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Volume 47, Number 4July/August 1996

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The Islands of the Moon

Omani sailors cross this gulf to the island of Qanbalu [Ngazidjal] in the Sea of Zinj.... They call it the Sea of Barbara and the Land of Jafuni. Its waves are..."blind waves," [meaning] that when the waves go high they are as high as the mountains and when they go deep the are like the deepest of valleys.... When they are in the middle of this sea, they recite a few lines of rajaz poetry that say, "Barbara and Jafuni and your insane waves! Jafuni and Barbara, waves are as you see." —Al-Mas'udi, The Meadows of Gold

Written by Lark Ellen Gould
Photographed by Ilene Perlman

Unlike al-Mas'udi's 10th-century Omani sailors, modern travel brochures call this Indian Ocean archipelago "The Perfume Islands" and sing of waves that break rhythmically along broad, pearl-sand beaches. Those beaches, the light breezes scented with ylang-ylang—until recently a component of many perfumes—and an idyllic, isolated location between Mozambique and Madagascar may in time make the Comoro Islands a stop on the tourist trail, much as they were once a stop on the maritime routes of old.

Perhaps because of their location astride the trade routes, or perhaps because of their diminutive size, the three islands now called the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoro Islands have lived largely in the shadow of struggles among foreign powers and rival island rulers. Now that can change. Following their first stable, democratic elections in 1990, the unified Comoros were accepted into the League of Arab States in 1993. A country at peace, the republic is searching for a way to earn a living, poised to make its mark in the international arena.

Islamic culture, mixed with East African influences, is as natural to daily life in the Comoros today as the sea breezes that first brought Islam to these shores. Early Arab traders, who by the 10th century regularly plied the waters off Zanj, or East Africa, named the Comoro Islands qumr, a name derived from qamar, or moon. Initially, this name was applied to Madagascar, then to the four Comoro Islands as a group.

The first Arab settlers, tradition has it, arrived on Qanbalu—today's Ngazidja (called Grande Comore by the French)— shortly after the death of the king and prophet Solomon, probably coming from the Hadhramaut region of southern Arabia. They lived with inhabitants of Malay-Indonesian origin as well as Bantu-speaking and Swahili-speaking East Africans. In 632, upon hearing of Islam, the Arab islanders are said to have dispatched an emissary, the navigator Said Muhammad, to Makkah—but by the time he arrived there, the Prophet Muhammad had died. Nonetheless, after a stay in Makkah, Said Muhammad returned to Qanbalu and led the gradual conversion of his compatriots to Islam.

As trade expanded, sailors used the beautiful and exotic Comoros as a setting for myths and legends. In one of these, Solomon searches the world for his beloved, the Yemeni Queen of Saba. His search is in vain. He finds only her throne, and it is hidden in the hot crater of the Kartala volcano on Ngazidja.

According to another myth, it is Solomon—whom God had given authority over the jinn, or spirits—who is responsible for the appearance of the Comoros on earth: Jinn, created by God of smokeless flame, are capable of heavy labor, and Solomon had put them to work in his mines. One day, he ordered a jinni to carry a precious ring to the Queen of Saba. On his way, the jinni dropped the ring, which formed a great circular inferno. This became the Kartala volcano which, in turn, gave fiery birth to Ngazidja.

In 1154, Arab geographer al-Idrisi depicted the Comoros on a map with a text that told of trade with the Indian Ocean islands from as far east as Indonesia, including the Seychelles, the Maldives, Madagascar and the Comoros. In the 15th century, the famous Arab seafarer Ibn Majid drew the individual routes among these islands and the east African coastal ports of Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa and Kitao.

Beginning in 933, this sea trade led to one of the most important influences in Comorian history: the migration of the Shirazi Arabs from Persia and western Indian Ocean states. Seeking haven from religious persecution, they landed in Nzwani (called Anjouan by the French), the second-largest island of today's republic. They found its steep mountain terrain thinly inhabited by Africans, only a few of whom were Muslim, living under the authority of Muslim Arab chiefs called bejas. The Shirazis appear to have accepted this arrangement until the 12th century, when Shirazi fanis, or chiefs, began to grow in influence. In the mid-15th century, a second, greater influx of Shirazi immigrants reinforced the Islamic character of the Comoros.

