Wednesday, 5 September 2012

ZANZIBAR'S MOST FAMOUS SON


I flew to Dar es Salaam via Nairobi, and hitched a boat to Zanzibar Town across a harbour rocking with dhows and simple fishing canoes. Everything about the place felt exotic. To someone like me, born in the dullest of backwaters, Freddie's continuous dismissal of Zanzibar had begun to seem puzzling. The thought of him camping it up in front of his dinner party guests with stories of Ali Baba and Sinbad, of wild Arabian princes and Eastern promise galore is irresistible. Why didn't he? There had to be a reason. An 'enchanted past' was so quintessentially Freddie.

Zanzibar, no more than a speck on the Atlas, lies just south of the Equator off Africa's east coast. Peer closer and it's actually two specks: the main island, Unguja, and the more remote Pemba, a destination popular today with European honeymooners. Together with neighbouring former German and subsequently British colony Tanganyika, they now form the United Republic of Tanzania. For a tiny territory, Zanzibar has suffered more corruption, disruption and massacre than perhaps it was due. Invaded down the centuries by Assyrians, Sumerians, Egytians, Phoenicians, Indians, Persians and Arabs, as well as Malays, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British, its history reads like 'One Thousand and One Nights'. Some, notably the Shirazi Persians from what is today Southern Iran, the Omani Arabs and much later the British, stayed on to settle and rule. The Swahili civilization here dates back to the earliest awakenings of Islam. When the clove tree was introduced in 1818, Zanzibar's spice industry was born. Ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, cloves and cardamom began to be exported around the world. Thanks to missionaries and explorers passing through its portals en route to the Dark Continent, tales of harems, palace intrigues and royal elopements all added to its romance. As a flourishing trade centre of ivory and human trafficking, it acquired an awful notoriety. Until abolition in 1897, some 50,000 Africans a year, drawn from as far away as the continent's central lakes, were dragged through its barbaric market to be flogged, in both senses, as slaves.

On Unguja's shores stand imposing Sultan's palaces, an ancient Arab fort with rusting cannons, colonial buildings and merchants' mansions, some in a state of lingering renovation, some delapidated beyond repair. Behind these lay labyrinths of bazaars and narrow streets crammed with dwellings. For the first 18 years of Freddie's life, a Stone Town flat overlooking the sea was home.
His mother Jer was little more than a child herself when she gave birth to him in Zanzibar's Government Hospital, on Thursday 5 September 1946 – which happened to be the Parsee New Year's Day. That the tiny 18 year-old's first-born was male was a blessing. When the news reached her husband at work, Bomi rejoiced. The family name would continue. At least, they assumed that it would, blissfully ignorant of lifestyle choices which lay distantly ahead. The couple mused together on what they might call their baby. As Parsees – adherents of the monotheistic Zoroastrian faith dating back to early 6th Century BC Persia - their options were limited. They settled on Farrokh, the name duly registered by Bomi according to legal decree at the Government Records office.

Bomi Bulsara was based at offices in the non-residential Beit-el Ajaib, the House of Wonders, built for ceremonial purposes by Sultan Sayyid Barghash in the late 19th Century. In its day, it had been the tallest building in East Africa, and boasted lush botanical gardens. It survived bombardment by a British fleet following a brief uprising, and later underwent extensive conversion to become Zanzibar's main museum. Bomi's job necessitated travel throughout the colony and into India, which may well have influenced his decision to send his only son far away to school. But there was also the question of how far the child's education could be taken domestically. While his parents continued to practise Zoroastrianism, Farrokh attended the Zanzibar Missionary School from the age of 5, where his teachers were Anglican nuns. Considered brighter than average, he displayed early aptitude for painting, drawing and modelling.

All my efforts to procure a copy of her cousin's birth certificate from official sources had ended inconclusively. Not even my audience with the chief registrar produced good news.

'So you are here for Freddie Mercury's birth certificate', he smiled.
'It's not here. It was here. An Argentinian woman came some years ago, to look for it. A copy was made out for her, and the original has not been seen since, although it has been asked for on numerous occasions - I presume by his fans. That was how we discovered that it had gone missing. By the time that we did, it was too late to do anything about it. The main problem is that, in 1946, 1947, proper records were not yet kept. Just pieces of paper, which now lie in a jumble all over the place. I will show you'.

Behind the counter in the main office, the registrar rummaged in filing cabinets and returned with handfuls of loose birth certificates. Perhaps a dozen of these spilled onto the floor, and were left there.
'There is one person, a physician by the name of Dr Mehta, who is currently in Oman but returning next week. I know he has a copy of Freddie's birth certificate.' Try as I might, however, I was never able to track Dr Mehta down.

My investigations into the family's roots did not meet with the approval of all concerned. Freddie's cousins there were unimpressed, while insisting that they were not at all interested in 'Freddie Mercouri'.
Why?
'He went away from Zanzibar when I was only a baby,' one said, her face flushing.
'He gave up his family name. He did not live like us. He was nothing at all to do with us. He never came back. He wasn't proud of Zanzibar. He was a stranger. He was of another life'.

She declined to elaborate. So there was more.

This attitude was in keeping with what I found elsewhere. Although several Zanzibaris now claim to live in dwellings once owned by the Bulsara family, none could offer tangible evidence, and no one, it seemed, really cared. As one Indian shop-keeper explained,

'I don't know anything – and neither does anyone else. Anybody who tells you they do is only guessing. Especially these guides who take you round the island and show you the sights. They just want money. There is no one left here who knows. So many people left suddenly at the same time, a long time ago. But if ever you find out, will you come back here and tell me, please? Because I am heartily sick of people always asking me. Nationality? Americans, of course. South Americans. English. German. Japanese. Local people don't understand. Who was this person anyway?'

