Located off the coast of Tanzania, Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous island territory that was once an important port in the slave trade, and which currently boasts of an active spice market, thanks to its historical role in the Spice Route. Zanzibar’s local government seat lies in an area called Stone Town, which has been recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site due to its unique mixture of Indian, West Asian, European and African elements. Despite this rich history, what locals in Zanzibar boast of is the little-known fact that Zanzibar was the birth place of a certain Farrokh Bulsara – better known to most by the moniker Freddie Mercury.
The connection is admittedly limited. Mercury was born on the island in 1946 and considered a British citizen by birth, as Zanzibar was part of the British protectorate. He lived there with his parents and younger sister Kashmira until the age of nine, after which he studied at the St Peter’s Boys School in Panchgani till 1962. The Revolution of 1964 in which the African majority overthrew the minority Arab ruling elite, brought violence to the island, specifically against the Asian and Arabic communities, and the family relocated to England for their safety. Mercury is never known to have returned to Zanzibar.
But from the pirated CDs of his band, Queen, sold on the streets, to sea-facing restaurants named after him, Mercury’s legacy is frequently invoked with tourists on the island. Most hotels hold two-to-three-hour long tour packages that lead visitors through the streets of Stone Town, during which guides point at various buildings where Mercury (apparently) lived during his teenage years. Local historians have confirmed that the family moved several times, so some of these claims might actually be true, but there is only one location where music historians know Mercury lived for sure: the plot of land that is now Camlur’s Restaurant in Shangani.
Tours then head to the famed Mercury House – not a memorial to Queen’s frontman, but a door with displays of Freddie Mercury pictures on each side and an attendant who photographs tourists next to the rockstar’s images (the house is part of the Temba Hotel chain). The next stop is a Zoroastrian temple that Mercury and his family would visit. Most tours generally end at the sea-facing Mercury’s restaurant, although occasionally, tours will throw in an extra stop – trips to the High Court where Mercury’s mother is said to have worked, as well as the harbour in Stone Town that the family would visit. At the restaurant, the bartender might grin if you sing a Queen song, but that seems to be the extent of Mercury-mania here.
While the tour packages are simply evidence of the island’s tourism industry utilising a local hero to draw international visitors, it is ironic that Zanzibar, with its deep-rooted homophobia uses Mercury, an openly homosexual man with a flamboyant lifestyle, as their most famous export.
According to Zanzibar’s Penal Decree Act of 2004, same-sex marriages are banned on the island. There is a 25-year jail term for sex between men, and a more lenient seven-year term for sex between women. The island is believed to have inherited these laws from British colonialism.
Notably, Zanzibar saw public protests in 2006, when beach parties were planned to mark Freddie Mercury’s 60th birthday. Various Muslim associations threatened to hold demonstrations against gay tourists and gay supporters on the island.
“We do not want to give our young generation the idea that homosexuals are accepted in Zanzibar,” said Abdallah Said Ali, head of the Association for Islamic Mobilisation and Propagation (Uamsho) at the time. “We have a religious obligation to protect morals in society and anyone who corrupts Islamic morals should be stopped.”