…And so, I had an impromptu seminar delivered by an Oxford University Professor, upon the theme of cultural politics in Zanzibar.]

Avaes: …I’m confused see…ever since I’ve been here I haven’t known what to make of it. And I don’t know what to write. It’s really doing my head in. Sorry…that’s a very English phrase.

George: I’m aware of it.

Avaes: Good. Anyway, I was in Mombasa before here yeah, and really liked what I found there. The Swahili culture and that. I was really impressed by it as, you know, a really interesting approach to multiculturalism. Over there I met this Professor guy, in a coffee shop again, he was a Professor of Swahili Culture, working for the Kenya Museums or something. He made out as though Zanzibar was like the centre of it all. Of Swahili culture. Except I’m really confused here. And I’m not sure what to write…

…for one there’s the tourism, right?…and the Papasi that’s created. And then there’s the heroin…[beat]…and the Papasi that’s created. Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate even the beauty of this place…like there’s a wall.

But also, I suppose what I want to ask you about is, is about the culture here. See in Mombasa people generally got on. I think. And I didn’t really sense that much animosity between the Indians and the Bantus and the Arabs. I saw them all hang out together. And they’ve intermarried a fair bit, you can see it. Here there is animosity though. I had a guy having a go at me the other night about how ‘Indians had always let down Africa’! I was trying to stop him pestering my friend for money. But other things too. Like how few Arabs and Indians there actually are here any more. I dunno. Does any of that make sense? Do you get what I’m on about?

[He’s been rolling a cigarette whilst listening. Smiling. The cigarette is lit and a cloud of thick scented smoke heralds the coming of his first words.]

George: There isn’t one Swahili culture. It’s wrong to speak of it as though there is. Even the language that roughly exists from Somalia to Mozambique isn’t mutually intelligible. The only thing the people of the coast really have in common is Islam and so it’s better to speak in terms of Swahilis the plural, instead of Swahili the singular.

[A pleasing introduction calls for a celebratory second inhalation]

Unfortunately, the culture…the Swahili culture. It’s become politicised. And the politics of culture is different between Mombasa and Zanzibar. In Zanzibar, ever since the Second World War, the notion of descent has become increasingly important. Part of it was of course a result of colonial policies. But, nevertheless, a word, Ustarabu, increasingly came into play. Arabness basically. And so since the 1950’s in Zanzibar, descent has become a marker of political allegiance and of course, there’s no choice, this creates a wedge between groups, it has to.

[A third inhalation to mark the futility.]

What you say about Mombasa though, that used to be true for Zanzibar also, before the 1950’s. Intermarriage and a common identity was the norm. But not anymore. People here identify themselves by descent now, which is interesting right, because it’s not what people are, but what people think they are!

Colonial policy, the British, was to separate racial groups. These racial groups created their own political groups post independence. The ZNP for Arabs, the dominant Afro-Shirazi for Black Africans and a third, the ZPP. Indians were interesting. They generally kept a low profile and chose to remain British subjects. They were divided between themselves anyway: Region, religion, class. So most kept their British Indian passports and kept out of East African politics. Now it was also British policy that they weren’t allowed to own agricultural land you see, the Indians. So most were traders or bankers. Some were artisans. The ZPP and ZNP campaigned against Indians but at the same time, landowners in the Arab and African parties were dependent on Indian moneylenders. Some Indians even financially supported the Revolutionary Government. It’s all quite complex. Rarely are things ever simple. Of course one of the first things the Revolutionary government did was to nationalise all wholesale trade and kill off Indian businesses.

[Hand to ashtray again. Fourth inhalation provides time to remind self of what still needs to be said.]

Now in Mombasa, you’re right. Things are different. The political elite post independence in Kenya were the Mao Mao. The Mao Mao are Kikuyu and so Christian. Muslims are a much smaller percentage in Kenya. The political elite in Kenya needed coastal unity in order to influence Nairobi. Unity, not fragmentation of the Swahili coast was in the political interests over there. That’s all.

[No inhalation. Just acknowledgement of the power of politics.]

