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Dance to the music of time

Dance to the music of time

A drum, the chanting of an imam and the responses of the dancers are sounds that add to the atmosphere of peace and harmony.

On a warm evening in Unguja, Zanzibar, the blazing heat of the day forgotten, I sit watching a mesmerising display of dance. Teams of young men and boys, dressed in uniform ankle-length Arab tunics and skull caps, kneel on the ground in a tight row, their upper bodies flowing as one in a backward and forward, up and down series of waves. This is Maulidi ya Homu, a religious dance that is unique to Zanzibar’s two islands (Unguja and Pemba), their equivalent to the trance-including whirl of the Dervish of Turkey.

A drum, the chanting of an imam and the responses of the dancers are sounds that add to the atmosphere of peace and harmony – a complete contrast to the last Islamic religious ceremony I witnessed here. Then it was the Shiite ritual of Ashura, which commemorates the 7th-century martyrdom of Hussein, beloved grandson of the Prophet. His death is marked by self-flagellation with chains that draw blood (called zanjeer – the ritual, considered heretical by many Muslims, is known as zanjeer zani). On a stormy night in the heart of Stone Town, the warren of crumbling ancient coral-built houses that is the capital of the island, I sheltered in a doorway from the rain – and the eyes wary of a stranger – as lightning flashes lit up bare backs streaming with water and blood. In other doorways, groups of women in veils watched their sons and husbands undergo this rite of pain.

These are the contrasts that make Zanzibar such a fascinating island. Once the capital of Oman, it is now a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, but considers itself independent. On its streets, you see Muslim women, their eyes veiled, while on its golden Eastern beaches, Italian tourists sunbathe in the skimpiest of tooth-floss bikinis..

It is an enchanting place, though its romantic image hides a dark heart, where drug abuse and disease grip parts of the slums far away from the luxury beach-front hotels. But that’s a truth we prefer to forget about many tourist destinations – even London has its doorway sleepers on the Strand, a short drive from where one of the world’s richest women sleeps in Buckingham Palace. And an even shorter distance from Leicester Square and Soho where other young men (and woman) perform their own ritual dances in London’s throbbing club heartland.

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