Aswan, Egypt: Final resting place of Aga Khan III; and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s message to the 49th Hereditary Imam of the Ismaili Muslims on his succession


[An extended version of this post can be read on Simerg’s sister blog Barakah which was launched in 2017 as an honour and dedication to the 49th Hereditary Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Shah Karim al Husssaini, His Highness the Aga Khan, on the auspicious and historic occasion of his 60th Imamat anniversary or the Diamond Jubilee — Ed.]

When the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan, passed away on July 11, 1957 at the age of 79, he chose his 20 year old grandson, Shah Karim al Hussaini, then a student at Harvard University, to succeed him as the 49th Hereditary Imam of the community.

The late Aga Khan who was born on November 2, 1877, succeeded to the throne of Imamat on August 17, 1885, when he was only 7 years old. His Imamat of 71 years is the longest in the 1400 span of Ismaili history that goes back to the origins of Shia Islam when the Prophet Muhammad — may peace be upon him and his family — appointed his son-in-law, Ali, to continue his teachings within the Muslim community. The current 49th Imam said in an interview, that the Ismailis are the only Shia Muslims to have a living Imam, namely himself.

Aga Khan III, by Elliott & Fry, photograph. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced under a licensing agreement.

At the death of the 48th Imam in 1957, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (d. September 2022), sent the following message to the new Aga Khan through her Private Secretary:

“His Highness will be remembered by all for the wise guidance and selfless leadership which he has freely given during his many happy and eventful years. His energetic and devoted work for the League of Nations in a life dedicated to the service of his followers and to the welfare of mankind will long be remembered. In the arduous responsibility which you will be called on to bear as leader of your people, Her Majesty extends to you her sincere greetings and prayers that you may long fulfil your role as counsellor to the Ismaili community who owe you their allegiance.”

Aga Khan III had long expressed the wish that his burial should be in Aswan, Egypt. His wife, the Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan, undertook the monumental task of coordinating the construction of the mausoleum near the villa. The mausoleum was completed in about 18 months. In the meanwhile, the body of the late Imam was temporarily buried in the compounds of the Villa. The final burial then took place on February 19, 1959.

We present a selection of photographs of the mausoleum as well as other images from the historical day (for more details and photos see the post in Barakah.)

Aga Khan burial Aswan
The successor of Aga Khan III, Mawlana Sha Karim al Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan, left, his uncle Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, right, and his younger brotehr Prince Amyn Aga Khan at the back, carrying the shrouded body of the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, from its temporary resting place to the mausoleum. Photograph: Jehangir Merchant collection.
Aswan Aga Khan burial in mausoleum, Simerg
Mourners watch as the body of the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan, is carried into the mausoleum, February 19, 1959. Photograph: Jehangir Merchant collection.
Sarite Sanders Aga Khan Mausoleum Aswan, Simerg
The mausoleum of Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan, in Aswan overlooking the family’s white villa, Noor al Salaam, and the River Nile. This magnificent mausoleum of the Aga Khan was modelled on the Fatimid tombs in Egypt. Photo: © Sarite Sanders. Published in Simerg and its sister blogs Barakah and Simergphotos under a licensing agreement with Sarite Sanders.
Sarite Sanders Aga Khan Mausoleum Aswan, Simerg
High up on the west bank of the Nile in Aswan stands the tomb of Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah His Highness the Aga Khan III, the 48th Imam of the Ismailis, who died in 1957, and of his wife the Begum, who died in 2000. The Mausoleum is a very elegant pink granite structure of late 1950 origin. The Aga Khan succeeded his father in 1885 when he was eight to become the 48th Imam. Upon his death on 11 July, 1957, he was succeeded to the Imamat by his grandson, Prince Karim Aga Khan. Photo: © Sarite Sanders


The new Aga Khan on his predecessor

Aga Khan takhtnashini or ceremonial installation dar es salaam tanganyika 1957 simerg
Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, pictured on October 19, 1957 at his 1st Takhtnashini or ceremonial installation, held in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (now Tanzania). He became the 49th Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims,on July 11, 1957 at the age of 20. Photograph: Ilm Magazine, July 1977.

