Sunday, April 30, 2017

Takin' it to the Street...Food

- Susan, every other Sunday

In art, as in life, one should strive for balance in all things.

Since Jeff took the literary high road yesterday, in true Shakespearean style, I guess we all know which path I'll choose. (Spoiler alert... I'm all about the low-hanging fruit, so this is hardly an imposition on my part.)

And speaking of low-hanging fruit, today I'm taking you to Japan, for a look at one of the country's (*cough*) pedestrian culinary treasures...

Street food.

Fried potato on a stick, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto.

(See what I did there.)

Every country and every culture has its version of street food - snacks or meals bought from a roadside vendor and consumed at nearby parks, on folding chairs, or wandering through a variety of fascinating shops and stalls.

The vendor approach at Fushimi Inari Shrine

In Japan, the best and most bountiful street food offerings are usually found on the streets approaching Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. Vendors line the streets from dawn until dusk (and sometimes after dark), and in some places tiny permanent shops along the road (many of which have been there for generations) also offer a variety of delicious snacks and treats.

Although the offerings vary regionally, and with the seasons, it's also possible to find a few favorites country-wide. Among the more ubiquitous:

Imagawayaki - small, thick pancakes filled with sweetened bean paste. (In some places, you also see them filled with custard, meat, or other things, though adzuki bean is by far the most common filling.) 

Sweet pancake filled with adzuki bean paste.

Many are shaped like animals, and the best ones are purchased and eaten warm, moments after the vendor pulls them off the griddle.

The same pancake, before I bit his head off.

Takoyaki- savory ball-shaped pancakes filled with octopus. (No photos of this one; most of the vendors don't permit photos, and since I'm allergic to fish and uncertain whether or not I'm allergic to octopus, I take a pass on the takoyaki balls.)

Taiyaki - fish-shaped cakes filled with custard or sweet adzuki paste.

I eat far more of these than I should.

The custard ones are my favorites:

I regret nothing.

Yaki Imo - roasted sweet potatoes - generally seen in the autumn (and, sometimes, winter). Vendors roast them over charcoal and sell them wrapped in paper.

Kuri - chestnuts - also roasted directly by the side of the road (or on a cart in the park) and eaten from paper bags while hot enough to burn your fingers. Mmmmm....

Different treats are popular in different seasons, and regional specialties play a major role in the Japanese street food scene as well.

In the ancient capital city of Kamakura - now famous for its many shrines and temples - I found candied grapes:

Like candied apples, but better.

And in the Japan Alps, along a preserved section of the old Nakasendo travel road that once connected Tokyo (then Edo) with Kyoto, the local treat is gohei mochi: rice balls basted with a sweet peanut and walnut glaze and grilled over open charcoal fires.

Ate too many of these as well. Once again, I REGRET NOTHING.

Street food isn't limited to shrine and temple approaches, either - Japan has elevated snacking and roadside meals to a high and carefully practiced art. Many of my best meals in Japan have come from tiny restaurants, roadside carts, or vendor stalls - so much so that I regularly skip whatever meal would otherwise precede a trip to a shrine or temple.

It's not a question of whether I'll find something interesting along the way ... merely a matter of how quickly I fill up.

This is not something you want to find when you're already full.

And if I have to choose between the healthy, balanced breakfast I'd otherwise eat at home and a Japanese cream puff ... healthy breakfast never had a chance.

What's your favorite street food, and where does it come from? I shared ... now you share!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Shakespeare Made Me Do It...All Over Again


I think I’m losing it folks.  By that I mean I came up with this terrific idea for a poetic parody as this week’s post, one that would be challenging to write. Just what I needed to clear my head for the new novel I’m about to start.

I labored away at it, but as I did something familiar about it all had me wondering whether the Bard of Avon was playing with my mind for daring to tinker with his work. Then again, Macbeth and his dagger—the one he uses with the prompting of his lovely wife to off the king--is captured in a famous soliloquy…starting with, “Is this a dagger which I see before me,” so why would what I wrote not seem familiar?

But as I wrote, the siren song of déjà vu kept calling out to me.  That’s when I went back into my files and found I’d already plunged that dagger, in a blog I’d written and posted two-and-a-half years ago.


So, what to do?   Start afresh with perhaps a poem by one of the Dylans, or just forget all about it? 

I compromised. I’m republishing. After all, Shakespeare is read more than once, so why not Siger?   I can’t wait for the answers to that rhetorical question.

