The Muezzin and I

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article whose final and definitive form, the Version of Record, has been published in SOCIAL DYNAMICS, 22 October 2012, © Taylor & Francis, available online at:



One night at a local hangout in my neighbourhood, I joke to Adamu, a musician I occasionally bump into in such hangouts, that I was leaving early to go and do battle with my demons. It is only half a joke. He laughs and asks how many demons I face nightly. Thousands, I say.

Whenever we bump now into each other on the streets of the neighbourhood, he asks me how my battles are going. I cannot tell him that they do not go well, and that out of the many, the one I cannot conquer is the big daddy of them all: Paralysis.


The Battle of Badr (624 C.E.) may be considered as the founding battle of the Islamic state. The Muslims vanquished the Meccan Quraish, threefold in number, thus gaining control of that city and, by extension, Arabia.

As a child I listened to stories by returned pilgrims who had visited the site of the battle. They swore that by reciting a specific prayer at the site, they could hear the clash of swords and cries of men from that distant battle.


Chased, I think, by the Quraish, his own family whose hegemony in Mecca he was now challenging, Muhammad reportedly hid in a cave. His pursuers investigated the cave and found a spider-web spun across the mouth of a cave. No one could be hiding in the cave, they reasoned, otherwise the web would have been broken. Thus a spider in a cave saved Muhammad and thus I was taught not to harm spiders.

How does the child resist the pull of such literary stories?


‘Doekoem’ is both noun and verb, common in colloquial Afrikaans spoken by Muslim people. Properly ‘dukun’, it has supposed origins in pre-Islamic shamanism in the Indonesian Archipelago. As noun, it denotes a person – one who doekoems – or the entity, malevolent or benign, called up by the person. As verb, it denotes the act of such sorcery, whether it predicates a subject or object: She doekoemed him; He was doekoemed. The figure of the doekoem is not unlike the figure one might visit if in need of strong muti to aid reaching some or other objective – love, commerce, rivalry.

In my childhood, it was common to see gangsters wearing onder-koffias, the crocheted skull-cap common among Muslims in South Africa and elsewhere. Gangsters wore these even if they were non-Muslim. One explanation is that, historically, colonial courts regarded Muslims as honest people, despite their race. Thus began a tradition whereby gangsters believed that by signifying as Muslim, their word would be trusted. An explanation once offered by my father was that gangsters believed that wearing the koffia would evoke a doekoem protecting them from the law.

Sitting around our pale yellow formica kitchen table, listening to after-dinner doekoem stories told by my father’s youngest brother, who was born with the helm (caul) and could thus see, the image of the doekoem that came to my youthful mind was invariably that of a woman. She was middle-aged, lived alone in a backroom or granny-flat attached to her sibling’s house, and cooked and ate alone. Generally kind to children, she practised the not always dark but nevertheless arcane arts of doekoem. A witch, in other words, figure of fascination and fear in most oral traditions.


The first Eid is Eid-ul-Fitr, which is the first day of the tenth month, Shawwal, in the Islamic lunar calendar. It thus marks the end of Ramadan, the ninth month. In South Africa, especially the Cape, Eid is also known as Labarang, which is also the name of a town in Indonesia and a common surname there.

My father’s dictionary contained a common term of judgement, Labarang-slams: a Muslim who only appeared at mosque on Eid.

Tweede Labarang, Eid-ul-Adghaa, follows Eid-ul-Fitr by two months and a bit, and falls about ten days into the month of Dhul-Hijja, the month of Hajj. This day marks the end of Hajj and commemorates the day on which Abraham was supposed to have sacrificed his first-born son.

In mosque during and after morning prayers that celebrate this day, I first saw adult men cry freely. It is said that they, fathers of sons, cry in relief at God’s mercy for eventually requiring an animal sacrifice.


Muslims in South Africa are not divorced from western and secular influences, even if it happens at a distance from Europe. In my parents house, this confluence – and conflict – was more marked as my mother was a convert from Christianity. During spousal conflicts, she would joke to her sister, also converted to Islam, and married to my father’s brother, that ‘die Arappe en die Jore was alweer aan die baklei’ (‘Die Arabiere en die Jode was alweer aan die baklei’ – The Arabs and the Jews were at it again).

