Avaes Mohammad

Posts Tagged ‘Culture’


In Uncategorized on October 15, 2009 at 12:59 am

Its strange how stuff ‘just happens’ sometimes.  Stuff you might imagine would demand arduous efforts, involving long periods of intensive, gruelling research, testing expeditions even or at least concentrated flickering through towering piles of dusty, light-bleached books. But sometimes?  Sometimes it just happens.  It’s given.  On a plate.  A gift.

To discover my cultural heritage!  That’s why I set out on this wondrous journey.  To discover parts of me I feel are scattered over the face of this globe.  To collect those fragments and see whether they can actually be put together, not unlike a jigsaw.  Hoping the final image, in its completion, will serve as a mirror that truly reflects.  But I’ve also been using this opportunity to steadily explore another very particular and heart-felt passion of mine: Music.  To be specific, Sufi Music:  The music played across the world by a sect, or more simply, a group of Muslims who might sometimes identify themselves as Sufi’s.  Wikipedia, that omniscient lighthouse of all truth, defines Sufism as “a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inner self from filth, and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits.”  I associate it with a type of Muslim that’s quite chilled out in the way he/she lives their life.  Someone with manners, who’s caring towards people they know and people they don’t, someone with a sense of humour, who isn’t afraid to smile and I suppose most importantly someone who’s unashamedly in love with God/The Divine and for whom that relationship of Love is real, tangible, human.  For some Sufis this feeling is so powerful it demands expression.  Some paint, some write poetry and some express their love through music.  Sufi Music.

My family aren’t Sufis.  At least not formally.  No-one whirls uncontrollably as a matter of routine.  No-one goes to a ‘special centre’ to do ‘special things’ but I have been raised in a family who respect and have befriended Sufis and their philosophies.  It was a Sufi Saint who facilitated the marriage between my parents and named me before I was born, thereby predicting my gender.  My father was born in Karachi, he’s Pakistani.  My mother was born in Mombasa, she’s Kenyan.  Nevertheless, one of the things they do have in common is their innate love for this music that elevates them both into mini-states of ecstasy and transcendence that all at once makes you feel you’re standing in the shadow of the Divine.  There’s no mysterious ritual to it.  You just have to turn it on, press play, and I see them both lifted upon winds of bliss.  I know because either by nature or nurture, I’ve inherited this too and understand the significance of the shutting of their eyes, the swaying of their heads, their gentle, syrupy cries.  Simply by pressing play.

Nevertheless, even though the effect might the same, the forms of Sufi music both my parents bring with them are different.  My father, being South Asian, brought Qawwali to our home.  Ecstatic Sufi poetry sung, screamed, sometimes shrieked in uncontrolled moments of passion, over cyclical hypnotic bass-heavy beats that drive through to your inner most core.  And resonate.  The style of Qawwali my father listens to is wild, unhinged.

My mother brought with her the East African tradition of Mawlid.  Choral singing from rows upon rows of voices with piercing melodies so beautiful they converse with stars.  In unison they sing the greatness of God and his Prophet Mohammad, accompanied by simple yet intense rhythms played from the Persian Frame Drum, the Douf.
Qawwali is to be watched as much as heard and some of my earliest memories involve my father bringing home the latest VHS’s of Sabri Brothers and Aziz Mian for us all to watch and hear together.  My mother and her East African friends would come together at certain times of the year to transform a terraced back room into a Mawlid Hall and amongst the smoke of Frankincense, emit their songs of praise.  A woman would walk between us all, spraying rose water.  Angels, I was told, like sweet smells and no doubt, angels would have been amongst us, listening.  Using music to feel God was a very normal part of our family’s living.

The point here being that the same tradition of Sufi Music existed for me in two distinct forms from childhood.  Each one coloured by where it had come from.  Deep Pakistani red with dusty brown overtures and luscious, wet Kenyan green.  Yet they both had exactly the same effect.  Their core was the same, they both lifted and fed our hearts while still remaining wonderfully independent: each upholding the peculiarities of it’s own distinct beauty.  How much has Sufi Music been altered and affected by the culture it’s exposed to?  This has remained a constant question for me while on this journey.  And so far privately from this Blog, I have walked through dark labyrinthed alleys and even desolate ‘jungles’ to find my answers.  Slowly I’ll unpeel all my discoveries.  I begin though with the following fortuitous discovery presented to me in Kutch.

‘There are Africans in India!  They’ve been there for generations!!  When I saw them I was amazed.  They look exactly like they’re from here.  Zanzibari!  I’m sure they were all Zanzibari.  But they speak the language and dress like the Indians there.  Still  though, they’ve kept parts of their African culture.  They have this incredible Goma, this drumming and singing and dancing.  They’re mostly Muslim you see. They perform Goma during anniversaries of their Saints.  It’s not Indian.  You see it and its African.  It’s just African.  The way they move, the music, the drumming.  It’s something they’ve kept.  They’ve come here you know, We’ve seen them.  They came here to Zanzibar to perform Goma, but I would love to see them in India.  I never have!  I don’t now where they are.   I’d love to but I don’t know where they are.’