“Today, I am speaking to you in a city and in a country which have a particular meaning to my family and myself. On 2nd November, 1877 my beloved grandfather was born here in Karachi. Through 72 years of Imamat, he guided his spiritual children to happiness and prosperity” — Karachi, August 4, 1957.

“Many many memories come to our minds as we think of him. He achieved in his life, for our community that which could only have been accomplished normally in a period of many generations. The tributes that the world has paid him bear honest testimony to his great life and work” — Takhtnashini, ceremonial installation, Karachi, Pakistan, January 23, 1958.

Date posted: February 21, 2023.

Featured image at top of post: The mausoleum of Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan, overlooking his villa and the Nile. Photograph: Motani Family collection, Ottawa, Canada.


For an extended version of this post please click HERE.

Before departing this website, please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought-provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos

The editor may be reached via email at

“Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens,” a Once-in-a-Lifetime Book that Brings the 49th Ismaili Imam’s History and Spiritual Leadership to Life

“As he says in his own introduction to the book, Otte engaged in a deep research of the photo archives of the Aga Khan, finding images chosen for their quality but also for the fascinating story they tell. The result is a unique collection of photos, many of which have not been published before, but which, taken together, form a visual biography. It is a book about His Highness the Aga Khan, but it is also a portrait in time and space of the world seen from a different perspective, one of endless change and movement, but also one of hope” — Philip Jodidio, Preface, p. ix, “Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens”


DEPTH OF FIELD: THE AGA KHAN BEYOND THE LENS, edited by Gary Otte with texts by Bruno Freschi, Philip Jodidio, Don Cayo and Gary Otte
Hardcover 260 pp. Published by Prestel, February 2022; 220 colour illustrations. To purchase the book, please see links provided immediately after the article.



Depth of field, Aga Khan Beyond the Lens, by Gary Otte, Ismaili Imam, Simerg
Cover jacket of Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens; Hardcover, 260 pages, 25 x 30 cms, 220 colour illustrations; published by Prestel, February 2022.


I have used the Aga Khan and Hazar Imam interchangeably in my reflections about this visual biography of him, by Gary Otte  

When I finally received the long-awaited book about Hazar Imam, I gleefully looked at the cover, actually the “jacket,” with his picture. It was intriguing that this photograph portraying Hazar Imam had part of his shoulder hidden: it was found in the inside “folding”, which also has an extract from the Preface. The complete photograph appears on page 121. Then, I instinctively and happily thumbed through this delightful “coffee table” edition, as if it was just an album, though about a familiar figure, without much thought and not reading most of the captions. It soon became apparent that the three essays preceding the photographs must have a purpose and should be read before taking a second closer look at them. In my humble opinion, this is what every viewer should do since these textual and contextual commentaries guide the viewer to not only how to view the images, but also, and more importantly, to ponder over them to see beyond these images, which collectively constitute a pictorial biography of the Aga Khan.

The editor of this milestone photographic record, Gary Otte, explains in the Introduction, that as the Aga Khan’s principal photographer for some thirty years, he had ample, varied and exhausting opportunities to capture a lot of “interesting stuff.” He witnessed happenings at “exotic and iconic locations; global leaders and ordinary folks”; — and events of great historical, cultural, religious and economic significance (p. xi).