Still, no matter the inevitable slings and arrows, here’s my walk down memory lane with Mac the knife (Macbeth, Act 2, Scene1).

In this case, all Wells doesn't end quite that way.

Is this a blank page which I see before me,
The blog thought toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To writing as to sight? Or art thou but
A blogpost of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the late-night pressèd brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I write.
Thou deceived me the way that I was going,
With such inspiration I was to use.
Mine blog is made the fool o' th' other ones done,
Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still,
And on thy screen and laptop gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no blog here.
It is the bloody press to write which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtained sleep. Witchcraft celebrates
Pale god Poe’s offerings, and withered murder,
Alarmed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With deadline’s ravishing strides, towards some design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my words, which way they speak, for fear
my very stories prate of my runamuck,
And take the present offer from the time,
Which now sits on me. Whiles I write, MIE lives.
Words to the heat of reads too bold breath gives.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Where am I?

Sometimes the universe just pushes you in a certain way. Little signs that you can not and should not ignore.

Last Christmas I gave ‘him who should be ignored’  a picture of the Neuschwannstein Castle in Germany – you know the one. It was built by one of the more mad King Ludwigs. It’s the one that Walt Disney took a liking to and used it as a blue print for the Disney castle.

When I say a HWSBI a ‘photo’, I mean I cut a picture out a magazine, not a  limited edition print or anything that had actually cost me money. His present was a trip to the castle, once EasyJet  had commenced the Glasgow/Munich  flight  route  - scheduled to start at some point  in 2017.  HWSBI has always had  thing about that castle, along with Jaffa cakes and you tube clips of ring tailed lemurs cuddling kangaroos. The castle has always been on his bucket list.  He wanted to go there, visit it, then  climb the next mountain to get ‘that’ view.

And that was  where the situation was left as we ate our Christmas dinner and tried to keep the cat from swinging on the Christmas tree.

 When we were kids, my dad always took us to the camping and caravanning show at the Glasgow exhibition centre. I can still recall the scent of the fake grass, the smell of waxed canvas.  I think he was really an extreme camper. All my childhood holidays were spent suffering from hypothermia in a tent perched on the top of a  cliff somewhere, the tent pitched at an angle so we rolled away from the cliff if we turned over in our sleep. I remember one time, during a horrific storm, the two tents around us blew away but our tent – put up by my Dad with that sense of Clydebuilt engineering - stood firm and various wet and traumatised children were thrown into our sleeping compartment in various stages of distress and undress. It  stayed that way until the next morning when the farmer got his tractor out to locate and retrieve aforesaid tents. In my memory, these children were Icelandic. It turns out they were from Newcastle but I didn’t find that out till 30 years later but to my young ears the accent sounded the same.
My summer holidays are summed up by frostbite, wellies and midges but Dad  always took us to the Caravanning and Camping Show where camping was a sunny experience of picnics and laughter. My sister and I would run in and out of the tents, my Dad would study the engineering of trailer tents while poo pooing the ridiculousness of spending a summer holiday in a tin box. He didn’t see that the tin box might be preferable to a waterproof blanket slumped round a pole.

So, HWSBI and I took my mum to the motorhome show this year, probably 25 years since we’ve last been. Instead of 90% tents and 10% caravans, there was one tent, a handful of caravans and more motorhomes than there are stars in the galaxy. I might have mentioned before the bath in the 120,000 pound motorhome. (The one I didn’t like the colour of).
So that was all good. We wandered hither and thither around the exhibition centre, making comments like ‘imagine trying to park that’ and ‘those carpets would be a bugger to keep clean’.

Then we walked round the corner and there was a poster of…. The  Neunschwanstein Castle -  a castle so marvellous it changes its spelling everytime - and that view. HWSBI immediately started to lick the poster and I enquired from the young man what the £500 price tag  below the castle actually referred to.
‘ If I give you £500, do you give me a brand new Campervan to drive to Germany and take a photography of the Neunschwanstein Castle.’

‘No,’ he said ‘but well pronounced! What are you doing on the  19th of April.’
 And so began a story. One hiccup was trying to find someone willing to take Evil Cat (nice dog and nice cat almost have a waiting list of people wanting to look after them) but nobody wants to invite the Evil One, the feline of Darkness,  into their home. That plus the slight issue of viral pneumonia that kept me off my blog last week, but the day before we were due to fly on the big adventure the doctor passed me fit to travel although I  was to stay  at sea level and not get too cold. The walk  up to the  castle might be a bit  of strain….

