Avaes Mohammad

Posts Tagged ‘Photographs’


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.




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: DHRUB (050709)

In Uncategorized on August 4, 2009 at 6:36 pm


My father was born in Karachi.  He’s Pakistani.  My mother was born in Mombasa.  She’s Kenyan.  I was born in Blackburn and I’m English.  But all three of us speak Kutchi.  This is the language we speak at home and this is what binds us to one another.  Despite our individual cultural differences, when we sit together in one room we have this in common: the Kutchi language and with it, Kutchi humour.  Maybe this is why I feel so comfortable in Kutch, because this one land can hold us all in one place equally.  East Africa is mine and my Mothers.  Pakistan I share with my Father.  But in Kutch all three of us can walk and feel a part of it.

Not far from Mandvi is Mundra, a walled town on the southern coast of this region.  Today it’s a bustling, overcrowded, quite filthy place that has been suddenly jolted into the industrialised world with the building of a major sea port.  Indians from all over the country have rushed to move here in order to milk the cash cow and in the process are bruising it.  Mundra is the town that my paternal ancestors moved to Karachi from.  In 1990 my Uncle showed me which house our ancestors originally lived in, but I wouldn’t be able to remember how to find it now and the town looks so different from then.  Back then Mundra was as sleepy as Mandvi is now.

My father’s side of the family are Turks.  Kutchi Turks.  As if this pot hadn’t enough ingredients already, let me throw in another hard hitting spice to create yet another edge with which to tanatalise tastebuds of cultural cuisine.  Centuries ago, actual centuries, a group of Turks from Central Asia, somewhere around Bukhara in present day Uzbekistan, came to India.  Some people say they came as warriors, others say they came as part of an entourage lead by a Sufi saint today buried in Mundra.  One account tells of this entourage assisting local Kutchi’s in a battle against a community of cannibals.  I’m not sure how they got here and what they did when they arrived, but somehow, whether by conquest or reward, they were allotted a whole village with some of the most fertile land in the whole of Kutch.  Dhrub, a magical oasis of coconut and date palms, banana plants and peacocks lies only a few kilometres away from the dry, dusty plains around Mundra and is still today exclusively the home of Kutchi Turks, the descendents of those original settlers.  In a country where tribe and lineage is still a mark of status and sometimes destiny, these people have attempted to remain ‘pure’ by intermarrying for generations, thus maintaining their centuries old identity as Kutchi Turks.

My father never married a Kutchi Turk.  Out of circumstance rather than choice.  Maybe I’ll share the details later.  As such, I’m ‘impure’.  Strange how I have parents that look similar, have the same language and eat the same food even but yet, I can still be considered a half breed.  Only in India…I hope.

The wedding in Mandvi that took place within the household of my uncles’ friend had taken up a lot of my time but the day before I  left Kutch I was adamant I’d make a trip to Dhrub  and Mundra.  Khaliq came with me and we boarded another Toofan to take us there, crushed like cattle once again.  In India there’s music everywhere, beaming out from temples, shops, homes, trucks, buses and of course people.  The guy I have my right thigh pressed firmly against and whose left elbow is secured against my own ribs is blasting tinny, treble high renditions of bollywood classics through his mobile phione, while singing along with full passion for nobody elses pleasure but his own.  He does this like it’s the most normal thing in the world.  And in India it is, in fact it’s appreciated.  A caravan of camels go by, there’s a road being dug and elaborately dressed and decorated women carry away the rubble on their heads.  Slowly, this deserted, neglected land gives way to the occasional Palm Tree standing tall and then I know we’re close.  We get off and cool down with sweet sugar cane juice a couple of kilometers outside the edge of Mundra.  I was in these parts for the first time in 1990 when I was only 12.  Back then it was nothing here but sand as far as you could see and the occasional tea stall with idle men speaking idly on idle matters.  The port has brought new buildings with shining shops and glass walled offices that reflect the harsh light of the sun and so stand glistening like jewels of imported modernisation.  Dusty jewels alone in the sand.

A rickshaw takes us past the serenity of Rasa Peer’s Shrine, down that straight road from where I saw a snake being chased by a mongoose as a child.

‘Do you want Dhrub the farms or Dhrub the village?’