Who was Zanzibar's most famous son? For Queen pilgrims, this island is the ultimate destination. Specialist tour operators run expensive fan-friendly holidays into the singer's birthplace, where a few restaurants with beautiful views and a couple of gift shops cash in on the connection. But Freddie was never in his lifetime accorded star status here. No Freedom of the City. No official archive entry. No acknowledgement, at the time of visiting, at the local museum. No former dwelling converted into personal shrine. No statue, waxwork, nor effigy, no mass-produced ashtray nor fridge magnet, not so much as a postcard bearing his likeness - although postcards of almost everything else. Perhaps not even thermometers here have mercury in them. If ever one had cause to seek the antithesis of Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis, this must be it.

The mystery of the missing birth certificate reared its head again when I got home. Out of the blue, Marcela Delorenzi, an Argentinian – that Argentinian - made contact. She was, she told me, on her way to London with a gift for me. What the Buenos Aires-based broadcaster and journalist brought me was a copy of Freddie's birth certificate. I hadn't asked for it. We'd never spoken. I hadn't tried to track her down, she asked for nothing in return. If there was guilt, this was not discussed. At the time that she obtained it, she insisted, the original handwritten document was still in place in the records office. She'd seen it. Perhaps, in the end, it changed hands for vast profit, and is tucked away in a private collection somewhere.

In 2006, the Association for Islamic Mobilisation and Propagation (UAMSHO), a Zanzibar Muslim group, protested vociferously against plans to celebrate Freddie's 60th birthday on the island. Claiming that he had violated Islam with his openly gay, flamboyant lifestyle until his untimely death in 1991 from Aids, the angry group called for a 'gay-tourist' beach party to be scrapped, and for thousands of fans heading for the celebration from every part of the world to be sent packing.
It hardly came as a surprise. When Zanzibar officially outlawed gay relations in 2004, the move attracted criticism from gay communities everywhere. But UAMSHO head Abdallah Said Ali insisted defiantly that the event would 'send out the wrong signals'.

'We do not want to give our young generation the idea that homosexuals are accepted in Zanzibar', he said.

'We have a religious obligation to protect morals in society, and anyone who corrupts Islamic morals should be stopped'.
Islamic morals notwithstanding, there had long been the faith of Freddie's own family to consider. He loved and respected his parents and sister with all his heart. He also knew too well that orthodox Zoroastrians support the suppression of homosexuality – perhaps the primary reason why Freddie tried for so long to suppress his own inclinations. 

Let's set this in context. Consensual homosexual activity between adults remains illegal in some 70 of the 195 countries of the world. In 40 of these, only male-male sex is outlawed. Sexual acts between 2 adult males became legal in England and Wales in 1967, but not until 1980 in Scotland, and 1982 in Northern Ireland. During the 1980s and 1990s, gay rights organisations lobbied for the age of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals to be equalised. Today, the universal age of consent in England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland is 16.

Naked truth, better than the best-dressed lie. Freddie had apparently forsaken his African homeland for the most fundamental of reasons.

Perhaps what Freddie felt in his heart was 'hiraeth'. No single word translates its ancient Welsh meaning. What it evokes is melancholy, a deeply-rooted sadness for what is lost. Did Freddie, like most of us, secretly mourn his spent innocence, longing for chapters of his past he could no longer reach?

Sometimes we go back. We revisit. We console our adult selves with quiet remembrance. Freddie never could. He would always have to fill the void elsewhere. Some believe he made peace with his past in 'The Seven Seas Of Rhye' – the band's first hit, in 1974. A hard rock anthem on an otherwise progressive album, its lyrics were based on a fantasy realm created by young Freddie with his little sister Kashmira. Could it have been the mysteries of their Persian roots, and in particular the prophet Zarathustra's epic journey, which fuelled their flights of fancy and inspired their fairytales of Rhye? It seems likely, according to Radio 2 producer, music archivist and record collector Phil Swern.
It has always been my impression, from remarks he made in interviews over the years, that 'Seven Seas of Rhye' was about his life in Zanzibar', says Phil.
'It was where he escaped to – in his mind, at least. He always had that, when reality got too much’.
In one radio interview, Freddie described the song's subject as 'a figment of my imagination'.
'My lyrics and songs are mainly fantasies', he said.
'I make them up. They are not down to earth, they're kind of airy-fairy really. I'm not one of those writers who walks out onto the street and is suddenly inspired by a vision, and I'm not one of those people who wants to go on safari to get inspiration from wild animals around me, or go up onto mountain tops or things like that. No, I can get inspiration just sitting in the bath'.

As the final bars of 'The Seven Seas Of Rhye' fade, an old English bucket-and-spade ditty crooned by a raucous saloon bar crowd echoes fleetingly: 'Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside'. Further allusion to Freddie's once carefree beach life, to the palm-fringed, pristine coral reefs of youth?

We can't know. What we know is that there could never have been a welcome in the hillside for the man who fractured the code of his family's faith. Rightly or wrongly, the way it was.

'FREDDIE MERCURY:  THE DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY'
HODDER & STOUGHTON 2011-2012

'MERCURY' 
TOUCHSTONE/SIMON & SCHUSTER USA 2012


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