Farouq my Zanzibari friend told me of this supposedly elusive people of African origin in India.  The Sidis.  But in fact Sidis have been following me around for quite some time now, since before the beginning of my journey.  Around three years ago a musician friend of mine discovered their presence in India from the internet.  He was keen to visit them and study their rhythms at the time in an attempt to gauge the Indian-African hybridity of their art.  When I arrived in Nairobi in April this year, Zarina and Zahir, editors of the magazine ‘Awaaz’ which represents Indian Kenyans, showed me an article highlighting the Sidi community in India.  I’ve been to South Asia before and I remember seeing Sidis in Karachi, where they seemed relatively integrated into Pakistani society.  So I already knew people of African descent lived in South Asia but the Goma Farouq spoke about in Zanzibar intrigued me:  Even if only as an example of a people who have lived in a ‘foreign’ land for generations, having seemingly adopted all the customs and culture of that land but have still maintained aspects of their original culture.  It fascinated me.  And as this journey progressed from Kenya, to Zanzibar and then to India, one day, as I was sat quietly in the front yard of my distant family in Mandvi, Kutch, my uncle Khaliq nonchalantly utters…

‘The Sidis are starting their Goma tonight.  We should go.  You’ll like it!’



‘The Sidis.  It’s an Urs (annual festival) celebrating one of their saints.  They’ll be performing their Goma.  Goes on for three nights all through the night.  Fancy it?’

‘er…yeah.  Okay then.’

‘Okay.  Starts late.  We’ll leave tonight.  It’s only down the road.  Charge your camera.’


Simple as that.  An encounter that could have taken arduous research and testing expeditions, just happened.  Was just given to me in the style that so much has been on this journey:  A gift.

Khaliq is out.  It’s eleven and I’m agitated.  The English in me can’t actually cope very well with the etheral quality time has in Kutch.  Khaliq comes back.

‘Are we going?’

‘Er, yeah.  We’ll just have tea.’

‘Won’t we miss it?’

‘These things are on till dawn.  Relax!’

A lesson in relaxation later and with bellies warmed by hot tea, I straddle the back of Khaliq’s scooter and we snake our way through blackened alleys that are controlled by a whole different species at night.

There’s an absurd timeshare agreement on these alleys.  By day they’re governed, unarguably, by humans.  All other species are well aware of this.  Cattle move aside while the two legged ones full of purpose stride exuding ownership over these crooked pathways.  Too narrow to fly through, birds even fly safely out of range, the odd crow only perched on the edge of a building roof, humbly peering.  Mounds of litter gather at the alley edges so even insects are well out of the way.  They leave us alone and we leave them alone. Generally.  Except of course for dogs.  Herds of stray dogs.  An infestation of them, mainly of once-upon-a-time good labrador stock.  Very good stock in fact…imperial even.  These packs of now rabid mutts, it is believed, are direct descendents of those personal pets kept by the British when they ruled over and lived in India.  Once India won her independence and the British began to leave, most of them left behind their pets, knowing they wouldn’t have survived the months-long journey over sea.  And so they’ve remained: the last symbol of the Raj:  Golden-haired, rabid and mangy.  Of one-upon-a-time good stock. The English culture of loving dogs doesn’t really exist in India.  The dogs here, chased, spat upon and thrown stones at, even by the smallest children, are mere ghosts of their brazen and well-nourished English cousins.  Abuse and revulsion, their daily bread on these Mandvi streets.  But every dog indeed has it’s day, or in this case, it’s night, because once the day disappears and members of the two legged species scurry back to their stone hovels, the balance of power quickly shifts.  Discovering strength in numbers, now the streets and alleys of Mandvi are undeniably the terrain of dogs.  Ferocious, like an urban street-gang they sprawl themselves brazenly over this town, now able to outstretch limbs, spread with confidence over an entire width of an alley, each cluster guarding its own patch.  Periodically from the safety of your bed, you hear packs racing through the alleys while howling and shrieking to reinforce their claim over darkness.  Walking at night isn’t advised.  Especially alone.  It’s not a mere bite you have to fear, but the rabies that will likely come from it.  And so we travel by scooter, fast.  Upon every turn there’s a new gang of disaffected canines, eager to wreak their vengeance on the two-legged ones.  Khaliq is well versed in how to deal with them:  full throttle!  We swerve, turn and accelerate ourselves through their sharp-toothed threats and eventually cross a bridge to safer pathways.

There’s more light here.  The streets are decorated, mosque domes are adourned with fairy lights and there are people hanging out, under trees and in courtyards.  As we ride deeper in, the sounds of drums pulsate through the air, beating with fervour.  We ride deeper still and now the drums are accompanied by loud singing and chanting.  A sudden swerve to the left and we stop.  Hordes of people are gathered around the door of this Shrine, covered with multi-coloured lights.  The sea is just to our right and the sound of drums, singing and choral chanting thicken the air.  It’s a festival atmosphere, people bustling to get inside, some just happy to hang around on the edges outside, smoking, the smoke of different flavours.  We jostle and I push my way through the crowd and somehow, through the shoulder charges, ducking and quick footedness, I make it to the front.

It’s difficult to explain my first impressions: Wonderstruck, as though I’d found treasure from just playing in the sand.  I’d discovered something I had no idea about, that I never knew existed.  Not only had I discovered a face of India and I suppose the world I knew nothing about, but also a form of Sufi devotion, through music, singing and dancing that was completely new to me.




Men and women of African descent, dancing collectively in a circle, chanting a chorus whilst drummers imposed themselves from the centre of the deceased saints’ courtyard.  Singers singing into microphones, fairy lights colouring-in the night with richly elaborate draping cloths.  A big bang of colour, drums, dance and singing so riotous you’d be forgiven for thinking yourself at a rave.