Depth of field, Aga Khan Beyond the Lens, by Gary Otte, Ismaili Imam, Simerg

“In an age dominated by moving images, still photographs continue to carry remarkable power. Nothing captures a moment as memorably. There is no movement to miss, no soundtrack to distract. It is the still photograph that becomes iconic – a fraction of a second with great impact that people can readily call to mind. Few moments in film or video imprint themselves so clearly. It is that single frame from a vivid scene that we carry with us… Like all the photographers who covered the life of the Aga Khan, I benefitted from his acceptance of us as chroniclers of history” — Gary Otte, Introduction, p. xiii, “Depth of Field, The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens”


The two hundred twenty meticulously selected photographs — ninety by him and 130 taken by some fifty other photographers — take the viewers on a panoramic tour of all aspects of the Aga Khan’s amazing life. They are not chronologically presented but were chosen because they were deemed “technically, compositionally, and editorially excellent” and were “more representative of geography, subject area and decades.” (p. xi).

Otte recommends viewers to inspect and revisit all the photographs because “every long look can reveal something new as you discover or imagine, what is happening.” (p. xi).

Philip Jodidio, a prolific author and an expert on contemporary art and architecture, has written a glowing Preface in which he comprehensively and chronologically portrays the major initiatives of Hazar Imam, who is described as “one of the most fascinating personalities in the world….he is a spiritual leader, the driving force behind numerous humanitarian and cultural organizations” as well as “one of the most important figures who has sought to bridge the divide between the Muslim world and the West” (p. v).

By reading this essay, themes and patterns will emerge in the two hundred twenty otherwise randomly presented photographs. The renowned Bruno Freschi’s brief but telling Foreword is centered on his deep respect for Otte’s superb photographic skills as well as his profound admiration of Otte’s extraordinary subject’s (The Aga Khan’s) ambitious, multidimensional, multifaceted mission, which has been so diligently and visually portrayed.

The Aga Khan’s mission, or more appropriately, his mandate as the Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, has been succinctly conveyed in excerpts from one of his numerous speeches (p. xvii) and from his historic address to the special joint session of the Canadian Parliament, on February 27, 2014. Thankfully, Jodidio has excerpted the essence of this speech in his Preface (p. v).


Depth of field, Aga Khan Beyond the Lens, by Gary Otte, Ismaili Imam, Simerg

“Gary’s photography and his curation have produced a collection with a magical quality. The reader/viewer is transported into the event-image reality. The photography is the doorway into the spirit of the frozen moment. These event-moments are the curtain in the great theatre of life. Once the curtain is raised it reveals the compelling life story of the Aga Khan, an elegant portrait of his historic mission” — Bruno Freschi, Foreword, p. xv, “Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens”


In my reflections on just a few of the photographs in this non-chronological historical biography, I hope to be faithful to the sound, revealing guidance on how to embrace each image. Evidently, beyond and behind the photographs, there must be careful and plentiful preparation and coordination, prior to, during, and even after each different event: airport arrivals and departures; protocols; media liaison; motorcade escorts; security arrangements; translators, meetings with heads of state and other leaders; banquets and speeches — to think of just a few. The photograph on page 212 shows Dr. Shafik Sachedina, Head of the Department of Jamati Institutions at the Diwan of the Ismaili Imamat, and Dr. Mohammed Khesavjee, who served as the Information Officer at Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Secretariat at Aiglemont for many years, playing complementary roles behind and at the scene. Most photographs do not show such senior and other personnel in the Aga Khan’s entourage doing the critical groundwork.

The photograph on page 163 shows Hazar Imam thanking the police escort for his motorcade. He is always mindful of the very many individuals, institutions and organizations involved during his official visits as the state guest of the host governments, and he is known to unfailingly acknowledge his gratitude to all of them. Only some of them can be seen in some of the photographs, but they were there and we have to imagine them, as explained by the editor.

Article continues below

Jacket, "Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens," 220 photographs, pictorial biography, Barakah, Nizar Motani reflection
Jacket, “Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens,” 220 photographs

In 1983 and 2008, the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim spiritual leader paid official visits as the guest of the ruling Sunni family of the emirate of Dubai (pp. 134 and 135). Significantly, the 2008 occasion was the opening ceremony of the new Ismaili Centre. We can only imagine the elaborate preparations and protocols for this historic event. Being invited as a virtual head of state by governments across the world is an unmistakable theme of this fascinating volume. So much planning and coordination by so many unseen volunteers and paid staff within and outside the Ismaili jamat is always the case.



