Click here to view 2007 photos of Zanzibar's Mehfils



<<Can you recall some of your old memories of the mehfils in Zanzibar?>> 



As I click the Zanzibar mehfil photographs on my computer, there is sentimental yearning for the past that was so different from today’s time.    

I was given to understand that our own house in Kiponda (opposite Takim Travel Service and the mosque, and beside Ithnashri School) where we stayed was actually the first Mehfile Abbas. The house opposite ours where the Bohoras resided (Ratan’s) was then Tazia. That must have been in the 1890s. The formation of Hujjat Jamaat is said to have led to the change in its venue. After the conversion to the Ithnashri Sect of Mammu Walli Dharsi who was a person of rank at the Jamaatkhana, the property that he owned around there became disputed. Eventually part of what was apportioned to him got converted into Mehfile Abbas and the small room downstairs made into Taziakhana. The property was then bought up by Saleh Lakha Kanji but is said to have been reverted later to Mammu Walli Dharsi (probably Brother Zakir Saleh Lakha would be more authentic on this).    

Mehfile Abbas was famous for the Kiswahili majlis by Sayad Abbas and its ‘Chai Khana’. We would rush there during recess and Gulamhusain Ismail, the famous Zanzibar cricketer and the chief volunteer, ensured that we were served ‘chai na toss’ (tea & toast) fast to get back to school in time. At times we were late and even canned.     

While the mehfil was run by the families of Hassanali Mulla Raza and Mohamedhusain Saleh Lakha (in particular Bai Jhena Hassanali Mulla Raza’s devotion to the mehfil duties must get a mention) who resided in the adjacent apartments, Taziakhana or ‘Tazia’ was in the hands of Kassamali Mammu Walli Dharsi (Bha Kassamali). Bha Kassamali was an ardent azadar and personally saw to it that everyone there did matam and responded to the nauha chant. Tazia was full up with julos (small tabuts) that the girls carried in julus or ‘Matam Njiani’ as we used to say. The julus on the Ashura and Chehlum mornings, and in the afternoons of 8th Muharram and 17th Safar, commenced from Tazia. The eve of Ashura and Chehlum witnessed a hive of activities at Tazia which was the scene of threading flowers, applying scent, sharpening zanjeer blades and shaping up of alams, flags, julos and mehmils   

Tazia was pivotal in promoting awareness of a good religious cause, a source of nauha and marshia books compilation and publication (‘Makhzane Matam’ being a perfect example). In one instance we had gathered at Tazia to endorse our signatures in blood on a sheet of paper as a protest to lodge complaint against the killing of Shias in a certain country.     

The community will never forget the sad night when a member of Zanzibar’s Revolutionary Council entered Tazia amid ziarat recitation by Sayad Abdulmuttalib and shot dead right there four among the attendant crowd including Sayad Abdulmuttalib. That event must be marked as the blackest in the history of the community.     

After Bha Kassamali's death his newphew Husain Habib Dharsi took charge of the place. He had lost his right arm and dedicated himself to Taziakhana till recently when he shifted from Zanzibar to Daressalaam.    

Then there was the simple but large Mehfile Ali Makam that was looked upon reverentially. Its entrance was through the Mamdu Bi (of the barafu shop) gully by the side of imamvaro (imambara). A noticeable feature of Zanzibar stone town was this Khoja vicinity that stretched from Jamaatkhana via Ismaili School, Mehfile Abbas/Tazia, School Fez, Mosque, Imambara, Mehfile Ali Makam and across from there to Kiwanjani and Khoja Ismaili as well as Khoja Ithnashri bewakhana / musafarkhana. This evidences the predominance of the Khoja settlement in Zanzibar during that era.     

Mehfile Ali Makam served as imambara for men during the afternoon jaman while the ladies had theirs at the imambara itself. Staying in the same vicinity, the ladies majlis resounded from the mehfil in the evening and leading among the reciters were Fatubai Mulla (Mrs. Fatmabai Peera Ukera) and Fatubai Magawa (Mrs. Fatmabai Panju). As a child I used to attend the Saturday night majlises for men (ravivar ratji majlis) at this mehfil.    

The space beneath on the narrow Kiponda motorway provided a ‘Reading Room’ where community members could read books, periodicals, magazines and papers. Also Ithnashri Gymkhana meetings were held there. It is said that in the earlier days prior to 1928 and the commencement of School Fez this place was used by M.M.Jaffer, H.M.Rashid and Hassanali Rashid to tutor youths of the community.    

Kiwanjani was just around there. It was a spacious place owned by Abdulla Saleh, a prominent community member. He converted it into Mehfile Shahe Khurasan (earlier located elsewhere), a fervent azadari spot where saf matam continued beyond mid night. Sadly owing to rift within the Kuwwat Jamaat Abdulla Saleh was deported from Zanzibar. Later the mehfil was run by his brother in law Mohamed Jaffer Khaki (Mammu Jafu) and members of his family.     

I remember attending darsa at Kiwanjani. It was under the direction of Habib Rashid Jetha and we would be served ‘istekhan’ (black tea) in shapely small sized cups. Besides, throughout Ramadhan Kiwanjani hosted iftaar feasted by various individuals upon their invitees. Also the ninth Rabiulawwal ladies khushali was a time of great rejoicing and celebration at Kiwanjani where they set fire to a dummy stuffed with crackers amid shrill laughter and cheers.   

