Laila would sit on the ledge of her crooked wooden shutter windows every day without fail, from when the sun dips as the mosque calls the fourth prayer, until her eyes droop as the Zanzibar, Stonetown streets turn quiet and empty.
She would sit on that window and think about her chores — cleaning and cooking before everyone awoke, or multiple times in the day in case guests were to visit (as they usually did unannounced in Swahili homes). Or sometimes daydream about getting on one of the many Azam boats at the ferry dock that made their daily trips from Zanzibar to Dar-es-salaam and back. She imagined getting on the 7 am boat to Dar to experience the ‘Bongo’ city life for the day and back by 6 pm Maghrib prayer. But most nights, she would skip the Indian-subtitled and Turkish-Swahili dubbed shows that her mother always watched. Laila chose to watch the streets of Stonetown instead.
The rich, drama-filled Turkish and Indian shows that the housewives of Zanzibar tended to enjoy had nothing on the Swahili men and women who graced (or ungracefully) walked on the Stonetown streets. Like the English movies she saw depicting men and women watching and engaging with plays, she deemed the ledge of her window (two stories above the streets) the best in the world for a dive into Swahili culture and ways of life.
The best Swahili theater one could enjoy were Stonetowns very own alleyways — here, you could find every Swahili character worthy of being mentioned. The beach boy with his dreadlocks and shorts named Muitaliano for his targeting of only Italian tourists in his Swahili-infused Italian accent. The pious man with his long, orange henna dyed beard and his white thobe, or Kanzu as the Swahili call it, prays five times a day with four wives to account for his pious, sunnah following-ways of the Prophet. Or the woman in her black Abaya dress and matching scarf, or in her colorful long deera that many Zanzibari women donned on the island for its light texture and convenience. She always had a destination in mind — a small kiosk, a sugarcane juice stand, or a house call to her friend.
There were also the little boys and girls playing with their green and grey hued marble balls, chasing each other, drawing in thin-lined books, on their bikes, or crouched behind the overcrowded room with screens and old play stations. And of course, the teenagers in hidden quiet, dark corners, thinking no one would see them there. Forgetting the wooden windows that hid prying eyes and the raggedy walls that listened to the hushed whispers of their teenage infatuation.
Not to forget the many tourists or Wazungus that filled the streets. The Italians with their bronze tans and dark hair usually moved with their families. The Scandinavians with their blonder heads and tall, sturdy figures usually walked in pairs, cameras at hand. The British, shorter and average-looking white tourists, could also be caught with their families or partners but, more often than not, alone. A lot of the British had a parent or an aunt who had once visited and lived in Zanzibar. They were able to make the leap from the tourist greeting of hello, “Jambo” to the more localized one — “Habari” or British-accented “Salamaleykum”. These were favorites for the beach boys and the more daring Zanzibari ‘liberals’ and, in some cases, promiscuous local women.
And Laila watched on, folding every being and event into the folds of her mind. She wished she was as talented as AbdulRazaq Gurna with his evocative and unorthodox tales of post-colonial Zanzibar or Shaaban Roberts in his magical way of bringing Swahili poetry and tales to life. But she was just a woman, and Swahili women rarely did anything of substance other than raising the next generation, perhaps open a small duka-shop and if she’s really worldly, perhaps study abroad or travel to Dubai. But her fate was like the rest; marry young, give the husband and their families some children (at least one boy) and subdue her dreams to the more practical and “real life” expectations of Swahili women — cooking, cleaning, raising, tending to her husband, attending weddings and funerals and the likes.
So, for now, Laila was content with dreaming away, looking out of her window for some respite and peeking into the lives of those who walked the streets below her. She continued to watch as the birds scattered into the pink and orange-hued horizon, flying inland and away from the Indian ocean, the dhows littering Stonetowns beachfront and into the safety of the island trees before darkness overwhelmed the sky.
