Omanis flocking to Zanzibar, their ancestral home

Shorter fasting hours and pleasant weather are encouraging visitors to return to the island that was ruled by Oman beginning in the 17th century.

A handout photo of Fundu Lagoon in Pemba, Zanzibar (Courtesy: Fundu Lagoon)
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MUSCAT // Ramadan is often a time for Muslim across the world to return home - but for many Omanis, it is a time to return to their former colony. As Ramadan approaches, hundreds of Omanis have booked flights to Zanzibar - an Indian Ocean island that shares a deep history with the sultanate. "I am not surprised that there is a big turnout this time because Zanzibar is a natural destination for Omanis because of the historical links between the two countries," Mohammed al Najmi, a travel agent with Muscat-based Al Madina Travel Agents, said.

Last month, Mr Najmi said he has sold more than 900 airline tickets to Zanzibar, more than double the amount he usually sells in August and September. Now the journey to Zanzibar can be made in the relative comfort of a six-hour flight. But at one time Omanis braved monsoons in dhows for a month-long, sometimes perilous, journey to East Africa and their island colony. Oman defeated the Portuguese and took control of Zanzibar in 1698. In 1832, the Omani sultan, Said bin Sultan, made Zanzibar his capital and established a thriving spice trade and a major transit route to the West.

Zanzibar is a derivation of the two Arabic words Zenj and Bar, or the land of the blacks. It covered an area from the coasts of two East African countries, Kenya and the former Tanganyika, before the Germans gradually occupied most of it in the 1880s. "The Sultan of Zanzibar was then left with only the island, which was the capital of his former East African dominions," said al Hatmi, 81, a historian and retired teacher who taught in Zanzibar and Oman.

The British gained control of the island as a protectorate in 1896, although it was still considered a sultanate, and granted it independence in 1963. After that, the island was ruled by sultans who were descendants of Said Bin Sultan. Zanzibar's Arab minority won control of the parliament in July 1963, leading to a coup by a frustrated African majority. The Zanzibar revolution in 1964 paved the way for what is now the modern-day republic.

While Oman and Zanzibar have had their ups and downs, the ties remain strong. Oman automatically grants nationality to all Zanzibaris who are descendants of Omanis. About a third of its population of two million people were either born in East Africa or their parents were, according to statistics from Oman's passports and immigration office. Swahili, a language spoken in Zanzibar, is widely spoken by many Omanis as a result of the historical ties.

Also, thousands of Omanis were born in Zanzibar, as "children of the lost colony" who went back to their country of ancestry after the coup. Qassim al Mugheiry, 28, a shop clerk in Muscat, is a son of former Zanzibaris born in Muscat, whose parents came to Oman soon after marriage. He said he plans to fly to Zanzibar two days before Ramadan and will stay with his uncle the entire month. "Hakuna matata this Ramadan for me," Mr Mugheiry said, using a phrase in Swahili that means "no problem".

Khamis al Shikeli, 36, from Muscat, said he already has booked his airline ticket to Zanzibar and is taking his family. He believes the mild weather would make fasting during Ramadan more bearable. "Shorter fasting hours and the pleasant climate is the main factor we go there this Ramadan. It will also give us the opportunity to see our relatives we have not seen for a number of years," Mr Shikeli, a petroleum engineer, said.

With hundreds of Omanis set to fly to Zanzibar, some islanders were eagerly anticipating the influx of tourists. Khalid Burhan, 47, a Zanzibari food retailer on a business trip in Muscat, said: "Business will be booming more than usual in Zanzibar this Ramadan, from food to clothes and accommodations as well."