Another place of reverence was Mehfile Bibi Zainab. At first it was located at Maalim Ibrahim Kassam’s residence in Malindi (above Mulla Raza Panju’s perfumery shop) and run by his mother Mulla Bai Safia. Later it was shifted to another corner of Malindi (opposite Agha Sayed Mir’s residence, along ‘Safari Lodge’ hotel) where it was run by her daughter, Bai Nuru (Mrs. Nurubai Mohamed Jaffer Sheriff Dewji). The mehfil held evening majlises for ladies and was famous for its Khoja cuisine cooked by Gulla Dawood who also provided service to the imambara kitchen. 

What comes to mind is going to the mehfil to collect diniyat books (part 1, 2 and 3) from Mulla Mohamedjaffer Sheriff Dewji who resided there. The presentation of part 2 & 3 was subject to correctly answering the questions he would put before us. He was such a humble and down to earth man.     

The mehfil was a stop over for the morning and afternoon julus during Muharram and Safar. It would come to a halt with Maalim Mohamed Jivraj’s typical ‘Zainab meri bena…’ rendition before the devotees stepped into saf matam.    

The julus would then continue to Mehfile Bibi Fatema located in the Malindi lane (that stretched to the Khoja Nasser Noormohamed dispensary). The mehfil was run by Mulla Bibi Zara (Mrs. Sayad Ali Akbar Shustari) of the famed Sayad Husain Shustari family of Persian descent. The mehfil was frequented by our ladies for the evening and night majlises. It is said to have existed since the days of Agha Sayed Husain and signified the merger between the Khojas and the Aghas (Persians). The famous ‘kiejemu’ (Persian/Farsi) matam are attributable to this great Shustari clan.     

Personally of particular significance to me was that I partly learnt my Koran at this spot from Mulla Bibi Zara who would strike us with a cane if we failed to grasp our sura    

One of the oldest mehfil was Mehfile Muhibbane Husain. It was run privately by those Khojas who till then had not converted themselves to the Ithnashri Sect but professed love for Ahlulbait. The mehfil which was in Mtendeni near ‘Alladinjo Maro’ thus came to acquire the name ‘Mehfile Private’. Leading among them was Abdulrasul Peera who converted himself much later joining the Hujjat Jamaat. The mehfil was later run by certain members of Nai Misit. The mehfil is now being used by Bilal Muslim Mission of Zanzibar.     

Further down along Mbuyuni/Mchangani was Mehfile Panjatan which was initially run by Kermali Dharamsi’s sons (Babu Dharamsi’s father/uncle) and later by the brothers Mohamedali and Abdulrasul Karim Jetha. The majlises at the mehfil were mainly recited by Mulla Suleman (Mulla Karo). It was famous for the ‘vara chatni’ nyaz and in particular ‘muthia’ which drew a big crowd. From there most of the attendants packed themselves into Mohamed Peera’s (Golo Tumbo)‘matwana’ to go to Chungani (kabrastan).   

Matam Bahrani or Matemni located in Kiponda below Husain Nazarali’s residence and near the Ruwehi Building was run by the Bahranis led by Sayad Abbas and his son Sayad Kazim. There is a plaque outside on the wall which is said to indicate its history but it is in Arabic. In fact the Ashura and Chehlum night julus taken out with great fervour and grandeur had their first stop at Matemni It is said that prior to this Matam Bahrani was the old building (later girls primary school) behind the Sultan Palace (now People's Palace) and the grave yard along the road leading to Hurumzi Street. The house had been allocated by Sultan Sayed Bargash on the request of his wazir Major Mohamed Ahmed Khan (Kalbe Ali Khan, the title accorded to him by Sayed Bargash). That must have been before the formation of the Khoja Ithnasris’ Kuwwat Jamaat in 1881.  

There were other mehfils too like Mehfile Husain at the residence of Rashid Ismail in Kiponda/Malindi across Haji Remtulla Tejani musafarkhana, and Mehfile Bibi Kulsum at the residence of Mohamedali Rhemtulla (Mohamedali Rama) in Malindi. Mehfile Bibi Sikina housed in the Kermali Hasham mansion (opposite the mosque) was formed much later (late 50s or early 60s). Leading among the Kermali Hasham family who ran this mehfil was Mohamed Kermali (Babu wa Lelu) who also runs Mehfile Bibi Sikina in Daressalaam. The Kermali Hasham mansion was brought down and in its place the new Mehfile Bibi Fatema is built. The old Mehfile Bibi Fatema, Mehfile Bibi Zainab, Mehfile Panjatan, Mehfile Husain and Mehfile Bibi Kulsum remain no more. There could have been other mehfils in the very olden days of which I may not be aware. I’ll appreciate if anyone with its knowledge brings it to my attention.    

Zanzibar mehfils are old historical establishments founded on faith and zealotry unlike today’s where commercial tendencies misconstrue their main purpose. The only old establishment in Daressalaam was Mehfile Abbas started by Fatmabai Mohamed Sheriff (Fatu Membei) in the 1930s. On the eve of every Chehlum she flew along with an ‘alam’ and a few of her colleagues to Zanzibar to participate in the Chehlum azadari.   


Click here to view 2007 photos of Zanzibar's Mehfils 




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