Despite being teased at school for being a kerrienaat (curry-arse), we ate curry once a week, if at all. Most of our food was South African bredies, but without the full flavour and spiciness often tasted in my Muslim friends’ houses.

And my mother’s Sunday roasts were straight out of her parents and families’ homes. Complimenting her on her roast chicken, Muslim guests would often include: it would be even nicer with some masala.


Perhaps from Afrikaans, some Cape transliteration of Arabic often hardens the soft velar fricative in haram.

Garam covers all that is forbidden, from behaviour to diet. Pork is garam. Beef, lamb, goat is garam if not slaughtered by a Muslim and according to custom. Road kill is thus garam. As a child I was taught by my father that even game is garam if one has other food. And I was taught that if there is no other food, I am allowed to eat meat that has been slaughtered according to Jewish custom.

Different sects – although ‘sect’ is too strong a word – have further prohibitions on seafood. While fish can be eaten straight out of the sea, irrespective of who killed it, some Muslims do not touch shellfish. But some of my parents’ friends who would not touch shellfish had no problems serving canned oysters and mussels.

These differences sprout from theological differences of opinion during different periods in (Sunni) Islam. The differences, however, are not significant enough to lead to different ‘denominations’, as in the history of Christianity or, indeed, as in the fundamental split between Sunni and Shiite.

Anything that intoxicates the mind is garam – alcohol, drugs – although it is well-known that the Quran has mixed messages about alcohol.

Garam transgression is common. How can it not be? The taboo cannot help but create its penumbra of enticement. And, no matter how strict the line drawn by prohibition, people create their own degrees of transgression. It is a sociological truism, for instance, that Muslim youth in South Africa readily will smoke marijuana (and use other drugs), but not touch alcohol. If they have progressed onto alcohol, there is one prohibition they will almost never transgress: pork.

Perhaps it relates to the nature of the substance. Marijuana is mostly smoked. While it affects the body, the intangible form of its ingestion does not remind the transgressor, substantively, of their transgression. Alcohol colonizes the body in a more tangible form and, while under its sway, the transgressor is constantly reminded – urine, sweat, breath – of the very bodily nature of the transgression. Ingesting and assimilating the flesh of a prohibited animal, a solid substance, is where most draw the line. It will perhaps sit in the body longer than liquid.


The last of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is for many a rebirth. Many Muslims return from the Hajj more devout, more humble, more pious.

As a child, visiting the returning Hujajj with my parents – because it is good and one believes and hopes that the blessings of Hajj extend to the visitor – I was enthralled by stories of Mecca and Medina, the legendary cities of Islam that one grew to romanticise through learning Islamic history in madrassah.

Some stories kept the lines between religion, history, legend and contemporary life intact, like one of the pilgrim hearing the sounds of battle from Badr. Or the story of the Zamzam well, which traces Meccan settlement back to Abraham. Hagar, left in the desert by Abraham while he wanders off somewhere (as prophets do), searches for water for their child, Ishmael. Following mirages, she runs seven times between two hills, Saffa and Marwah. Eventually, she finds water at the crying baby’s kicking feet. Some stories maintain that the well was opened by the brush of the angel Gabriel’s wing. Others, that the well had existed before and had merely been covered up by sand, and had now become re-opened.

Pilgrims mimic Hagar’s search for water between Saffa and Marwah, although now they do it under cover of an air-conditioned tunnel. The well still exists, and pilgrims’ stories insisted that the well maintained its miraculous abilities. If during your ablutions you wasted water, the next time your tap – fed from the well – would run at scarcely a trickle.

Other stories from returning Hujajj awed me because of the teller’s own astonishment at what he or she witnessed. On the ninth day of Dhul-Hijja, the month of Hajj, pilgrims in their thousands congregate on the plain below Mount Arafat, where Muhammad is said to have given his last sermon. Everyone is in a white, unseamed robe (everyone is equal before their God), hands stretched to the sky, and imploring God: Labbayk Allahumma Labbayk (I am here, oh Lord, I am here.) In telling this story, the returning Hujajj never failed to be transported by what they had witnessed.