Depth of field, Aga Khan Beyond the Lens, by Gary Otte, Ismaili Imam, Simerg

This fabulous book with its layout, font, selection of photos and essays is extraordinary — Moez Murji 

The photographs chosen are not only beautiful but were also very carefully selected, and each carries a deeper message of the Aga Khan’s incredible — and farsighted — vision. It’s indeed remarkable and an occasion of immense happiness for the Ismailis that the unbelievable results that have been achieved by Mawlana Hazar Imam in so many countries around the world are finally covered in such a well condensed pictorial book — Amin Jaffer

In this 280-page bumper pictorial biography of Mawlana Hazar Imam, which I ordered and have already received it as one of my living room’s table top collections, some of the pictures will bring alive our individual and family memories — Kamruddin Rashid

Beautiful! Now [after reading Nizar Motani’s reflections] I have to go back to the Visual Biography (love that!!) and look at it differently! Different viewers may have different meanings to different pictures. Great job Mr Gary Otte for the book and Nizar Motani for his reflections on the book — Mirza Smile 


Gary Otte’s very first illustration is a two-page panoramic view of the October 1957 Dar es Salaam Takht Nashini. It requires deep individual contemplation to merely “digest” the thousands in attendance. And much more imagining of the hundreds more involved in numerous aspects of staging this majestic enthronement ceremony, in a British colonial African country, with several non-African immigrant minorities among the heterogeneous African populations, can be a challenging mental exercise!

It is almost on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the August 4th 1972 mass Asian Expulsion by Uganda’s mercurial megalomaniac military dictator, Idi Amin Dada, that I am encountering Hazar Imam’s somber photograph with Amin. It was taken during Hazar Imam’s critical February 1972 visit to Kampala (p. 59). I was still in London completing my doctoral dissertation on the topic of Uganda’s African Civil Service, hoping to teach African History at Makerere. It so happened that I returned on that fateful day — August 4th 1972, not to a much anticipated warmest welcome at the Entebbe Airport, but to most somber news, from my parents, about the expulsion order issued just prior to my arrival!


Depth of field, Aga Khan Beyond the Lens, by Gary Otte, Ismaili Imam, Simerg

Such an epic volume should be an occasion of immense pride and happiness for every Ismaili murid. Gary Otte has clearly acknowledged that Hazar Imam remained very accommodating and patient during the long period of compiling this unprecedented collection…and has thanked Hazar Imam for taking the time to offer suggestions on choosing the photographs and the book’s design. Princess Zahra, Prince Rahim and Prince Hussain gave their time and advice on selection of photographs and the final draft of images and the text. Hence this official authorized visual biography of our 49th  Imam and a once in a life time publication, should belong in our homes — Dr Nizar Motani, author of this post


Therefore being absent from Uganda during Hazar Imam’s February visit, I can only imagine the challenging task of the local Ismaili entourage and leadership on how to brief Hazar Imam for any meeting with such a vainglorious man controlling the destiny of all Ugandans. Could Amin have given any clear signal about what was brewing in his mind prior to the alleged dream to ethnically cleanse Uganda of its much maligned Asian minorities? Could Hazar Imam have sensed any forebodings in order to prepare for all eventualities — since the expulsion order’s short deadline was met with fairly well-organized and timely evacuation under the most harrowing circumstances? I was one of the lucky ones who chose to and could leave, within a week, for the USA, but remained tormented and concerned about the rest of the family’s fate who had to plan their escape. This image on page 59 may linger for a long while but with deep gratitude that almost all Asians escaped relatively physically unscathed.