So I am writing this blog in a sleeping bag known as a sarcophagus. I have been caught in the snow today. I am lying  in the roof section of a camper van parked high on  an alp, on front of a lake. If the handbrake isn’t on tight enough,  we could be in trouble… or in deep water I suppose.
There’s no internet. There’ s no nothing. There’s certainly no pictures on this blog but you can catch them later.

Caro Ramsay Up an alp in Barvaria  21 04 2017

And that was last week's blog that I couldn't post no matter how had we tried. I think our vote on Brexit has meant Brits can no longer tether an internet signal through a mobile phone.

So here I am late but better late than never.

Caro Ramsay  ( no longer up an alp! But still not enough signal to download a pic)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Outsiders - guest blogger Andy Muir

Andy for Michael - Thursday

Andy Muir is a successful television screenwriter in Australia. He says that while he was a writer for the hit Australian true-crime franchise Underbelly, crime stole his heart. As he explains in his guest blog, he wanted to write about somewhere different and someone different, and he's done just that in his debut novel Something for Nothing released a couple of months ago by Affirm Press. I really enjoyed it, and I'm glad to hear that there will be more crime fiction novels from Andy's computer between the scripts.

I grew up in Melbourne. I now live in Sydney. So why did I set my debut crime fiction novel Something for Nothing in the New South Wales town of Newcastle? It’s a question a number of people have asked me and one that I needed to dig a little deeper to answer.

The simple reason is I fell in love with the place after a visit. But that isn’t a satisfactory answer. I love many parts of the world. That doesn’t make me want to write about them. 

It was only after a fellow screenwriter asked me a question, that I worked out my reasons why. He was flummoxed because he’d been asked what sort of stories he liked to tell. And he didn’t have an immediate answer. Like him, I’d never thought about it until then either. But a clear pattern in my work emerged when I took a moment to think about it. What became apparent was that I liked to tell stories about outsiders.

For me, outsiders, the ones who don’t fit in, the ones having to work outside a system, living on the fringe; these are the stories and characters that have always been far more interesting for me as a reader and a writer than the insiders. It just feels a more relatable position.

Coals from Newcastle
For those that don’t know, Newcastle is about two hours’ drive north of Sydney. It’s a coastal city, a port that exports Australia’s mineral resources to the world, with an industrial history stretching back to its genesis as yet another Australian penal colony that saw a use for its convicts to dig the rich coal deposits from the ground and carve an ocean swimming pool from the rocky shore for the governor.

Bogey Hole carved by convicts to keep the governor cool

Usefully for me, as a city, most Australians know Newcastle only as a point on the map and nothing more.

Geographically, it’s an outsider to the debatably more glamorous cities of Sydney and Melbourne. But for me, Newcastle offers all the benefits of those places while providing a new location. Newcastle has spectacular beaches, wilderness areas, industry, a deep water port, mining, a long blue collar history, landed gentry, speculators and the working poor. It’s a perfect cross section of Australia offering the ability to represent the macro in the specific, a microcosm of Australia as a whole. Not that I thought about any of that while writing Something for Nothing. I just thought it was a pretty cool place I hadn’t seen or read about before.

Knowing that I didn’t want to add to the Australian crime fiction landscape by writing another tale set in Melbourne or Sydney, the Outback or join the booming crime fiction scene of Western Australia, Newcastle landed in my lap. Not being a resident there, the more I saw, explored and discovered, the more interesting it became. It wasn’t apparent at the time, but I’d found another outsider that had captured my interest.

Nobby's beach

If you ask an Australian what they know about Newcastle and they’ll mention the 2007 stranding of the Pasha Bulker cargo ship on Nobby’s Beach, or if you’re lucky, the 1989 Earthquake. If they know a little more then they might make mention of the murder of the schoolgirl Leigh Leigh that became the inspiration for a successful play and then the feature film Blackrock. They probably won’t be able to remember that the murder and the earthquake took place within about a month of each other, a piece of coincidence a writer loves to give causality to. Except life is random, unlike a story. Things happen because they do, not because they are part of a wider plan. Maybe this is why we love crime fiction as much as we all do; because we can give order and meaning to things unlike life.

