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Breaking the fast in Zanzibar

Multimedia: The island's Eid celebrations highlight Islam’s diversity.

A girl smiles while playing a game with a friend in the village of Bwejuu on Zanzibar island, Tanzania. Zanzibar just celebrated the festival of Eid. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

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.”