Alone. The word is heavy. Dramatic. And here I am alone, in many ways.
Sometimes the words flow out of me. Other times, I am parched. At a loss for more than just words.
My biggest obstacle here is walking down the street and being treated like an outsider. Being jeered at, or cat called– it is hurtful because I feel that for having lived here for four months I deserve to be treated with some respect. I am not just some random face, I am part of this community!– indignation rises and swells in my head. In such a close, tight-knit Muslim community being young, single, female, non-Muslim, and foreign is a struggle. Sad to say, I have spent many a day fuming over the audacity of passersby and taxi drivers.
My living on my own here tends to encourage a flurry of questions. Why do you live alone? Are you scared? Do you get lonely? Why don’t you live with a family? I did live with a family for the first two months, and they have since become my rock, my source of stability and support here in Zanzibar; but the choice I made to move into my own apartment was deliberate, and I am happy with it. Still, I get the feeling that there is some mild disapproval that I am living alone, mostly because women generally do not move out by themselves.
I am somewhat of a cultural anomaly here. I look like a Zanzibari, yet I don’t cover my head. The culture and traditions I was raised with are similar, yet I still exhibit confusion over the seemingly mundane. I speak some Swahili, yet all I hear is a whistle when locals speak to me at the speed of a bullet train. When I moved here my family and several of my neighbors took a liking to me immediately, and I am positive that is because here I am perceived as an almost-Zanzibari. In their eyes I am not quite local, but not quite Westerner either. Being in that half-way place, in limbo, is something I have had to come to terms with.
Initially, before coming to Zanzibar I had decided to wear the bui-bui and cover my head in order to blend in and respect local culture. But last summer a professor advised me that it is better not to, because the assumption will be that I am a local Muslim woman. He told me that in a circumstance in which I am behaving appropriately for a foreigner, but not for a local woman, the assumption would work against me. My experience here has certainly been a cultural balancing act at times. It took me three months to realize that saying hello in response to every man on the street that says something to me is not at all necessary. At home, I am accustomed to greeting people with a smile, even strangers. I came here to Zanzibar proudly wearing my Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar badge upon my chest, eager to represent my Rotary district and the U.S. So, I beamed at everyone, wished them a good day, and was then surprised and disappointed when what I often received in return were sleazy comments. Weeks later, I was told by my dear friend Auntie Sharifa that it is not impolite to ignore the vast majority of strangers, and that to them a girl is cheap if she actually responds. Call me naive, but I was shocked and upset by what Auntie Sharifa told me because it ran contrary to all that I knew previously about traditional Zanzibari culture. Back in the U.S. I was under the impression that it is only proper to spend a minimum five of minutes to greet everyone and take the time to inquire about their health, family, and work. While this is true to some extent, I think it took me entirely too long to figure out that not everyone I passed by was being friendly.
I am alone here, it’s true. Yet as much as I have struggled, my heart brims with joy. I have seen such compassion, such kindness in this place. I have been in the presence of divine wisdom, the kind of grace that can replace fury with peace by a steady gaze.
About three weeks ago when I was vomiting and very ill, my Baba stood outside of my apartment and shouted and called me until I heard him and let him upstairs. Upon seeing my sorry state, he told me that I was coming back to his house, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. When I arrived, the family did not just simply nurse me back to health. I found strength in the love and affection contained in every squeeze and reassuring smile. More than from the tea and bread I forced myself to eat, I gained energy from their presence around me. I remember Bi Nunu imitating the pathetic way I sank into the ground with the sullen eyes of starvation and grief. I cannot forget her deep throaty laugh when she pinched my chin and told me to sit up straight. And Sheni, with her khol lined eyes and Herculean strength, both physical and emotional, who at the age of fifty is the manifestation of wit and mischief. Of course, Sadiya, the loveliest most humble human being I have known, who with her captivating smile and subtle eyes restored not just my health but my peace of mind.
Here, I have found solace in my relationships with these people I call my family. One thing I have understood is that when we move far away from home we tend to desperately seek some normalcy, something stable in a world that is in constant flux. It is true, I am alone. But as many times as I have felt alone, there were twice as many times when I was emboldened by the support and encouragement of the people in my life here in Zanzibar.