The following are two excerpts from “The Muezzin and I”, forthcoming in a collection of essays, Kitaab of the World: Writing Islam in South Africa, edited by Gabeba Baderoon and Louise Green.
The piece is written in the form of an autobiographical lexicon and entries range from the earnest to the quirky. It has no pretensions towards the encyclopedic and is based rather on the fragmentary, the idiosyncratic, the half-assimilated and half-understood. Some are purely autobiographical, others are about versions (South African, Paarl’s, my father’s) of the Islamic.
The male voice in Islam finds its apotheosis in the muezzin (mu’atthin, also bilal) – the person who performs the call to prayer and who interacts in a loose call-and-response format with the imam during Friday’s sermon – or in recognised recitors who have turned recitation from the Quran into an art form by following a set of rules both aesthetic and spiritual, and known as Tajwid. One such legend was Abdul Basit (1927-1988), an Egyptian who had apparently memorised the Quran by age ten. Basit made recordings of his work commercially available, and he garnered a huge following, pulling large crowds at recitals. Video recordings of his work may now even be found on the web.
While there were several muezzins in my hometown, one of them had a sublime voice which could draw tears from the men in mosque. He was a lanky, gentle, and unassuming man, often dressed in a light blue robe, which complemented eyes that were either light grey or light blue. Quiet, and a loner not typically drawn to stand and chat and joke in groups outside the mosque after evening prayers in Ramadan, he had the manner of an ascetic.
Often as he left mosque and drove off, the adults would lower their voices in scattered, badly veiled remarks about his predilection for prostitutes, perhaps young rent boys – I forget.
Could it be that the muezzin’s shame – if it should be called that – found expression in an aesthetic of asceticism on the minaret, imploring his god to guard him from desire, even as he knows the futility of that hope for denial, and yet graceful in its imploring, granting peace to both him and his human audience? And is there always the possibility that the aesthetic, the beautiful, veils something shameful? Can it be that the transcendence which the aesthetic promises its producer is an unconscious aim, itself an undiscovered desire that forces into being something equal to the original desire, the desire of the body now returned as the body of the spiritual (that which makes the aesthetic), so that the thing that finally draws men to tears, that grants them too a form of transcendence, is the very thing the muezzin seeks to control, to deny?
The conflict in Palestine, or the mistaken religious framing thereof, reaches every outpost of the Muslim and Jewish world. And it is compelling, partly, because everything comes together in a knot so involved and complicated, that, as if tied by a landlubber without knowledge of knots, it cannot ever again be untied. Is it, simply, a conflict over resources (as ultimately all such conflicts tend to be), or between religions? Ethnicity? Does one side with Palestinians because the majority of them are Muslim, rather than choose sides based on objective issues? Are there any objective issues left?
What about the theological proximity between the two religions, sharing as they do a vengeful God?
Despite tit-for-tat vilifications that obtain on both sides in the ideological wars over Palestine – geographically, a struggle so far removed from my childhood everyday – I also grew up in a household and community where real life interactions with Jewish people were as normal as could be in apartheid South Africa. Interactions with Jewish shop owners, for instance, were always civil on both sides, even warm, and my father might from time to time prefer going to a ‘Jewish’ clothing shop, for the cut of their cloth may be better than another shop’s.
A brief ideological victory came to Paarl Muslims one Ramadan in the form of S—, a Jewish teenager who had apparently found in Islam whatever it was that he was seeking. He was in his late teens, two or three years older than me. I do not know the specific story of his conversion to Islam, but S—, or S—, as he was now known, was quickly taken in by the ‘community’. His ideological use value was obvious: here was a Jewish person who turned to Islam and who was treated as, simply, a fellow Muslim. Although, the latter – not admitting his difference – marks his difference as deeply as would admitting it.
And yet, there was something in it – not admitting his difference. Nights after mosque, S— could be found huddling and bantering with other youth on the stoep or on the pavement outside the mosque. In mannerism and behaviour, and in discourse and lingo, he almost immediately resembled the Muslim boys. Or, rather, when I first saw him in a huddle outside mosque, I could spot little difference. He knew all the idiosyncratic nicknames (behind their backs, of course) and titles of address for the adults, and he also knew the ruts along which oft-repeated jokes about some of the quirky adult characters ran.
Although I encountered him only a few times, outside mosque, and not in any extended social interaction such as he apparently enjoyed – breaking fast and having supper at families’ homes, perhaps sleeping over – I remember myself wondering about his other life, his Jewish life. Surely his parents must wonder where he is? What does he tell them? Nothing? Vague answers that signal adolescent rebellion? His apparent freedom of movement indicated that they must have accepted whatever response he muttered. What broad-minded parents!
It is unlikely that his conversion could have remained a secret though. Almost all Muslims knew about S—. The town was small and economic relations meant that many people worked, in often intimate relationships, in shops and business owned by white Paarl, Jewish and otherwise. The story surely must have gotten out. Perhaps S— did tell his parents that he had become Muslim?
Inevitably, the whispers started. He was a Zionist spy, and yes, most people made no distinction between S— being Jewish and Zionist politics. Factions developed. Some elders still shook his hand after mosque with the same warmth and generosity of spirit; some became cold, but not in a crass, explicit way. A hand was still extended, but only so as to keep the peace in a huddle, perhaps also marked by an ambivalence that maintained a curiosity, an interest.
My father had a different theory, or perhaps had an additional perspective. As he could be blindingly racist and bigoted – always explained and justified by the fact that the targets of his bigotry were not Muslim, that the religious distinction redeemed the bigotry – it was most likely that my father bought into the spy-theory. But, he added – or, And, he added – have you noticed how he, S—, always ended up being invited to those families who had teenage daughters?
S— eventually disappeared from the Paarl Muslim community and stories then circulated that he was gay. Whether this had led to his rejection by his circles of Muslim friends and thus to an eventual petering out of relations, I do not know. Perhaps this was used to explain away his interest in Islam, that he was just someone searching for self-identity.