She watched as the man on the bike selling milk from a colorfulbasket call out “Maziwa Maziwa.” And as girls ran to their doors and into the protection of their homes, where their dads would wait, eyes glued onto the tv but ears alert to the sound of the opening front doors and the creak of the steps. She watched as the men walked out and sat on the barazas, the concrete day beds attached to the walls of Stonetown houses, ready to play the Carrom board game. Fingers covered with cheap store-bought white powder used to ease the game, little flasks of coffee ready to share around, light talk turning into heated politics. And as the old ladies cleared out their empty baskets of bites of Bhajias and Kachori potatoes they sold for the day, eyes sharp and suspicious, mouths ready to gossip about this one’s son and that one’s daughter were they lucky enough to land on one, or the other, or both.
But Stonetown streets held what would be deemed mundane wonders to anyone else but her.
Sometimes, well into the night, she would raise her eyebrows and smile as men in heels stumbled through. On an island where shogas, referring to female friends and the derogatory term for gay men, was an embarrassment should it come upon your family, seemed to hold no ground at night. The same proprietary that existed during the day seemed to unveil itself when darkness befell the alleyways. She would watch as women who during the day covered modestly in their scarves and long, loose dresses, at night, don glittering, body-hugging ones, hair combed to perfection. More times than she could count, she heard them bickering about their husbands, laughing at the Rusha Roho where they used a song to torment other women and face them off, or joking about exchanging their husbands for the night, just to see what it would feel like. After all, don’t their husbands get to try new women? Why not them?
She particularly enjoyed watching the beach boy in arms with his Mzungu girl with her long hair, laughing, smoking a Dunhill cigarette which he for sure didn’t buy himself. He would’ve gotten himself an embassy from the side stall (she caught on that they didn’t sell pricey Dunhills out on the streets for guys like him). The beach boys spoke European languages and, if they were lucky, could find a Mzungu woman interested in them, get into a relationship and start a business of some sort. Like a jet ski shop, a small Italian restaurant or a hotel. And if they were really really lucky, move with them to a European country like Norway, Sweden, or Italy to settle and become part of the masses who could now travel in and out of the island. It explains why the streets during holidays would also be graced with golden mixed-race children with their lighter textured dreads, broken Swahili, come to visit their father’s homes.
Yes, Stonetown streets held the dreams and woes of each and every person who walked on them. But at night, the streets came alive with what she thought was the raw and authentic Zanzibar, one unbridled by cultural-Islamic cues and traditional ways. Laila would compare the streets to thick sponges; all their secrets lay secure, but a little squeeze and their lives would overflow the way the streets do during the monsoon seasons. And though the streets made her marvel at the good and the bad, the young and the old, the modest and the bold, it was the building opposite hers that she really waited for – the newlywed’s window.
The old Stonetown houses lay side by side, remnants of a past that many have tried to forget for the pain brought during the colonial era and the horrors in its independence retained open wounds. Separated by thin brick walls, famous Zanzibar wooden doors ornamented with gold and bronze knobs, wooden shutter windows, and dusty nets, the lives of neighbors were not so far apart.
The house opposite hers held two newlyweds — the man with the bald head across the street and his wife never shut their windows. And though the light stayed off, the one lamp flickering on the street created a silhouette which Laila couldn’t take her eyes off as she half hid in the darkness of her room or sometimes, pried from the slits of her window.
She could see the outline of their bodies as they connected, as she danced for him, as he placed kisses all over her, white teeth glistening in the dark, the sound of old Taarab music, a cacophony of drums, violins, Oud guitar, and other Swahili instruments would drift into her room. Laughter, the ‘Kwa kwa kwa’s,” and screams of delight brought covetous smiles and thoughts in Laila. It made her wonder if she would ever get all of that. Modern-day Swahili romance made Laila want a marriage that did not look the way her mom’s or aunties’ did; tired, worn out, and forgotten. Marriages of safety, of those who settled, with promises of love to come, but never did.
Sometimes she would watch as the woman would sit on the window ledge, cigarette in between her fingers, her husband right next to her caressing her arm or her waist covered by the differently colored Khanga-shawl-like garment Zanzibari women tended to wear in their homes. Laila knew she should probably shoot herself before her parents ever found her smoking; that’s what those kinds of women did, her mother would say. “They probably didn’t come from good homes or thought themselves too much like Wazungu, and white women are not modest in their bikinis, drinking habits, busy getting around with those beach boys,” she would sneer. Them, bad. Us, good. Laila would roll her eyes at the broken record of sentiments against more liberal-minded Zanzibari women.