There are contradictions in Zanzibar that I’m sure confuse you. There is still a mixing of culture. Indian food, in Zanzibar, is Zanzibari food. Culturally there is mixing, origin doesn’t matter, in fact the cultural origin is often even denied. Chappatti is Zanzibari here. [Beat] That’s not true of the people here though.

[Slight Pause]

It’s a shame. After World War 2, race was widely debated in Zanzibar but Indians chose to keep themselves out of these debates. In the colonial order it’s true that they saw themselves as superior to Africans. Closer to the Europeans. And the post colonial governments of East Africa, what happened in Uganda and Tanzania, actually reinforced the idea to many that racial identity is indeed the strongest component of self.

[He sits up and beams, ready to deliver the final killer blow]

Now here’s the paradox! Cosmopolitanism. And racism! They’re not opposites here. They exist side by side. Comfortably.

[Many, many smiling inhalations to mark a journey complete and the comedy of human peculiarities see him into a second cigarette.]

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 5-6 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 12:54 pm


[Midnight. Sat on the Baraaza outside my hotel with Mustapha, a local fella. Baraaza’s are purpose built walls attached on most houses of the Swahili coast, designed just for sitting on.]

Mustapha: No money in Zanzibar. No selling, no making…just tourist. High season good business. Good money everybody. Low season no money. Everybody no money. No industry! Just tourist.

Avaes: Hmmm.


You got family? Married?

Mustapha: No.

Avaes: How come?

Mustapha: Don’t want.

Avaes: Why? [jokingly] Someone break your heart?


Mustapha: Yes.




I loved her very much. Neeta. She loved me too. She loved me Neeta. Five years!


Avaes: Long time.

Mustapha: Long time! She loved me. She say marry. I say marry. Her father! Her father say no…you Muslim! No Muslim…her father! Neeta say yes! I love very much! I say I love very much your daughter…No! You Muslim! No Muslim!…


Mustapha: She gone Canada now…married someone else.

Avaes: Canada? When?

Mustapha: Six years ago.


Avaes: Shit.


Mustapha: Her father problem! Neeta love me very much…five years she love me very much. So beautiful…like actress. Neeta so beautiful. Really!


Her father problem.


Five years.

[He takes out a box of cigarettes and offers me one with red eyes and a smile]

No problem…Bad luck!


[One Thursday evening, after sunset prayer, children are rehearsing the singing of Mawlid in a mosque. Mawlid songs are kind of like hymns, with wonderfully soaring melodies, traditionally accompanied by deep pulsating rhythms of a Douf, the Persian frame drum. Outside the mosque is a large open square with a tree at the end of it. From the tree a light bulb hangs and men are congregated beneath it on a Baraaza: a purpose built wall on most houses of the Swahili coast, designed for sitting on. I’m initially sat on my own outside the mosque, listening. I smell coffee and walk over to the Baraaza.]

Avaes: Can I sit down?

Taha: Why not!…Do you want coffee?

Avaes: Why not!

[Coffee is already on it’s way to me, with sweetmeats. We chat.]

Taha: This is our Baraaza. We sit here at the end of the day. Enjoy this breeze. Drink coffee, joke, talk. Helps get rid of any stresses, you know, worries.

[A short fella is lead down the row of men to be greeted one by one. As he comes closer I see he’s blind. The lamp turns off.]

We’re going to pray. Want to pray with us?

Avaes: Why not!

[The blind fella leads the prayer, the most beautifully recited I think I’ve been part of.]

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 2-4 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 12:44 pm


Day 1

Papasi 1: Mambo! Mambo Raffiqui! Raffiqui!…Hey Raffiqui!!…Raffiqui!…Friend!…Hey Friend Mambo! Mambo Vipi!! How are you my friend? How are you?

Avaes: Poa.

Papasi 1: Cool…Poa! Nice!! Yeah man…that’s cool…you enjoy Zanzibar yeah? Cool…cool…hey Raffiqui, you want spice tour, stone town tour, cultural tour, island tour, prison island tour, slave tour, dolphin tour…

Avaes: Don’t want a tour.

