8 June 2010, 7:07 pm

The following is the slightly longer English version of a piece that appeared originally in Afrikaans in Rapport, 6 June 2010. Note that the sub-editors of the Afrikaans version changed my original ‘vergelyking’ to ‘teenstelling’ in my parenthetical reference to the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners)

Next to ‘hotnot’, ‘gam’* and ‘kaffer’, the epithet that hurt me most as a child was ‘kerrienaat’ (‘curry-arse’). It conflated religion and stereotyped dietary habits (Muslims eat curry every day) into a label that instantly undermined one’s authority and sense of self when playground rivalries turned nasty. It could win any argument by dismissing the rival as a ‘kerrienaat’.

As with ‘hotnot’ or ‘kaffer’, or any such words of vilification, the word’s power over its target comes from unequal social relationships and the history of real and cultural abuse that underlies such unequal relationships (Compare the declamations by the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners over the stereotypes of the ‘Afrikaner’ during the Eerste Taalbeweging).** ‘Kerrienaat’ was a powerful label because of the unequal relationships between a largely Christian world (no matter how secularised) and a minority Muslim community fragmented and further embattled following especially the Group Areas Act, which forced a close-knit community apart and into dispersed neighbourhoods. The dominant way of looking at the world was (is) essentially Christian or secularised Christianity, and this dominance allowed that world to define and misrepresent the non-Christian with impunity.

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The muezzin and I

4 December 2008, 4:28 pm

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 »

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