Skip to main content

From Zanzibar to Oman: A bittersweet exile

Forced out by African revolutionaries in 1964, Zanzibar-born Omanis are still coming to terms with the loss of their former home
Madny al-Bakry, an Omani artist who lived in Zanzibar prior to the Zanzibar revolution led to the overthrow of the Sultan of Zanzibar (MEE/Sebastian Castellier)

More than half a century has passed since a revolution forced them to leave their homeland in East Africa for the hard, desert landscape of Oman, a country which at that time had only one hospital and three primary schools.

Since then, Oman has transformed out of recognition, but for the Omanis of Zanzibar the memories and traumas of that time are difficult to process.

At the Coconut House, traditional food from Zanzibar - including a famous octopus dish - is served up to the people of Muscat, Oman's capital. A man in his fifties walks in and whispers a greeting in Swahili.

Across the city, a wide range of cuisine from Zanzibar can be found, all of it popular with Omani families. Specialities like mohogo, kisamvu, maharagi, mandazi, sambusa, chicken and fish curries subtly blend East African, Arab and Indian flavours, ingredients and spices. 

On the weekends, Omanis enjoy having lunch at Coconut House, a restaurant in Muscat whose speciality is Zanzibari cuisine. (MEE/Sebastian Castellier)
On the weekends, Omanis enjoy having lunch at Coconut House, a restaurant in Muscat whose speciality is Zanzibari cuisine (MEE/Sebastian Castellier)

This blend of flavours reflects the history of Zanzibar and speaks to the longstanding ties between the Tanzanian archipelago off the coast of East Africa and the Gulf sultanate.

Oman has had trade and migration links to the region going back centuries. More than 100,000 Omanis were born in East Africa or have family links to the region, according to estimates, although a census has yet to be conducted.

Like millions of people across East and Central Africa, Zanzibari Omanis speak Swahili, a Bantu language that has been enriched with vocabulary from Arabic, German, Portuguese, English, Hindustani and French over centuries of colonial presence in the region.

a
Speciality curries subtly blend East African, Arab and Indian flavours, ingredients and spices (MEE/Sebastian Castellier) 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Omanis ruled a powerful maritime empire, which encompassed East Africa’s seaboard, vast coastlines of the Gulf and southwest Iran. Stone Town, on the island of Zanzibar - nowadays a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania - became the empire's capital city in 1840 and a logistical hub connecting East Africa to the wider world.

During the second half of the 19th century, Zanzibar became a sultanate under the British imperial protectorate. Omani sultans and politicians ruled over a majority African population on “the spice island”, where Arab and European settlers owned slaves, profitable businesses, vast lands and plantations. 

Black Africans, many of whom were indentured labourers, unsurprisingly felt hostility and resentment towards their non-African overlords. This era came to a violent end in 1964 in the Zanzibar revolution when the Sultan of Zanzibar, as well as the mainly Arab government, was overthrown. The sultan fled with his family to London. 

An Arab prisoner led by guards in a camp during the Zanzibar Revolution led by John Gideon Okello, on 12 January 1964. (AFP)
An Arab prisoner led by guards in a camp during the Zanzibar Revolution, led by John Gideon Okello, on 12 January 1964. (AFP)

Academic sources estimate that African revolutionaries killed 5,000 to 15,000 Arabs and imprisoned thousands more during the Zanzibar Revolution. 

"African revolutionaries killed my father's sister who was pregnant, cut her stomach and removed the baby,” Zanzibar-born Omani artist Madny al-Bakry remembers. 

'African revolutionaries killed my father's sister who was pregnant, cut her stomach and removed the baby'

- Madny al-Bakry, artist

Al-Bakry, who paints Arabic calligraphy and also Zanzibar landscapes, left the island, where his father ran a dairy business, in 1971.

“On the day of the revolution, I woke up and saw guns all over the living room table. ‘What is going on?' I thought. And yet, my father asked me to go to deliver milk to our clients because the regular delivery man did not show up. 

“Once in the street, I saw an Indian man on his scooter screaming, ‘They are coming, they are coming,’ so I thought, ‘Who is coming?!’ I did not want to run away and let people think that I was scared but when I saw an Omani guy holding a gun to protect the street, I got into our house." 

Like many other Arab Zanzibaris at the time, al-Bakry’s father was arrested during the revolution. “My father got detained successively for eight and six months. When he ended up in jail for the third time in a row, I took the decision to escape Zanzibar,” said al-Bakry, who believes a change “had to happen”.

According to the artist, many descendants of Zanzibar-born Omanis believe that the archipelago's Arab elites had been living "in a bubble, which prevented them from understanding a surge in African nationalism among the population.

“We saw it coming. A minority cannot rule a majority,” al-Bakry told MEE. 