Crime fiction is often the story of justice; justice being done, served or executed as evil is thwarted, stopped, and or overcome. Having spent the past few years working on the hit Australian true crime television drama franchise Underbelly, I was a little tired of telling stories of dogged cops, investigations and court cases. I didn’t feel I had it in me to write another story about cops and robbers. There are better writers than me out there who tell those tales better than I could. What I did want to explore was the crooked. From my television work, I had a theory that there were two sorts of criminals – those that were raised in a crime family that provided them with no doubts as to what they would do with their lives, and those that made a silly mistake that got them in over their head before they worked out they were trapped.

Lachie gets a bit too friendly with these...
This is where my house painting anti-hero Lachie Munro came from. Poor Lachie though suffers from both. His father is a violent armed robber and Lachie makes a couple of stupid mistakes that sees him way in over his head. Again – outsider on every level.

Writing the story, I gave myself a rule. As much as I love Scandi-noir and the other darker crime fictions out there, I didn’t want to write something that used those crimes as a plot point. I wasn’t interested in telling a story where violent or sexual assault against women or girls was a feature. No women were to be hurt in the plotting, writing and or construction of Something for Nothing. It is a fun exercise to do, giving yourself rules to work creatively.

So now you are probably working out that Something for Nothing is not your regular crime story. It is an outsider in a field of Detective Inspectors, Private Eyes and vigilantes. It harks back to the books I love to read, the stories of Elmore Leonard, and Donald Westlake that told the stories of the crooked, the dodgy and criminal. It is set in a city that provides a unique and unusual backdrop representative of the Australia I know told from the view point of an everyman trying to escape his past as he stays one step ahead of the law and other crooks in a situation of his own making. 

If that wasn’t enough, the book itself is an outsider. Unlike a lot of other crime fiction out there, Something for Nothing is funny. 


Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


April 28-30
Malice Domestic
Hyatt Regency
Bethesda, Maryland
Panel: The British Empire
(FYI- Sujata and I will be on the same panel!!!)

Thursday May 25, 6PM
Orinda Books
Orinda, California.

Wednesday May 31
Janet Rudolph Literary Salon:
"The History of Hot Places: Clashes between Colonialism and Local Cultures”
Joint appearance with Michael Cooper


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, comes out June 6, 2017.


Paper back of Rat Run published 28th March.


"The Olive Growers,” appears in BOUND BY MYSTERY, an anthology edited by Diane DiBiasi celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Poisoned Pen Press, out in March.


Dying to Live (Kubu #6) to be released in May in UK & South Africa and in October in USA

May 17
18:00 – 20:00
Orenda Road Show (Stanley)
Waterstones Piccadilly (London)

May 18-21   
Crimefest in Bristol UK (Stanley)

Thursday, May 18
Panel 14:40 - 15:30:
What Are You Hiding? - The Dark Side of Human Nature 

Friday, May 19
Panel 12:30 - 13:20
Panel: Power Corrupts - Who Can You Turn To?

May 19-21   
Franschhoek Literary Festival (Michael).

Saturday May 20        
Panel 11:30 – 12:30:
One Voice, Two Authors with Alex Latimer and Diane Awerbuck

Sunday May 21
Panel 11:30 – 12:30:
The Author as Chemist with Joanne Harris and Ekow Duker 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

In Minneapolis, Purple Still Reigns

dem atlas covers Prince this past weekend

Last weekend, when I was visiting the "Twin Cities" of Minneapolis and St. Paul, I was hit with an unexpected surge of purple.

Purple was the favorite color of Prince, a Minnesota funk-rock star--and April 21 was the one-year anniversary of his untimely death in 2016 by overdose. I grew up in St. Paul and was just a few years younger than the man born Prince Rogers Nelson. Prince released his first album, "Soft and Wet," at the age of 17, and avidly followed his every move over the next several decades, as did my sisters.  Like Prince, we were young people of color living in a state that was predominantly white. There were no black musicians played on the radio except for on our sole "black" station,  KMOJ-FM.

Scene outside First Avenue at Prince Memorial

 It was hard to make friends, or find someone willing to date you, when you were a few shades darker than the majority or had an unpronounceable name. It was exhilarating to see Prince—a small, light-skinned black man who wore lace and satin and high heels—fearlessly be himself.

