Travel Photographer Aline Coquelle On Why Zanzibar Should Be On Your Bucket List
They say it’s all in the name, and that rings true with Zanzibar. Merely uttering the word evokes mystery and wonder—it sounds like an exotic experience waiting to be savoured. The archipelago in the Indian Ocean off Africa’s Swahili coast has always held a certain mystique. In 1872, British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton described his first glimpse of its islands: “Earth, sea, and sky, all seems wrapped in a soft and sensuous repose. The sea of purest sapphire, which had not parted with its blue rays to the atmosphere... under a blaze of sunshine which touched every object with a dull burnish of gold”.
A semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, Zanzibar continues to lure modern explorers with a promise of an adventure like no other. One of these adventurers is nomadic Parisian photographer Aline Coquelle, who first arrived on its shores two decades ago. “What drew me to Zanzibar was the unknown,” says Coquelle, who calls the place “a dream before being an island”. Her first visit was thanks to an Italian friend whose father, a famous scuba diver, lived in Zanzibar and invited her to Unguja, the main island. “It was the perfect introduction to the mystery that is East Africa, which I had been wanting to discover since I read Out of Africa,” she says.
Like Burton before her, it was love at first sight. That initial encounter sparked the idea of creating a book, which Coquelle immediately proposed to Martine Assouline, founder of Assouline. “I could feel the potential of this archipelago, the universe we could share and introducing it all into the world. But that moment was not the best time. I was still a very young photographer and maybe Zanzibar was still too wild to comprehend,” she says.
This month, after a creative journey spanning 20 years, during which time she photographed the island and its inhabitants using film, her vision comes to life in Zanzibar—a tome that embodies the essence of this enthralling destination through her lens.
More Than Meets The Eye
With its postcard-perfect looks, it is easy to dismiss Zanzibar as just another tropical paradise. But beyond its pristine white beaches and sparkling, azure waters lies a cultural crossroads that offers curious travellers plenty of layers to sift through. From the food to the architecture, everything reflects a heady mix of African, Indian and Arabian influences; it has also been shaped by its historic importance as a major producer of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper that earned it the moniker the Spice Island (not to be confused with the Spice Islands in Indonesia).
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Nowhere is this intriguing past more palpable than in the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historic quarter, which has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2000. Here, “magic and obscurity are daily encounters”, Coquelle says, and an enchanted energy fills every square kilometre.
“I was so enlightened by the Swahili culture of Zanzibar and by the mix of humanity and culture while exploring Stone Town—from Persians, Omanis, Africans, Indians and Europeans. It was such a dream for a young photographer and traveller to experience,” Coquelle says. It is this texture and vibrancy that she captures in the intimate portraits she took, documenting a disappearing indigenous culture that needs to be celebrated at a time when sameness permeates the globe.
The singular natural beauty of Zanzibar, coupled with its rich culture, seems to bring the poet out of everyone, or at least transform them into lifetime ambassadors. Coquelle, who is one of its most ardent advocates, recalls a particularly memorable moment—flying to Pemba island, the second biggest island in the archipelago.
“It was such a magical flight over magnificent lagoons and mangroves, and we eventually landed on an island that had an aroma of cloves. It was so pure and wild. We then immersed ourselves into Fundu Lagoon Resort, and we dove into the pristine waters of Misali Island. It is so untouched by current times and influence; it was like travelling into the beginning of the world.” The Zanzibaris themselves, she says, “greet you like no one else in the world”.
A Different Beat
Although spice and raffia production contribute to Zanzibar’s economy, tourism is its bread and butter. The islands receive roughly 500,000 travellers a year—a constant flow that has been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even with the present challenges of the tourism industry and some reports of political instability, along with sporadic reports of tensions and a deep sense of antipathy toward tourists among some devout Muslims over the years, Coquelle sees nothing but a bright future for a place that has a strong sense of community and inherent tolerance brought about by its multicultural roots.
“Here, the motto is pole pole, meaning ‘slowly, slowly’.” And while the pandemic has brought both tragedy and crisis, we realise even more how important it is to come back to essential aspects of life like time and love,” she notes. “We seemed to have lost these values in many of our big cities.”
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This, perhaps, is the magic of Zanzibar: its ability to slow down the tempo so we can truly enjoy the present, putting qualities like generosity and tolerance at the forefront, and reminding us of what it is to be human.
Falling into Zanzibar’s trance comes easily—one could get lost in Stone Town’s bustling markets, dive with whale sharks in the waters surrounding Mafia island or simply watch the sunset from the shore with taarab music playing in the background. When it’s time to leave, the best souvenir isn’t a colourful kanga (a local fabric) or a beautiful tan; it’s emerging as a brand new person.
“Zanzibar is a healing archipelago where nature and people offer you amazing, positive vibes that keep you coming back for more. It became my own form of balance, my rhythm of life. My love for Zanzibar flows in my blood,” says Coquelle. Until the time comes when we can actually travel again, we can transport ourselves to the Swahili coast through her hypnotic photographs in her new book and imagine feeling that warm, fine sand between our toes.
Photographs reprinted with permission from Zanzibar by Aline Coquelle. The book, published by Assouline, is available from May 2020 in select bookstores and online at assouline.com.
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- Photography Aline Coquelle