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Flies and Floods: a Jewish passover in Zanzibar

Mah Nishtana Halailah Hazeh? Why is this night different from all other nights?

Maybe because I was celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover on the predominantly Muslim island of Zanzibar. As far as I can tell, I am the only Jew around, at least who’s willing to admit it. I myself have always grappled with how “Jewish” I am, having been born in Diaspora, a Jew from Skokie, IL, that soporific suburban land of 7-11’s and black tar school yards.

I was not at all prepared to celebrate Passover, being so far away from anyone who’d conspire with me to boil the egg, roast the lamb shank, salt the tears, crush the bitter herbs, or chop that sweet mortar.

But the farther away I felt from home, the closer I wanted to feel to all things Jewish, and by that, I think I just mean home. We were never a very religious family: Our Hebrew school attendance? Spotty, defiant. Our Bat-Mitzvahs?  More like middle-school cultural-jams, teeny-bopper rites of passage than holy experience.

Still, my mother always did Passover, and with that came lush memories of spring time in Chicago, matzo ball soup boiling on a pot, my mother standing in the kitchen wearing her bra and underwear, cooking up a Passover feast to be reckoned with by the gods and goddesses of other faiths and times.  Even when one year she attempted to forfeit on hosting Passover, declaring with mythic, biblical umph:  I‘m done – I’m done!, in her low bellowing voice, we still had Passover that year.

Passover is all about the Jews and their exodus from slavery in Egypt. It’s all about that great big kvetch-y walk through the desert, Moses’ patience and persistence, the Red Sea splitting, the mirage-like miracle of having made it to the promised land of freedom. It’s the never again is now song, it’s the vermin song, the locust song, the survival song, the song of the first born, the song of Anne Frank, the song of all who have suffered and have been set free or struggled for freedom.

Granted, this holiday is also steeped in hypocrisy and contradiction. With just a slight head-tilt toward Israel and Palestine, modern politics betray Passover’s prayer, but the ideals are t here — the spirit of harvest and emancipation roam abundantly at the Passover table.

Passover was our family’s one chance during the year to pull off religious spectacle. It’s the ultimate collaborative storytelling performance, the Haggadah our ancient script. Our left-leaning, artistic family usually took it over the top, belting out Hebraic songs, dad on the electric jazz piano, blasting prayers with the fervour and passion of the rabbis and cantors we’ d never be in secular life. And for this, I grew to love Passover — the four questions leading to more questions leading to prayers and plagues, wine and ghosts, reclining, singing, and more songs.

So, this year, when Passover rolled around again, I decided to organize an admittedly shoddy seder. (A say dear. A sigh dear. A see dear). A seder! My guests? A marine biologist from Columbia of Catholic faith, and an international education expert from Canada of Muslim faith, plus my Zanzibari fisherman love, of the Rasta-Muslim faith.

I was determined to make it happen, against all odds — a rainy season, an Islamic gestalt, a nagging sense of exile. I spent all day yesterday trying to come up with a menu and a plan that would be bearable in this heat. It’s Zanzibar’s rainy season. Think: fungal, funky, fresh. Food has a tendency to turn fast. Even in the fridge, furry fuzz gathers at the edges.

I decided I’d make a more Sephardi style Passover — give myself permission to eat rice and yes, a few bread crumbs in the fish cakes. See? Already breaking the rules, here. With no one around to referee, I’m a wild Jew out here on the island.

At two in the afternoon, I left work early, gathering all strength necessary to face the sprawling, dense market of one hundred-stops shopping to get everything I needed. Where would I find a lamb shank? This was on my mind as I stepped out of the office and into a torrential downpour. Hello, biblical flooding.

I wasn’t going anywhere. I took a muddy walk over to the kiosk, just a few short steps from my office door, and waited under a tin awning for about twenty minutes for the rain to subside before dashing out again.