For the next three centuries, all four islands were ruled mainly by Shirazis, although their rule was anything but unified: On Nzwani alone, at times, as many as 40 fanis and other chiefs shared power; Ngazidja's 1148 square kilometers (443 square miles) were for many years divided into 11 sultanates. The assimilation of Shirazi and East African customs led to a political system wherein fanis and other leaders could be either men or women.

Meanwhile, Portuguese sailors landed on the Comoros in the early 1500's. The French claimed discovery in 1530, and the British staked their claim in 1554. In the 17th century, pirates from both Madagascar and Europe lurked in the Comoros and preyed on vessels plying the East India routes. Out of this turbulent period emerged more stories that strengthened the identity of the people who had become Comorians.

One such tale comes from Iconi, a coastal village of Ngazidja, in the 17th century. There, a powerful sultan continually had to defend his people against Malagasy pirates who raided the village and enslaved its people. In one apocalyptic raid, the pirates massacred the defenders and pursued the women, who hid among the rocks atop a cliff above the sea. As their attackers approached and capture appeared inevitable, the women chose death over slavery and leapt into the sea. Today, the defeated sultan's modest palace—really a large house—stands weather-beaten and crumbling in the center of Iconi, now a quiet fishing hamlet.

By contrast, another Ngazidja village remembers a miracle that arose from those years of strife. In Bangui-Kouni, an outpost on the northern tip of the island, the legend tells of newly arrived Shirazis who landed at this place and who, by their example and teaching, began converting the Bantu-speaking people to Islam. But the newcomers were too poor to build a mosque, and for years there was no formal place to worship. One morning, however, the people awoke to find a mosque near the center of the village. To this day, they say, they do not know who built it or how it got there. It is named the Miraculous Mosque.

Similarly, not far from this village there is a small cave in which Shirazi settlers hid from Portuguese pirates. Despite the inadequacy of their cover, the Portuguese miraculously never found them. Today, the cave is known as le trou du Prophète, a reference to a similar miracle that saved the life of the Prophet Muhammad in the mountains of western Arabia.

The pirate raids punctuated wars among local rulers. These were increasingly exacerbated by France and England, who backed rival sultans to play out their own contest for domination. In the mid-19th century, Ngazidja was unified by Sultan Said Ali, who in 1886 signed an unpopular pact that declared the island a French protectorate. That same year, Mwali, the smallest island, also fell to the French, who called it Mohéli. The sultans of Nzwani and Maore (French: Mayotte) had ceded their powers several decades earlier. Two years later, in 1888, the Comoros ceded all sovereign rights, and the entire archipelago became a single French colony.

The official French presence meant little to the many Comorians who continued their subsistence routines of farming, gathering fruit, fishing and praying at the islands' more than 1400 mosques. Historically, there was virtually no inter-island economy, as each island, separately ruled, made do with its own farming, village markets and modest overseas trade. Despite the islands' location on the trade routes, Comorians themselves ultimately profited little from the traffic. The islands served as way stations and sources of unprocessed—and thus less profitable—natural products, including wood, vanilla, coffee beans and coconuts.

Today, much remains the same. Roads connect villages, and many villages have grown into towns, but men and women still frequently walk long distances to market. The French influence endures in Comorian institutions: the mail, the banks, the telephones, the airport and seaport, the electricity, the plumbing and even the framework of the Comorian government all have their origins in French colonial rule.

"I remember when the French came," says Mohammed Adam, a blind 102-year-old villager and storyteller around whose house children throng. "They made the people carry them on their backs. You see, there were no roads as there are now, and it would take a whole day to walk from one village to another. I remember once I was given the task of getting a message to the sultan of a village at the south end of the island, very far away. Well, I was not going to walk all that way. I took the message to a village nearby and gave the message to that sultan instead. If he wanted to pass it along, so be it. That was how we lived with the French."

Adam is still respected by people who come to his one-room house from around the island to hear the history of their greatgrandfathers and to resolve their conflicts through the wisdom of someone who has lived nearly two average lifetimes.