I will conclude my brief reflections about this unique official  pictorial biography of the Aga  Khan, our beloved Hazar Imam, by simply stating that such an epic  volume should be an occasion of immense pride and happiness for every Ismaili murid. The editor, Gary Otte, has clearly acknowledged that Hazar Imam remained very accommodating and patient during the long period of compiling this unprecedented collection of mostly previously unpublished photographs, from his childhood in Kenya to the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in various parts of the world, where he was welcomed by the host countries’ Heads of State as a virtual visiting head of state.

Gary Otte has thanked Hazar Imam for taking the time to offer suggestions on choosing the photographs and the book’s design. Princess Zahra, Prince Rahim and Prince Hussain gave their time and advice on selection of photographs and the final draft of images and the text.

Hence this official authorized visual biography of our 49th  Imam and a once in a life time publication, should belong in our homes. It also makes a wonderful gift to give to  thoughtfully selected non-Ismaili friends and colleagues to increase their awareness of the Aga Khan which Jodidio has stated may be  lacking in the general public. But even we, his murids, will be be astonished and overjoyed to learn so much that we cannot possibly already know about or have seen images of his multifarious undertaking, as well as his personal life.

One final thought, as I take the elderly members of the Jamat into consideration. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s life, through the photographs in this book, spans three generations. How exciting and inspiring might it be for the elders, were their children and grandchildren to sit alongside them and leaf through all the beautiful photographs of their beloved Imam, not once but on multiple occasions. Old memories would be revived and new stories, narratives, anecdotes, and perspectives would emerge, individually and collectively, adding to our knowledge of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s glorious life and Imamat. This book MUST occupy a place in all Ismaili homes.

Date posted: June 18, 2022.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared recently on Simerg’s sister website Barakah under the title Reflections on Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Pictorial Biography, “Depth of Field – The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens” by Nizar Motani.



Depth of field, Aga Khan Beyond the Lens, by Gary Otte, Ismaili Imam, Simerg
The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens; Hardcover, 260 pages, 25 x 30 cms, 220 colour illustrations; published by Prestel, February 2022.

The publisher’s recommended retail price for Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens is US $ 60.00; £ 45.00 but retailers and on-line book sellers may sell it for less. To purchase the book in Canada, click Aga Khan Museum Shop, or; in the USA, click; in the UK and other European countries, click; and in Spain and Portugal click Elsewhere, see if there is a local Amazon chapter serving your location or visit Amazon’s global page. Note that the book is also available for members of the Ismaili community at Jamatkhana literature counters around the world or through the local Jamatkhana leadership.


Simerg welcomes your feedback, review and reflections on The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens. Please complete the LEAVE A REPLY form below or click Leave a comment. Your letter may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation


Nizar Motani, Barakah, Dedicated to the Aga Khan, Mawlana Hazar Imam
Nizar Motani

Nizar A. Motani has a doctorate from the University of London (SOAS) in African history, specializing in British colonial rule in East Africa. He has been a college professor at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME) and Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI). He was the first Publication Officer at the Institute of Ismaili Studies (London, UK). He now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dr. Motani’s previous pieces on Simerg and its sister website Barakah are: 


A SHORT Youtube Presentation: Gary Otte on the Making of the Book



Before departing this website please take a moment to visit Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to more than 1500 pieces posted since the website was founded in the spring of 2009. Also visit our two sister websites, Barakah and Simergphotos.

Simerg’s editor Malik Merchant may be reached at Please follow Malik @Facebook and @Twitter.

Ismaili Diary: A rare 100 year old family photo fills in a few blanks of Ismaili Khoja history in East Africa

Author Zahir Dhalla’s Preamble: Khojas, and Indians in general, were not known for keeping personal journals. Thus, there is a dearth of records documenting our history. However, the practice of keeping family photo albums was quite widespread. Photos can fill in some of those blanks, provided someone can tell the stories behind them. This would be a valuable series, people digging into their memorabilia and writing the stories behind them. Below then, is my attempt to do so, hoping it can also serve as one of the templates that others may want to use or adapt as preferred.