Hems soaked, feet submerged in what might have been puddles of sewage water swelling from the ancient pipes beneath, I decided that I could not go to the market alone and really needed help. My boyfriend agreed to slosh through the market on a bicycle to gather everything we needed. This scenario reminded me of my mom sending my dad out to the local Jewel to “pick up a few things,” instructions delivered with a low-grade panic that sometimes grew as the clock ticked and time ran out.

I couldn’t resist the thought, though, that we were quite the exemplary pair – Muslim and Jew working together to create an interfaith experience, Insha’Allah!

With just a few hours to spare, I started chopping apples — formerly-frozen-rare-and-hard-to-find apples, like there was no tomorrow. My older sister in Chicago Facebooked that she, too, was chopping apples, and so together we joined a great chopping-apples movement of Jews around the world wanting somehow to chop their way into believing again, even if it is just once a year.

A Jewish choir of apple-chopping.

I made fish cake batter, curried the rice with peas and onions, honeyed ten times over, and dashed up a lime-drenched veggie salad. Oh, and the haroset – with dates from Oman, raisins and cinnamon from Unguja, and honey and cloves from Pemba.

As I cooked, I started sweating profusely in the steamy, outdoor-ish kitchen.

At some point, two innocent flies multiplied into four into eight into sixteen into a hundred. I was cooking in a kitchen full of flies and suddenly I was delightfully disturbed and slightly terrified. Oh, hi swarm of flies?! Yes, now this was a Passover!

“There came great swarms of flies into the house of Pharaoh and into his servants’ houses. Throughout all the land of Egypt the land was ruined by the swarms of flies.” – Exodus 6:28-11:10

That scratchy sound coming from the oven? Was that our lovely roommate, the disgusting rat? Hi there, little guy! So lovely of you to show up, but we’d need more of you to call it a plague.

And the rains. We have an open-air kitchen where not only the purring pigeons have flapped their way into building a nest inside the rafters of the make-shift roof, but all the rain blows right into our kitchen if the wind stirs at just the right intensity and angle.

So there I was, dripping sweat, surrounding by flies, pooping pigeons, a hiding rat, and a flood, all in my kitchen! I love you, Passover, I love you, God!

Just minutes before my guests arrived, I made a boot-legged seder plate: sans z’roa, the lamb shank, and maror , the bitter herbs (wait, do shallots count?). I also couldn’t find wine on this Muslim island (all the hush-hush shops were closed by the time I searched), and there was no gefilte fish (unless you count my king fish cakes). Plus, absolutely no matzo to be found and hence, no matzo balls, not the hard-as-a-rock kind or the light-as-a-feather kind, none. I should have made my own matzo, but I was worried that the rat had taken one too many pisses in the oven, and I didn’t want to open the door for fear he might be hiding too close and want to bolt.

My “seder,” which actually means “order” in Hebrew, actually had no order whatsoever.

The guests arrived around seven. We ate, reclined, rolled out the Zanzibari-style floor mat, lounged and chatted. I’d pitched this as a secular seder, so when all the food was put out and ready to eat, I briefly explained the seder plate’s symbolism: this egg, it’s life, this salt water, our tears, this green herb, fresh beginnings, this haroset, mortrar. Let my people go. It was beyond brief. I sang out a few lines from the four questions in Hebrew and English, and then we dug in. Recline, my friends, I said. Recline. That’s the message, here, be grateful that we, on this night, have the freedom to recline.

It’s not that my guests would have refused a little more structure; it’s just that I felt a bit shy to belt out the prayers and songs that night, especially because I suffer from that Jewish American condition of loving my Jewish-ness but not really understanding it at all.

Said the wise simple naive wicked Amanda. (Now, who were those four sons again?)

When all was quiet in my 500-year-old Zanzibari apartment again, guests gone, kitchen cleared, I started thinking about my family in Chicago — how, with our 8-hour time difference, they were just setting the table, clanking the fine China, stirring the Crystal Light with loads of ice.

I started craving horseradish, matzo ball soup, sweet briscuit, creamed spinach, fruit compote.

