The 'other side' of Zanzibar
I'm sitting on a plastic chair on a piece of wasteground created by the collapse of two tall, previously imposing Arab townhouses in the old quarter of Zanzibar Town. Just outside the remains of one, my friend Hisdori is squatting next to a charcoal stove, stirring Masala curry in the glow of a naked lightbulb. The light cast from inside the ruined house casts an eerie glow on stray cats threading their way in and out of the shadows, and Hisdori sings along under his breath to a Swahili rap song playing on the radio inside. He's is my best friend in Zanzibar, one of the papaasi - beach boys - who patrol the town trying to persuade tourists to use their services as guides and middlemen for tour agencies and car hire firms. It's a precarious existence, and Hisdori, at 23, dreams of a better future - a visa for the UK, work as a cleaner or factory hand, and the chance to send good money home.
But for now, as we finish eating, the conversation turns to shetani - the spirits who inhabit almost every part of Zanzibar, and whose existence here no islander doubts. Zanzibar, and to a greater extent its smaller neighbour Pemba, have throughout the centuries been notorious centres of black magic, alongside their better-known role as centres of the spice and slave trades. Evelyn Waugh, visiting Pemba in the 1930s, reported: 'Zanzibar and Pemba are the chief centres of black art on the whole coast, and novices come from as far as the Great Lakes to graduate here. Even from Haiti, it is said, witch doctors will occasionally come to probe the deepest mysteries of voodoo.'
Today, by all accounts, the cult of the shetani is still going strong, a dark undercurrent entirely unknown to the 80,000 or so tourists who flock to the islands every year. On the glittering sliver beaches of the coast and in the picturesque, Arabic courtyards of the capital Stone Town, shetani, believe the islanders, wait and watch malevolently. Spirit carvings in ebony depict their many forms - a hunched, hideously twisted old woman, a man-dog hybrid, a young girl with the legs of a donkey.
Last night, returning late from a disco, Hisdori says he clearly saw a shetani, a shadowy, immensely tall figure, standing in the doorway of his room. He felt gripped by a great force and unable to move or shout for help, until he remembered to say a few verses from the Qu'ran, whereupon he was released from the spell and able to stand up and rouse a neighbour with his shouts. The man allowed Hisdori to sleep in his bedroom, and carefully locked the door, but to no avail. The shetani reappeared inside that room too, paralysing both Hisdori and the neighbour until it glided away.