I didn’t know there was a village.

‘The farms.  Kader Bhai’s farm…the one where his wife lives.’

Kader Bhai was my father’s cousin somehow and died a few years ago.  As a child I had stayed with my family in his grand farm  that mainly grew dates.  Hard, fibrous, sweet dates, yellow and red.  Dhrub dates are famous all over India and get shipped as far as Bombay.  The water here is sweet they say…makes the dates sweet too.  As well as dates though I remember coconut palms, guava and  also fig trees in this magical, shady haven where pink, bright yellow and white flowers blossomed, between which peacocks justify their vanity with dazzling displays of monsoon dancing.  ‘Sange Varee’ the farm was called, except my widowed aunt doesn’t live there anymore and has moved to a smaller adjacent farm since her husbands demise, still with white flowers, figs and palms, though less grand.

We do what I’ve done this entire journey to track down her farm…ask people.  A few near misses later and we find the gates everyone talked about.  A young girl answers our Salaams suspiciously.

Is Emna fui in?  I’ve come from England.

Er…yes.   She’s taking a bath.

We’re given water to wait on the verandah with and it is sweet.  After a second glass of water an old figure hobbles to the front door with a zimmer frame and with a warm demeanour offers her Salaams.

Wa’alikum Salaam.  I’m Avaes.  Shaffi’s son.

She bursts into enthusiastic smiles and approaches me as energetically as her zimmer frame will allow.  As is the custom, I kiss her hand and we sit close to one another.  If I’m honest I never really expected such a warm reception.  I wasn’t sure she’d even know who I was.  I’d only met her as a child when there was no zimmer frame and a tall, enigmatic husband by her side I’m sure contributed to her straighter gait .  Fresh, ripe, luxuriant figs are brought out onto the terrace and we speak endlessly about what it is I do now, my family, Africa and of course the subject of my marriage.

‘We can arrange a nice Kutchi girl.  You’re here anyway.  Do you want to see some?’

Another ‘aunt’, another one of my fathers cousins is at the farm next door.  In her retirement years she chooses to split her time between Dhrub and London.  We arrange to have Lunch with her, on their terrace, amidst their date palms.  As we get out of the car I fail to recognise her, standing aloofly facing us from afar.

‘Say salaam to Ma’, I’m ushered.

As I approach and the face on tall shoulders begins to fit an image in my mind, she cries out


Another old aunt I haven’t seen since childhood that remembers me.

‘Who is it?  Go on…guess!’ Dares Emna Fui.

‘I already did.  I knew as soon as he walked out of the car’, she states proudly.

‘How could you tell?  I couldn’t.’

‘He’s blood.   Of course I can tell.’

Blood.  A symbol of murder, destruction, heinous violence and also closeness, kinship, predestined belonging.  I was raised with the  belief that ‘blood’ was carried through the father’s side.  A child takes the fathers name and is a seed propagating the fruits of his fathers identity and heritage.  The mother a mere vessel, noble enough to forsake her own identity for the sake of this worthy task.  I was young, maybe only 14 when my maternal grandmother told me I could only really be associated with my fathers family, I couldn’t be considered there’s.  That’s simply how things were done.  Fair enough, but I still felt I’d been robbed of my connection to any maternal ancestry.  Maybe that’s part of the reason why I never visited her in hospital before she died.  The professor however, who I met in Mombasa, one of the things he shared with me was this piece of Islamic teaching…’Don’t forget the mother’s side as it is powerful’ he quoted the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, as saying.  On the day of judgement all people will be called by their mother’s name…not their fathers.  When people speak to me of blood I know my blood is cloudy and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Dinner is served, amongst which is Makati Seenya, An East African sweet and airy  fried bread.  Both aunts were Ugandan refugees at the time of Idi Amin and still hold close their memories from there.

‘So how long you staying?’

‘I leave Kutch tomorrow’

‘And you call this visiting us?’

‘I’m going to Khwaja’s shrine in Ajmer.’

Mention of the saint pacifies them a little.

Emna fui asks again.

So what of your marriage?

I’m in no hurry?

No  hurry?  How old are you now?


Thirty!  So what you waiting for now?…Hey!  You haven’t got a white woman have you?

No.  I haven’t got a white woman.