Oh, but it should have been enough just to have a seder in Zanzibar. I hummed the song dayenu (it would have been enough!) to myself. It’s what the Jews sang to remind them to count their blessings.

Elu hotzi hotzi anu hotzi anu mi mizraim hotzi anu mi mizraim dayenu!

(sung with fervor, cheeks flushed with wine & wild happiness)

W hen Moses asked t he Pharaoh to let his people go, he finally did. We were more than let go – we were led out of the desert into the promised land, and beyond that, into lands beyond lands, where Jews have lost their footing, their presence, their identities, their traditions, their reasons for being Jews.

So what’the story with the Jews of Zanizbar? My good friend David asked me over Facebook late last night.

There are rumours that the Jews passed Zanzibar’s shores since the beginning of the Christian era. Some speculate that the lost kingdom of Sena or Sa’naa was actually comprised of Yemen, Ethiopia, and extended all the way to Zanzibar, where the Queen of Sheba was fabled to have sourced all her spices, even to have created the islands themselves! Jews from that lost kingdom eventually became the Falasha of Ethiopia and the Lemba of South Africa. Some say the Abuyadayan Jews of Uganda also come from that long lost Kingdom of Sena.

If that’s the case, Yemeni Jews probably touched on Zanzibar and Pemba’s shores along with their Greek and Christian counterparts. Others say the Jews might have passed through Zanzibar when the Shirazi Persians were also making their way here on trade-winds that set them sailing bound for prosperity. And then there are also rumours that alongside Arab slave traders, a few Jews also attempted to get in on that shameful yet lucrative business.

A few say that hints of Hebrew magic practices are laced into African coastal magic. A handful of Hebrew words like hai meaning life have found their way into the Swahili language via the heavy influence of Arabic along the Swahili coast.  But this is all just hearsay — all we know is that the Jews roamed, and continue to roam, chose to leave or were banished, and became the consummate travelers, familiar with exile and longing.

Some say that Jews in Zanzibar built synagogues on the island of Pemba, holy foundations buried or destroyed. There are absolutely no traces or signs of Jewish life at the present moment. Except me, of course, and the occasional traveller or Israeli expats who for whatever reason do not want to pronounce their Jewish roots.

For some reason, I try holding on. To these small threads that loop me back to the promised land, or maybe just – the promise.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lara April 19, 2011, 2:41 pm

    Wonderful! I love this! Stranded at home by sickness and deprived of my usual seder because of my father’s impending divorce, you gave voice to my nagging longing for Passover- always one of my favorite rituals. Thank you!

    • Amanda April 19, 2011, 3:17 pm

      Thanks, Lara! xo It’s one of my favorites, too, and invites me back to the fold every year, no matter how far I stray, through ritual and song. Wine helps, too! xo Amanda

  • Michael Harrison April 29, 2011, 1:44 am

    That was quite a revelation. I had not known the meaning of Passover before. You do write beautifully about life on Zanzibar

    • Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein April 29, 2011, 3:50 am

      Oh, Thank you, Michael. Zanzibar inspires the writer in me. Hope all’s well. Happy Holidays/Pasaka/Masika/Spring!


  • Michele Abraham November 11, 2011, 3:27 pm

    Hey, I would like to communicate with you if you are still in Zanzibar. I too am Jewish and probably old enough to be your mother but a Jew is a Jew. I would like to come there and communicate with you if at all possible. Please feel free to email me, I live in the States. Michele

  • Carla Klein February 10, 2012, 7:10 pm

    this touched my heart. I am sharing at the sedar this year wherever it may be!!!!!

  • Alefiya April 15, 2014, 4:16 am

    How Wonderful Amanda! It was indeed a joyful read. Maybe you should have invited me too 🙂

  • hillary a lichtenstein April 2, 2015, 4:50 pm

    love it, deeds! i see very clearly the passover picture you’ve painted. i love it!

    crystal light with tons of ice
    your silly rat
    the quick run to jewel oy!

    xo beautifully written