"That is how we learned to live with them," he continues. "We did things our own way." He rises, then asks to be helped down to the mosque for sunset prayers.

Adam described the stubborn spirit that led to independence and today's Comorian struggle to find a stable niche in the world economy. In the 1960's, the Comorians formed political parties in opposition to French rule; in 1975, three islands declared their independence. When Comorian independence was recognized by the United Nations, France withdrew its economic support, and the resulting chaos has taken years to resolve.

The country's first democratic elections, in 1975, failed, and two deadly, mercenary-led coups punctuated the following 15 years. The islands again held a democratic vote in 1990, followed by election of a unicameral federal assembly in 1992. An attempted coup was fended off last year, and this year the government of President Said Mohammed Djohar peacefully ceded power to the newly elected Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim. There are 24 active political parties, and opposition voices are faint but legal.

Following the 1992 elections, and after six years of lobbying by Comorian officials, the League of Arab States agreed to admit the country into the organization in 1993.

Comorian society is very old and complex and it seems we have been sleeping for 150 years," says Finance Minister Mohammed M'Chamgama, a serious yet affable politician in his late 40's who earned his doctorate at the London School of Economics. "We have been linked to France by an umbilical cord," he says, "and we have now to find our own way. But it is too easy to blame France. We have to blame ourselves and decide what we want to do."

"We do not have big industries here," says Ahmad Said, a student living in Moroni, the nation's capital. "And at least half of us are out of work. The economic situation is drastic. For now, we cannot do anything without the help of other countries." Arabian Gulf countries have promised economic assistance—if planning and implementation can be carried out dependably. But the demands of today's global economy seem daunting in a country that has historically depended on subsistence agriculture carried out in the shadow of opposing political forces, domestic and foreign. So the larger Comorian challenge is to sort out old ways and new to emerge successfully, and quickly, as a unified, sovereign and self-reliant nation.

In a small school in a rocky field by the village of Mitsamiouli, an old Shirazi town of 5000 on the north coast of Ngazidja, children's voices recite in unison at the tops of their lungs: the Arabic alphabet in one room, multiplication tables in another. Thabit Ibrahim, the headmaster, holds out his hands in a gesture that asks, "What can be done?"

The children here—about 200 students up to age 15—are almost entirely without books, paper or pens, Ibrahim points out. Even so, he adds, there is a waiting list of 500 to get into the school.

"We have only 20 books, and they are in French," he explains. Books in Arabic have been ordered from Saudi Arabia, he says, "and next year, God willing, we will teach handicrafts and mechanics."

However spartan the settings, education has spread widely in the independent Comoros. While Qur'anic schools have always been the foundation of learning on the islands, today they are mainly the basis of preschool education. Principles of Islam and the learning of Arabic script account for two years of the public education curriculum, which is structured on the French model, with six years of primary education and three to four years of pre-secondary education, followed by training in a lycée, or secondary school. Comorian lycées offer training in agricultural management, education, mechanics, health and other basic subjects. University education is available only abroad.

In 1939, there were 10 primary schools throughout the islands and only five students attended secondary school—and they had to travel to Madagascar. In 1980, nearly 300 schools throughout the Comoro Islands offered basic education to between 50 and 75 percent of Comorian children. Today, nearly all children are literate in the Comorian language, which uses the Arabic script, and most are very familiar with Arabic, French and Swahili.

"Our children are used to ways that are modern," said Sittou Raghadat Mohamed, Minister for Social Affairs, Works and Employment. "They receive news about the world in schools. They hear things on the radio. They see movies. We are not so isolated here as we once were. We women are also feeling new power. We can form our parties and run for election. But [democracy] is not our tradition, and [our] freedom is very young."

Most Comorians are still employed in subsistence farming, with goods bought and sold at small town markets. In Moroni, colorful stalls selling anything from Madagascar woodcrafts, embroidered cloths and perfume oils cover one official market, while a more casual place near a shuttered post office offers coconuts, bananas, fish, jackfruit and whatever can be grown or slaughtered. All is spread out on shiromanis, the black-and-white and red-and-white patterned shawls that are both dress-cover and veil for the modern Comorian woman.

