When a northerly wind blows, and the roads are quiet and the atmospherics right, I can hear the athaan (call to prayer) from one of the mosques down the road in Salt River. And sometimes I can hear more than one. Out of sync with each other, two calls to prayer can produce either an eerie echo or, if the pitch of both are similar, a harmony. Having grown up Muslim, there is something about the drawn out Arabic phrases, something about its familiarity, that casts me, at once, into spells of nostalgia and melancholia. But hearing the call can also be estranging. In Paarl, where I grew up, the two mosques in use during most of my childhood and teenage years were the mosques of the old Muslim neighbourhood before the Group Areas Act. No Muslims lived in earshot of the mosques anymore, and I didn’t grow up hearing the call to prayer from my house. I heard it when I was at or inside the mosque.
Since childhood, the call to prayer also comes to me via film, where it often is the score to an establishing shot for an exotic Middle Eastern location. And so one associates the athaan with a vista of buildings and minarets, with a view that requires distance, but also a view that lies elsewhere, in another country. (The athaan itself is predicated on the listener being at a distance from the mosque – it is a call to come to the mosque and pray.)
While I know it, I do not know the athaan in the same way that someone who grew up within earshot of a mosque knows it, and its gradually shifting schedule – by which you cannot set your clock, but which regulates the devout Muslim’s life. I know the athaan more from that filmic distance, and feel it, when I hear it, as if in film. Doubly romantic, doubly nostalgic, doubly melancholic. And so, whenever I hear the call to prayer from Salt River, I cannot distinguish the origin – from life or film? – of whatever it is I feel stir or going to lie down in me. I find myself at home, yet not there. Or, should I happen to have a view of Cape Town as in the films described above and I can hear an athaan from somewhere, it can momentarily feel as if I am watching a film and Cape Town is at once experienced as exotic, estranging, elsewhere, and experienced in my cautious familiarity, more knowing about the athaan in the urban spaces of Cape Town, than knowing the athaan through those spaces. (This is one aspect through which Cape Town will never be mine.)
When I hear the athaan in Ramadan, the stirring or the settling deepens. Then I do not think of Cape Town and its estrangements; then comes to me unbidden my previous home, my home-home.
During Ramadan, even Muslims who may ordinarily be negligent in devotion, turn it up several notches to signify their being-inside the mode of Ramadan. Houses brim with devotion. In our house, it was occasion for my father (generally devout) to tune his short-wave radio to distant Islamic stations, or play recordings of Quran recitals. In winter, the paraffin heater was hearth over which he would crumble frankincense.
Our household, like millions of households across the world, would find a sudden routine around the breaking of fast at dusk (Muslims fast from daybreak to dusk, not sunrise to sunset). Typically, the evening meal would be divided into the breaking of the fast, evening prayers, then supper proper.
The whole of the evening meal was elaborate. Typically and customarily, we would break our fast with a date and a few sips of water, then have a small bowl of soup. For this first part of the meal, the table would also have one or two sweet and savoury titbits: samoosas, koessieste, pumpkin fritters, corn fritters, or potato fritters. And coffee. In affluent homes there was the luxury of Coke.
The water and dates are custom and said to be in the tradition of Muhammad. The soup, my family had it, was to have something nourishing without straining the digestive system (Other families have boeber, a warm drink of sweetened milk cooked with vermicelli and spices like cardamom and cinnamon). I imagine that having sweets and savouries comes from the range of cravings that one has when fasting. Whoever prepares the table (customarily the caring mother, even if she worked, as my mother did) hopes to satisfy whatever craving you may have had during the day. So, water, dates, soup, a samoosa or two, a slug of coffee, then evening prayers (Maghrieb), then the meal proper (as one would normally have had), and, if not dazed and confused, off to mosque for late evening prayers, where, over 30 nights, one would hear the Quran recited as it was said to be revealed.
Generally, my brother and I would help my mother with preparations in the kitchen, especially on week days. My brother was expert at frying crêpes, the batter for which my mother would have mixed on the weekends, or chilli-bites, or frozen samoosas bought ready-made from a local expert. I would jam and sugar the crêpes (sugar and cinnamon), make coffee in a thermos, set the table, dates, water, plates, soup bowls, serviettes. My mother would be heating soup (her rich vegetable soup made over weekends or, when that ran out during the week or it was the last week of Ramadan, instant soup) and ladling it into bowls, which I had to carry to the table. Or she might be stirring a stew, praying that the meat was tender by the time we – the three men – finished Maghrieb prayers. A neighbour’s child might knock on the door bearing some of their cookies or savouries – Auntie Kashiefa’s pumpkin fritters or Auntie Reenie’s samoosas or someone’s too-thick crêpes filled with coconut. We’d exchange eats and so neighbours will get some of our crêpes (They’re so nice and thin!). My father would be fiddling with his short-wave or checking the mountains through the curtains, waiting for just the right hue of purple deepening at dusk. He consulted the Ramadan calendar only for rough estimates, but he needed himself to see the right purple in the sky before he announced that we could break our fast.