You sure?


Good!  Coz they’ll only give you trouble, trust me.  Pick a poor girl…you’ll give her a  better life and there’ll be no trouble either.

After dinner the fella whose farm it actually is shows Khaliq and I around.  With camera in hand I stroll with them, the fella, a local copper, complains about the lack of  rain and how the dates are smaller every year.  There’s a crash.  I look around and can’t believe the fact that a real-life peacock, brazen as day, has just forced its way onto the farm through a hedge.  My jaw is still on the floor by the time I realise I need to take a decent picture but by then this vision of beauty darts straight back out again.

They’re everywhere, the copper says.  No they’re not, I think to myself.  The hard dates we pick off the trees are delicious and for a moment or two I fantasise about my own farm with sweet water running through, date palms, white flowers in bloom and peacocks dancing in monsoon showers.







We join the old brigade again and this time I sit next to the older, taller aunt, Seru Fui.  You’d never believe what she wants to talk about…


So what of your marriage?

I’m in no hurry

No hurry!  How old are you now?

He’s thirty and he says there’s no hurry

You’re thirty and you say there’s no hurry!  So what are you waiting for?…hey you don’t have a white woman back there do you?

No.  I don’t have a white woman.

Good!  Coz they’ll only give you trouble…mark my words!

I laugh it off.  That way I’m not disagreeing and offending them,  but neither am I agreeing and appeasing them.

It really is a shame you can’t stay for longer or I’d have taken you to Mundra and showed you where your ancestors used to live.

That would have been great.  Another time I hope.  I really want to be back soon.  Who was it exactly that left though?  from Mundra?  Do you know?

I’m not sure.

What did they do?  Do you know that?

Ships.  They worked on ships.  That’s why they went to Karachi.

The day was running on and we needed to also.  After the hand kissings and well wishes, we say goodbye.  The copper gives us a lift to the edge of the village and on the way remembers someone he thinks I have to meet.  I’m not as bothered as theoretically, the whole village is supposed to be somehow related.  The motorbike carrying three people swerves suddenly to the right.

Look who i’ve brought!

An old man with bottle lensed glasses and stooped back hobbles towards us…

Tell him…explain who you are!

I’m Allayas grandson, Allaya from Kara…

Allaya’s grandson!  What are you doing stood up?…Sit down! Sit down!

The old man rushes inside to call out his wife, after which he sits close to me, eyeing me up and down, looking particularly bemused the point at which he meets my hair.

Do you work in films?

I’m a writer.

Yes.  You look like you work in films.

He relays a whole list of Kutchi Turks in England and doesn’t hold back his disappointment when I admit I’ve never heard of them…supposed members of my paternal clan.  His wife, wrinkled but still young looking, loud and brash, sits with us.

Allaya, your grandfather…what a man!  I was still a girl when he used to come here.  He’d come  a lot…the border was easy back then.  He’d come regularly.  Once he took me back with him, to Karachi.  I said I have no visa though!…he said I wasn’t to worry…on Karachi port he knew everyone!…he took me through like his own child…no passport, no visa.  Nobody asked him anything.  I think he worked there.

He was the labour officer there.  In charge of the coolies.

I find family difficult enough without taking on board  an entire tribe and I still feel uncomfortable with the idea that you have to care and be close to someone purely based upon associations of birth, associations you have no control over.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed this moment and felt glad for visiting these people.  It provided me with a little snippet into the life of my grandfather and in so doing, made me feel closer to a man of whom I have no memories of my own.

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.

India: PANJO KUTCH – OUR KUTCH (200609)

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2009 at 5:35 pm


It’s a hazy day.  Cloudy.  Overcast, grey and quite cold.  Absolutely perfect!!  Just over 48 hours ago I was in the stifling heat of Lahore, Pakistan, where I remained for a week.  Temperatures were around 46C and by order of the government, electricity is turned off every alternate hour.  they call it Load Shedding.  No fans.  No AC.  Those who can afford Air Conditioning in Pakistani cities abuse it this time of year to the extent that the National Grid simply can’t cope.  Fat, trousered behinds comfortably cooled on leather swivel chairs and padded settees, behinds that can afford their own generators anyway and so ensure an unhampered coolness to waft between their well-pampered buttocks.  While the rest of Pakistan waits in those alternate hours, unable to do anything but sweat.  And wait.  Nevertheless I remained in magnificent Lahore, which I’ll speak about later, for a week.