The market, particularly, is a woman's domain: She sells what she catches in the tidepools, picks in her garden or gathers in the surrounding forests. But more generally, it is the women who traditionally own title to family property and pass that property on to their descendants. In one village on Nzwani, women have formed a small orchestra of indigenous instruments to perform at weddings; recently, they funded construction of a much-needed cottage hospital with their earnings. Other women established a farming cooperative.

"It is the way of our mothers," says Mahmoud Ahmed, a student living in Anjouan. "This is their joy, to be independent and do things for the village."

On the porch of Ahmed's aunt's house, women gather in the morning to cut coconuts and weave palm fronds in preparation for a grand mariage, a lavish, three-day wedding to be held later that month, in accordance with long-standing Comorian tradition. As they chop and scoop, the women sing songs about their coconuts. On a palm-covered island that imports half of what it consumes, coconuts are a treasured resource, highly regarded for their yields of milk, nut meats, flavorings, oil for making soap and hard shells for building furniture and shelters.

"Our country is in a state of transition," says the director of the Office of Economy and Commerce, Corinne Delapeyre. "We have to attract investment from people here and from foreign companies, and we have to find a way to give something back. In the past, we did not have taxes, nor any way to save and invest money on our own to create factories. People would say, 'The Comorians work the earth.' But we could do more. We could manufacture—but investors want to see what they will get back. Between lack of our own money, expensive [borrowed] money from France and promised [aid] money that never arrives, our hands are tied. We cannot show them."

"The future lies in vanilla," now one of the country's top export crops, says Delapeyre, "and we have fruits, lots of them, and avocados we can export."

Martin Ottenheimer, former professor of anthropology at Kansas State University and the author of two books on the islands, Marriage in Domoni and Historical Dictionary of the Comoro Islands, observes that the modern Comorian economy was structured by France to serve its own interests. That structure is poorly adapted to the needs of an independent country. In addition, it may also have contributed to a breakdown of the traditional Comorian economy in the early part of this century. For example, Ottenheimer says, women held the family's financial power in Comorian tradition. As soon as a girl was born, her father began to build her marriage house; she owned the house upon marriage and eventually inherited the family's wealth. Since the advent of banks and formal loans, however, women no longer hold the purse strings: French-trained bank officers often restrict loans to men, ignoring women's income-earning capabilities.

In the same vein, Ottenheimer sees le grand mariage, which was often criticized for a lavishness that could beggar the sponsoring family, as playing an important role in the traditional economy. It was a way of redistributing goods and services to spread wealth more evenly among the people of the island. "Westernization is changing the whole power and economic structure of the Comoros, and we are just now seeing this play out," says Ottenheimer.

The World Bank, for one, believes the Republic of the Comoros has the necessary resources to move toward relative prosperity in the coming decades. To this end, it is instituting programs to help small farmers diversify. The path is arduous, with Comorian per-capita income standing at $510 and the country heavily reliant on external aid.

"In the past [the Comoros] spent more than they earned, but recently they seem able to control public expenditures," says Pisei Eap, an economist with the World Bank. "The country is capable. Tourism is picking up, with more than 20,000 visitors last year. Hotels are making plans for expansion. If necessary measures are put into place, the islands could see growth of four percent per year."

"The new is always a product of the old. This is what we say," says Finance Minister M'Chamgama. "Now we are being invited to countries like Egypt and Denmark as guests, to talk about development. This whole way we are talking is new. We are waking up, and with democracy, the young have been given a chance to dream."

Whether the Comoro Islands are coming into their own, or whether they can weather the stresses of the modern global economy, are questions not even savvy Comorians can answer. For now, Islam and other Comorian values mix with influences from Europe and North America, and on the islands it is a rare era of peace. Even Kartala, the volcano, has slept since shortly after independence.

Lark Ellen Gould, is the west-coast editor ofTravel Agent, a travel industry news magazine.

Ilene Perlman, a Boston-based photographer, has traveled widely in the Middle East. This is their third collaboration for Aramco World.

