Acquisition Highlight: Zanzibar: Personalities & Events (1828-1972)

January 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called Zanzibar Revolution on Sunday 12 January 1964. In the week following the toppling of the newly elected government, the Sultan of Oman fled the island and thousands of people were killed. Sources put the number of casualties at anywhere between 4,000 and 20,000, with most of those killed being Arabs of Omani descent. A few months later Zanzibar agreed to a union with mainland Tanganyika and the new nation of Tanzania was born. The events of 1964, namely the revolution, the massacres and the subsequent union, still dominate the memories and political discourse of many Zanzibari Tanzanians. While a lot of African citizens of Zanzibar will celebrate these events and see them as marking the beginning of the real era of independence and freedom from their colonial and their Arab feudal masters, the January Revolution and its aftermath will be mourned by many others. Among this group is the Omani writer Nasser Abdulla Al-Riyami, the author of Zanzibar: Personalities & Events (1828-1972).

Nasser Abdulla Al-Riyami
Al-Riyami was born a few months after Zanzibar’s bloody episodes in 1964 and left the island for Oman with his parents in 1970. After receiving a BA in Law from Ain Shams University in Cairo, he joined the Royal Omani Police and was transferred to the Directorate General of Passports & Residence in 1997. After graduating with an MA in Criminology from Loughborough University (UK), he gained a diploma in police studies and was appointed Assistant Attorney-General in 2004. He wrote an interesting historical chronicle in Arabic that was translated into English and launched at the Muscat Book Fair in January 2012. Two years later, this translation is still very hard to find in libraries and only two copies are currently available among the estimated 2 billion physical and digital assets in the union catalogue Worldcat. Recently, however, the African Studies Centre was successful in acquiring a copy of the book from the Masomo bookshop in Zanzibar.

150 years of Oman-Zanzibar links
After the prelude to the book in which the virtues of Omani and Arab/Islamic culture are extolled and historical evidence is presented that shows how Arabs were the original inhabitants of the islands long before the Bantus, the first chapter is devoted to a historical overview of the beginnings of the Busaidi Sultanate in Zanzibar. According to Al-Riyami, Sayyid Saʿīd b. Sulṭān finally settled on the island in 1828, although most other sources claim it was 1832 or 1840 when the Sultan moved his capital. A general overview of the historical events of the period between 1828 and 1972 follows. Instead of concluding with the events of 1964, the years from 1964 to 1972 are included, ending with the assassination of the authoritarian ruler Abeid Amani Karume (1905-1972). At this point, it becomes clear that the Omani period finally drew to a close. The last Zanzibar sultan, Jamshid bin Abdullah (1929-), is now living in exile in the United Kingdom and he declared at a press conference that he was delighted when he heard about Karume’s assassination and was willing to return to Zanzibar as ruler if and when Zanzibaris wanted him to do so. No invitation ever materialized.

Bloody Sunday 1964
Chapter 2 provides a detailed account of the events of 1964 based on eyewitness accounts and those of key players, such as the police officer al-Kharusi. In addition, al-Riyami provides some explanations. The Arabs were not, according to him, a privileged elite class of plantation owners and were active nationalists and supporters of Zanzibar’s independence. The idea that the Arabs were responsible for slavery and were feudalists exploiting the African Bantu population is based on lies and misinformation. This was part of a set of colonially fabricated myths implanted in the hearts of the Africans and used as a tool to eradicate Islam. Other strategies employed to this end were the introduction of the Roman alphabet in 1929 and religious discrimination in the educational system. In addition to the colonial factor, the two politicians blamed for the 1964 events were Tanganyika’s President Nyerere and his Minister of Defense Oscar Kambona. What stopped the British from intervening in the uprising in this young independent state was the wish to prevent any further spread of pan-Arabism through the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, which was closely linked to Egypt’s President Nasser.

The last sultan into exile
Chapter 3 provides an overview of Sultan Jamshid’s flight to the UK where he was interviewed in person by the author. And the following chapter elaborates on some of the theories as to why the 1964 killings happened. The British policies of hate and misinformation about the role of the Arabs in the slave trade had planted the seeds of racism in the minds of the African population. The second half of the chapter deals with the emergence of the major political parties just before independence in 1963. This is the least original part of the book as it relies heavily on secondary sources.

People make history
The final part of the book may be surprising for readers who had expected a historical account and explanation of Zanzibar’s 1964 Revolution. Chapter 5 describes the life histories of 24 well-known Arab personalities who played a role in Eastern Africa (not only on Zanzibar’s islands of Unguja and Pemba) including famous scholars, traders and political figures from other parts of the Omani Sultanate, for instance the coastal Mwambao strip in Kenya. The hagiographic nature of the historiography is probably most visible in these final two chapters. Several of the traders and explorers who feature in al-Riyami’s book, such as Tippu Tipp and Rumaliza, are usually portrayed in Western sources as having had a role in the slave trade. In Riyami’s account, they appear as brave anti-colonialists and shrewd ivory traders and explorers who were instrumental in the spread of Islam. Religious actors are represented as well; for example the final biography in this chapter deals with the current Grand Mufti of Oman who also hails from Zanzibar: Ahmed bin Hamed al-Khalili.