Artists who perform at First Ave are celebrated in stars. Only Prince's is golden

Prince’s biggest local shows were at a large nightclub called First Avenue at the downtown Minneapolis. First Avenue remains one of the top national nightclubs that still showcases local performers. Prince’s first film, Purple Rain, is a fictitious story in which he plays "The Kid," someone very much like himself, trying to make it in show business, get the girl, and deal with some hard family issues. The 1984 movie was a hit, with Prince's artistry stealing the show. Watching it later, I notice how mixed-race his audience appeared. People seemed to forget about traditional boundaries and fell in love with his hypnotic beats and daring lyrics. I mark this as the start of a new Minnesota. 

Purple Rain, best film score ever

Prince shot to stardom shortly after I’d become 18, the legal age to go to First Avenue's night shows. When he came to Baltimore's Civic Center, I was a college student and bought a ticket to his show. I pushed my way to the edge of backstage and gave one of the roadies a note addressed to  my high school friend, Susan Moonsie, who'd become a singer one of his custom-made opening bands: Vanity Six. I was gloriously lucky to find myself escorted backstage, where I hung out with Susan all night and met the other Vanity 6 singers and the men of The Time.  However, I didn't get to exchange words with Prince. Susan didn't want to introduce me because the two of them were in an argument.

Brenda, Vanity and Susan of Vanity 6

Despite his superstar status, Prince  never abandoned Minnesota. He built a massive home and recording studio in the suburb of Chanhassen named Paisley Park, after one of his songs, and often opened it to friends and fans who came for private parties with performances. Prince sometimes showed up to play at Minneapolis’s Dakota jazz club or First Avenue. 

Paisley Park is now open to tourists

During Prince’s adult years, Minnesota diversified. The state became the chief home of refugees from Somalia. It became a leader in families with international adoptions and was said to be "the gayest city after San Francisco."

Last weekend St. Paul, Minneapolis and Edina lit their buildings and bridges purple honoring Prince

Was Prince a symbol of civic change--or was he an agent of change?

 I wondered about this as I walked through the Twin Cities last weekend listening to the top favorite 89 Prince Songs on The Current, a Minnesota Public Radio station that, like KMOJ, had a special relationship with the artist. Spring comes late in the upper Midwest—while the grass was green, the tulips were just popping and the trees were taking on a light haze of leaves. In many neighborhoods, the gardens sprouted yard signs: “Black Lives Matter,” and “Falcon Heights: The World is Watching,” a reference to the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile in my own neighborhood that came a few months after Prince's death.

The most popular sign was in rainbow hues, with the state of Minnesota on one sign and on the other, the phrase, “All Are Welcome Here." The overt activism reminded me of the growing political and spiritual content of Prince’s work in the years just before his death. He had his eyes on the world, and he wanted to keep building bridges.

In April 2015, I was living in Baltimore during a period that it seemed one black male after another was killed by police. In Baltimore, a young man named Freddie Gray was arrested on suspicion of carrying drugs; he died after a short ride to jail in a police van. During a two-day period after Freddie’s funeral, areas of Baltimore were filled with destructive protestors and hundreds of fires were set. We endured almost a week of curfew and a city takeover by soldiers with the National Guard.

We never dreamed that Prince's career would end a year later

As the city was stilling itself, the city had stilled—but hardly returned to normal—Prince announced he was coming to Baltimore to perform a free "Rally 4 Peace."  He booked the Royal Farms Arena at his own expense. He wrote a song called “Baltimore” that was compassionate yet had a happy,  bopping beat. The song will never be his greatest hit, but it seems a perfectly distilled essence of his style and dogged determination to share joy as the way forward.  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

It's all in the taste

The first round of the French Presidential election on Sunday shook things up.  In France it's been described as an 'earthquake', a 'revolution' and a 'leap into the unknown'. Political novice Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine le Pen topped the lists and will go into the second round on May 7. This marks the first time in over half a century that the traditional ruling parties of left and right have both stumbled on the first hurdle. But enough of elections.
Let's get to the sweet things.

My friend just arrived from Paris post-election and brought these for a house gift. She's welcome anytime!
What a treat after coming back from the LATimes BookFestival to find this on the kitchen table.
That's Todd Goldberg, Gary Phillips and one of Todd's writing students.
Have you ever heard of a cheese latte? Found this in LA and did not try. Will stick with the Macaroons from Paris.
But I'd like to talk about a film. A French favorite, made in 1966, that in a recent article in a Paris paper seems to be a film that is shown every April during the school break (two weeks long!) Almost everyone appears to have made this a tradition during Easter time. It got the highest ratings, as always, again this year. La Grand Voudrille or Don't Look Now we're being shot At. This is with Louis de Funes, Bouvril and Terry-Thomas.