But stories were also normal, parochial stories of the visitor in a strange land. The Hujajj would typically express befuddlement at Muslims from other countries performing rituals differently, exposing thus their own dogma. There were also stories of right South African mischief, teaching some everyday encountered Saudis impious words in Afrikaans.

Also treasured by children, myself included, were whatever trinkets a Hujajj brought back from Mecca. Cheap copper bangles and rings, some or other simple toy not to be found in South African shops, and so on. No matter that these may have been made in Hong Kong or Japan, we treasured and revered them because they were from Mecca. Adults too revered their scarves and fezzes.


Most Muslims believe that the first few verses of Surat Al-Alaq (The Clot) were the first revealed to Muhammad. Its first line reads: Read (Iqra), in the name of your lord who created you from a clot of blood.

In madrassah, I learnt the story surrounding this verse. Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and commanded: Iqra. Being illiterate, Muhammad protested that he could not read. Then Gabriel commanded him to read, in the name of the lord, and Muhammad read: Read (or Proclaim) in the name of thy lord/ who created you from a clot of blood/ … who teaches by the pen (who teaches the use of the pen).

The story or legend may be apocryphal. It may even be the invention of my khalifa, its purpose to impress on children God’s omnipotence. But I remember that story, placing reading and the written word so centrally in Islam, fondly.


Plural: Jamarat. The Devil. During the Hajj, pilgrims ritually stone the devil by flinging pebbles at three pillars (now walled). This re-enacts Abraham’s rebuking of the devil when the latter tempted first Abraham, then Hagar, then Ishmael to try and stop the patriarch from sacrificing his first-born to God.

Apparently this is one of the more dangerous parts of the Hajj as pilgrims are overwhelmed by their fervour to get to the devil and stampedes are the likely result. Despite the solemnity of the meaning of the ritual, pilgrims often had hilarious stories to tell about the scrabble to get enough pebbles, the jostling, missing and thus having to find more pebbles, etc.

Part of the fervour, of course, is explained by the fact that stoning the devil is symbolic of an inner struggle as well, wrestling to repudiate one’s own demons.


‘Khalifa’ is Arabic for ‘steward’ and has a range of titular applications. This is what we called the office of the person who instructed us in madrassah. Colloquially, ‘khalifa’ was thus ‘teacher’. In most cases, our khalifa would also be the spiritual leader of the community – the imam – and whom we addressed as Shaykh (phonetic approximation in Afrikaans is ‘Sheg’).

At some point in primary school, we got a new khalifa, who was from Cape Town and did his utmost to be a strict teacher, strictness, it seemed, being a requirement for righteousness and faith. Because he had a big, long nose, we called him Pinocchio. Not to his face, of course.

He was a tyrant and did much to develop in me an antipathy towards authority figures, especially religious ones. One of his favourite punishments – for not having memorised this or that battery of principles of behaviour or for mispronunciation when reading from the Quran – was to have you stand in the corner of the classroom holding a chair above your head. The chair was not to touch your head.

The cane was seldom far from his reach; when it was, his hand would do. One day he slapped my brother, who was then eleven or twelve, with the back of his hand. My father was furious and went to confront him.

I do not remember the immediate outcome of the confrontation. Eventually, he and my father became friends, and I remember even myself enjoying family visits to his house. We eventually grew to like each other, somehow – I was good at the history of Islam and, outside of madrassah, he could be as affable as anyone. I think it was mainly through his suggestion that my father hoped that I would one day become a khalifa or imam.

Lailatul Mi’raj

Night of Ascension. On this night, Gabriel appeared to Muhammad with a winged horse, Buraq. On this horse, Muhammad travelled first to Jerusalem, and then from there ascended into the heavens. Before the ascension, Gabriel opened Muhammad’s chest and washed his heart.


The male voice in Islam finds its apotheosis in the muezzin – 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 complimented 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 – looking at him now in retrospect – 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 young rent boys and/or prostitutes. My father, ready always to deliver indirect sermons without any contextual prompting to my brother and me, might drive past him, nod in greeting at a traffic light, then say, simply and sans transition, to himself but audible enough to my brother and I, and without judgemental malice and more in puzzlement: Why does he do such wrong? Does he have no shame? Young boys!

