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.

Muezzin

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 »


Dagga – Part Two

2 December 2008, 4:18 pm

Part One

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.

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