It was a lot of food, and after three or four days of fasting from daybreak to dusk, one generally cannot stuff it all in. The stomach shrinks. If you’re a growing teenager, though, pre-disposed to running around despite fasting, you maintain a healthy appetite and astound the adults at how much you can eat, deep into the fast. Or, having not been fasting, your stomach not shrunk, having perhaps had a meat pie as late as four in the afternoon, you befuddle adults by eating less. Or, because you were not fasting but feasting all along, your stomach hadn’t shrunk, and so you eat more than someone who would normally be fasting, and therefore, to anyone caring to notice, you couldn’t have been fasting. I can’t remember the logic, but we worked out a way through that conundrum.
So, when I hear the faint athaan blowing in from Salt River in Ramadan, I think of what is lost: the rituals, the routine, my brother showing off and flipping a crêpe in the air, the taste of tin from the canned apricot jam spread on them, in winter the small kitchen steamed up by my mother’s soup, my father wiping at the window so he may judge the colour of the sky. Or I think of what, in future accounts still to be reckoned, I have squandered.
I think I only fasted for a full month of Ramadan once. I cannot remember how old I was when I first started fasting. Children sometimes start quite early, by fasting half a day, when, biologically and in Islam, they are still innocents. Someone as young as six might want to impress their parents or peers and start fasting. I started with half days before I was a teenager.
I was maybe ten or eleven when I fasted full days and for the full month. There is peer pressure – fasting fully is a sign of growing up and, certainly, once your body is biologically adult (menstruation, sperm), fasting is compulsory. But I lasted only that once. Most of my memories of the actual fasting are of me as a teenager craving a cigarette. I could forego all food and drink, but cigarettes… And once the cigarette was had, well, you may as well eat.
It is said that, to the angels, the breath of the fasting Muslim smells of musk. By this smell the angels recognise the pious. To humans, of course, your breath smells very unlike musk. Teenagers find their humour by shoving away a friend who leans in too closely while talking: “No man, your breath smells of musk!”
When fasting, one’s sense of smell becomes heightened. That musk smell may then be more intense. But even more intense is the smell of food, especially if the food is aromatic to start off with. The yeasty smell of Paarl Bakery, in Van Riebeeck Road and on our walk home from school, and in which we knew were the most delicious chocolate éclairs – that smell any of the fasting school kids could smell from the Lady Grey Street bridge over the Berg River already. Just past the bakery was a fish and chips shop – more agony. The smell of Kentucky fried chicken – a quick, easy, hot and delicious foodstuff for those who cannot wait till dusk (hunger is the best cook) – is one of the most difficult foods to hide from both fasting Muslims and angels, even if already ingested in chunks gobbled down hastily while hiding behind parked cars, and especially if you had Coke with it. When you burp, your breath will smell unlike musk.
But, to hide the fact that you are not fasting, that you have perhaps recently feasted on fried chicken or on burgers, I recommend a glass of milk. The rank smell that dairy will leave in your mouth will mask the smell of food, and to your fellows your breath may smell like musk. And thus my Ramadan feasts, sometimes with my brother, sometimes with some (Muslim) friends, hiding down by the river bank past the Rembrandt factory, where we gorged on Big Jack pies or fish and chips, and smoked cigarette after cigarette, always ended with some milk.
It is said that the holy and pious are identified by ‘noor’ (light), a glow in their faces. On Eid, my father would say, one could see who had been observant during Ramadan. In other words, by the glow or lack of glow in your face, your father could see whether you had been fasting or feasting through Ramadan. After our ablutions getting ready for mosque on the morning of Eid, my brother and I rushed to get to my mother’s Oil of Olay, so that we may anoint ourselves with noor.
When we had the money, Kentucky Fried Chicken was the feast of choice. Salty, crispy, deep-fried chicken – the perfect food for that particular hunger. But location played an important role too. In my teenage years, the only KFC in Paarl was in Hoofstraat, central Paarl, white Paarl, and so apartheid abetted our adventures in feasting. The KFC itself wasn’t segregated, but its address didn’t see much ‘community’ traffic. It was thus easy to slip in and out unseen, while getting a Halaal meal. (Yes, there are jokes about out-of-town Muslims wandering into Muslim-owned take-outs during Ramadan and absent-mindedly asking whether the food is Halaal.)
But if or when we were too nervous, Bokkie (Leon) was always there. Non-muslim, and one of my best friends at high school and a constant companion (see ‘Dagga’), he could slip into the KFC and bring the parcel to the parking lot behind the take-out without fear. The friendship, as with many friendships in the town, was also evidence of the easy and intimate relationships between Muslim and Christian. “Sout! Daar kom Sheg Moutie,” Bokkie once exclaimed on one such KFC adventure, causing my brother and I grease-lipped conniptions. (Chips! There’s Shaik Moutie.) He was familiar with the appellation and stature of our imam. Fortunately, he was only joking.
