Where Time Stands Still
“I wonder when the clock stopped at the House of Wonders …..” this was a recurring thought every morning as I sipped my coffee on the roof of the hotel overlooking this historic site. The House of Wonders or Palace of Wonders (also called the Beit-al-Ajaib in arabic) is the tallest and largest building of Stone Town, Zanzibar. It’s now the Museum of History and Culture of Zanzibar & the Swahili Coast, a befitting name because it echoes a glorious past, when it was a palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar Barghash bin Said and Queen Fatuma in the 17th Century.
As the sun rises in that lavishly extravagant way that it often does in Stone Town, I can imagine those elegant royal ladies walking through the covered passages above street level which connected the House of Wonders to the two adjacent palaces Beit al-Hukum and Beit al-Sahel (now Palace Museum). I could also picture the Sultan riding an elephant through the doorways that he deliberately constructed to be wide enough to bring gorgeous wild animals through.
There’s also a part of me that is secretly thrilled to know the building got the name “House of Wonders” as a boast about the modernity of the Sultan, a celebration of his love of technology and not just another tag about ancient African beliefs and myths. Built in 1870, it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity and the first in East Africa to have an elevator.
The Zanzibari were such cosmopolitan people that they found it very easy to adopt styles and aesthetics that came to them by virtue of being a thoroughfare of trade into Africa. They “domesticated” foreign objects, made them their own and gave them new meanings. They were global consumers. The clock was one such symbol and this particular clock being erected was only one reflection of the private obsession with clocks and watches that had begun there in the 1830’s. The historian Jeremy Prestholdt describes this vividly in his book “Domesticating The World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization”
“Most telling of Zanzibar’s particular domestication of global objects was the fact that the clocks were not set to European time or a twenty-four day beginning at midnight. Instead, the clocks were set to Zanzibari time: the day began with sunrise at one o’clock or roughly seven A.M in European time, and the clocks were readjusted every ten days to account for the changing length of the day. Barghash did not Europeanize time in Zanzibar; rather, he adapted the European timepiece to Zanzibari perceptions of time. “
As the sun sets on another languid day for me in Stone Town, there’s another opulent display of rich jewel colours against the backdrop of the blue blue sea. So I rush to the roof each evening to catch the show and wonder once more “what happened to the inventive energy of Zanzibar to make it now one of the poorest enclaves of the East African region?” Maybe the legacy of being a slave port and the wider negative impact of colonialism had a much greater effect than I can discern from these few ramshackle symbols left from that time.
But…….maybe time did not totally stop in Zanzibar at all. What I like to imagine now is that perhaps a recalibration is taking place at this very moment, in a strange metaphysical way. They say that even a clock that has stopped still tells the right time at least twice a day. So now I like to imagine that twice a day, at the time when the clock stopped something magical happens. Zanzibar enters into a “worm hole” a portal through time which transports the entire country back to a moment where the country revives back to life. Somewhere over the rainbow there may be a parallel universe, where right now Zanzibar is actually the leading economy in the world. A country where the inventions and innovations which come out places like Stone Town’s are 100 times more significant than whole of Silicon Valley. Perhaps there those listless lives that seem forever relegated to poverty, are actually basking in the languor of riches seeped into generations of Zanzibari. Because time never actually stands still……….
1. Domesticating the World. African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization.
Jeremy Prestholdt. 2008. p. 108.