Huseinali Harji (with sword) historical Zanzibar wedding photo
Photo 1: Huseinali Harji (with sword) wedding photo. In the Ismaili Club’s courtyard, Zanzibar, early 1920s. It used to be the British Club where Dr. David Livingstone stayed in the late 1860s. Photo: Safder Alladina, Zerabai’s {10 in photo} youngest son. Captioning: Marhum Kassamali Tejpar, Roshan’s {3} husband. Please click on photo for enlargement.


Gulamhusein Harji Sumar Walji Jendhani* was a pawn broker in the Soko Mahogo neighbourhood of Zanzibar’s Stone Town. Gulamhusein had a large brood, as was common at the time, of 9 sons and 3 daughters, by three wives, the eldest son, Ali {17 in top photo}, being my paternal grandmother Sakarbai’s {16} father. This wedding photo is of Gulamhusein Harji’s third son Huseinali’s marriage to Rukiya.

{1} Hassanali (Hasina){2} Saleh{3} Roshan Abdulhusein Alidina Saleh (Mrs Kassamali Tejpar)
{4} Hamdu Wali Dilgir{5} Badru Ali Harji{6} Kasu Ali Harji
{7} Mohamedali Ali Harji{8} Abdulmalek Ali Harji{9} Gulibai Hassina Harji
{10} Zerabai Hassina Harji{11} A G Abdulhusein{12} Sherbanu Hassina Harji
{13} Hussein “Tumbo” Harji{14} Kanu{15} Rahim Husein Dilgir
{16} Sakarbai Ali Harji{17} Ali Harji 
A guide to individuals in the annotated wedding photo. Dilgir {4} composed the Ismaili anthem.

These are their stories:

All elders and a few toddlers are wearing hats, while youngsters are bare headed, the groom and his eldest brother Ali {17} are wearing ceremonial turbans. By the 1950s, hats were no longer in vogue!

Of the Gulamhusein’s nine sons, Haji (see photo 4, below) and Noorali “Mamma” are not in the above wedding photo. “Mamma” chacha is possibly in the photo, just unidentified.

The Harjis spent, all told, a couple of decades or so in Tanga, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) where at one time they ran a grocery-wines-spirits store called Planters Store. All then left Tanga: Ali {17} going to Mombasa; Haji to Lushoto (see photo 4 below); Hussein {13} to Dar es Salaam; Saleh {2} taking over the grocery business under the name Korogwe Stores, with a branch store in Korogwe, a small town west of Tanga — he also ran a petrol station in Tanga; and Huseinali (the groom) running a chai, toast, maandazi, etc. restaurant called “Karaketa” at the Korogwe railway station, which his widow Rukiya ran after his death.

Story continues after photo

Khoja Ismaili family photo, Tanga, Tanganyika.
Photo 2: Khatibai and her three sons, right to left, Mohamedali {7 in top photo}, Kasu {6} and Abdulmalek {8}, Tanga, early 1950s.

KASU {6}: Younger half-brother of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, his is a touching story.

His mother Khatibai (nee Jiwan Lalji, Itmadi, of Zanzibar), a most beautiful lady, became demented (during WWII) and was hospitalized in Nairobi. Her three sons, Mohamedali {7}, Kasu {6} and Abdulmalek {8} (in decreasing order of age; see photo 2, above) conferred and decided that they would buy a native bride in Tanga for Kasu, who would settle there as a fishmonger. His bride, Chausiku, was a fine lady, devotedly looking after Khatibai. Khatibai, despite her condition, could always remember faces. Whenever we visited her, she would smile at each one of us, lighting up the whole room! When both Kasu and Khatibai passed away, Mohamedali sent support money to Chausiku. Before he passed away, he instructed son Zul (a fine guitar player in Nairobi, now in Tri-Cities, British Columbia, Canada) to continue support payments, which he did until one day he received a letter from Chausiku’s family, informing him that she had passed away, so not to send support money any more!