Singer:        Bolo La – Illah (Say there is no God)
Chorus:    Illal –lah     (But One God!)
Singer:        La – Illah    (There is no God)
Chorus:    Illal –lah    (But One God!)

I can’t help myself become overcome with joy and appreciation to hear and see this, the most basic and defining creed of Islam, being celebrated like this.  Through music, dance and colour.  For it to be deemed worth celebrating like this is still an incredible and actually quite radical concept for me to get my head around, though when you witness it, seems all so natural.   And human.

Singer:        Bava Gor!
Chorus:    Bava Gor, Bava Gor
Singer:        Bava Gor!
Chorus:    Bava Gor, Bava Gor

Collectively they sing and chant the name of a deceased Sidi saint.  Whether this is his shrine we’re all at or that of one of his siblings’, I’m unsure.


As well as those singing, drumming and dancing, there are many more surrounding us, sat on the floor, hanging from trees, stood in the crowd, watching from walls, everyone dressed well, especially those dancing, women dressed in colourful printed and embroidered Kutchi clothes and jewellery.  Those dancing, drumming and singing seem mainly from African descent, the Sidis, though there are those who are more obviously Indian among them too.  Those taking part by watching are mainly obviously Indian, though there are some Sidis among them too.

This goes on all night.  Some people tire from dancing so drop in and out of the circle, careful to ensure the circle itself never stops.  Some tire of singing so pass the microphone on.  The following night exactly the same happens, though at another Sufi shrine, of a sibling of the first saint, still in Mandvi.  I know that this saint is female.  The celebrations remain here for two nights.  On the fourth day however, people meet in the afternoon at the shrine of this female.  Frankincense clouds the arena and a ritual takes place involving a woman circling a flagpole outside the saint’s shrine.


The woman circling has her face covered and is being lead.  We’re about to begin a four-mile procession, marching through the streets of Mandvi to the edges and beyond till we reach a shrine of another sibling from this Sufi family, located amidst a ’jungle’.


The woman with her face covered walks in the centre of this procession, temporarily carrying the spirit of the sister-saint who’s tomb we’ve started from.  Drummers lead, those following chant and the procession literally halts traffic as we make our way, occasionally stopping in shacks for tea.


‘We’ve only moved to Mandvi town quite recently you know.  We were in the jungle before that.


Well where else do Bwana’s (Africans) live?  Bwana’s (Africans) live in the jungle.’

The guy organising all of this walks with me.

‘How did the Sidis come to Mandvi?  Was it slavery?

No.  No not slavery.’

From what I’ve read and the people I’ve spoke with, the Sidis have had a generally marginalised existence in India.  A society where social status can still generally be ascertained by skin colour, it’s not difficult to guess the position most Sidis would have occupied on the social ladder.  Some Sidis did come to India as slaves, some however, were also migrants and adventurers of the Indian Ocean. There’s a particularly inspiring historical account of Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian born Sidi slave who rose to become a successful military commander in India.  Today, although they largely consider themselves Indian, the Indian government would rather have them viewed as exotic foreigners that can serve as a valuable tourism commodity.  When I speak to Ali the organiser though, I can’t quite get over an African-looking-man speaking Kutchi more naturally than I.

After quite a trek that saw tarmaced roads turn into dust tracks and pastille coloured buildings into earth-toned trees and bushes, we arrive into the ‘jungle’.  It’s a forest really, if you’re gonna be picky about nomenclature, but for us, it’s a jungle.  It’s certainly wild enough, an untouched sea of thorny bushes and enclosing trees.  It’s late afternoon and the sun has dropped.  We’re backlit by mystic orange as streams of amber pour at us from across the horizon.  I’m beckoned to come quickly by Amma Ma, my elderly relative who made it here before we did and suddenly the bushes step back and allow space.  Another courtyard appears at the feet of a pastille blue painted tomb for our final Sufi saint.  It’s already started, the drummers have arranged themselves in the centre whilst men and women collectively dance and chant together in a circle.  Many people watch from the sides and from slightly afar.  This is the culmination of three nights of Goma and the atmosphere takes on wild passion.  The drumming seems harder, the bass heavier, deeper, the circling faster.  An excited, frenzied resonance drives everyone that little bit harder today.  Some are being driven that bit harder still.  For some, the rhythm, the words and the dance ignite a ‘paranormal’ experience.  A Haal.  Literally translates as A State.  For those who connect with the Goma enough, it becomes possible to temporarily be possessed by the spirit of the Saint we’re visiting.  These people, mainly women, dance uncontrollably, unhindered, separate from the circle with their faces covered.  Usually people are by their side to shake them back to their former selves or pour water in the event of severe physical convulsions.  It happens a few times.  People just carry on dancing.  It’s normal, the paranormal.
















I’m beckoned by people eager to know what I’ve been doing with my camera and to have their pictures taken.  I join in on the local banter, still laughing to myself at my excitement to find people who look African, but are speaking Kutchi far better than me and even my parents.  It’s getting dark so we wrap it up.  A respectful row forms facing the shrine to offer final salutations to the saint.  A one legged man jumps so his chest falls onto hot coals.  I stop taking pictures.


We all walk back together, young, old, male, female, ‘Indian-looking’, ‘African-looking’, with an electric-tiredness in the air you’d expect if you were returning from Glastonbury.  A glorious full moon appears.  I stop with Amma Ma, my 14 year old cousin and a random old woman for street snacks and tea.



