In the early warm hours of the day, the call-to-prayer wakes up the whole town.
Once the so said prayers are over, the population of Stone Town occupy the labyrinth alleyways and carry on with their daily tasks: to sell, to buy, to sit chatting with the neighbours, to stand on the streets greeting tourists, to stand on the streets watching the world go by… A few times I wondered what these last ones were thinking.
On one of my wandering hours, I noticed this old man was doing just that. Seated barefoot on the large steps leading to a house, his blue takiyah (cap) matched the color of the door. His tough dark skin enhanced his eyes, shining through years of experience. He must be about 75, I guessed to myself. Next to him was a cloth folded over, that I didn’t notice until moments later he touched it, adjusting the corners.
He was mostly looking into the distance and whenever other locals spoke to him, a nod was enough of an answer. Like any wise man, he knew that the silence present in a look was enough to speak the truth and be heard.
I could have moved on to the next alley and continue photographing the doors of Stone Town, but I was as curious to find what he kept under the cloth as to read his mind. So mimicking him, in gestures I asked if I could sit in the steps nearby. He nodded once, pointed at my shoes and proceeded to look in the distance.
Sitting with my shoes off, I looked for a way to satisfy my curiosity. Sooner than later, a local approached him and hand signed the number “1”. The old man promptly lifted the cloth and to my surprise he picked a pack of tobacco. He took one cigarette and in exchange for a few shillings handed it over to the man. So he sells cigarettes!! Not a pack, but one or two to each client. His clientele must live a day at a time, I thought! Suddenly feeling enlightened by this living ideal.
Why buy a full pack, when I could come here everyday to meet these wise eyes and perhaps more than buying a cigarette, I could also be able to read a line of his mind?!
But I don’t smoke and I don’t speak Swahilli. So the truth compels me to reach out for my camera and to ask him for a photograph. He shook his head no.
He was unaware of how beautiful he was. Perhaps if I would offer a few shillings he would reconsider. But again, he shook his head no. The man from the fruit stall nearby, almost disgusted by how he was refusing money, quickly hurried over to encourage him to accept my offer. He then outstretched his hand to take my offer, gave me an embarrassed smile and proceeded to look in the distance. Meanwhile, I hoped that every click would capture faithfully what my eyes were unable to read, his mysterious mind.