Zanzibar 1870

Can you recall that day in 1870? It was in the Zanzibar Archipelago, in a small harbor on the southern island.

There were three dhows in the harbor, three cases of dysentery in the infirmary. I could see your eyes peeking through the jalousie of the big stone house by the knife sharpener’s market. I saw your eyes lined with kohl, your head covered in silk; wisps of your hair fluttered in the humid heat from the Indian Ocean. Your hands were covered in henna as you pushed the wooden slats of the jalousie aside, letting in the moist afternoon sunlight. Jewelry of jade, onyx, and moonstones hung from your ears, around your neck.

The Hajia brushes past me, then turns to point a gnarled finger in my face, shouting in Somalian Arabic. The miniature coins sewn onto her violet shawl jingle with every jabbing motion she makes. One of the coins is a Grecian antiquity, taken from a shallow shipwreck by her pearldiving son, the third of six. She admonishes me for staring at you, the same kind of admonishment that she bestows on all of her sons, especially the graceful pearldiving one with eyes like an antelope, the third of six. Slung around her arm is a woven basket brimming with maracuja. After finishing her admonishment, she turns to continue on her way, and I turn my head back to look at you through the second story window of the stone house. The bougainvillea creeping up the walls casts shadows under the blistering sun.

A procession of Omani musicians clatters by, cymbals and castanets and brass coronets. Several men run past bearing ivory tusks, some nearly 2 meters long. The air smells of cardamom tea, camel dung, and fried octopus fritters so popular down by the beach. One of the dhows has just unloaded; a trio of Gujarati sailors, bare-chested and burned by the sun, belly up to a seaside stall where a miniscule Swahili woman fries up the chewy octopus just caught from the ocean. The sailors talk loudly; after a month of monotony aboard the dhow, going from Bombay to Muscat and then down to Zanzibar, they are dazzled by the sights, sounds, and smells of the town full of stone houses, winding streets, and looping markets.

In the market beside your stone house, there are burlap bags thrown open, filling the air with the scent of strong chili powder and curry. A man sells pieces of chalk he claims have healing powers when brewed into a tea with sycamore leaves. I wander through the market, I see the back of your head, recognize your veil. The shadows grow deeper, it is now late afternoon; the heady mixture of myrrh, roasted coriander, and spiced fish is making my head swim. I wonder if you are indeed a vision, this temptress in the gauzy black shawl with eyes like black pearls, form like an alabaster tear jar (“record my lament, list my tears on your scroll,” writes Daoud), smile like the flashing sunset over Ratnakara. Yemeni carpets strung out on a laundry line roll lasciviously in the hum and moan of the breeze. Black clouds are hovering over the ocean in the distance, harbingers of an early evening storm. You stop by a house with a red door, and you look back at me. I murmur my desires to you, and your eyes are beckoning me in that mysterious language I will never be able to understand, in the centuries before and since. A cloud of swallows dashes overhead, an old wrinkled man bearing a tinker’s kit trudges by, his eyes never leaving the dust in front of his feet. You push open the red door and enter, your eyes never leaving mine. I see you disappear inside, the last thing I see are your ankles vanishing in the shadows. Do I follow? Is it an invitation? What lies beyond the red door, what do we discover once I slip off your veil, slip my hands underneath your garments, touch my lips to your neck?

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