Kutchi Wedding Video

In Uncategorized on September 1, 2009 at 1:56 am

When words fail we summon pictures to lyricise, to cross the t’s, dot expressionist i’s.  And so the magic, warmth and many coloured, sparkling joy created to celebrate the wedding of two brothers in Kutch was relayed through the power of still image in the previous post.  How about though…if those pictures moved?  Hmmm…I wonder!

Its amazing that I was invited and allowed to share in these festivities as though I was part of it too.  I usually feel like a spare part at weddings, unsure of where to stand, who to talk to, when to congratulate and for how long…

‘Congratulations!  I can’t believe you did it…you eh?  God!  I bet you can’t believe it yourself…what happened?  you got her pregnant or summat?…only joking!…well lets hope it all works out eh?  I mean i’m sure it will like…I  just mean…i hope it does..’

I don’t usually get invited for photographs with the happy couple.  Never quite understood why.  Anyway, i was touched at how easily the family here allowed me to feel part of the procedings and gave me free reign to point my camera lenses wherever I desired.  Through text, photos and now video i’ve tried to share just the genuine buzz and happiness everyone was feeling.  How readily people were letting their hair down Kutchi style and collectively dancing in exhuberance for the sake of something really worth celebrating:  Two people coming together as one.  Ahhh!


In Uncategorized on August 4, 2009 at 6:54 pm

During my time in Mandvi, Kutch I was lucky enough to be invited to a wedding.  It was the most fun and certainly the most colourful wedding I’ve been to in a long time and it took place in the household of my Uncle’s friend.  By caste, this whole family are musicians and as such felt duty bound in providing the best music and most glorious party Mandvi has seen in their collective lifetimes.  It became a question of honour.  A gigantic chandelier and three whole nights with traditional Raas Dancing, Dandia Dancing with sticks and some of the most incredible musicians in the region roaring riotously each night till dawn certainly kept the families honour intact.  This is definitely an occasion where pictures speak louder than words.  Two brothers from that family were getting married together…


Raas Dancing



Raas Dancing


Raas Dancing


Raas Dancing




Raas Dancing?



Raas Dancing


The two brides getting down with it!




freaky deaky dancing...just as traditional!





Dandia Dancing


Dandia Dancing



Three Musketeers


Bride 1


Bride 2









India: MITHA RE PA… – WE’RE SWEET… (020709)

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2009 at 7:06 pm


‘Mitha re pa Kutch ja maroo! Maroo re mitha,  Kutch ja maroo’

We’re sweet the people of Kutch!  The people are sweet.  The people of Kutch.

So goes the folk song.  Kutchi pace of life is relaxed.  No hurry to do anything or go anywhere.  Tomorrow is the name of that mythical place where things get done, but wherever tomorrow is, it’s a place far from Kutch.  In the mornings people go about their business of opening shops or going to market, but in this seriously chilled Kutchi town, there’s no urgency man, no urgency at all.  Take for example the day my uncle Khaliq receives a phonecall from a business partner in Bombay:

10am: ‘You need to go to Hyderabad to meet a client.  It has to be you and you have to go this evening.’


‘Let me think about it’

2pm:                 ‘Are you going then?’

I’m thinking about it.

5pm:                 Look…you need to stop faffing!  It has to be you…we can’t trust your guy down there.  Leave this evening.


Okay.  I’m thinking about it.

7pm:                 What’s going on Khaliq?  Aren’t you taking this seriously?


Of course I’m taking it seriously.  I’ve been thinking about it all day.

10pm:               So what have you thought?

Hmmm.  Well…it’s too late now and I’ll have missed the last train, I think I’ll go another time.

Khaliq is around 34 years old and one of the youngest in his household.  He lives in a house with three of his sisters, an older brother, his older brothers’ wife and child, his mother and also an aunt.  The house has two bedrooms and a general kitchen/dining/living area. The space outside is well used, a yard where you can relax, light a stove and cook, hang the washing, keep a cow, catch the breeze… that kind of thing.

I came here for the first time only three years ago, I was taken out of my hotel by Khaliq one morning and I suppose, ‘forcibly abducted’ into their home.  If I’m honest it felt strange to have these ties of kinship imposed upon me, especially ones that were so tenuous, but I was curious.  Many things are different, many things hold differing weight between The West and The East.  One of which is the concept of family and the weight that word holds.  The ‘family’ I have in Mandvi, Kutch, come somewhere from the lineage of one of my great, great, grandfather’s siblings.  I don’t even know which one.  I’m aware that in the ‘West’ this would be considered too far removed to be of any real relevance anymore, bothering to stay in touch may be considered too bothersome but these are exactly the clashes I frequently find myself torn between in this part of the world.  Within such clashes are sometimes my greatest moments of illumination too.   Despite the western cynicism I arrived with, I was very quickly overcome with feelings of humility and also a little shame when faced with their genuine affection and excitement at seeing me, another offshoot of a common ancestor.  A prodigal son again, I only ever received the warmest, sweetest of welcomes from them all.  It felt good to be amongst them once more, the welcome even warmer this time, tinged though with a sadness that hadn’t been before.

The eldest of the brothers, Sultan, had died since my last visit.  He was young still, only in his 40’s.  The subject of his loss still raw and an undeniable void had been left ringing between their walls.  The mother greeted me with a limitless smile on her lips but also glistening eyes that soon shed their load before me.  Sultan and I were fond of each other and he wasn’t here to greet me this time.  When we’d spent time together we were like two excitable little boys, his smile infectious and childlike.  In the evenings he’d sit with me after dinner and pour over me his enthusiasm, generously beaming smiles and laughter towards me.  His wife gave birth to his third son shortly before he died.

