Boys looking at things for sale on the street in Stone Town

Zanzibar’s Stone Town (a photo tour)

Before visiting Zanzibar, an island off the main coast of Tanzania, I didn’t really know too much about it.  It did seem to conjure up some images of beaches and spices, but beyond that, it was rather unknown to me.  Looking online, I found that it is not an undiscovered place at all, but rather a pretty popular luxury vacation spot, with upscale beach resorts ringing the almost 2,500 square kilometer island.  But, what interested me was the history, so we decided to stay two nights in Stone Town, or Zanzibar Town as the locals seemed to call it, before a night at the beach.

Although Zanzibar is now a part of Tanzania (as a semi-autonomous region joining with the mainland in 1964), it has a feeling as a distinct world.  It is almost 99% Muslim, and has a history of being under the influence of the Sultanate of Oman from 1698 until the early 1800’s (the Sultanate of Oman having been asked by the locals to aid in driving out the Portuguese).  When you are the there it definitely has a more Middle East or North African Arabic feel, both in its architecture and the local style of the people.


The Sultans controlling Zanzibar used it as a major port as part of exporting many goods from spices to ivory out of Africa.  Unfortunately, this also extended to people, with Zanzibar being a major hub for slavery.  As an American, I am much more familiar with the Eastern Slave Trade, but Zanzibar was a major hub of slave trade with the Middle East.

“In Stone Town, the oldest section of Zanzibar City, men, women, and children were squeezed into claustrophobic cells—two of which still exist—and left for days without food or water. Some were flayed at the whipping post to discover how much pain they could withstand, then priced according to their endurance and strength.

By the mid-1800s, 50,000 slaves were passing through Zanzibar each year. Many were captives of Tippu Tib, a notorious Arab slave trader and ivory merchant. Tib led huge expeditions, some 4,000 strong, into the African interior, where chiefs sold him their villagers for next to nothing. These Tib used to caravan ivory back to Zanzibar, then sold them in the slave market for large profits. In time Tib became one of the wealthiest men in Zanzibar, the owner of multiple plantations and 10,000 slaves.” (from National Geographic)

In front of Tippu Tip's house

In front of the notorious slave trader, Tippu Tip’s house (his name is spelled a variety of ways, with his real name being Hamad bin Muhammad bin Juma bin Rajab el Murjebi).

Slave chambers in Zanzibar

Being inside the cells where slaves were held before they were auctioned off and transported away was surreal. It was painful and horrible to imagine people being crowded into here, treated like objects, awaiting their horrible fates.

Slave chains

Chains in the underground chamber.

Anglican church in Zanzibar, built on top of the old slave market

When the British finally ended slavery in the mid-1800’s, they built an Anglican church atop of the old slave market. We walked in during the middle of a sparsely attended, but still uplifting, service.


We also got to walk through the food market, which had a quite vibrant fish and seafood section, with the daily catch being fresh and ready for purchase.


Fish Market 2

Of course, the coast, with the Dhow boats and lively beaches was absolutely gorgeous.  I’m just glad we got to know the history of Zanzibar beyond the white sands, water, and sun.

sunset over Zanzibar

The beach right off of Stone Town. Local boys were jumping into the water and cooling off after the long day.

2017 Reading list

What I read in 2017

This past year, I decided to read more books.  In my youth, I had always read voraciously.  I can distinctly remember trying to read faster than the approaching dinner- or bed-time to just get to that part of the story I was anticipating, before I’d have to put my book down.  I remember crying most of the way through “Where the Red Fern Grows”, wishing I was in a part of “The Boxcar Children”, and as I got older discovering myself through Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems, Latin American essayists, and the fictionalized philosophical journey of “Sophie’s World”.

Thus, I was a bit aghast to reflect that I really wasn’t reading very much anymore.  So, with a relative amount of freedom this past year—traveling and working around the world—and a lot more emphasis on reflection and living my life more in line with my beliefs, I set out to revive my love of reading.

I didn’t read as much as I would have liked, mainly because of my extrovert nature and, let’s be honest, the very real distraction of the internet and social media, but I read more books than I would have without the intention.  Most important to me, what I read was shaped by my life and travels.  I read a few books about and set in Asia, having spent the past six years living there.  A trip to Morocco inspired me to learn more about Islam.  And, my new home in East Africa had me reading books set in Africa and about some of the most influential forces, like the slave trade and international aid and development.  Of course, I also just read for fun, for instance, finally picking up a Sarah Waters’ novel after seeing the BBC dramas and the adaptation of “The Fingersmith” into the “The Handmaiden” by the South Korean Director, Park Chan-wook, among other books.

And, so, my 2017 reading journey looked something like this:

The books I read in 2017

My top 5 books (with 1 bonus) were:

  • Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates): Essay, in the form of a letter to his son, about the harsh realities of being Black in America.
  • A Golden Age (Tahmina Anam): Historical fiction about one family during the time of Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.
  • Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese): A fictional story of two Indian-British twins growing up in a medical clinic in Ethiopia.
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami): The surreal story of a man in Tokyo whose wife goes missing and, in her pursuit, discovers the occult and other worlds beyond.
  • The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen): The story of a Vietnamese spy during and after the Vietnam War.
  • No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam (Reza Aslan): Non-fiction book about the history and future of Islam.

A breakdown of what I read by genre and subject:

Fiction Non-Fiction Graph.pngSubject Graph.png

*Other includes: technology, race in America, religion, and a fictional dystopian patriarchal world.

Most of my reading followed my life, as I visited Tokyo I finished “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”, I read “A Golden Age” in Bangladesh, and the doctor giving me my vaccines in the US before embarking to Ethiopia recommended “Dark Star Safari”.