After a month in the kaleidoscopic whirlwind of sensory overloads that are the cities of Northern India, even Lahore seemed a welcome respite.  Despite my best efforts though, the heat simply didn’t provide favourable writing conditions for an adventuring artiste as I.  I lie a little.  It wasn’t just the heat.  It was also the fact that Lahore, with its outrageous generosity, is an incredibly easy place to make friends and with its splendid beauty is an equally easy place to distract yourself into with them.  And so after a week of fighting several losing battles, I’ve torn myself away into the peace, serenity and absolute magnificence of the Hunza Valley in the Karakoram Range of Mountains, by the Chinese border.  Purely for the sake of my art of course.  It’s a hazy day.  Cloudy.  Grey and quite cold.  Beautiful!  From outside my window are golden brown barren mountains, the clouds have wrapped themselves around the snow covered peaks, as though they haven’t met in a while and demand some ‘us time’.  Forests of fruit trees spray against the mountain base.  It’s cherry and apricot season.  Big, sweet Marks and Spencers type cherries are everywhere and I pick them on demand, no green aisles, no checkout till, no money even…just the best cherries i’ve ever tasted and it’s all part of the legendary hospitality of this misunderstood country.  The Hunza river, confident, strong and eternal roars magnanimously just below me, feeding into the mighty Indus only a few kilometres downstream.   On my journey up here I’d followed the Indus up from the North West Frontier Province region and couldn’t help a deep feeling of admiration towards the river’s sense of purpose.  So forthright, so committed to its objective, so assured in its direction, I was in awe of it.

As well as my passion for mountains however, I’m actually here to catch up on my writing.  India, where I was previous to Pakistan, demands that you look.  That you hear.  That you touch.  That you are touched.  That you speak.  That you’re spoken to.  That you shout.  That you’re shouted at.  That you scream, that you smell, that you taste and that you get out of my fuckin’ way!  Now!!  With the uncompromising petulance of a brat, it demands.  Constantly.  For a month I was victim to these demands.  If writing material is what I was looking for then I simply had too much and it’s only now, over a week after leaving India that I feel I’m able to write more about my time there.  The dust having settled.  I arrived in Bombay and have already shared my incredible introduction into the country.  In Bombay I met with artists, performed my poetry at various venues around the city, hobnobbed with the ‘cultured’ and ‘hip’ middle classes and spent most evenings enjoying the company of Raju and his community of friends on the side streets of Colaba.  Laughing, singing and being sung to but like with most things, especially on this journey, I had to leave.  But I left so i could go somewhere else.  I left so I could make my way towards Kutch.  It’s the base root of this journey in a way.  The region which hosts the language both my parents speak, which also hosts ancestry from both sides of my parents, from where my forefathers and foremothers originally emigrated.

It was Tuesday the second of June I think when I entered the Kutch region of India.  I woke up around 6am from the berth of my train so I could take in as much of the landscape as possible from the window.  The Rann of Kutch in North-Western India is Frontier Land, the last point at which sand can still be attributed to this noble Bharat-Desh and bear the sacredness of Indian identity before it turns into conspiring, terrorist sand of the enemy, Pakistan.  Some sand lies on the edge though.  Some sand is blown in the wind.  But that’s the enemy within sir.  Traitor, problem-sand.

Like the other Wild West, Kutchi land is also arid.  The train strides like a Mancunian through this expanse of scorched desert, markered by barren hills.  Cacti sit with elegance by the side of the road, accompanied by occasional small green bushes and round mud huts, littering this serenity of red earth and dark hills.  Red earth and mud huts like those between Nairobi and Mombasa.  Some farm land is occasionally seen, but not much.  The train finally ends its 16 hour marathon in Bhuj, the capital of Kutch.  From there I was to get down to Mandvi, on the southern coast of this area by the Arabian Sea, the town of my maternal ancestry.  Once more though, coincidences provided me with good company.  In the booth next to mine were a father and son from Mandvi itself, actual friends of the family I still have there.