I’d arrived only a little while after his little boys’ circumcision and so found him running around the house the whole time exposing himself from the waist down, trying desperately to achieve some relief for his wounded little self.  He’s certainly Sultan’s son, many evenings I’d play my drum, which I bought from Zanzibar, accompanying either Khaliq or Aqil on the santoor, while this excitable little boy danced his naked, shameless self into a laughing frenzy.

The family’s main occupation is the maintenance of a local Sufi shrine, which seems to involve cleaning, praying, lighting incense, organising annual festivals and feeding/housing the needy on occasion.  There’s no fee associated with this for them but they’ve been doing it for generations and that’s reason enough to still be doing it now.  Both Khaliq and his brother Akil work also.  Khaliq is a bit of a wheeler dealer from what I can make out and Akil is a beautifully talented engraver.  He carves signs out of marble and stone for mosques, temples, graves, etc.

They’re a great collection of people and I love being around them.  Khaliq, although I only met him for the first time three years ago, seems much closer than he actually is.  We share so many interests and it’s incredibly easy for me to spend time with him.  He doesn’t talk a lot, he’s not the small talk type. A calm, quiet persona, he loves poetry and will happily spend an evening reciting his favourite verses to me by the lake.  He loves music even more and plays both the Drums and Electric Santoor, though less passionately since the loss of his brother.  He enjoys quiet walks…along the beach, to the lake, or just through that road that takes you to the edge of the town where nobody lives.  Particularly in Khaliq’s company, I feel as though I’m around someone I share something with, even if it is just a love for music, poetry and idle walks.  But these are things I’ve never been able to share with other, closer members of my maternal family.


The old aunt in the family, Amma Ma, she’s a riotous personality!  She must be in her eighties but still so full of life and fun.  I’d see her taking charge of the shopping in the morning and would often bump into her just strolling, striding around town, rhythmically chewing down some fruit with a hop in her step.  As she enters the house she’ll bounce past me and slap her palm loudly against mine, a mischevious smile in the corner of her mouth.  It was her that told me of my family tree, how all the men in the family had been ‘Miyanjis’ before my grandfather, both in Africa and India…this meant they lead prayers in the mosque and taught children to read the Qur’an.  In return they lived off whatever the community could give them to eat and wear.  She also told me that it was my great, great grandfather, Osman, who originally emigrated from Mandvi to Zanzibar, aboard a ship similar to the ones I’ve seen being built in the shipyard.  Why did he emigrate?  To escape Djinns…

‘They were all Miyanjis, for a long time…Osman’s father Ibrahim, Ibrahim’s father Adam…all Miyanjis.  Djinns!  When your great great grandfather Osman lead prayers, Djinns started to pray behind him…and then they started appearing before him…they wouldn’t let him go…obsessed with him they were.  He couldn’t take it though.  One evening they took him to their own area, on the edge of Mandvi into the jungle, for him to bless one of their newborns…he only realised what they were when he arrived there…in the middle of them all.  He ran back scared out of his wits.  Then he started seeing them everywhere…on the street outside here…everywhere!  So he took a ship…went to Zanzibar to escape them…that’s why he moved to Africa.  That’s how your grandfather and your mother and everyone ended up there.  The Djinn followed him though.’

Djinns.  Creatures mentioned in the Qur’an that live on earth like humans, but are created of smokeless fire.  Usually invisible to the human eye.

‘We’re really glad you visit us you know…if we see each other then we know who our family are…if we don’t see each other then how do we know, isn’t it?  Your great great grandfather, Osman, who went to Zanzibar…he used to come back…to see the family here…then your great grandfather Abdul Razzak…we called him Bwana Kuba here…there they called him Dada Miyanji…he used to come too on the ships…a few times…I saw him as a child…hard man he was…hot temper…he’d bring his wife too…but your grandfather!…he never came….not once!…he was always too busy in Africa with (puts her thumb to her mouth as though drinking from a bottle)…lost in it he was.  And then no-one from his family came for a while.  But we’re glad you’ve come.’


Kutch is a special place.  Tucked away in a corner, amidst its very unique type of beauty, it still holds all the values my parents had told me about, that I’d grown up with as fables.  I grew up hearing about places where people were warm and relaxed, where smiles were liberally shared commodities and friendships were esteemed, honoured and considered life-long, regardless of race, creed or caste.  These are the stories of East Africa I’d heard from my mother and also about Karachi, which I’d heard from my father.  Tucked away in a deserted corner of India, in a land I can lay some claim to, these values are still very much alive and that reassures and heartens me.  It heartens me because I think such values may be possible within me.  In 2003 when thousands of Muslims were butchered by right-wing Hindus in the neighbouring region of Gujarat, the people of Kutch still went to Dargah together, Hindu and Muslim, they still caught a breeze at the lake together, Hindu and Muslim and they still commemorated Diwali and Moharram together, Hindu and Muslim.  This reassures and heartens me because it shows me it’s possible.

In Mandvi, my typical day was thus.  I’d wake up around 7:45 and rush to the beach by autorickshaw to meet Imran and Baadal.  Imran was my horseriding instructor and Baadal my horse for an hour every morning.  With the wild Arabian Sea hammering huge waves to the side of me, I learnt to ride Baadal up and down Mandvi beach every morning.  I now know how to make a horse walk, trot, gallop, turn and stop.  The first few days were difficult as Baadal resented being told what to do by a stranger, a stubbornness I completely understand, but slowly we connected and soon he felt like a friend.  After horse-riding by the beach, I’d meet Khaliq back home for breakfast.


