Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: A stranger back in my homeland

Tanzanians will know from my accent and clothes I am no longer one of them
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The Independent Online

So much to do before we fly off this weekend, so many things to remember - jabs, insect repellents, sun lotions, tummy tablets, water purifiers, safety, leg wax, insurance, security, miracle fat-busting swimsuits - the effort of it all seems too much already. And then there is the shame of carbon footprints and air miles, which I confess this year will put us into the crimes-against-humanity bracket.

On top of that, at this time of year, I fret about all those expected extras for black or Asian tourists. In many prime European locations subtle and blatant racism often comes out to greet many of us.

I have just had a letter from a British Muslim couple - both specialist doctors on the NHS and "integrated", they say. But he wears a beard and she a hijab. They are attracted to the French countryside but not the upsetting looks and suspicion that come with the package and wonder if they should go. Stay away, I say. They are not comfortable there with anyone who looks Arab or visibly Muslim.

In Austria we get creepy looks and in the Czech Republic it is gypsy colouring that provokes unpleasant mutters and shoves. (My delirious imagination is not churning out fantasies. I have experienced what I describe.) Andalucia is fine, but since the bombs in Madrid, there is (understandable) suspicion of Muslims in other Spanish regions. In Barcelona, I was told by some locals in a bar that they did not like the English or Muslims. "You are both, so you have bad luck here."

Turkey is a wonderful destination but there is a divisive cultural war between unbending secularists and even more rigid Islamicists. I know I would get into wearing political arguments over who is right. And I hate the way Germans treat the Turks and the Italians demean African street traders. You see the problem?

So, you might say, you over-sensitive souls, go to where you don't feel alien, maybe where you are familiar with the language. That is what used to happen for decades, of course. Holidays were back home with the clans in Lagos or Kingston or Amritsar or Cairo or the myriad other homelands of so many post-war migrants.

That brings its own heavy baggage. Familiarity breeds contempt. In India I do find unconditional acceptance. I speak four of the languages and in a sari or shalwar khameez I don't feel like a tourist and can merge into the landscape and population. But I am a tourist and a Westerner, part of the wealthy and powerful bloc that can still break international treaties, start wars and play God.

This year when I took my one-woman show to India, a female academic in Calcutta was merciless. "You British are trying to flatter us today, but you can never be forgiven. You should be ashamed of what your country did to the world and is doing again. And all those ex-Indians like you who wanted so much to be American and Canadian and English, now come running here expecting to be one of us? Listen to your accent and mine - yours is the accent of the Victorian empire. And look where you staying - that grand, old, haughty hotel where Indians are still coolies." Ouch.

Our driver in Delhi saw in me power and untold wealth and decided that our common ethnicity gave him entitlements. The shops he took me to charged me more than they were charging the locals. In Hindi he told them not to worry, madam was Indian, but more English and had too much cash. I never haggled - guilt and shame, I guess. Ever since he has been phoning us every few weeks, begging for a visa to come and live in London.

Now I am off to Tanzania, to Dar-es-Salaam where my mum was born, and on to Zanzibar. These are places with extraordinary cultural sediments laid down by various indigenous tribes and outside rulers from Arabs to the Germans. It was the hub of Arab slavery too. Even though the Rough Guide ignorantly neglects to mention us, Indians have been there since the first century as pioneers and entrepreneurs.

I remember seaside vacations in the Zanzibar dharamsalla - the local hostel for ladies and their children. Drink was the sweet water of madaf (green coconuts) and the tiffin lady from the local mosque brought food. Then in January 1964, African soldiers took over the island, massacred Asians and Arabs and snatched their virgin girls to rape and use. We never went back.

I am dying to speak Swahili again, to revisit the old towns, smell and taste the food, go to the Arab quarters with secretive perfumers whose customers are all burqaed, and look upon the dreadful slave sites. But none of this will be possible in quite the way it is for real tourists.

In the perfumeries the hidden women will flee when I enter. The men who sell barbecued meat will ask why I am not eating surf and turf at the big hotels and I will worry about their food hygiene. Black and brown Tanzanians will know from my accent and clothes that I am no longer one of them. They will warm to me because I do speak Swahili, but then will presume an intimacy and obligations on my part. The intellectuals will push me with questions about why my country hates Islam. I will try to find out what happened to the sacrificed virgins.

There is no simple peace and tranquillity on these holidays back to what we were, just as there is isn't in our new worlds. Trips abroad for us are often exhausting and challenging but they awaken the senses and memories, sharpen political understanding and make you understand better who you are. Who needs pampering when you can have all that?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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