Could it be that the muezzin’s shame – if it should be called that – found an ascetic expression on the minaret, imploring with remorse his god to guard him from desire, and in this remorseful beseeching finding the grace of his aesthetic, granting peace to him and his human listeners?


My father hated nicknames, especially those based on one’s own name. A significant part of this abhorrence came from what people (Muslim friends who were also then employers) used to call him when he was young. Being physically small, he was distinguished from other people called Muhammad as ‘Gamatjie’, a common nickname in South Africa and also associated with the ‘Gamatjie and Abdoltjie’ jokes about two stereotypical buffoons. My father hated these jokes too, an aversion that rubbed off on me.

I imagine that at some time in his later adult life, the diminutive ‘Gamatjie’, even if from friends, added to a sense of humiliation for a man who, like millions of others, suffered the daily emasculations of apartheid in their workplaces. So my father started to respond harshly to any of his (Muslim) friends who still called him ‘Gamatjie’: ‘Do you go on your knees daily and offer praises to God and his prophet Gamatjie!?’ It was a powerful counter-strike on my father’s part, suggesting that by using the diminutive of a name of reverence, people were insulting Islam’s prophet.

But nicknames in the Muslim community also signal an informal, even familial, set of relations, similar to the fact that children hail adults not by Mr or Ms (Mrs?), but by Uncle and Auntie. Muslim names are abbreviated all the time: Laymie (Sulaiman), Mylie (Ismael), Gakkie (Is-haaq), Tima (Fatima), Maanie (Abduraghmaan). Of course, within the context of assertive identity politics, people are now also asserting, like my father did, that their full names be used.

Because of this informality among Muslims – no one calls each other Mr or Ms Smith or Lagardien – the two Mylies are distinguished from each other by what they do – Mylie Mechanic vs Mylie Messelaar. Or the two Laymies by what they look like: Laymie Ore vs Laymie Dikkop. And so on. The range of nicknames run the gamut of, well, nicknames.

Names, nevertheless, are important. A common understanding is that one should supposedly live up to one’s name. Customarily then, parents give their children an Arabic name which has a semantic meaning. My mother’s name, Jamielah, means ‘beautiful’; my brother’s name, Abdul-Kader, means ‘slave of God’.

My own name is Persian (Farsi), and not Arabic. As far as I can ascertain, it has no semantic meaning – I have no meaning to live up to – and my mother named me after the child of family friends. Only in my teens did I discover Matthew Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ in which Rustum, estranged from tribe and family, kills a warrior who turns out to be his son, Sohrab. Arnold based the poem on parts of the Shanamah, an epic by Persian poet Ferdowsi, composed circa late 10th to early 11th century.


This satellite has both a centripetal and centrifugal orbit; it is drawn inwards as it is flung outwards.


More mirth from returning pilgrims in the sometimes banal observation that Arabic does not have a letter ‘P’.


Qibla is the direction in which the Kaaba in Mecca lies. Muslims face qibla when praying and are buried facing qibla. Originally, qibla was al-Quds, Jerusalem, but it was changed to Mecca during the time of Muhammad.

There is some dispute as to how one determines qibla. Put simply: should a Muslim in Anchorage, Alaska face due north or, according to Mercator maps, south-east? Since the earth is a globe, facing north in Anchorage will also bring you to qibla.

Qibla (the right direction) was also a small, radical liberation organisation that allied itself with the Pan Africanist Congress during the 1980s. Inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran, it sought to bring radical Islamic values to the anti-apartheid struggle. Its leaders were imprisoned for sending operatives to Libya for training. It did not enjoy the mass popularity of the Call of Islam, which was allied to the United Democratic Front/ANC movement.


I was ten or eleven, she was in my class, but a year older. Dark hair, big dark eyes. Her name was Ragmah, that ‘g’ a soft velar fricative, sounding exactly right for the meaning of her name: mercy, grace. Ragmah, like soft rain.


