Even though many Americans might have trouble finding Zanzibar on a world map, most would agree that wherever it’s located, Zanzibar must be an exotic and far away place. Being the geography nerd that I am (after all, they don’t call me Maphead for nothing) I’ve known for years that the Zanzibar is an island in the Indian Ocean located just off the coast of Tanzania. However, it wasn’t until last year when I read Robert Kaplan’s excellent book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power that I learned of the Island’s rich and fascinating history. Just off the coast of Africa but still relatively close to the Middle East, for over 200 years the island was ruled by an Omani Sultan. With such commercial and strategic importance, for centuries individuals from across the Indian Ocean and beyond made Zanzibar their home. Eventually this would lead to the island’s culture becoming a multifaceted mixture sharing elements of Arab, African, Indian and Swahili.
Perhaps those are the kind of things that crossed my mind when I stumbled upon Christiane Bird’s 2010 book The Sultan’s Shadow: One Family’s Rule at the Crossroads of East and West during one of my weekend library visits. Even though my current stack of unread library books has grown to towering proportions, I couldn’t resist adding Bird’s book to the pile. In addition, since it deals with Africa it counts as part of Kinna’s African Reading Challenge. So, with all that in mind I grabbed it.
I think in a lot of ways The Sultan’s Shadow could be seen as two distinct books. One book tells the story of the ruling Sultan’s rebellious daughter Salme, her love the affair with and subsequent marriage to a young German merchant and her life in Europe as an expatriate. The other book is a general history of Zanzibar and East Africa, with special attention paid to the Europeans’ attempts to explore and later dominate the region. While a few times I found myself a bit bored with the storytelling at other times I found myself having a pretty good time and being pleasantly sucked into things. I’m happy that Bird, as part of her mission to tell the history of this part of Africa decided to include the contributions of such British historical figures as Richard Francis Burton and John Speke (their quest to discover the source of the Nile was the subject of the 1990 British film Mountains of the Moon) as well as that of Henry Stanley and David Livingstone.
In promoting her African Reading Challenge, Kinna has encouraged participants to read at least five books “which are written by African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues.” According to Kinna at least three of those books must be written by African writers. Among other suggestions, she would like participants to cover at least two regions of Africa. By my count The Sultan’s Shadow makes four books, so it looks like I have just one more to go before I’ve completed her challenge. If that’s indeed the case it sounds like I better knuckle down and get back to my reading if I’m to successfully complete her African Reading Challenge.