ABDULMALEK {8}: Youngest half-brother of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, he was the youngest of Khatibai’s sons. There was a comical vignette he told me: In 1940, he and three friends decided to enlist in the army (WW II). Mother Khatibai was against it, while father Ali {17} was okay with the idea. They headed for Nairobi for interviews, and along the way one of them dropped out! In Nairobi, someone questioned them as to what they thought they were doing: Didn’t they know they would get only black tea and burnt roti?

Part of their enlistment interview was an examination of their education:

Q. 7 + 5? A. 11. Wrong.

Q. 14 + 9? A. 22. Wrong.

They all came up short and were told, “All you Mombasa guys are hopeless” and were given tickets to return home. Actually, Abdulmalek’s whole class in Mombasa had failed Cambridge, except for one solitary student! Abdulmalek returned to working at his old job at Fatehali Dhala Grocers for 60 shillings a month, filling candy jars, opening and displaying crates of fruit from South Africa. Once he was in the middle of enjoying a nice peach from South Africa, when in walked Count Fatehali who remarked, “It is good that you are tasting and approving these fruits because only then will customers buy them!”

ALI {17}: Father of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, he was the eldest of the 9 brothers, born in Zanzibar in c1890. In the late 1920s, he worked at a cotton ginnery in Entebbe, Uganda, alongside my paternal grandfather, Gulamhusein, Ali’s son-in-law to be. His last job was as a detective with the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) in Mombasa. He was engaged by the head of the department, an Abdallah Mzee. But soon Ali crashed his motor bike, badly hurting his leg. He retired! Before he died, he told youngest son Abdulmalek {8} that he would be reborn as his son. Sure enough, within a year of his death, a son was born, Gulamali, named by Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III. Gulamali would go on to play up his grandfather role to maximum advantage –- yes, he was untouchable!

Story continues after photo

Gulamhusein Harji Sumar residence in Zanzibar.
Photo 3: Gulamhusein Harji Sumar residence in Zanzibar.

GULIBAY {9}: Lady Gulibai, first cousin of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, was very well known in Nairobi. She married Ramzanbha of the K. B. Jamal family, owners of Tropicana bistro on Hardinge Street (now Kimathi Street), as well as of Keby’s restaurant further north of Tropicana.

SAKARBAI {16}: My paternal grandmother was very independent, not wanting to be a burden on anybody, even in death, for she had a small briefcase under her bed, which she showed everyone over time, containing everything necessary for a funeral and its rites: a shroud, cotton wool, holy water tablets (made from the earth at the well of Zam Zam), rose water, etc plus enough money for the prayer plate! Her independence also showed in how she addressed my paternal grandfather, her husband: she called him Dhalla, something unheard of in those days when a wife never called her husband by name, resorting to something oblique like “Are you listening?” or simply “Listen then”.

ZERABAI {10}: Born in Zanzibar, she moved to Tanga when she was 12/13 years old. She lived in Tanga the rest of the time until moving to Vancouver. She married Shariffbha Aladin Giga Patni. The Aladin clan adapted this name to a Muslim one: Alladina. This was around the time of the Indo-Pak hostilities after the partition. The Patni refers to people of the town of Patan in Gujarat, India, it having been built on the banks of the mythical river Saraswati.

Zerabai too, like her grandpa Gulamhusein Harji, had a large family of 5 sons and 3 daughters. She herself was of a large family; she was the eldest of a brood of 4 brothers and 6 sisters. When her mother, Khati Gulamhusein Bhaloo Kurji, died while most of her children were still growing up, her uncles Saleh {2} and Haji  stepped up and adopted all the young ones, each picking up 4 children! Zerabai herself was married off to Shariffbha when she was in her early teens.

BADRU {5}: He was the younger brother of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}. He and his family lived in two places, in Tanga first, where most of his children were born, then in Mombasa.

Story continues after photo

Photo 4: Chacha Haji with adopted children Sherbanu, Gavar and Dolat, Lushoto, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), c1930s.

