IN JULY 1994, I flew to Paris as one of six aspirant Black South African writers invited by the South African writer, Denis Hirson (resident then in Paris for twenty years), to a once-off fiction workshop sponsored by the French minister of culture. The other writers were Joan Baker, Sipho Mahlobo, Isaac Mogotsi, Roshila Nair and Mango Tshabango. Most of us had had bits and pieces published here and there, most notably Tshabango, who had had a story published in an early Staffrider. The workshop – ten week days – took place at Royaumont Abbey, a 13th century Cistercian monastery close to a small village 30-plus kilometres north of Paris. Apart from these ten days, our programme included five or so days in Paris, staying with Parisians and taking part in readings at two book stores.
I did start smoking dagga. Details evade me, but the first time would have been on that large veld where die dam was, the farmhouse now abandoned. It would have been at some point during the last three years of high school, with Bokkie, Hare and MC, who had all already tried dope a few times.
By Std. 9 or 10, an obligatory drinking culture had developed among many of our peers, some of them friends. At an older friend’s flat or in Orleans Park with friends who were already at university, and who thus had bursary money to burn and were of legal age, some of my friends drank away their weekends. ‘n Kis biere, ‘n bottel hardehout (hard tack). Four people. One evening’s drinking. Or these were friends from school who were now already at university (I failed Std 8 in 1981 and thus had old class mates a year ahead of me). I didn’t drink. While I may have been intrigued by alcohol (advertising, or from seeing an uncle from my mother’s side lean on a fence on a hot day, a chilled can of Black Label in hand), as a good Muslim boy I stayed away from it, having developed the appropriate distaste towards it and its consumers. Even had I had the interest, I would not have been able to disappear from home for two days, which was needed for my drinking friends, ‘sleeping over’ at an older, independent friend, drinking, passing out, sobering up. Read the rest of this entry »
Mervin Morkel, a classmate, introduced me to reggae at some point during the long months that we were out on national school boycotts in 1980. Deep in winter, and bored with the ‘alternative education’ programme – listening to speeches, singing ‘freedom songs’ that were mostly old spirituals or hymns – or wary that police action may be imminent, we stayed home. Mervin would visit, carrying his sought-after army knapsack brimming with vinyl records: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Forces of Victory, Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights, Jimmy Cliff’s Follow my Mind, “Remake the world” from the latter featuring as a freedom song sung at ‘mass meetings’ at school:
Too many people are suffering
Too many people are sad
Too little people got everything
While too many people got nothing
Remake the world
With love and happiness
Remake the world
Put your conscience to the test…
Bob Marley in there also, of course. Kaya, Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Zimbabwe, later Uprising. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »
Chewing a handful of raw peanuts now, I find only the faintest smell, and not quite of dagga. Perhaps the peanuts are stale.
The first time I tasted raw peanuts was when I was four. My family were on a road trip that took us along the east coast up to Durban, from there to Johannesburg and then back through the Karoo to Paarl. In Durban we stayed for a few weeks with family friends, a Hindu household that had bought new pots and stocked their fridge with Halaal meat; and a wife, mother and cook who was very happy to indulge my four-year old’s love of curry, a dish not frequently cooked in our own household. But perhaps they also indulged my taste for curry for the benefit of collective comedy. At four years old (and until I was twelve or so), my tongue struggled to find the English middle-ground between a rhotic R and palatal L, so curry and rootie, my favourite dish, became cully and loottie. One of my childhood nicknames was Cully-and-loottie, much to my growing irritation a few years later, when I cussed and threw a knife at another family friend for persisting in teasing me with this. Adults delighted in asking me what I wanted for lunch or supper. In Durban, I was asked this for breakfast too. Cully. Durban was a magical place where one could get curry for breakfast as well.
I first smelled dagga when I was seven or eight, walking to primary school with my brother. The walk took us through a small veld that was a familiar shortcut for school children and workers. Our neighbourhood, New Orleans, was a new one and of the 1970s, called a ‘community development project’ (Gemeenskapsbou-projek) by apartheid planners and part of the town planning and development required by the Group Areas Act. New Orleans was one of countless new ‘community development projects’ across the country which were to accommodate those kicked out of areas then recently declared white.
Read the rest of this entry »
I have been cleaning up some folders and came across some youthful miscellaneous pieces I thought I’d add to my archive.
There’s a trio of articles on, respectively, coffee, fish and chips, and samoosas that I wrote for Student Life in 1997 (now called SL). And there’s one on smoking, published at the now defunct World Online (Tiscali, South Africa). The Student Life articles never appeared online, while the World Online piece has disappeared, obviously due to databases suffering the vagaries of time and corporate acquisition (see http://worldonline.co.za).
Following is the English version of a letter to Nelson Mandela, commissioned by the books editor of Rapport in celebration of his 90th birthday. The Afrikaans version appeared in Rapport, 13 July 2008, with minor cuts and variations of meaning:
Firstly, even as I have never been a member of the ANC (or any political party), allow me to address you as “Comrade”. After all, growing up into a politicized young adult during the 1980s in this heart-breaking country, I shared (and still do) many of the broad visions of the future that the ANC then held.
You are now 90, and I wonder, when you look at everything around you, what goes through your head? We are a long way from the heady days of my own politicisation, and, of course, a long way from your own birth, from your eventual entanglement with and incarceration by the Pretoria regime of old. Your life has been remarkable, but you don’t need a snotkop writer to point this out. So I won’t go into detail about your achievements and credentials. Neither will I engage in my normal anti-hagiographic critique of which my friends have heard enough.
“The Book of Tongues”, a piece of short fiction I wrote, appears at the Chimurenga Library:
If you know where to look, there is a steel trap door on one of the city streets that opens with double panels, such as those leading to the basements of many shops. There is no secret code, but if you know where to look and you find the trapdoor, all you need to do is knock and Maalik, a scrawny man with an ascetic aspect and dressed in robes of light shades, will open and let you in. Past a shelf of cabbages, onions and tomatoes, he will lead you into an opening that has a few armchairs, a couch, a gas burner sporting a brass pot brewing sweet coffee, and a sparse assortment of books and magazines. You might see a few people standing around or browsing the books or sipping coffee… (ctd)
The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman, Born 1789 – Buried 2002, by Rachel Holmes (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
[Published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 14 September 2007]
The story of Saartjie Baartman is both fascinating and tragic. Smuggled from the Cape when barely an adult in 1810, she became an exhibit in an England obsessed with freak shows. Eventually freed from this indignity by abolitionists, Baartman ended up in France, modeling for French scientists. She died in 1814, of a combination of illness and alcoholism, and, I am sure, the psychological effects of the past four years of her life.
I first came across her story in Stephen Gray’s volume of poetry, Hottentot Venus and Other Poems (1979), and her story has filtered through into more literature and art in more recent times. Newspaper readers will also remember the struggle over having her remains returned to South African soil from France, and her eventual interment in Hankey, near the Gamtoos, in August 2002. Read the rest of this entry »