“I’m going to play you my favourite jazz album,” Hassan said as Ana and I sat down at a table in his sweets and coffee shop. “If you can guess who it is, coffee is on the house.”
He pushed play on the stereo and I listened to the opening chords of what appeared to be a pop-rock song. A husky voice began to emit from the speakers. I’m no jazz aficionado. Rock’s more of my expertise, which is what I told Hassan when he challenged me.
Two minutes in I turned to the shopkeeper. “It’s not Joe Cocker, is it?”
Hassan’s jaw dropped and a glint in his eye suggested, ‘The prodigal son has returned’. “You’re the first to guess right in the many years I keep challenging people.”
Ana was shocked. Heck, even I was shocked. Hassan rose, came over and shook my hand. “Coffee’s on the house.”
The coffee shop was located right behind the old market on the outskirts of Mombasa’s Old Town. Resembling Zanzibar’s Stone Town, it’s full of alleyways, 400-year-old mosques and a Portuguese fort, Fort Jesus, on the coast line.
Hassan offered coffee with ginger, cumin and cardamom spices. “They cool you down quicker,” he said.
A religious man of the Fatimid dynasty (named for Mohammed’s daughter) he had, “Hitch hiked 15 countries in Africa back in ’69. I studied archaeology in Glasgow, Scotland. My roommate at the university introduced me to jazz. John McLaughlin was my first session. But my favourite would have to be George Martyn.”
He has a collection of 8,000 vinyls.
“This shop has been in my family for 145 years,” he proclaimed. “Since 1868.” Although a man of religion he also believes in science. “The words of the Bible and the Koran must be taken esoterically and not literally,” he explained.
As we sipped the spiced coffee he shared with us his tales of his Indiana Jones-styled expeditions during his time as an archaeologist. “I was working with the National Geographic Society excavating in Jerusalem and discovered the House of Simon and Daniel’s grave,” he reminisced. “I also found Queen Sheba’s house – the one she got after King Solomon divorced her – in Ethiopia.” He also discovered five ancient mosques in Egypt’s Alexandria and resolved what was –at the time – one of Egypt archaeology’s greatest mysteries.
“Ramses the first and Ramses the second were both buried with their wives,” he began his tale. “But Ramses the third – the pharaoh during Moses’ time – wasn’t and for many years archaeologists dug and excavated looking for her. They thought she must be buried deep within one of the pyramids. I told them, ‘You’ll never find her because she followed Moses’ religion. Therefore she isn’t buried with Ramses.’”
“Abraham had two sons,” he drew up on a piece of paper. “Itzhak and Ishmail. God told him to sacrifice Ishmail but then that would mean he was a pagan God so it couldn’t have happened. Through the lineage of Itzhak we get the prophets Noah, Moses and eventually Jesus. Through Ishamail’s line we get Mohammed who was only proclaimed a prophet at the age of 40. Each prophet teaches mankind a valuable asset.
Adam taught agriculture. Moses taught pastoralism, Noah carpentry, Abraham navigation by the stars and sun, Jesus the dying of cloth and Mohammed was business savvy.
Mohammed, in fact, was an orphan raised by his uncle. When he was 14 he went to Damascus which was the main business hub of the day. He and his uncle met with Rabi Buhaira who warned the uncle that he must get Mohammed out of the city for there was a murder plot against him. He had been discovered as a future prophet.
Abraham had built the kaba, the black rock in Mecca.”
“What does it represent?” I asked.
“Beit – house,” Hassan said. “When the bible speaks of loving thy neighbour it doesn’t mean it in the literal sense of the guy next door. No, it means love your soul. Your soul is your nearest neighbour.”
Love thy soul. I like that interpretation.
Hassan had given us a plate of what appeared to be chips and a honey glazed pretzel which turns out, wasn’t. “You eat them together,” he explained. “It’s an Indian breakfast.”
The pretzel melted in my mouth with a sweet honey-like filling oozing out while Hassan grew quiet all of a sudden and apologised that he needed to rest a bit.
“I’m feeling a bit dizzy,” he said.
We took it as a cue to leave him be. We warmly shook hands and parted ways. I’m no religious follower or student.But Hassan’s interpretation and world view were a breath of fresh spice after visiting incredibly religious countries that took the Bible literally. On top of everything else he was also a scientist and still believed in the teachings of his favoured religion without taking it too gospel as most believers do.
“The Bible and Koran should be taken esoterically,” he had stressed repeatedly. “That’s how you avoid fanatics that give religion a bad name.”
It really was down to a simple belief – love thy soul and everything else will fall into place.