I also read a pretty good balance of fiction and non-fiction.  Much of the non-fiction I read was prompted by curiosity and wanting to know very specific answers to questions I was mulling over, such as “what is the impact of aid in Africa?”.  But I do think the non-fiction books really slowed down my reading, as it probably takes me 4X longer to read non-fiction than fiction.  Plus, only 1 non-fiction book showed up in my top 5, probably showing I much more enjoy fiction in practice, even though I don’t always know that in theory when buying books.

A breakdown of what I read by author characteristics:

Author break-down by raceAuthor break-down by gender

Since, I think what you read frequently represents the background of the author and, thus, has ingrained biases and ethnocentrism (especially when reading books about and set-in many places in the world), I’m glad that more than 60% of the authors I read were not white.  But still, in trying to figure out how my reading reflected the actual demographics of the world, I quickly pulled up the statistic that the world is only 11.5% “white”, so the demographics of authors I read weren’t yet representative of all the places I was reading about.

And yes, I can’t believe how much male authors dominated my reading.  I really need to read more books by women.

More in-depth reviews and reflections of my top 5 plus 1 (so you can see what you want to read!):

Between The World and Me1. Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)
Summary: Essay, in the form of a letter to his son, about the harsh realities of being Black in America
What I loved: An incredible, heart-felt, and tragically true observation of what it means to be Black in America (or a Black man, as some have critically pointed out).  I especially appreciated how Coates wove together an intellectual history and critique with honest recollections and reflections from his own life. The best part of reading this was discussing it afterwards with D and A on our bus ride and talking about how race has shaped our own lives.
What I didn’t like: Nothing; I’d just remark that I had an uncomfortable feeling of guilt as I sat on the other side of the world in a bus after reading this.
Overall Rating (out of 10): 10

A Golden Age2. A Golden Age (Tahmina Anam)
Summary: Historical fiction about one family during the time of Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.
What I loved: Reading this in Bangladesh gave me much more of an understanding of the country’s history. The story was compelling and felt almost like a movie at time.
What I didn’t like: Nothing; It was enjoyable and gave me more context into how Bangladesh was shaped.  If anything, it just piqued my curiosity more about Bengali literature, feminism, and history.
Overall Rating (out of 10): 9

Cutting for Stone3. Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)
Summary: A fictional story of two Indian-British twins growing up in a medical clinic in Ethiopia.
What I loved: Amazing story to read while living in Addis Ababa.  Brought the city to life in a new way for me.  Loved it and we just gifted it to A’s grandpa for Christmas.
What I didn’t like: Nothing; It is a great epic story that crossed three cultures I have some experience with: Ethiopian, Indian, and American.
Overall Rating (out of 10): 9

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle4. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami):
Summary: The surreal story of a man in Tokyo whose wife goes missing and, in her pursuit, discovers the occult and other worlds beyond.
What I loved: A trippy story that made me feel like I was in another world.  Best part was listening to parts of it on a train in Tokyo and getting to see parts of the culture that he described, from train rides, to passing people on the street, to picking up his dry-cleaning at the store.
What I didn’t like: The ending wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped.  I wished it had culminated in something more profound and maybe I was hoping to be “spoon-fed” the meaning of it all.  Also, there was something that bothered me about how women were depicted in the book, much of them sexualized and more type-casts than full characters on their own.
Overall Rating (out of 10): 8

The Sympathizer

5. The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen):
Summary: The story of a Vietnamese spy during and after the Vietnam War.
What I loved: Completely engrossed me and I felt really inside the main character’s head.  Brought out the complexities of war and how all choices are somewhat morally-flawed.
What I didn’t like: It was a bit hard to read the torture, and rape, scenes (and listen to some on Audible).
Overall Rating (out of 10): 8


No god But God

6. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam (Reza Aslan):
Summary: Non-fiction book about the history and future of Islam.
What I loved: I knew so little about Islam before reading this book and this helped me understand the history and beliefs much more. It is so important for non-Muslims to understand the history, culture, and faith of Muslims in this age where we are hit by a barrage of lies and mistruths on what Islam is or isn’t.
What I didn’t like: I am sure Aslan has his own perspective and at times it felt like he was promoting his view of Islam more than being impartial.  I feel like I have a lot more to read to really understand Islam and religion in general.
Overall Rating (out of 10): 7

Goals for 2018 reading:                                                                       

I really enjoyed and spent the better part of a day writing up this review.  For 2018, I just want to read more and give myself time to review, read critiques, and write my own thoughts and reflection. This year, I put more of a focus on reading, but still my intellectual and bibliophile curiosity far out-stripped my actual reading.

My more specific goals are:

  • Continue reading about countries that I am living in or visiting, which seems likely to be Kenya and maybe some surprise country I don’t know yet. Read about issues in those countries, like poverty, economic development, and government.
  • Begin my intellectual journey into understanding slavery from an African perspective, in what happened in Africa as opposed to the impact in America, etc.
  • Read more books written by women, especially queer women.
  • Re-visit some authors I love: Italo Calvino, Sarah Waters, etc.
  • Read more about race in America. This year, I read my first Baldwin, but it wasn’t about race. Next year I want to read “The Fire Next Time”.
  • Write more about what I am reading. For instance, I had a big goal this year to make a huge timeline of Myanmar’s history, based on “River of Lost Footsteps”, but I didn’t get around to it.  Maybe next year.


Based on my goals, my 2018 reading list looking something like this:

Books I want to read in 2018

Any other suggestions for what I should read in 2018?