Old Nic. The Devil. Satan. Also, Iblis. Or, rather, Iblis is the big daddy, the devil himself; Iblis is also called Shaitaan sometimes, while Shaitaan is also a generic term for all entities and things evil. Iblis is a jinn who, because of his devotion to God, was made equal to angels, then refused God’s order that all angels bow before Adam. Akin to Lucifer, although Iblis started out as a jinn.

Jinn, my father told me, are made from the white of flames; other sources indicate that jinn are made from ‘smokeless fire’. That Iblis was good enough to be made equal to angels suggest that jinn are generally good. But there are bad jinn too. They all wander the earth, and doekoems may be approached and implored to seek the services of bad jinn or to exorcise them.


The takbeer is best known in South Africa (via Muslim activism against apartheid) as the chanting of the Arabic phrase for “God is great” – Allahu Akbar. To takbeer is to say that phrase.

There is another meaning to takbeer; whether idiosyncratic to South African Islam or certain sectors of it, or whether known as takbeer across the Muslim world, I do not know. This takbeer consists of a short prayer normally chanted repeatedly, but the prayer has certain restrictions.

During Ramadan, the dead are unchained and wander the earth, visiting the homes of the pious. If one enunciates this second takbeer at any time during Ramadan, one would commit a grave error, because in verbalising it, one will force the unchained dead back to their graves. Once the new moon that signals the end of Ramadan and heralds the new month has been sighted, this takbeer is given free reign. The repeated chanting of this prayer, more than anything else, signals to me the end of Ramadan. Walking into a mosque on the night before Eid and on the morning of Eid itself, with this prayer ringing in the ears, there is a palpable sense of lightness and relief.

As a child, I naturally wondered at the idea that words could have this power – return the dead to their graves. And I wondered, if I had to mouth half the prayer, would the dead start their return and then stop halfway? Would they return to wandering, or linger halfway to the grave, until the new moon?


One of Muhammad’s revered companions and third caliph/khalifa (his reign from 644 to 656 CE); the last caliph of a united Islamic world. He himself did much to retain such unity, including canonising the Quran, recognising that regional interpretations and variations in regional copies of the Quran could lead to division. Under his rule, the empire expanded, but his reforms intensified the imperial momentum towards profiteering.

It is after Uthmaan’s assassination that the Sunni-Shiite schism becomes more than theological. Up to this point, the theological variant that would eventually underpin Shiite Islam was a part of Islam in general. That is, theological differences between ur-Sunni and ur-Shiite were of little consequence. ‘Shiah’ simply meant ‘follower’ or ‘partisan’. Indeed, Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and who would become the first Imam of Shiite Islam (Shiat-Ali – followers of Ali), was part of Muhammad’s inner circle, and he accepted, even if gingerly, the first three caliphs chosen as respective successors to Muhammad more or less by consensus of the inner circle. One form of this ‘voting’ process was thus: nomination was by grabbing someone’s hand, raising it in the air and pledging your allegiance to said person. Under the pressure, I imagine, of such a form of ballot, others would soon follow suit and pledge allegiance, perhaps muttering under the breath or grumbling soon afterwards that a decision had perhaps been too hasty. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, is said to have also already been named – unbeknownst to the inner circle – by Muhammad, on his deathbed in 632, as the one to lead prayers in the mosque – imam. Thus, in some interpretation, his successor, as being the imam at prayer was a role Muhammad assumed most of the time. The followers of Ali thought that the House of Islam should belong to descendants of Muhammad, the elect rather than the elected.

The story of the early succession is byzantine. There is no written record of the first century of Islam and oral transmission makes the story susceptible to myriad variation and mythmaking. A written record of this early succession battle appears in the mid-700s, but in the context of another succession battle and thus open to further ideological manipulation. From our vantage point, it is a maze of intrigue, even if portrayed in broad strokes. (Centuries of theological nitpicking exist, and I do not pretend any specialist knowledge of the theological and philological disputes at all. I am not trying to best the learned scholars/ulemaa, but simply looking for a basic understanding myself.)