You can watch the whole movie on youtube here and a lot of it is in English.
 A film about two ordinary Frenchmen helping the crew of a Royal Air Force bomber shot down over Paris make their way through German-occupied France to escape arrest.

For over forty years, until the release of Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, a comedy in 2008, La Grande Vadrouille was the most successful French film in France, topping the box office. It remains the third most successful film ever in France, of any nationality, behind the 1997 version of Titanic and Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis.
The plot is simple it's summer 1941. Over German-occupied France, a Royal Air Force bomber becomes lost after a mission and is shot down over Paris by German flak. Three of the crew, Sir Reginald (Terry-Thomas) Peter Cunningham and Alan MacIntosh, parachute out over the city, where they run into and are hidden by a house painter, Augustin Bouvet, (Bouvril) a puppet show operator, Juliette, and the grumbling conductor of the Opéra National de Paris, Stanislas Lefort (Louis de Funes). Involuntarily, Lefort, Juliette and Bouvet get themselves tangled up in the manhunt against the aviators led by Wehrmacht Major Achbach as they help the airmen to escape to the free zone with the help of Resistance fighters and sympathisers.
What better lens to view history then comedy?
Cara - Tuesday 

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Amber of Zanji

Annamaria on Monday

In the tenth century, an Arab traveler named al Masu’di wrote of his wonderings in Persia, India, and China.  And along the east African coast, which he called the Land of Zanj.  Chinese, Indian, and Persian traders adopted the moniker for the area from present-day Mogadishu south to Pemba Island in Tanzania.  Roughly translated “Zanj” means “the land of blacks.”

The Bantu peoples who lived there, through intermarriage and trading relationships, eventually developed what is now the Swahili culture and its language, which for a few centuries has been the lingua franca of the that part of Africa.

In the heyday of Zanj, there were thirty-seven port villages doing substantial business in imports and exports.  A few became quite prosperous, but they were under a ruling class of Arabs and Persians.   Two of the most important medieval coastal settlements are modern cities in Kenya: Malindi and Mombasa.

When he went there, at the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, Masu’di found a mixed population of Muslims and Bantu pagans.  And riches worth trading, not the least of which was amber.  Here is what he said of that highly prized substance:

“Amber is found in great quantities on the Zanj coast…The best is …sometimes as big as an ostrich egg, sometimes slightly less…”

The jewel-like substance is really fossilized tree resin, and was sought after for its beauty from the time of the cavemen.  In Zanj, it could be found lying on the beaches.

Masu’di also found other luxury goods in the area:

“The land of Zanj produces wild leopard skin.  The people wear them as clothes, or export them to Muslim countries.  They are the largest leopard skins and the most beautiful for making saddles…  They also export tortoise-shell for making combs, for which ivory is likewise used.

“There are many wild elephants but no tame ones.  The Zanj do not use them for war or anything else, but only hunt and kill them…for their ivory.  …the tusks.. go to Oman, and from there are sent to China and India.  This is the chief trade route, and if it were not so, ivory would be common in Muslim countries.”

Keep in mind that these are quotes from someone who died around 945 AD!     
Though the people in that part of Africa were often stereotyped as backward by the lighter skinned folks from farther north, many visitors thought them much more accomplished.  One Fourteenth Century Berber visitor described the city of Kilwa as “one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world.  The whole of it elegantly built.  The roofs are built with mangrove pole.”  He reported the chief qualities of the population as “devotion and piety.”

Sad to say, a major export from the area was people.  For centuries, all the countries with ports on the Indian Ocean brought in slaves taken from among the Bantu of east Africa, who did just about all the household work and soldiering in Persia and were known as far away as China, where they were called Seng Chi (Zanji).

Some of the slaves in the Middle East were put to work in miserable conditions on sugar cane plantations in what is now Iraq.  Between 869 and 883 AD, they rebelled against their Arab masters in the first known uprising by black slaves in history.

After the Middle Ages, the name Zanj fell out of use.  It was British explorers who brought it back at the end of the Nineteenth Century to describe the forbidding and mysterious land that piqued their adventurous longings.

The very sound of the word piques mine now.

Buddhist prayer beads brought home from China in 1946
by my father, with three beads of amber and one of ivory.