'Not for human beings'

From 1964 onwards, the deadly crisis pushed thousands of Arab families into exile for a years-long journey towards their ancestral homeland. However, the government of Said bin Taimur, the clinically paranoid sultan of Oman at the time, discouraged the return of most Omanis born in East Africa, who had to prove their Omani heritage in order to be given nationality.

Portrait of Hareth Al Ghasani, an Omani citizen who lived in Zanzibar prior to the Zanzibar Revolution led to the overthrow of the Sultan of Zanzibar.
Mohammed Issa Salim Al Rawahy, a Zanzibar-born Omani citizen, wearing an Omani khanjar that belonged to Jamshid bin Abdullah, the last reigning Sultan of Zanzibar (MEE/Sebastian Castellier)

“I knew I was from a country named Oman but I never thought of returning,” Zanzibar-born Omani, Hareth al-Ghasani, told MEE. “From my young age, I knew I have roots in Oman because on my birth certificate it is written that my father is Arab… and we have letters in Arabic from the time when my father got married.”

Under bin Taimur, Oman was severely underdeveloped and the population was denied access to the trappings of industrial society. As described by MEE’s Ian Cobain in The Guardian: “The sultan banned any object that he considered decadent, which meant that Omanis were prevented from possessing radios, from riding bicycles, from playing football, from wearing sunglasses, shoes or trousers, and from using electric pumps in their wells.”

'He did not want us to influence a traditional society and would not allow anything, not even a bicycle!'

- Hareth al-Ghasani

Al-Ghasani was born in Zanzibar in 1958, where his father was the undersecretary for the Ministry of Agriculture. The family left the island in 1974 - he now holds a PhD from Harvard and is a businessman. “My father was from a big family in Zanzibar and did not leave following the revolution because he had to look after them, so we stayed." 

He adds: “My mother was working for a local radio station. During the revolution, there were so many harassments by the revolutionaries, so my father told her to stop going to work. My uncle, who was part of the party that was overthrown, was arrested, but not my father who had always been a technocrat who did not like politics." 

Following a 1970 palace coup orchestrated by British intelligence to remove Oman’s conservative ruler and replace him with his son, Qaboos, bin Taimur was taken by the British to London, where he lived out his last days in a hotel. 

Omani bachelor students run down a hill near Sultan Qaboos University, the only public university in the Sultanate of Oman.
Omani students run down a hill near Sultan Qaboos University, the only public university in the Sultanate of Oman (MEE/Sebastian Castellier)

East Africa-born Omanis started to return as the new sultan invited them to join in nation-building and granted them Omani citizenship. But the journey home was not straightforward, and often took years. 

Madny al-Bakry lived in Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Yemen, Kuwait and the UAE, until he finally reached Muscat in 1974 to discover what he calls a “mediaeval-like country", where only 5 percent of the population could read and services were rudimentary. 

The contrast with the flourishing economy that had existed in Zanzibar, where Omani merchants would export products all across the region, was a shock to the new arrivals. As al-Bakry recalls: “There was nothing, no infrastructure, no schools and only one road. This place was not for human beings!”

Starting from scratch

According to Sultan Qaboos University’s Professor Ibrahim Noor Sharif al-Bakry, East Africa-born Omanis flew back at the right time to help Qaboos bin Said to build up the country, leading the Gulf state to experience the world’s fastest progress in the Human Development Index during the four decades to follow.

As Oman gradually strengthened its economy, the skills of many East Africa-born Omanis educated in Zanzibar - among them doctors, teachers and engineers - were coveted. Al-Ghasani, who had not even finished high-school at the time, was able to secure a job at Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), the country’s main energy company.

However, as returnees, commonly referred to as Zinjibaris - which means "a person from Zanzibar" - started to succeed in business, the arts and gain access to prominent governmental positions, some native-born Omanis felt under threat and racism towards those born in Zanzibar became commonplace. 

“We had to start our life all over again but some Omanis would look down at us,” al-Bakry recalls.

The population in Oman felt "unfairly treated, as they perceive themselves to be the true ‘natives’ and therefore deserving of more access to economic success... the discourse of differentiating between ‘us’ and ‘them’ gained momentum,” noted Nafla Soud al-Kharusi in a 2013 study for the Sultan Qaboos University. 

'We had to start our life all over again but some Omanis would look down at us'

- Madny al-Bakry, artist

Furthermore, East Africa-born Omanis, influenced over centuries by a cosmopolitan Zanzibari society, were socially far less conservative than their Oman-born countrymen and were often stereotyped as too Western, “non-traditional” or “unpatriotic”. 

Before he returned to Oman, Madny al-Bakry lived in Kuwait and the UAE, where he used to work in nightclubs as a singer, and formed his own band. 

