Rifkah Ali, 20, scouts for festive purchases in the central Darajani Market in Stone Town, Zanzibar during Eid time. Though the majority of Tanzania’s 55 million people are Christian, nearly all of the 1.3 million residents of Zanzibar are Muslim. Image Credit: New York Times

Stone Town, Zanzibar: The particular geographic location of Zanzibar, an archipelago of semi-autonomous islands off the coast of Tanzania, has created an interesting religious dynamic. Though the majority of Tanzania’s 55 million people are Christian, nearly all of the 1.3 million residents of Zanzibar are Muslim.

This dynamic dates to a time when the islands were trade outposts that connected Africa with the Arab world. Yet the population of Zanzibar has remained religiously distinct from the mainland. It is known, in particular, for its Eid Al Fitr celebration — which started last week and ended on Tuesday.

Ally Saleh, a member of the opposition party of Tanzania’s parliament usually spends his days on the mainland, representing his Zanzibari constituents. But as Eid drew near, Saleh transitioned into vacation mode, spending hot evenings in darkened rooms beneath fans, chatting with his family between sips of coffee, specially brewed by his wife with cinnamon, cardamom and ginger.

Children celebrate in Zanzibar’s Forodhani Park on the first night of Eid. The city’s Eid celebrations started last week and ended on Tuesday. New York Times

“Eid Al Fitr is unique in Zanzibar, because we are isolated, and so we have been able to retain some of the traditions that have faded away in bigger cities,” Saleh, 50, said.

His daughter Rifkah, a bubbly 20-year old who seemed to know everyone in town, was abuzz with excitement. She acted as a guide to the festivities, leading these reporters though Stone Town’s narrow alleyways, past white walls and Zanzibar’s arching wooden doors, her dark abaya billowing behind her.

In the days before the festival, the shaded side of Stone Town’s streets were busy with men painting walls, doors, chairs — basically anything that would dry in time for Eid. In Saleh’s home, Rifkah warned visitors not to touch the bathroom door: it had just been painted a light blue. “You must make everything fresh and new for Eid,” she explained.

Groups of young men from Zanzibar’s Islamic schools pass from house to house playing handheld drums during the Eid Al Fitr celebrations in the city’s Stone Town neighbourhood. New York Times

Everyone was in preparation mode.

Rifkah’s mother had baked Eid cookies, filled with date jam, two days before. “On the night before Eid, the electricity usually goes out since everyone is using their ovens to cook for the celebrations,” Rifkah said. Similarly, her mother went to have her henna done ahead of time. “The girl who does her henna is booked up the day before.”

Others had waited, and Zanzibar’s henna salons, based out of people’s homes, were filled with women sitting perfectly still while the ink on their outstretched arms and legs dried. The barbershops were also full, with men getting fresh cuts and shaves. Music blasting from the inside of one barbershop declared, in Swahili, “Let’s fast and then we’ll celebrate Eid!”

Other Zanzibaris were scrambling to get their outfits ready. “You to buy a new dress for Eid,” Rifkah said as she led the way toward the Darajani Market, the central shopping district, on one of the last nights before Eid. Within the warren of brightly lit stalls, women pawed through piles of handbags, jewel-toned velvety scrunchies, glittery necklaces and lacy red bras. “I bought my Eid outfit two weeks ago,” Rifkah said with a laugh. “You pay too much money if you wait until the last minute.”

Still, she took the opportunity to buy a pair of jeans to wear beneath her abaya.

The Night Before

As the sun began to sink in the sky on the final day of fasting, Saleh’s family gathered on the outside patio, kneeling on colourful fibre mats to share the last meal of Ramadan together. As anticipated, the power failed. “Too many stoves cooking for Eid!” said Saleh. A candle was lit, and suddenly the meal, and the quieted Stone Town streets outside, took on a magical energy. Across the city, eyes were cast upward, waiting to spot the crescent moon. In Islamic tradition, such a sighting signals that the fasting of Ramadan can finally end. A cannon blast sounded — a declaration by the town cleric that Eid had begun — and screams of happiness echoed through the neighbourhood.

The First Day of Eid

The next morning, hundreds of Zanzibaris gathered in a large field in the centre of town for the dawn prayer. A cannon was again fired, and then, it was showtime for Stone Town’s children.

They ran from door to door, knocking and asking for money for their Eid goodies. In the maze of Stone Town’s streets, roving packs of little boys dressed in white robes (kanzu) with new hats (kofia) zoomed around corners, exploding with excitement. Through front door gates, older community members placed silver coins in the boys’ tiny outstretched hands.

A lot of Stone Town’s kids come away with a sizable chunk of change on the first morning of Eid: One of Saleh’s young sons declared that he collected 50,000 Tanzanian shillings last year — roughly $20. This means that Eid is also a great time to be a toy vendor, and the streets and parks of Stone Town were filled with stands selling plastic toys, balloons, toy guns, oversized plastic diamond rings and bouncy balls. “In Zanzibar, the trust is still there for children during Eid,” Saleh said, adding that he would usually never let his children go around unchaperoned. “It’s part of what makes this place special.”

Many Zanzibaris spent the first day of the festival roaming around, greeting old friends and visiting family. But the heat of the day meant that even more of them waited until it was dark, and they had eaten biryani and pilau rice with their families, before they headed out to show off their Eid looks.

From the cool of her back bedroom, Rifkah looked out her window, the happy shouts of children filtering up from the streets below. “It’s a time to look like a beautiful woman,” she said as she sat in front of the mirror, brushing dark kohl through her eyebrows and lightly coating her lips in the black tint as well. “Sometimes, you even get proposals during Eid.”

Rifkah’s new “dishdasha” dress, as she called it, was patched with swirls of bedazzled embroidery around the neck and wrists. Her hair was braided tightly and pulled into a bun, over which she tied her head scarf, the final touch. Rifkah and her cousins perfumed their headscarves, too, by setting them on little easels and burning incense called udi underneath. Like all older siblings in Stone Town that night, Rifkah was also charged with chaperoning her younger siblings and cousins — a squirmy gang of nine — during the festivities in Forodhani Park, where Zanzibaris gather at night during Eid. Smoke billowed from grills where skewers of octopus and ginger-marinated beef were being turned, and omelette-like ‘Zanzibar pizza’ were tossed on oiled skillets, creating a chorus of sizzles. The bright lights of the toy stands beckoned hoards of children, who dashed through the park with their new purchases. A row of TVs was set up for those who wanted to play video games.

The adults mingled — the men, freshly shaved, their shirts starched and white, and the women, bathed in fabrics of every color, dotted with jewels, and clutching new purses. Rifkah bounced between circles of friends. She was smiling from ear to ear. “Eid is really just about happiness. Everyone is beautiful during Eid. It’s just the happiest day,” she said.