So Muhammad names Abu Bakr, who is also chosen by the inner circle as successor. Ali’s followers – and Ali perhaps too – believe that Muhammad had previously named Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, because at Khumm Muhammad had said that for whomever (God) he is friend/master, Ali is also friend/master. If Muhammad meant ‘master’, he was saying: It is for God that I am your master; in the same way Ali is your master. The equivalence of role stands whether he means your friend or friend of God (The Shiite call to prayer includes a line that refers to Ali as ‘friend of God’).

The originary myth, then, is a story full of multi-meaning. Did he mean friend for God? Of God? For God yours? Or was it simply a familial anxiety? The relationship between Muhammad and Ali was close, virtually brotherly, as Ali’s father was Muhammad’s uncle and foster. Furthermore, Ali, who often deputised as commander, had been receiving flack from some soldiers, which could explain Muhammad’s proclamation at Khumm.

The oral tradition of what Muhammad had said about almost everything is itself a complex body of discourse, with complicated routes to authoritativeness. Naturally, it provides for all sorts of political manipulation. Despite Islam’s injunction against sainthood, Muhammad’s companions are highly revered and their reportings of what he said and how he behaved forms a secondary sacred source for Muslims. Nevertheless, it first survived in oral transmission, and the interest thus of the source in relating this or that saying cannot be discounted. Words, in any language, have multiple meanings, the penumbra of which are broadened by the interest – political, ideological – of any subject combining those words in discourse, saint or not. This discourse, on its turn, can be misheard, mis- or re-framed, and so on.

Furthermore, these early successions after Muhammad involve members of the same tribe and family vying over access to the resources of an expanding empire. What has been said by whom must be taken in the context of such politicking. There is the potential for everybody to be suspicious of everyone else’s motives. And what, also, are the motives of those who retell the tale? Which version do they tell? How completely?

Eventually, the fundamental schism between Sunni and Shiite Islam starts resting on tautologies, as the political and theological are fused, and interpretations are coaxed along switchbacks and labyrinths – the political using the theological, the theological using the political. As Uthmaan’s administrators started profiteering off captured lands – before, under the previous caliphs, property remained in the hands of its original owners – dissent arose among ordinary subjects. The followers of Ali would see injustice in Uthmaan’s rule, and see this injustice as further reason to believe that Ali was the rightful heir to the office of caliph.

As I return to a childhood memory in revisiting these stories I feel as if struck, paralysed, by a mnemonic schism. The narrative has always held its appeal, for the sake of narrative, with intrigue at once driving it and emanating from it. But in childhood the narrative comes from the khalifa as a well-formed whole; no cracks, no shards, no intrigue and fractioning of the inner circle. No reference to what was at stake: empire, wealth, power. The Islamic Empire as I knew it as a child was a spiritual entity before it was ideological, its geographical, material reach evidence simply of the powers of a great religion.

Then again, to be kind to the khalifa, what young child might understand the economic imperatives of empire?

And what long, complicated line of shards and splinters, of memory and person, emotion and psychology, brings the individual to gathering others’ ancient shards and splinters? Or what great demon but that of Paralysis is a hulk made of shards and splinters which, when it wants to move, when it wants to lift an arm that bristles with sharp points or move a rusted hand as if to write, emits only metallic squeaks, a rusty hulk of a Jamarah that struggles to move now in a dark, nightly space somewhere I can only call the back of my head?

Vineyards Rugby Club

It is ironic that the rugby club in Paarl populated and supported mostly by Muslims is named after something which, in the Boland, is emblematic for wine (which is garam) more than for grapes. But The Vineyards (in Afrikaans colloquial pronounced ‘winjaats’) of my childhood inspired in others passions equal to blind faith.

On the field and in the stands, these passions frequently flared into violence among and between players and supporters. Inevitably, these clashes assumed the proportions of what now is infamously known as a ‘clash of civilisations’. If you were Muslim and interested in rugby, you supported Vineyards; if not Muslim, you supported People’s Rugby or Rangers or Violets or Gardens. There were and are exceptions, of course, but in general Vineyards vs Anyone Else was Muslims vs Christians. In fact, as schoolyard name-calling goes, there was an equivalence among the ‘kerrienaat’, Vineyards Supporter, ‘Slams’.

