Here’s an audio version of this post if you’d like to hear me read it. It includes a track, Savane, by Yukikaze from the album Africa. Thanks, Yukikaze, for using Creative Commons.
It’s taken me about eight weeks to prepare for my trip to East Africa. I had to send my passport off for a visa, and get a lot of shots, and there were a few odds and ends that I needed. Throughout the course of my day, I’d tell people what I was up to, where I was going. A flight to Nairobi, then over land into Tanzania, and then, for the last few days of the trip, Zanzibar.
The reaction was always the same, 100% of the time. I would say the word, “Zanzibar” and who ever I was talking to would breathe in, almost the same kind of breath you take when you set a perfect, fragrant dessert on the table. They would gasp, just slightly, and then, lean back and stare past the top of my head. “Zanzibar,” they would echo, “Zanzibar…” And they would drift in to silence while I watched them disappear into their own ideas of that place.
It was the name of the place that made me want to go there. Before I started to prepare for the trip, I knew nothing of Zanzibar, really, nothing. I’m not sure that I could have found it on a map if you’d asked me to. I’d have looked, I think, in the Persian Gulf, and been wrong. I’d have thought we were talking of Madagascar, another place with a name that makes my focus shift to that imaginary map where every place has a name that sounds like a mix of music and honey and red dirt. But it didn’t matter that I did not know the place, the name was enough to make me want to go there. Zanzibar! Of course I wanted to go. I had said it out loud.
Timbuktu and Isfahan and Ulan Bator, the sound of those place names makes my brain itch and my wallet feel much too thin. I know that the Atacama is a high desert in South America, but that’s really all I know, that and that the name puts my less earthbound self into a rented jeep and drives me out into a night filled with wind and stars. Lhasa, just say the name, Lhasa, and there are butter tea lamps and political complications and a low vibrating chant, I can feel the sound of it just below my solar plexus, pulling me towards the Himalayas.
These are real places, they exist here on our planet, places that are named Angkor Wat and Borobudur and oh, in the city of Granada in Spain there is the Alhambra, The Red Fortress. Cappadocia, even the word feels like it was carved from stone as I form it in my mouth, picturing geology turned into dwellings. The names of these places, they draw my nose closer to the map, they cause me to reconsider every choice I have made while I think yes, I could sell the house and go to Lalibela and Axum, in Ethiopia, because, well, because the name called me, like a spell. If I made the mistake of saying it out loud, Lalibela, there would be nothing left to do but go to Lalibela.
I don’t understand what it is about the names of these places, why they carry such weight, especially when I know nothing of them. Do they have too many vowels, are the underused consonants an indication of other worldliness? Rajasthan, Astrakhan, I can imagine their rhyming former palaces, wrap them in complicated textiles that arrived by yak or camel train, drink them down with dried fruit and tea. All these place names, they build their temporary empires in my imagination and I’m swept up in a completely fabricated vision of what the words mean.
You feel it too, I see it. I say to you, “Zanzibar” and the spell spreads. You hear the name of the place and it’s enough. It is the sound of a fairy tale, the sound of once upon a time in a land far far away.
It is the sound of far far away.
Image: John D. Whiting, 1935, Trip to Cappadocia, via Library of Congress Digital Collections