So where shall we go this afternoon?

Dargah! (the saints’ shrine my relatives look after).  There’s a good breeze there.  I’ve got a couple of people to see but I can do it from there and you can write.

Later in the day.

Where do we go now?

The lake.  There’s a good breeze there.

Still later in the day.

Where shall we go this evening then?  I’m hungry.

The sea.  The breeze is really good there at this time.

If the days were relaxed and gentle, the evenings were wild and riotous.  I was lucky enough to be there at the time of both a wedding within a family of one of Khaliq’s close friends and also an Urs, an annual celebration of a Sufi Saint from amongst the African community who have been settled in North-Western India, probably as long as Indians have been settled in East Africa.  Both events equated to many late nights filled with singing, dancing, music and in some cases outer body experiences.

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.]


In Uncategorized on May 14, 2009 at 11:16 am


Mombasa and The Swahili Professor

My second time in Mombasa I didn’t arrive alone either. I certainly set off from Nairobi alone but when the bus stopped half way for tea and snacks I met a woman called Naseem at the café bar.

‘Hello! Jambo! Salaam! Hello…Jambo Bwana…haa Jambo…where can I order brother? Where do I order? Hello? Brother where can I go to order?…some food?…Chai’


‘Haa chai…’

[He points. At the bar. Where I already am.]

‘Where? Here? Hello! Hello brother…where can I… ’

Naseem was stood next to me and while smirking told me in English which end of the bar to order at before grabbing an attendants attention for me in Kiswahili. I finally ordered. One chai and one boiled egg. Not the most balanced meal but what I felt like nonetheless.

‘Where are you from?’


‘Oh. I used to live in England.’

‘Yeah? Where?’


The first in a series of rapid succession lies.

‘Oh Yeah? I was in Cambridge for two years, just before I came here.’


‘You know Mill Rd right? Just off it…Ross St.’


’Where’s Mill Rd?

‘Where all the shops and restaurants are?!’

[She looks at me like I’m the one that’s lying]

‘You know…Just off Parkers Piece?’

[beat] ‘Oh…[beat]… yeah.’

She then told me she was married. To later tell me she was engaged. To later tell me she was going to be engaged. She then told me the kids waiting for her at the table were hers. To later tell me they were her sisters.

‘Are you Khojo (a particular type of Indian Muslim)?’

‘No. I’m Kutchi.’

[In Kutchi] ‘I’m Kutchi too!’

Instantly she feels a kinship towards me. The safety barriers of cordiality usually maintained between strangers are promptly knocked out of the way like an annoyance.

[alternating between Kutchi and English as it suits her] ‘Why’s you hair so long? It doesn’t look nice. You look like a girl. Look…don’t take it wrong ways huh? I’m saying it to you like a sister…don’t take offence…but you should cut it. Cut it really! You look like a hippy. And do you pray? From your face you don’t look like you pray.’

[in Kutchi] ‘Do you pray?’

[in Kutchi] ’God be praised, I pray five times a day’

[In Kutchi] ‘Add a couple on for me too then’

[in Kutchi] ‘Uh-Uh! It doesn’t work like that!’

I feel like my Mother’s sent an agent to do her work while she’s not here but it’s also cute that she can say all this to me after only a moments’ introduction. We sit and eat together. Naseem and God knows whose kids have chicken and chips while I sit peeling my boiled egg.

‘Where are you staying in Mombasa?’

‘Dunno. My Mum’s got family there but I’m gonna check into a guest house I reckon. Figure out which one when I get there’

‘We’ve just opened a guest house in Mombasa.’

Turns out it’s literally around a very short corner from where my Mum’s Uncle Husseini lives; where I stayed when I visited Mombasa a couple of weeks ago. Also turns out Naseems’ family are very close friends of my Mum’s Uncles’ family. This I discover later as she pretends she’s never heard of them when I mention them all by name. The coincidences make me smile though and I like coincidences so I say yes. I’ll stay at her guest house. It’s in Old Town too, which is where I wanna be, so when the bus pulls into Mombasa that night I walk off with Naseem and the two children of mysterious origins to be escorted into a part of the city I’m already a little familiar with.

Ever since I’ve been in Kenya I’ve really been looked after. I feel like an esteemed guest here. Wherever I’ve been in this country, I’ve been taken care of. I’ve been nursed. My steps have been cushioned. I don’t feel a stranger here. We arrive at the guest house and it’s ridiculously close to Husseini’s house. He’ll be pissed when he discovers I’m not staying with him and I’m just around the corner. I want to see Mombasa on my own though. I hope he won’t be too offended.

I spend my time in Mombasa mainly walking through the streets of Old Town and taking pictures. Stopping for Kahawa (local strong black coffee). Writing. I wanna be sure I know where my Mum’s old houses are so I can find them on my own in the future; show them to my kids one day maybe and so I retrace the footsteps I’d left with my Mum a couple of weeks ago.

One early afternoon, I’m walking through a street in Old Town looking for this great café I discovered a couple of weeks ago called Jahaazi. Their coffee is okay but they have the best samosas, spiced potatoes and chutney. As I walk into the café, donning Ray Bans, hair at all angles, rucksack weighing me down, everyones cup floats midair while they follow me with their gazes. An elderly well groomed fella, dressed in an elegant Arabic long overshirt (jub’a) and a Swahili hat is looking the most intently. I know who he is. He’s even on the same chair. He doesn’t know me though.