My father had little interest in sport, except for motor racing, and selected international events, the latter of which stood in, almost universally, as the battle between good and evil, the free world against apartheid. Almost universally, I say, because communities were also divided against each other, where national (or tribal) loyalties vied with ethical (universal) ideals, and the divide echoed that between separatist anti-apartheid sporting bodies and collaborationist ones. In the schoolyard these ‘rivalries’ translated into political arguments between supporters of non-racial South African Rugby Union (“No normal sport in an abnormal society”) and supporters of multi-racial South African Rugby Federation (“Federasie”, which had entered into limited, mixed events on terms laid down by the apartheid government). Vineyards and other SARU teams played their rugby at ‘Die Kraal’, an old, under-funded, community sporting terrain which in the recent past had grown more and more dilapidated and was eventually sold in 2003 for business development.

Anyway, my father didn’t care much for Vineyards as he considered the behaviour of players and fans (women too!) on and off the field to be a disgrace and, in his view, un-Islamic. He simply couldn’t fathom the singular obsession that governed Muslims’ winter Saturdays. Like him, I too didn’t care for Vineyards or rugby. In fact, I didn’t care much for sport in general, except when it was that battle between good and evil on the international stage. How could one avoid it, in any case, when the whole town was abuzz with talk about the Springboks and the Lions or the All Blacks. Even my father succumbed.

And almost always I felt wounded and betrayed when friends who were Vineyards (SARU) supporters turned out to be supporters of the Springboks, and not of the British Lions or the All Blacks.


Many of my Cape Town Muslim friends have never heard of Walagie, although the man who gave me that nickname was a Capetonian. But Walagie is for me a figure as much part of the landscape of legend in the Western Cape as Van Hunks and the Devil smoking it up on Table Mountain.

Walagie had an appetite of, well, legendary proportions. He could pack it in. Long after everyone had finished their supper and were now well entranced around the table by stories of doekoems and lonely brides on Karoo roads in the middle of the night, Walagie would still be eating.


A plant that needs little water.


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 all such conflicts tend to be, ultimately), 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 proximities 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 even 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 youth who had apparently found in Islam whatever it was that he was seeking. He was perhaps sixteen, maybe older by a year or two, I may have been two or three years younger than him. I do not know the 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 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— would 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 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 businesses 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 – so 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?


Zina, extra-marital sex, is garam. In the letter of the law, Islam represses sexuality. It does not require an anthropologist to recognise that. And yet, sensuality remains strong in Islam. Even if the houris promised to martyrs might be a mistranslation – are they virgins or white grapes? – the promise of paradise is sensual. It cannot be otherwise; the desert inspires such sensuality. Or is it the repression of sexuality that inspires the sensual?

In the fertile Western Cape of South Africa, where my lived experience of Islam obtains, sensuality finds its expression in food, among other things. No matter what or how little is in the cupboard, it can be rustled up into good food. And when there is more than a little in the cupboard, tables may sag under multiple dishes. Not all Muslims are good cooks, as the South African stereotype might suggest; and not all dinner tables suggest a sublimated sexuality. But food – eating – is a physical endeavour that in Muslim homes that I have known can transgress the Islamic ideal of modesty and become a place where the Muslim body revels in its pleasure. Such pleasures I too have known.

10 Responses to The Muezzin and I

  1. […] have posted two extracts from this piece before, but here’s the full text. (Due to copyright issues, I can’t place the full text here, though, so you […]

  2. Gabeba says:

    “Such pleasures too I have known.”
    Exquisite, Rustum.

  3. nat says:

    ‘such pleasures I too have known’ sounds Kavafian to me (misquotations are always interesting)

  4. RK says:

    It is a misquote (or misremembered) from something I read in a Granta – the Food edition – many years back.

  5. nat says:

    and Gabeba misquoted you…

  6. […] burn the word “Dookoom” onto the side of a hill. The word originates from the Afrikaans word dukun / doekoem, referring to spiritual healer. The word became a sort of negative term in the Cape, and signified […]

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  9. aprende a crear tus propios tejidos al crochet

    The Muezzin and I | Groundwork

  10. One of the best dress shops I’ve seen so far ;)

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