Avaes Mohammad

Posts Tagged ‘Sketches’

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 13 (200509)

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


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

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


He was doing his PhD there.


Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 10-12 (200509)

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

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


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


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


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

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

Yaseen: Huh? No man…he’s Arab.


Avaes: Oh.

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 8-9 (200509)

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


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

Avaes: 20 camel lights please.

Vendor: 3000.

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

[gives cigs]

And a lighter?

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

Avaes: England.

Vendor: England? No…really! India?


Avaes: Well…my mother was born in Mombasa…

Vendor: Mombasa?

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

Vendor: Zanzibar?

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

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

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

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


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

Random fella: Hey…Jambo!

Avaes [disinterested]: Jambo.

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

Avaes [disinterested]: Poa. (Cool.)

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


Avaes: Who?

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


Avaes: He’s gone.

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


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

[I look at him sharply. He smiles]

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

[I continue issuing my sharp gaze]

[smiling] So what about Suleiman?

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



[He stops walking.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avaes: How do you know him?


Random fella: What were you doing with him?

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

[We start walking again]

Random fella: We all know him.

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

He likes boys.


Avaes: Right.


How do you know?

Random fella: [laughing] Coz he asked me.


Avaes: Okay.


Random fella: So where you from?

Avaes: England.

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

Avaes: No…America.

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

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

Random fella: Just walking…not following.


Listen…don’t walk with Suleiman again.

Avaes: Why not?

Random fella: Because he’s gay!

Avaes: And you don’t like that?

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


Avaes: What?! You fuck them?

Random fella: Yeah! We fuck them!!

Avaes: Doesn’t that make you gay?

Random fella: What?!

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

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


And you?

Avaes: I don’t fuck men.

[He takes a right as I take a left]

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

Avaes: Just interested.

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 7 (200509)

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


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

Avaes: Are you German?

George: Yes.

Avaes: Thought so. What you doing here then?

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

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

George: Er…yes. I suppose so.

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

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

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

George: I’m aware of it.

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

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

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

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

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

[A pleasing introduction calls for a celebratory second inhalation]

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

[A third inhalation to mark the futility.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Slight Pause]

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

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

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

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

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 5-6 (200509)

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


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

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

Avaes: Hmmm.


You got family? Married?

Mustapha: No.

Avaes: How come?

Mustapha: Don’t want.

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


Mustapha: Yes.




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


Avaes: Long time.

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


Mustapha: She gone Canada now…married someone else.

Avaes: Canada? When?

Mustapha: Six years ago.


Avaes: Shit.


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


Her father problem.


Five years.

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

No problem…Bad luck!


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

Avaes: Can I sit down?

Taha: Why not!…Do you want coffee?

Avaes: Why not!

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

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

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

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

Avaes: Why not!

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

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 2-4 (200509)

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


Day 1

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

Avaes: Poa.

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

Avaes: Don’t want a tour.

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

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

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

Avaes: Liquorice! Got any?

Papasi 1: … Acid?

Day 2

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

Avaes: Poa.

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

Day 3

Papasi 1: Hey Raffiqui…Mambo Vipi man?

Avaes: Poa

Papasi 1: Kamaa Deezee?

Avaes: Kamaa Deezee!

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

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

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


Avaes: What was that?

Papasi 1: What? Hakuna matata man!

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

Papasi 1: Yeah. Poa man.

Avaes: Poa!

Day 4

Papasi 1: Raffiqui!… hey,Vipi?

Avaes: Poa.

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


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

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

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

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

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

[Prolonged Silence.

Brad sits up a little straighter.

I sit up a little straighter.

Prolonged Silence.

I look down.


I look up.


I look out.

Prolonged Silence.]

Avaes: This is fuckin awesome man.


Brad: It’s incredible!


[spoken through a laugh just about to erupt.]

This is fuckin incredible dude!

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


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

Avaes: Jambo!

Schoolboy: Jambo!

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

Give me money!

Avaes: What?!

