The Oceanic world

January 12 2010

In 1965, the year Singapore was expelled from Malaysia, it was still just possible to put Singapore and Massawa into the same bracket. Massawa is on an island in the Red Sea. It was the capital of the Italian colony of Eritrea from 1890 to 1900, before Asmara.

Old Massawah is unmistakably Arab. There are tall buildings of fine masonry, decorated with tasteful carving. In this island-city one is worlds away from the Africa of round mud-and-wattle tukuls with thatched roofs. One is in the Oceanic world of Zanzibar and Maskat and Bahrain and Singapore.

Four of those places are islands. The style of Massawah’s buildings is usually described as Ottoman, rather than Arab. Tukuls are the cone-roofed huts found in this part of Africa.

Between Niger and Nile, OUP, 1965

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