Nafla Soud al-Kharusi’s study says that “because of previously living overseas, they [East Africa-born Omanis] have adopted different cultural and social norms often apparent in their marriage and funeral rites, as well as in their women’s less conservative dress."

Following decades of integration into Omani society, the long-standing Zanzibari contribution to the Sultanate was officially recognised when Sultan Qaboos appointed a significant number of them as ministers and undersecretaries following protests in 2011.

The legacy of slavery

Back in Zanzibar though, East Africa-born Omanis have largely failed to be accepted in their former homeland. Hareth al-Ghasani - who returns to Zanzibar for visits - says an underlying anti-Omani resentment survives there. 

“People in Zanzibar do not feel good because we got kicked out of Zanzibar from 1964 onwards and come back with a wealthier lifestyle than them. ‘You still have a better life, a better car, how come?’ they say," al-Ghasani said.

“The same country where I was born in 1958, Zanzibar, now tells me that I am not a full human being.”

This apparent antagonism may in part be due to a dark legacy that East Africa-born Omanis remain indirectly associated with, due to recurrent allegations over a slave trade controlled by Arab merchants from Zanzibar, for centuries a slave hub in East Africa.

Omani bachelor students run down a hill near Sultan Qaboos University, the only public university in the Sultanate of Oman.
Samples of drawings which portray the Omani colonial presence in Zanzibar, which ended in 1964 when the Zanzibar Revolution led to the overthrow of the Sultan of Zanzibar (MEE/Sebastian Castellier)

Although the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, Sultan Said, agreed to end the slave trade in 1847, the export of slaves continued into the 20th century. 

According to historian Matthew Hopper’s book, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire, of 800,000 Africans transported to the Arab Gulf in the latter half of the 19th century and until the 1930s, the vast majority were abducted from East Africa and shipped to ports in Yemen and Oman.

Yet this version of events is not accepted by all Zanzibari Omanis. Born in 1941 in Zanzibar from Omani ancestors who once ruled over the Somali city of Merca, Ibrahim Noor Sharif al-Bakry wrote a book in Swahili on Oman-Zanzibar history. He asserts that there was “not a single Arab” roaming the vast inland areas of East Africa to capture slaves. 

“Those claims are untrue,” he told MEE.

Looking at the horizon of the Gulf of Oman from the living room of his bright modern house, al-Ghasani recognises, however, the participation of East Africa-born Omanis in this forgotten slave trade. “You cannot deny it”, he said, before adding that Arab Muslims should not bear sole responsibility as Indians “financed the trade” and Africans “provided the slaves”.

“If you deny that Oman contributed, then you become an Arab apologist,” al-Ghasani said.

This controversial area of Omani history is not widely taught in Omani schools. According to a study led by Okawa Mayuko, an associate professor at Japan's Kanagawa University, slavery is “completely absent from Omani textbooks” which, in contrast, put an emphasis on the Oman-led spread of Arab-Islamic civilization to East Africa.

Al-Ghasani emphasises Mayuko’s words and indicates that there is “so much ignorance” over Oman’s centuries-long presence in East Africa, “even among Omani government members”. 

Memories fade but the scars still linger

In Oman, the trauma of 1964 and subsequent exile still lives on among many born in East Africa, five decades after the Zanzibar Revolution overthrew the Arab-led government. One former military advisor to Sultan Qaboos, who prefers to remain anonymous on grounds of safety, is still deeply scarred about the killing of his father by African revolutionaries. “It hurts to talk about it... If I had the power, I would go there and kill everyone.” 

Samples of drawings which portray the Omani colonial presence in Zanzibar, which ended in 1964 when the Zanzibar Revolution led to the overthrow of the Sultan of Zanzibar.
Local residents buy and sell fish at the Malindi fish market in Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar, December 2017 (AFP)

“My family had been living there for generations, and overnight we had to leave everything.”

Notwithstanding the challenges, al-Ghasani foresees potential in forming prosperous economic relations between Oman and Zanzibar with the Sultanate’s investments in the Tanzanian archipelago reaching $500m.

He believes in the possibilities surrounding China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Oman’s Duqm Port is part of. The Tanzania government, however, has suspended the construction of the BRI’s $10bn Bagamoyo Port after rejecting the terms offered by China.

There are also moves to find a consensus over their shared history. In 2018, Oman signed an agreement with the island to digitise “documents and manuscripts relating to the historical relations between the two countries”, the Times of Oman reported

On the archipelago, a local tour operator has called for “reviving strong existing historical and trade ties between Zanzibar and Oman in the name of tourism”.

“I am very hopeful because the era of African nationalism is over and decolonisation is over too,” al-Ghasani says.