Do you remember the days when you were still quite new to this world and everybody lauded you and told you how beautiful and special you were and made you feel loved and wanted and safe? That’s how we felt when we were first brought, newly made, to this land. We were objects of pride and prestige. Oh, that those halcyon days would return again!
From great logs of teak or afzelia wood taken from the jungles of the Swahili Coast, we were brought to the workshops of Pemba, Lamu and Zanzibar in those prosperous decades of the mid and late 19th century. Once our shapes were roughly hewn from the wood, Arab or Indian craftsmen went to work with their mallets and chisels, skillfully carving designs of age-old origin into our various parts.
On the great doors that were intended as portals of houses and public buildings, chains were engraved into the outer edges of the jambs, symbolizing protection, with foliated scrolls embellishing the inner doorframes. Sometimes images of flowing water were included, intended to bless the family of the house with endless rejuvenation.
Our central doorposts and upper lintels, or crowns, were decorated with the lotus flower, in profile or in scrolls. These motifs were brought to East Africa by craftsmen from Gujarat, where the lotus is considered an emblem of fertility, wealth and good fortune. The crowns of the great entrance portals also often had verses from the Holy Quran carved in their centre, intended to bestow blessings and protection from evil on the occupants. Sometimes the date of completion of a door’s manufacture was also included.
Once finished, we would be loaded onto dhows and brought on the Northeast Monsoon to the port of Sur in Oman, a voyage of more than four weeks. From there, we were taken in pieces on the backs of camels to the various towns and villages skirting the edges of the desert, places such as Ibra, Al-Mudhayrib, Izz, Al-Qabil and Ad-Dariz.
The larger and more sturdy among us secured the entrances to great stone houses and meeting halls, while the smaller and more elaborate of our number safeguarded the inner rooms and treasures of our owners. Almost everyone who passed through us marveled at our beauty and lovingly touched our carved jambs. How our new owners admired us! Not mere portals we, but status symbols, signs of wealth and power.
For a century or so, we were thus prized until suddenly, everything began to change. The singing and laughter of children and the bustle of busy households became less and less until the great houses we had proudly served fell silent. The people who had daily passed under our lintels moved away, to newer dwellings. By the by, the last occupants moved out, the inner rooms were locked and the great entrance portals were closed and chained.
With the passing of the years and nobody to look after them, the great houses we inhabit began to fall derelict. Seasonal rains weakened the roofs to the point of collapse, walls crumbled and fell and for some of us fell victim to termites to gnawing away our frames. Once cherished, we are now forgotten, left to rot into oblivion.
Only now and then does a human come along to marvel at the beauty of our designs and the skillful craftsmanship of our carvings. One fat man in particular, with a strange black contraption on thin legs, keeps coming back to look at us, to rub his fingers tenderly over our embellishments and to whisper sweet endearments to us. For brief moments, we feel special again, but when he goes, we feel sad and frightened. We do not know if we’ll ever see him again, for a new danger now threatens us.
In the dead of night, gangs of young men come, armed with torches and crowbars, to hack doors such as us out of our walls and carry us away. Some doors are broken up and consigned to flames to make charcoal. Others are smuggled across borders and sold as antiques, bereft of all provenance. How many of us have vanished from our homes in this way?
So we are begging you, help stop this ravaging of the past! Do not engage in the illicit trade of antique doors. Come and visit us and admire us and study us. Tell your friends about us and about our miserable plight. Only then may we have a chance to survive and, who knows, be loved and cherished again as we once were.”