Scent of the Past: Ylang-Ylang—Flowers of Flowers
Photographed by Ilene Perlman

In Tagalog, ylang-ylang means "flower of flowers." Carried to the Comoros by the French, the plant spiced both the air and the island economy for a century, its aromatic essential oil important in the French perfume industry. At one time, the Comoros grew an estimated 90 percent of the world's ylang-ylang—most of it shipped to France. Now, synthetic substitutes have eclipsed what was the country's top export, and the fragrant farms that grew 1.2 million flowering trees have become a bittersweet legacy of the departed colonial era.

Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) plays a role in perfumes not unlike that of pepper in some spice blends: It is the element in the mixture that binds the ingredients and spikes the senses.

Pierre Humblot is a 69-year-old plantation owner whose grandfather, Leon Humblot, pioneered the introduction of ylang-ylang to the islands. Over the expanse of his land, the crooked, smooth-barked evergreen ylang-ylang trees are hung with flowers over-ripe and wilting. A collection of old copper vats sits idle in a shed.

"I used to be a big man," Humblot says. "I had 50 people under me. Now I have nothing." It was about five years ago, he explains, that the market began to dry up, and now he is down to two employees. He has been growing ylang-ylang since 1958, when the colonial government offered loans and incentives to spur production. Now, the essence that once made up 27 percent of the Comoros's total exports is more often than not sold for a dollar a vial to tourists passing through Moroni.

"Even the individuals who used to buy ylang-ylang no longer do, because the farmers and distillers are cutting production," Humblot says. "There is no demand in France, it seems, or no way for us to find markets in France. The government is supposed to help us, but we don't need money. We need buyers!"

The making of ylang-ylang distillate begins when the long-stalked green blossoms' five-centimeter (two-inch) petals turn yellow. In the tropical climate, this occurs year-round, but the rains of November and April make those months the favored times for picking. Each blossom is plucked with care by older children and nimble-fingered women, who fan out through the orchards with straw baskets to earn the equivalent of two dollars for the day's work. It takes approximately 45 kilograms (100 pounds) of flowers to produce one liter (about one quart) of essence.

To retain the fullest strength of the blossoms' rich scent, distillation begins promptly after picking. In a copper vat, over a wood fire, roughly 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of blossoms are simmered in about 50 liters (13 US gallons) of water for two to three hours. As the mixture boils, the essential oil is condensed and drawn off through a drip tube. When the water has evaporated, a second quantity is poured in, and the process is repeated twice in distillations that each take six to seven hours.

These first, second and third distillations produce successively weaker grades of the essence, which is then bottled and labeled. At the end of each week, the bottles are taken to town, counted and shipped to the few remaining buyers by local distribution firms. One of the largest, Société Anonyme de la Grande Comore (SAGC), was founded by Léon Humblot in 1885. It was, his grandson explains, a good business: Ylang-ylang used to sell in France for 200 times its price in the Comoros. But now, even SAGC sells little ylang-ylang, preferring the vanilla and clove trades. Some officials insist that it is too early to give up on the ylang-ylang market. "Production has dropped because [perfume] manufacturers in France are using artificial essence," says Mahmoud Aboud, a diplomatic representative of the islands. "But we don't think ylang-ylang is dead. We hope to find new markets." However, the World Bank's efforts to boost Comorian agriculture have focused on foodstuffs, rather than on export crops like ylang-ylang, in order to redress the country's unfavorable balance of food trade.

Because ylang-ylang was introduced by the French as a cash crop intended for French markets, it has no traditional value to the Comorian people. The distilled oil is used, where possible, to soothe tired muscles, soften skin or make a home smell bright, and, in a base of coconut oil, it is worn by women in le grand mariage. "It is a good plant; it makes the air smell nice," says another idled ylang-ylang farmer, Marcel Delapeyre, who lives in a village on the southern horn of Ngazidja.

"Perhaps we will make our money from vanilla," ponders Delapeyre. "We have planted many vanilla vines, and vanilla seems to be needed in places." But in the end, he says, "it is for my sons to decide."

This article appeared on pages 28-39 of the July/August 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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