Any still around? To my knowledge, none of the identified people above are alive today, although Gulibai’s {9} younger sisters, Dolat (in photo 4 above), and Lily are alive and live in Vancouver and Toronto respectively. The Harji clan today is huge, of several hundred!

Readers may be interested in viewing a collection of Noorali Harji’s historical family photos with Mawlana Hazar Imam, and learn more about Gulamhusein Harji Sumar.

Date posted: April 23, 2020.
Last updated: May 1, 2020 (added 1905 historical photo in author’s footnote, see below).


* Author’s footnote: Gulamhusein Harji Sumar (father of the groom, with the sword in the wedding photo) was a member of the first Supreme Council for Africa, 1905, Zanzibar. Itmadi Jiwan Lalji (father of Khatibai, photo 2) was a member too. Please see Noorali Harji’s historical family photos with Mawlana Hazar Imam.

Gulamhusein Bhaloo Kurji (maternal grandfather of Zerabai, number 10 in the wedding photo) ditto.

All the above three are also in the classic photo of Imam Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III with the Supreme Council; see photo 5 below.

Aga Khan III 1905 Zanzibar historical photo with Ismaili leaders
Photo 5: Zanzibar 1905 — Aga Khan III, 48th Ismaili Imam, with Ismaili leaders. BACK ROW (left to right): Mohamed Bhanji, Gulamhussein Harji Sumar, Mohamed Rashid Alana, Ali Valli Issa, Gulamhussein Karmali Bhaloo; CENTRE ROW (left to right): Peermohamed Kanji, Visram Harji, President Varas Mohamed Remtulla Hemani, MAWLANA SULTAN MAHOMED SHAH, HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN, Varas Salehmohamed Kasmani, Fazal Issani, Gulamhussein Bhaloo Kurji; FRONT ROW (left to right): Mukhi Rajabali Gangji, Varas Kassam Damani, Varas Janmohamed Hansraj, Rai Mitha Jessa, Juma Bhagat Ismail, Itmadi Jivan Lalji, Salehmohamed Valli Dharsi, Janmohamed Jetha, Kamadia Fazal Shivji. Photo Credit: Nashir Abdulla Collection, Ottawa, Canada. Please click on photo for an annotated version.


Zahir K. Dhalla is a retired GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and IT (Information Technology) freelance consultant in Toronto, Canada. He is a graduate of the University of Nairobi, Kenya (mapping science) and the University of Toronto, Canada (computer science). In addition to his non-fiction writings (see list below) he has also written many private biographies as family keepsakes. He is also the editor of Ismailis of Tanga.

Zahir Dhalla’s books available from Amazon: 

  1. My F-word Plan: How I Routinely Maintain Low Weight & Good Health
  2. Poetry: The Magic of Few Words (Definition and Some Poetry on East Africa)
  3. Nine Ginans of Nine Ismaili Pirs: A Brief History of Khoja Ismailis
  4. Learn Good Swahili Step by Step: A Complete Language Textbook in 3 volumes:
    • A Complete Grammar
    • Swahili-English Dictionary (5,750 words)
    • English-Swahili Dictionary (5,750 words)
  5. The Willowdale Jamat Khana Story
  6. Writing [Auto] Biographies: Demonstrated by author’s early autobiography
  7. From Kibwezi to Kensington: Sherbanu K. Dhalla’s Memories of East Africa
  8. My Tanga Days: 1950s & 60s
  9. Learn Urdu: اُردو: Read, Write, Speak, includes 4,000-word Tri-directional Dictionary
  10. Naked Eye Astronomy: How to Read the Heavens
  11. Two Short Stories: I. Happy Phoebe, II. Troglodytes
  12. Khojo Aawyo! The Khoja has Come! A Story of Migrations
  13. Editor:

Also, read Zahir’s piece in Simergphotos Bagamoyo Beach Landing, where Aga Khan III was the first Ismaili Imam ever to set foot on East African soil in 1899.

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