The train pulls into Bhuj and people collectively ignore the idioms of rail-safety and choose instead to jump on and off train tracks in order to cross platforms.  My Mandvi travelling companions and I begin the day with breakfast…freshly fried ganthia, green chillies, chutney and jalebi.  A cup of tea later and we board an aptly named Toofan, (Storm), the local mode of 4×4 transport to help us cross the deserts and hills into Mandvi.  The same rules of public transport have been following me from Nairobi…get as many in as possible…and then some more.  It’s only an hour long journey to Mandvi and its joyous.  Trains provide a smooth feeling of watching from afar, of aloof linearity, whilst driving embraces the contours of the landscape, sharing its joys when smooth and comfortable and also its pains when steep, rocky or hilly.


We cross dusty roads, barren landscape at first.  Cacti peer in to see who’s arriving.  Occasional white cows meander.  Red earth glows.  A gentle wind blows and loose earth is displaced around the landscape, without actually changing though.  There’s space.  And in that there’s so much beauty.  Humble but no less profound than any other beauty I’ve been fortunate enough to witness.  There’s not a lot of anything but the sparseness out of the window overwhelms me with peace, security and a strange feeling of understanding.  Like I understand this landscape.  I’m not sure what I understand about it, but I know it.  It looks like the language I speak.  It echoes with the humour my family shares.  It looks like the colour of my parents’ skin, sometimes.  The land is extreme, but it’s soft also. and against this stillness, everything else is just further highlighted.  The ripple of a snake against the roadside, the lines in the man’s face sat next to me, the smiles.  We cross through small towns with buildings painted in pastille shades of blue and pink.  Jain temples with rainbows trapped in their walls.

‘Ha salaam alaikum.  Ker aay?  Khaliq!  We have your relative with us…we should be at the bridge in 15 minutes.’

As we get closer to the coast, green introduces itself onto the canvas too:  Green crops that reflect the light of the sun and that earthy green atop ubiquitous date and coconut palms.  They’ve become ubiquitous for me lately anyway and here they signal the presence of that great contradiction: desert oases.

Fifteen minutes later and we arrive at the bridge.  The other side of it is Khaliq, my ‘uncle’ sat on his scooter, his white shalwar kameez flapping in the cool sea breeze.  I get off the Toofan and Khaliq and I embrace tightly.

‘You look exactly the same’

Except he’d got a bit fatter.

‘So do you’

Except my hairs a lot longer.  Three years ago he came to my hotel room when I was staying in Bhuj on my own.

‘Salaam alaikum.  We’re related.  I’ve come to pick you up’

Or something like that anyway.  He looks well nowadays but also burdened with a new sense of responsibility since his older brother died two years ago.  He loads the scooter with my bags and I look to the left of us to see the great wooden ships they still handbuild here according to centuries old designs.  The same ships I had seen in Mombasa and Zanzibar.



In Uncategorized on July 4, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Picture 013

Picture 014

Picture 021

Picture 015

Picture 026

living on the edge

suits you sir!

suits you sir!

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the city the sea comes to see

the city the sea comes to see

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asia's largest launderette...and not a 20p piece in sight!

asia's largest launderette...and not a 20p piece in sight!

between things

between things

Raju the Prince

Raju the Prince

Haji Ali's Tomb

Haji Ali's Tomb

the path over water to Haji Ali

the path over water to Haji Ali

Prem Chopra, Raju the Prince and Babu Moosa

Prem Chopra, Raju the Prince and Babu Moosa

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Gate of India

Gate of India

Too Indian to be let into a British Hotel, so he built his own...The Taj Hotel

Too Indian to be let into a British Hotel, so he built his own...The Taj Hotel

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street partying

street partying

sweet street serenade

sweet street serenade

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The Queens Necklace

The Queens Necklace


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


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.’


In Uncategorized on May 7, 2009 at 3:40 pm







coconut water...its good for you daughter...CO-CO-NUUUUTS!





i grew up with legends of this place imprinted in my mind...my mum's/aunt's/uncle's favourite bakery

i grew up with legends of this place imprinted in my mind...my mum's/aunt's/uncle's favourite bakery

my favourite cafe in mombasa - JAHAAZI

my favourite cafe in mombasa - JAHAAZI

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

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