In later years, my brother had a car – five years of blood, sweat and tears I called it. But, yes, we had a way of fast, efficient transport out of the area. So, many a fasting afternoon was spent on the outskirts of Paarl, towards the southern part of town, apartheid once again working to our advantage. There at a café at the foot of Paarl mountain, we bought pies, soft drinks, and cigarettes, and drove up the torturous, dusty dirt road to Paarl mountain, parked somewhere and stuffed our faces.
When you’re fasting, most of the time you’re waiting for sunset and dusk, you’re whiling away your time. You do things om die tyd om te maak. You do anything to take your mind off the hunger. If you’re devout, you while your time through devotion. If not, you read, you sleep and, if you have a car, you go on long drives. If you have a car, you go on long drives, and you’re not an observant faster… extra special bonus.
But around the time of my brother having his first car, Paarl got a new Imam. A native of Paarl, he came from a highly regarded devout family. In his sermons, he often castigated those who sought to while away the time. Ramadan was for strengthening one’s Islamic vows; whiling away the time indicated a lack of sincerity or conviction. Rather to use the time in devotion. Given his underbite, his fulminations against those who whiled away their time gained extra emphasis: “Hulle gaan op lang drives. Hoekom? Om die tyd om te maak. Hulle doen window shopping. Hoekom? Om die tyd om te maak” (They go on long drives. Why? To while away the time. They go window shopping. Why? To while away the time.)
What the Imam didn’t know was that some long drives weren’t simply to while away the hours; some long drives had function. Furthermore, he had given us a code: to while away the time now meant ‘let’s get some food.’
Thus my brother and I happily went on drives om die tyd om te maak. But sometimes the car was not so efficient. On a feeding frenzy that took us to Malmesbury, Bokkie with us, we ran into some trouble. I can’t remember the feast – fish and chips or meat pies. The car’s automatic transmission leaked oil and, on our way home, the gearbox started acting up – I don’t know, something about the torque converter slipping on the drive-shaft. Whenever the engine and gearbox reached a certain temperature, it seemed, the torque converter would start slipping. This would also happen when we were climbing a hill. With no gearbox oil at hand, all we could do was stop, sit in the ticking car (om die tyd om te maak) and wait for it to cool a bit, then start up and hope the converter took. So we stop-started our way home.
But the car was an obstacle in the relationship between my father and brother. Clearly, my father didn’t like the idea that my brother had – what, at the age of 20 or something – gone off and bought the shell of a car and built and reconditioned it, all independent of my father. Well, I think my father was struggling exactly between resenting this sign of independence and possible leave-taking on the one hand, and a certain paternal pride that at least one of his sons was following in his footsteps on the other hand. The upshot: if we arrived home, just at sunset – the time of breaking one’s fast – with a half broken car, who knows what kind of argument it might catalyse. So, rather than limp home, we pulled in at Bokkie’s house to try and fix the car. His parents, mercifully and typically, were off somewhere in Upington or Joburg.
This episode ends, I think, with my father driving around at sunset, looking for us. He drives past Bokkie’s, but keeps on, pretending he didn’t see us. When we eventually get home, just in time for breaking our fast, he, my father makes some pointed, sarcastic remarks about sin and punishment, and all for what? Om die tyd om te maak.
Sometimes we were brazen. I don’t know how the custom started, but during Ramadan we switched to Gauloises or Gitane, strong French cigarettes, as the smoke of choice. Milk or no milk, we got away with it.
Or, realising that another friend, W—‘s family wasn’t home, we’d go to his house to raid, heating left-overs with no mind for the time it would take (microwave ovens were still uncommon and someone might get home), the smell it would leave, or that someone would notice that some of it was gone. Or – the horror, the horror – that, unbeknownst to us, his father was home, spending time with his pigeons in the backyard.
But the best was to hide in plain sight. My brother in later years (we were young adults now) had a friend, S—, a charmer, newly married, and, fortunately for us one hungry Saturday afternoon, with a wife, F—, sick in bed. We walked into Indian Delights, the local take-out (also a hangout for us and, by extension, part of the kind of extended ‘family’ that a small town’s Muslim community might form – each known to everyone), ordered a whole grilled masala chicken and a 2L Coke and said it was for his ill wife. Those in the shop who liked to play detective were not convinced. Well, S— was out to get food for his sick wife. He just figured we may as well have some of it.
Walking up Klein Drakenstein Road, S— would wave the parcel of food at Muslims driving by, gesturing that we were going home to eat and would they join in. As with many young and struggling couples, S— and his wife had a room with his parents. As my brother and I knew them also through their courtship, it was not unusual for us to bundle into their room and picnic with them on the chicken, F— shaking her head, but smiling at the mischief of her husband and his friends.
His mother knocked on the door: “S—, vriet julle al weer hier binne?” (Are you stuffing yourselves again in here?)
“Nee Mamma, dis F— se kos wat so ruik.” (No mother, it’s F—’s food that you smell.)
Masala chicken, its smell so unlike musk.