Papasi 1: No tour? Not interested? What’s your interest Raffiqui, huh? What’s your interest?

[I shake my head slowly, avoiding eye contact as I walk.]

Papasi 1: Hash? Weed? Coke? [Beat] Heroin?

Avaes: Liquorice! Got any?

Papasi 1: … Acid?

Day 2

Papasi 2: Hey Mambo Raffiqui! Vipi man? Mambo Vipi man? Poa?

Avaes: Poa.

Papasi 2: Poa! Yeah man yeah man…listen Raffiqui…listen…I’ve got malaria friend…malaria man! Feel weak you know…see! See my hair’s falling out…can you see? Help me please brother…some help please Raffiqui…for the medicine…

Day 3

Papasi 1: Hey Raffiqui…Mambo Vipi man?

Avaes: Poa

Papasi 1: Kamaa Deezee?

Avaes: Kamaa Deezee!

Papasi 1: Cheezee!…hey Raffiqui…so what’s about today man? You wanna go spice tour, dolphin tour, prison island tour, cultural tour…

Avaes: Raffiqui…Listen! I ain’t here for none of that…I’ve had a stone town tour and that’s it for me…so look… next time you see me walking down here yeah, there’s no point asking me…I’m only sayin’ so you know right…so you don’t waste your own time or mine.

Papasi 1: Yeah…poa…[Beat]….Hakuna Matata!


Avaes: What was that?

Papasi 1: What? Hakuna matata man!

Avaes: Don’t say it to me like that… be straight… if you’ve got a problem then say it but don’t be telling me there’s no problem when there’s blatantly a problem in your voice…I’m straight with you right?…I ain’t gonna buy anything from you, I ain’t goin on no tours and I ain’t gonna give you money…you know that now…it’s just better we know, yeah?

Papasi 1: Yeah. Poa man.

Avaes: Poa!

Day 4

Papasi 1: Raffiqui!… hey,Vipi?

Avaes: Poa.

Papasi 1: Brother listen…my mother…she’s dyin’ man…she’s on her deathbed I promise…in that hospital over there…she’s on her deathbed…can you give me some help?


Stone Town, Zanzibar. A labyrinthe of Arab, Indian, Portugese and African architecture: wonderfully winding, narrow, jagged alleys, large open squares, tunnels. A pleasure to find yourself lost in, to weave through and be left with the feeling of having danced through time. A pleasure to steal glances through beautifully ornate balconies and windows, maybe to find your own Scheherzade, able to cure your ills with a thousand and one stories.

On the edge of Stone Town: The Night Market, all seafood imaginable freshly barbequed.

On the edge of the Night Market: Rocks, where my Alaskan fisherman friend Brad and I would spend most evenings together with chai.

In front of us: the night ocean. Dark, viscous and wild as it crashes like a crazed lover beneath our feet.

Above us…stars. So many stars: The North Star, The Great Bear, The Plough, The Scorpion, a whole band of stars so dense and plentiful, as though heavens’ chest has been torn open: her treasures laid bare for all to see.

[Prolonged Silence.

Brad sits up a little straighter.

I sit up a little straighter.

Prolonged Silence.

I look down.


I look up.


I look out.

Prolonged Silence.]

Avaes: This is fuckin awesome man.


Brad: It’s incredible!


[spoken through a laugh just about to erupt.]

This is fuckin incredible dude!

[Like madmen, we simultaneously break out into hysterical laughter, echoing the oceans’ own crazed tones.]


[A smart young schoolboy, no more than 10 years old, walking back to school after lunch in a well pressed, clean uniform. He charms me.]

Avaes: Jambo!

Schoolboy: Jambo!

[The boy fixes both his smile and his gaze in my direction]

Give me money!

Avaes: What?!

Schoolboy: Give me money!


Avaes: No!

[He follows me down the footpath. I walk off the footpath and onto the grass. He still follows.]

Avaes: Oi…kid! What d’you think yer doin’?

Schoolboy: Give me money!

Avaes: No. I’m not going to give you money. Now go to school!

[He walks away.]