The Swahili Professor

The Swahili Professor

‘Keysey ho? Saroo che?’

He utters the few Urdu and Gujerati greetings he knows, trying to confirm his version of my identity.

‘Bilkul theek! Aap keysey ho?’

‘Theek thaak!’

Satisfied enough with his powers of identification, he relaxes back into his chair and his hovering cup of coffee makes it up to his lips.

‘Are you a Professor?’


The woman sat next to him holding a stack of books repeats on my behalf in Kiswahili. He seems flattered that I, a strange stranger should know this about him.

‘Yes. I am. But come here…I can’t hear from so far away’

I walk over to him. There are no chairs available so I kneel before him. Whilst humoured at this scene, I give him my hand.

‘As Salaam-o-alaikum. My name is Avaes Mohammad. I’m from England’

‘Wa’alaikum As-Salaam! England?’

‘Yeah…I’m travelling…and I’m a Writer…I know you’re a Professor because I was here with my mother’s uncle two weeks ago. He lives in Old Town.’

‘Oh…he lives here…’

‘Yeah. When we here so were you. That’s when he told me you were a professor of Swahili culture. He’d seen you on T.V.’

He blushes.

‘Ohhho…I see!’

‘I’ve received a grant from the English Arts Council…’


‘….yeah…er…to visit the countries of my cultural heritage. My mother is from Mombasa. She was born here and so this is where I’ve started. In Old Town. Then I hope to go to Zanzibar. My Grandfather was born there…her father.’

‘Well then you are a native!’

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the slightest bit flattered, even touched by this statement. I smiled.

‘er…thank you…then I’ll go to India and then to Pakistan. My father was born in Pakistan…’


‘As you’re a professor of Swahili Culture I’d really love to speak with you for a while. I’m interested in the culture here and would love to hear what you have to say about it. If you have the time? Whenever you have the time!’

He’s been holding my hand warmly, close to his chest all this while. He lets go.

‘Well today is Friday. So meet me at 9 o’clock tomorrow.’



‘Excellent. That’s great. That would be a great help absolutely. Thank you. Asanti Sana!’

‘No problem. This is my job.’

Ten minutes to nine the next day I’m waiting outside Jahaazi café while it’s being cleaned inside. I’m being watched with intrigue as people walk past. A local guide sits next to me and we talk about my forthcoming journey to Zanzibar. He also talks about Manchester United. Across one of these charming alleys, in between the ornate wooden balconies carved with elaborate and detailed designs, the origins of which can be traced centuries back, stands a huge banner for Liverpool Football Club. The words ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ underneath the club’s emblem.

‘I’m going to tear it! Just watch…I’ll rip down the Liverpool and tear it then leave pieces in the street. Just see!! You’ll never walk alone?!! What is this stupid? Who walks alone? Nobody walks alone…we all walk with friends isn’t it?!’

The professor arrives.


‘Wa’alaikum salaam. [Beat] Anees? Arees?’



We walk inside and he rests himself against some cushions. After showing me his most recent paper and ordering coffee, we begin. I speak into my dictophone…

‘Interview on the Second of May 2009, Old Town Mombasa, with Professor Ahmed Shaikh Nabhany, of the National Museums of Kenya.’

My attempt at getting the ball rolling is quite clumsy. I get across that I’m interested particularly with Swahili culture, the culture of the coast of East Africa and its surrounding islands, as it’s the culture of my Mother. Even more clumsily however, I attempt to explain that what with multiculturalism and all that, you know, coz London’s like one of the most multicultural places in the world like, if not the most multicultural place in the world, then Swahili culture, the way it’s used all these different components and that, to create something new like…that’s really…interesting. For me. And for England!!

I’m suddenly an ambassador for the Royal London Multicultural Institute (is there one? There should be!) and I’m speaking on behalf of all my countryfolk. I shall be heard by decree of Her Majesty!

After his patient ‘uh-hms’, he clears his throat:

‘Now let us talk about the original Swahili Culture because as you know you can’t enter a house through the window. You enter the house through the door…’

Like I’m being whipped through time all the way back to the origins of man, The Professor explains the four original groups of African languages and gently walks me down the branch that began with Congo Kodofanian. Stopping to gaze a while at each of its junctions, each of it’s branches, we arrive finally at the penultimate Bantu Clan, from which Swahili came. He explains it was the Arabs that gave the name Swahili, originating from the Arabic word for Coast, Saahil. The Swahili therefore, are The People of the Coast. The original Bantu name was Wangozi. He spoke of the ‘Sewn Boats’ that were observed here by a Greek traveller from the days of old, boats that had no nails, instead fibres were used to sew it together. These boats he said, were used to trade with the Arabian Gulf and with India. Green turtle shells were exported, as were Ivory, Tamarind, Rhino horns and from India they imported water pots, spices, furniture and clothes. A Kiswahili proverb states: ‘In India people went naked so they could supply us with clothes’. From the lands of Arabia, they imported dates and perfume. As such, there was a long history of contact and interaction between these peoples, sharing their cuisine, their language, their clothes. He then spoke of the three groups, the three ways in which you might be considered a Swahili:

  1. If both your parents were original Swahilis, i.e., with lineage traceable back to the Bantu clan.
  2. If you married an original Swahili.
  3. If you consciously decide you want to adopt the Swahili Culture. In this case a grand ceremony is held, you’re accepted as a Swahili brother or sister, but you must renounce all associations with your previous culture, including language and accept Islam.