But Laila couldn’t help but marvel, not at the smoking, for she wasn’t interested (shisha made her cough too much anyway) but at the woman, her husband, and how different it was from what she’d seen. This was the new Zanzibar, the Zanzibar from which she was still shielded. The Zanzibar where women like her neighbor had jobs, enjoyed marriage, and did as they liked when they liked.
So Laila would sit there on her window ledge, watching right when the sky turned from light blue to hues of orange and purple, to the deep dark blue of the night, the sky littered with millions of bright stars, all watching along with her. All waiting for the man and his wife to turn up their radio to the Taarab station. Words of love and music filled with tenderness would waft into the streets, and into Laila’s room.
She watched and could sometimes hear as they made love every night for six months straight.
Watched as every night turned into most nights.
Watched as most nights turned into some nights.
Watched as the man appeared less and less.
And watched as the woman found herself on the window ledge, cigarette glued to her lips. Alone.
Laila couldn’t quite pinpoint when it had all changed. But she was only mildly surprised. One year she thought to herself. One year was all it took for the newlyweds to turn into every other Zanzibari household.
The disappointment that filled her at the turn of events made her eyes wander once more; out into the window, away from her neighbors and down onto the Stonetown streets.
And though the window that lay opposite hers had dimmed in vibrancy, she took pleasure in knowing that at least the streets stayed true. Cracks and dirt still kept them paved and connected, heat and humidity dissipated, rains and coolness welcomed with the occasional grumble from those who needed sunny days to walk the streets and make a living. Summer came (weather drops to twenty degrees felt like winter to the locals and heaven to the tourists), and the festival Sauti za Busara — the voices of happiness — brought many tourists; Europeans, Americans, Arabs, and Africans of all kinds. But as seasons come and go, the tourists left and the streets quieted down once more. Stonetown streets became arbitrarily predictable once again.
Until the day a light flickered from across her window and Lailas eyes, like the moths and mosquitoes circling the streetlamps, latched onto the house opposite hers.
The woman stood at the wooden window shutters, looking at her, head slightly tilted, curious. Laila had forgotten to be discreet in the past months after finding out the man had found another wife, one more preferred by his family, with good habits and modesty she overheard her mother say during her gossip sessions. And the husband caved as men tended to on their island, thought Laila. And so, it was no surprise that Laila believed there was no one to see her. She forgot to stay vigilant from prying eyes like hers. It had never fully occurred to Laila that the woman would notice her the same way she had noticed them.
Or perhaps, it had never occurred that the woman would … continue living her life and in the same house. It sounded absurd but had she not seen enough women hide behind the doors of their houses in fear of embarrassment? In grief? In a craze for having been divorced? Or leaving their houses empty and returning to their childhood homes?
In reality, it had not occurred to Laila that anyone would notice her. They never did, especially women like her neighbor. Confident, unapologetic, working Swahili women left women like Laila, who were considered “geti kali,” overly protected, as none of their business. They had no time for women like Laila, who were held back by their Swahili customs. They heard how women like Laila’s mothers talked of them, looked at them. So they stayed away.
With the woman’s eyes still swimming with questions, her eyes bored into Lailas asAbdallah Issa’s song “Nipeni Nafasi Nimsifu Mpenzi Wangu” — Give me some space to praise my love — came on. A man with a big afro, broad shoulders and taller than the woman’s ex-husband was, took her attention from Lailas. He pulled her into an embrace, palms caressing her hips, encircling her light figure-hugging red khanga that covered her from her chest to below. He placed a kiss on the forehead, dipping his head to her neck, pulling her towards the silhouetted bed and the veil of the dark room.
She turned back to the streets, her heart racing and her body heated.
Laila closed the crooked wooden shutters behind her, her henna, orange dyed fingers gripping the wooden ledge.
No more watching, she promised.
The next evening, she found herself right back on the crooked wooden window. Promise forgotten, pen and notebook in hand.
There she watched, heart beating to the tune of the Taarab songs, the wooden windows wide open.
About the Author:
Husnah Mad-hy is from Zanzibar, Tanzania. She is a Master of Global Affairs Candidate at the MUNK School, University of Toronto with an avid interest in exploring short stories.
Feature image by Bertsz / Pixabay