“The best thing about Zanzibar is the welcoming attitude of the people,” says Dutch-born Lisenka Beetstra, who manages the Emerson on Hurumzi Hotel in Stone Town.
“They are very, very friendly and open. Neighbors greet each other and look after each other. It is an outside lifestyle, people are always outside. If you want to know what is going on, you pass by and ask on the barazas (Indian-style benches where Zanzibari men sit outside and chat to escape the oppressive heat indoors) and someone you know will know the story. The worst thing is the other side of this, that people always know what is going on in your life.”
The hotel Lisenka manages, Emerson on Hurumzi, is one of two stylish hotels in Stone Town (the other being Emerson Spice) founded by Emerson Skeens, a New York-born entrepreneur who also was the driving force behind the annual Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF). He died in 2013 after living in Zanzibar for almost 20 years, but his memory lives on in the exotic decor of the rooms and relaxing roof terrace with its panoramic view of Stone Town. The tower of a Buddhist temple, the minaret of a mosque and the spire of the Anglican cathedral rise above the rusty tin roofs as symbols of Zanzibar’s tolerance. Like any port city, though, doing business is the real religion.
“We have always been middlemen – between the land and the sea, the producers and the buyers, the African and the Arabian,” says historian Professor Abdul Sheriff. “That is not a concern; it is our strength.”
“The hotel, like Zanzibar itself, is a place with a mix of Indian, Arab and local culture,” says Lisenka. “The strongest influence has been the period of the sultans, a time when there was a lot of trade with the Arab countries and India. That was when people really tried to show off their wealth, which you can see in the decorated woodwork and brass detailing everywhere. Emerson was passionate about preserving the Zanzibar lifestyle and working with local craftspeople to maintain it. A lot of people notice the woodwork first. The Zanzibar doors and the carving stand out.”
The doors of Zanzibar draw the eyes – and cameras – of many visitors with their intricate carving and heavy brass spikes, designed to repel war elephants in their original Indian home. They still seem to repel the stranger, hiding who knows what exotic secrets behind their dark wood panels, just as the veils of passing women might hide great beauty.
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