I asked if he thinks whether of the three contributing components to Swahili culture, Indian, Bantu and Arab, does one dominate? I asked this I suppose because I personally felt the Arab component did. He replied diplomatically, enigmatically, that the Swahili were a clever people and took only the best of everything. After 45 minutes of talking continuously, he declared ’I think this is enough for this time. I’ve talked a lot I think!’

I thanked him for his time and expressed my appreciation for having increased my understanding. He replied that in Islam it was a person’s duty to seek knowledge even if he or she had to travel as far as China and he was glad he could help me. Then he went to get a new Swahili hat sewn.

I have to confess, I’m not sure about his defining categories of Swahili people though. It seems too purist, too inward and I’m not sure culture works like that. To me, if it’s raining outside you get wet whether you wanted to or not. If you walk through a perfume shop you inevitably leave smelling a little sweeter, whether the shopowner intended you to or not. If all you hear is Hip-Hop, even in Surrey, you can’t help but say Yo, regardless of how baggy your jeans are. And if you moved to Mombasa from a faraway land, didn’t intermarry and still kept your original religion and language, surely you couldn’t avoid but be infected by the humble, courteous and beautifully elegant ways of the Swahili people.

Hearing Professor Ahmed Shaikh Nabhany speak was illuminating however and did make me think about culture and multiculture differently. It seemed that the strength of Swahili culture and an important reason why people of Indian, Arab and Bantu origin could identify with it together, was intermarriage. If people hadn’t intermarried themselves, they had an aunt or uncle that had and that’s really brought people together here. I like this. In a naive, idealistic kind of way maybe it’s like saying: ‘Love is all you need’.

Admittedly, I was a little cynical about the strong Arab influence over the Swahili culture. I was concerned it had made its place at the expense of Bantu and Indian cultures in an imperialistic kind of way. Arabs had conquered here and developed a gruesome trade in Black African Slaves on the Swahili coast. But I was interested to learn that what I saw as an imposition of Arab culture could also be seen as a celebration of Muslim culture, which hadn’t arrived with any imperial conquest. According to the professor, The Swahili were Muslim way before any such attack. They pride themselves on being among the first to accept the message of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) as it travelled from Arabia with the first Muslim refugees into Ethiopia. The message of Mohammad was subsequently spread into Somalia and then into the Kenyan coast. The Swahili were Muslim even before some Arabs were.

Also, consider this for a crazy idea: If people in London were all to fall in love with each other en masse tomorrow, without care for race, etc. and had lots of babies then wouldn’t it would be unrealistic to assume that the new resultant culture created should equally represent all its constituent parts?

What I love about Swahili culture is that all these people of different origins collectively declare the same identity which they all feel they have contributed to. Not just adopted.

Before he’d decided he spoke enough, The Professor attempted to put the whole culture/identity debate into context for me by quoting a lovely verse from the Qur’an: ‘O People, We created you male and female and then grouped you into tribes and nations, only so you may know each other.’

Kenya: ON THE EDGE OF THE OCEAN (010509)

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2009 at 4:15 pm



to the right of me

to the right of me

I’m sat at a step, on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Rocks to the right and left of me bear the scars of having been beat by the ocean for thousands of years. Crabs congregate on the rocks like young boys in hoods do outside Spar in Balham (is there a spar in Balham?).


to the left of me

The crabs look as though they’re meant to be there. They fit. In that evolutionary type of way; their colour and texture fit against the rocks. Blend in. And today, I daresay that I’m meant to be here. That my colour and texture fit against these rocks. I fit against these centuries old buildings of Old Town Mombasa. I fit against the dazzling blue of the Indian Ocean and the bright orange-brown of the earth here. I think I fit amongst the people here. Arab African, Indian African, Bantu African, the mixes in between.

I’m sitting at the edge of my Mothers old area. There’s an old, large wooden ship to the left of me that’s obstructing one of the houses where Mum used to live. Never had I imagined my mother’s land to be this beautiful. Seething with so much culture. Its impossible to describe. To write it. African, Portugese, Omani Arab, Indian, British. And you can see it. Most of these ingredients sit together in what is today, Swahili Culture. This is the only place in the world I’ve seen it happen. Where the various cultures in a land haven’t lived as isolated pockets walking alongside each other in Hyde Park on a Sunday, but actually come together in the creation of something new. The language, Kiswahili, is a Bantu African based language with Arabic, Indian, and some Portugese and English influence. Not just token influences but actual contributions. On the coast of Kenya, Indians, ‘Native Kenyans’, Arabs, they are all Swahili. Of course I’ve heard some Indians here talk about Africans as though they’re another. Moreso in Nairobi. Equally I’ve met Indians here that are proud Africans and are actively fighting to be recognised as such. But aside from these human truths, another equally human truth is that there’s something very special here. Something I dare all of us in England to think about. Possibly learn from. Because as much as my colour and texture fits against this tropical ocean, the palm trees, the weathered buildings, the crabs, I know my colour, my texture also fits against the wild rivers that run through the Ribble Valley in Lancashire, the blue hills of the Summer Lake District, the crabs at Morcambe Bay.

My mother probably played here as a child. She’d narrate scenes where she’s throwing stones into the air, sat on the edge of the blue ocean before chasing crabs with her friends…

crabs outside spar in balham

crabs outside spar in balham