Family chronicle
Chapter 6 reads as a family chronicle, with the author describing the descendants of Nasser bin Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Riyami who was born around 1750. Apart from the biography of his own father, Abdullah bin Masoud (1928-1982) with whom he left Zanzibar in 1970, there are details about the life history of his paternal grandfather Bwana Udi (Master of the Incense) Masoud b. Ali b. Muhammad b. Salim bin Nasser (1892-1957), who was a member of the Arab Association for 30 years. His descendants have launched a private facebook group Awlad al-Udi and a website featuring family news, information and historical pictures. These biographical emblems provide vivid examples of the constructive and positive role Arab individuals and their families played in the history of Zanzibar. The blurb reads as folows:

‘It is not the intention of the author to portray the Arabs as the sole ethnic group that built modern State of Zanzibar, nor indeed as the only victims, nor even to hymn their praises but to underscore their scholarly, artistic and constructive contribution in many aspects of life as opposed to the myriad corrupt objectives instilled in the minds of the rank and file against Arabs and Arabism.’

Nostalgia for the ‘Lost Andalusia’
The main criticism that can be made of Zanzibar: Personalities & Events is its one-sidedness and pro-Arab bias. The author looks back nostalgically at the Golden Age of the Sultanate when Zanzibar was free of malaria, had high spiritual standards and was among the best developed countries in the region. After the revolution, which is referred to as an ‘invasion’ throughout the book to underscore the role of mainland Tanganyika mercenaries, the islanders’ health deteriorated, racism became rampant and property was confiscated. The book is too biased to be the definite history of the January Revolution. In al-Riyami’s view, it was the western colonial powers − supported by Israel with its anti-Arab policy − that poisoned the political and social climate by creating racist stereotypes and fabricating stories about the despicable role Arabs played in the slave trade. However Glassman showed in his book War of Wards, War of Stones that the construction of racial fear was not one-sided: both the victims and the perpetrators of the violence in the 1960s actively participated in this discourse. Also, al-Riyami’s downplaying of the role of the Arabs in the plantation culture is not backed up by facts. Most of the largest clove plantations, for example, were in Arab hands, according to Cooper’s study From Slaves to Squatters. And to call the system of squatting on the clove estates a form of ‘Islamic socialism’ is probably a little too optimistic.

A valuable library resource
Despite this criticism, the book is still a valuable resource from a African Studies library perspective. Zanzibar: Personalities & Events (1828-1972) provides the average western student relying on English-language material with (i) a much-needed Indian Ocean and Arab perspective of events; (ii) access to lesser-known resources; and (iii) an introduction to an unfamiliar way of historiography.

Oman, the Arab World and the Indian Ocean
The importance of Oman and the Indian Ocean for the history of Zanzibar can hardly be overestimated and has certainly not decreased, although it did change after the bloody events of 1964. Economic, political and religious ties between Oman and Zanzibar/Tanzania remained strong and have become even stronger over the last few decades. Scientific interest in the area is, for example, illustrated by the conference on ‘The History of Islamic Civilization in East Africa’ that was organized by the National Record & Archives Authority of Oman in September 2013. The papers and research themes presented there covered a vast array of disciplines and showed a vibrant Omani interest. Understanding Zanzibar’s historical and current events needs a cross-national and cross-regional perspective from both the Arab world and the Indian Ocean, as is illustrated by Ghazal’s book on Islamic reform and Arab nationalism : expanding the crescent from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean (1880s-1930s. Oman and its Swahili-speaking diaspora remain connected by ‘enduring links’, as the Arab-Zanzibari Juma Aley claims.

Arabic and Swahili sources
Riyami’s book also reveals a treasure of lesser-known resources in other languages. Zanzibar: Personalities & Events (19828-1972) is well researched and based on an impressive number of oral and written sources, archival documents, newspapers and letters. The book provides numerous anecdotes and incidents that reveal the author’s intimate knowledge of and deep interest in the subject. He mentions more than 40 interlocutors (most of them eyewitnesses) and lists many Arabic (and to a lesser extent Swahili) published and unpublished documents. The discovery of these (for many readers) unknown materials and the delivery of rare or even unique documents is facilitated by rapidly expanding union catalogues that aggregate information from multiple libraries all over the world. Almost all of the published materials listed by al-Riyami are easy to locate and can be requested by Inter-Library Loan. Some are open access, such as al-Ghassany’s important collection of many eyewitness accounts of the revolution,or released intelligence studies; in other cases the ASC Library has managed to obtain rare English translations of important documents, for example the personal narrative of the political prisoner Amani Thani Fairoz who was incarcerated by Karume. The follow up of personal, subject and geographical descriptors of these items in the library catalogue can lead to further discoveries for instance the only known film footage of the 1964 carnage.

The third valuable aspect of this translation is the different kind of historiography it represents. At first glance, the enormous amount of space devoted to family histories and personalities may seem very odd, especially because the men described are not specifically linked to the Zanzibar Revolution. However when we realize that the book has its origins in an Arab scholarly culture, then the similarities between al-Riyami’s historiography and the classical tabaqat literature become more obvious. Tabaqat historiography, as Heather Sharkey explains, is a kind of biographical dictionary that ‘arranges history not through events, but through people’. History writing of this kind is common in many parts of Islamic Africa, although it seems to be giving way to more western, event-oriented genres. The best example of this kind of literature in East Africa is probably Baadhi ya wanavyuoni wa Kishafi wa Mashariki ya Afrika, written by Abdallah Saleh Farsy, not surprisingly a famous Arab Zanzibari.

Collecting global resources
Zanzibar : Personalities & Events is an important library acquisition in an area studies centre because by its very nature the book stimulates reflection on the necessity of transcending boundaries and borders. Within the wider context of a collection of global resources, the book connects different geographical areas, it shows the rich diversity of resources in multiple languages and illustrates the variety of scholarly traditions.

Gerard C. van de Bruinhorst