Schoolboy: Give me money!


Avaes: No!

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

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

Schoolboy: Give me money!

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

[He walks away.]

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 1 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 12:39 pm


[A two hour ferry ride across the ocean to get from Dar-es-Salaam to Zanzibar. The island comes into view: It’s stunning. A green gem, sat with majesty upon sapphire blue water. It’s coast, a wonder of Arabesque palaces and glorious architecture. Palm trees decorate this world of a thousand and one legends.]

Taxi Driver: Salaama. Welcome Zanzibar! How are you sir, good journey?

Avaes: Er…yeah thanks.

Taxi Driver [showing a photo ID card]:

Sir, look I am official taxi driver and guide of Zanzibar and I am here to take you to hotel in safety.

Avaes: Nah…thanks though but I’m gonna walk.

Taxi Driver: Look sir…let me tell you something…as soon as you step out there you’ll be jumped on…there’s many of them…if you come with me I can take you through safely.

Avaes: I’m alright man.

Taxi Driver: [whispers] Go then…see what happens.

Avaes: What was that man? What’d you say?

Taxi Driver: Nothing.

Big Papasi: Welcome Zanzibar!!…You don’t need taxi!…Stone Town is very small my friend you can walk everywhere…now let me show you lovely hotel…It’s my friends and I can get you very good price my friend. Two minutes from here only…come with me!

Avaes: I’m alright mate…I reckon I know where I’m goin’.

Big Papasi: Where?

Avaes: To a hotel.

Big Papasi: Which one?

Avaes: Pyramid.

Big Papasi: Pyramid? Closed! Low season my friend…many hotel closed…come with me…I’ll get you good price.

Avaes: Mate, I’ll check it out myself first…if it’s shut, then I’ll come find you.

[Pili, a girl from the ferry who I spoke to a little while has been stood waiting. She starts walking alongside me.]

Thin Papasi: Raffiqui, where you want to go? I’ll take!

Avaes: I’m okay.

Old Papasi: Stone Town very narrow narrow! Bendy bendy! I’ll take.

Avaes: I’m okay.

Old Papasi: Hakuna Matata. Welcome Zanzibar.

Young Papasi: Raffiqui my friend! I’ll take you…Pyramid yes? Follow me…

Avaes: Nah mate…I’m okay.

Stoned Papasi: You want good hotel Raffiqui, I’ll show you.

In front of me and won’t get out of my way Papasi:

Raffiqui, friend….Welcome Zanzibar…you want tour? Spice tour, prison island tour, dolphin tour, you like dolphin Raffiqui? Raffiqui, you like dolphin?

Patched eye Papasi:

[whispers] hash? Weed?….anything? What’s your interest?

[I dodge, swerve and offend my way through the crowd of Papasi: The local name for hawkers/touts. It means blood sucking ticks. One is walking far enough not to be following but close enough to shout instructions to my hotel, thereby being able to claim the commission he’ll be due when I check in. Once I’ve walked away from the Papasi swarm, I notice Pili is still at my side.]

Avaes: Where are you going?

[She just smiles.]

Avaes: Where you goin’?

[She smiles again]

Avaes: You goin’ home?

Pili Yes.

Avaes: Where’s home? Where you going?

Pili: Bus.

Avaes: You going Bus Station?

Pili: Yes. Bus station.

[We arrive at hotel]

Young Papasi: Sir, Pyramid Hotel sir. I live here…just here in this area…you need stone town tour, dolphin tour, prison island tour, snorkelling, diving, spice tour, island tour, cultural tour, anything!…let me know sir…you want? Shall I come tomorrow? Or even later? Shall I come?

Avaes: No.

[After seeing the room, I walk down the stairs to check in. The girl is stood at reception. As flattering as it is to think, I’m sure that in reality even I’m not irresistible enough for this to be okay.]

Avaes: Okay. Well…you’ve gotta get your bus yeah? See you later…[beat]…bye!


Pili: Bye…Welcome Zanzibar!