Breaking the fast in Zanzibar

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania — The morning of Eid al-Fitr broke in the narrow streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar, with a few minutes of intense tropical downpour. It was a fitting start to a day that celebrates the closing of the holy month of Ramadan — a day when everything should be clean and refreshed.

Stone Town, or "Mji Mkongwe," as it is known locally in Swahili, is the oldest section of the main city on the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania. It has lain at the crossroads of vast Indian Ocean trading networks since ancient times. Today, it is a hub of Swahili culture, which thrives on the eastern coast of Africa, stretching from Somalia to Mozambique. With influences from mainland Africa, Arabia, Persia and India, the enclave’s people, architecture and customs capture the eclecticism of Islamic life.

It is a unique place to experience one of the most important festivals in Islam, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

On Sunday, the fast-breaking day, the rain-washed streets slowly filled with Stone Town’s denizens. The month of intense religious devotion was over. Now was the time to greet friends in the neighborhood and indulge in sweets and coffee.

Families, dressed to impress, emerged from their houses through the carved teak doors that have helped make Zanzibar a Unesco World Heritage site. Men and boys sported leather sandals, embroidered caps and white kanzus — a variation on the dishdasha of the Middle East. Most women wore embroidered black tunics called buibui and brightly colored headscarves. Henna stained their fingers and ankles in intricate patterns. Ramadan had purified the spirit and the body, a young man said, and one’s appearance should reflect that.

It was also a time to give alms. Groups of young men from the city’s Islamic schools passed from house to house playing handheld drums. Some elderly women sat on curbstones with hands outstretched. Children, most of all, were not shy in asking for a few shillings — and donations were forthcoming.

“During the month of Ramadan, when the festival comes, the rich people have to help the needy,” explained Rashid Shaame Othsman, a Stone Town resident. “It’s a sin not to.”

Two women selling snacks to passersby said that generosity is especially important on this day because it helps to bond the community together.

“It is a normal habit for Muslims,” Khiday Hamada Hajj said. “Generosity makes sure that people know how to help each other when something bad happens.”

In any case, the children knew exactly what they were going to do with their new cash: have fun. As shadows grew long on the first day of Eid — Zanzibaris celebrate for four days — a great carnival emerged in two parks. Children from all over the island of Zanzibar made their way to the fairgrounds. “Sikuku yetu,” they called it, “our holiday.” Boys changed into new clothes: pressed shirts and pants, and too-big belts that wrapped around their waists almost twice. Girls flaunted frilly dresses in pinks and yellows, with matching baubles in their braids.

The guidebooks often describe Zanzibar as exotic, but the pleasures at the fair were prosaic. Children scrambled around ring tosses, ice cream vendors and — that joy of kids everywhere — moon bounces. Generators hummed, lights flashed on and indulgent parents spoiled their young ones with a bonanza of cheap toys.

“Some people say Zanzibar is poor, but it is surprising,” said a toy seller at the fairground who gave his name as Yasser, and who had crammed his makeshift shop with plastic delights. People save money all year and buy plenty of toys, he said. “I don’t believe it!” he added with a smile.

Adults spent on themselves as well.

“Every country in the world has a time when business goes up,” said Omar Mohammed, a buibui seller in the city’s Ngomba district. “Here, this is the time of year when people spend a lot.”

According to one vendor, though, at least one sector was suffering during Eid: the market for religious paraphernalia. Suleiman Khamis runs a stall in the market selling Islamic books, herbal treatments and prayer rugs imported from Dubai, India, China and Oman. “There’s not so much business during Eid,” he said. Customers had already turned their buying attentions elsewhere.

Islam holds that God revealed the beginning of the Holy Quran to the prophet Mohammed during Ramadan. Observant Muslims spend the month in fasting, prayer and spiritual introspection.

With the appearance of the crescent moon, the days of ascetic sobriety are over. For the celebration, at least, even devout Zanzibaris allowed themselves to have some worldly amusements.