The Magical Box

A Short Story

By Shameelah Khan

My grandfather had built a dream in our backyard. Like all stories from Coloured Apartheid, this one is set in Fietas, 16th Street where my mother was born and raised.

It was a week before the forced-removals to Eldorado Park that we had heard from Boeta Yusuf on Krause Street, that the government was planning on evicting us. My grandmother had internalised her life’s worth of hysteria. She was flustered, jaded and anxious about the unknown. The entire neighbourhood was. Aunties would visit each other in the last week, organising Thikrs, sending plates of food, attending the mosque more frequently. One night the community hosted a mass meeting to think about some of their solutions if and when the white men would come into Fietas and homes would crumble. My grandfather didn’t attend any of the meetings, nor did he engage in the worthless conversations of solutions or extra- prayers. Instead, we became the builders of dreams.

On Tuesday afternoon, my parents had sent a letter from London. Allie from Lenasia, a good friend of my father’s, had delivered it at odd hours of the morning. When I got back from school, he handed it to me and I stood at the foot of the chipped-coffee table in our two-bedroom house and read, with bold confidence, the voices of my far-away parents.

“assalaamhu-alaikum Ma, Pa and Mubeen.” I was grinning with delight.

“We are writing to you from London where we have been placed with another family who had to flee. They have been very generous and have allowed us to sleep in their lounge. Everything seems bigger here, but at the same time- smaller. Yesterday the lady showed me how to make Roti from scratch.”

I was disrupted by my grandmother’s cry. I held the letter firmly in my hands, my eyes catching my grandfather’s, who consoled my grandmother, telling me to proceed.

“Mummy, you would have been really proud of me. Khalil said it tasted like yours when you made it for the community on our wedding night. We cannot stay here much longer and are uncertain of where we will go next. We heard that Imam Haron is not well in Prison. If you get the chance, please let his family know that we are with him and that we carry his work with us here. It is very strange to think that South Africa is a place of vio-lence, seg- seg-sega-“

My grandfather guided my linguistic endeavour, “Segregation…”

“Segregation and sadness yet… it is the only home we know and long for. Mubeen…”

I raised my head to my grandfather and smiled. This was my time with my mummy.

“Mubeen, I hope that you are not wearing the same dirty socks to school in the mornings and that you are listening to your granny or else, I will come right back and give you one big smack.”

As my gleeful-grin slowly dissipated, I read the last line,

“Ma, Pa and Beeny, We love you very much. We will write as soon as we can. May Allah bless the Imam, his family, our family and all of the families in our community. Please don’t respond to this address- we are not sure if we will be here for much longer.”

My grandmother took the letter from me, as she had always done, and added it to her old shortbread biscuit tin with all the others she had collected over the past three years. My mother was a teacher when she was here. The kids in my class would tease me when my mummy would walk right into my class and hand me my lunch box. I had dreaded those days, but now, I find my eyes drifting to the hallway, hoping that the sound of her heels would approach my classroom one last time. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my parents, but I had a dream just before they had left in the middle of the night that my mother snuck into my room, kissed my forehead and read the four Quls, blowing it over me for protection. Now, I never forget to read my Quls before I sleep.

On Wednesday, my grandfather waited for me after school and told me to hurry up and change into old clothes, we were going to build something very very special. We had worked all afternoon and even when I felt like escaping, I knew I had to stay because nobody else would listen to my grandfather. Well, nobody would listen to him, because he never really spoke. Some days I would find him in the backyard, shirtless, ripped denim jeans hidden under his bloated tummy that now had long grey hairs tracing his navel-line, always holding a tasbeegh (prayer beads) in his hands or a cup of tea. More often than not, it was a cup of tea, the way my grandmother made it, with spices and things I didn’t like at all.

My grandfather had been building this wooden block thing for weeks and weeks now. I was just the helper, fetching tools he needed, helping him sweep up the saw-dust and reading things he scribbled on a page of instructions. I had never seen this box before but it had a mirror attached to it and a strange round thing he locked on the inside, trying to hook it to the box.

After a whole week, my grandfather had not slept. He woke up and continued to work on his wooden block project. Of course, I would hear my grandmother complain because he was making a lot of noise. My grandmother sent me to deliver some biscuits to her friend Aunty Miriam, who stayed four houses away from us. I didn’t like Aunty Miriam because she looked like a scary witch. She was very fat, with rotten front teeth, patches of grey hair and smoker’s breath. She also always had the smell of curry on her fingertips and would pinch my cheeks every time I had visited to deliver something. The only reason I went is because I wanted to see her granddaughter Fayrooz. She was the prettiest girl in Fietas. She had two different colour eyes, one blue and one green, and whenever she giggled at my hopeless magic card tricks, she would cup her mouth, hiding behind her petite-hands, trying to tuck away the gap between her teeth. I walked in and Aunty Miriam was folding her Samosas with a cigarette in her mouth, dangling at the edge of her bottom lip. She said that Fayrooz wasn’t there because she was spending time at her aunty’s house in Bosmont with her cousins. I dragged my feet home with my head down, kicking stones onto the road.

That night, sulking because I hadn’t seen Fayrooz, I heard a sound emanating from the backyard. I put on my slippers and walked to see my grandmother laughing in amazement. My grandfather was standing behind his box and from it was a stream of colourful light and sound which reflected onto our backyard white wall and I immediately knew the film, Citizen Kane, my grandfather’s favourite film of all time. The neighbours were being summoned by my grandmother “kom, kom kyk… kom gou…” and neighbours rushed into our backyard, amazed at what my grandfather had built. My grandmother gathered all of our blankets and pillows and everyone found a space to sit and watch the film in amazement in our box-like backyard. My grandfather sat beside me and placed his arms around me, drawing me in closer, planting a gentle kiss on my forehead.

Fietas was buzzing with joy for the rest of the weekend and everyone had mentioned their version of the magical movie night in our yard that weekend. We felt like celebrities and our backyard felt like a museum. Newlyweds would come and peruse, kids from the street would leave their cricket bats and soccer balls to see how the box created light and moving images and old folk with their walking sticks would trickle in every so often. I was the man in charge. I stood at the front of the Box and demonstrated how hard my Papa and I had worked to build it. People would even stay for a while longer and watch my magic tricks.

Fayrooz had finally stopped by to see it. “You and your papa are both Magicians.” She said and I proceeded to show her how the magical wooden box had worked, stumbling over my words. “Maybe one night you can come over and we can watch something on the wall.” She smiled, the smile that I loved most, “only if I can bring my granny with.” I watched her as she approached the gate, turning back to face me, she waved, only this time I was met with a full gap-toothed smile. I watched as she walked away in her pink dress and her knee-high white-floral stockings.

On Monday, we didn’t wake to the sounds of my grandfather’s hammer against the wood, but a different sound- a louder sound.

I didn’t know, that days later, carrying boxes of clothing, personal belongings, and photo albums, we would have moved to a new street in Eldorado Park with new neighbours, some that we knew and others we would learn to know and take plates of biscuits to in the Pwasa and on Labarang.

I didn’t know, that weeks later, I would find out, that Fayrooz had died during the forced removals and that the last image I had had of her was her hand waving goodbye, in a pink dress with knee-high white floral stockings and a gap-toothed smile.

I didn’t know, that years later, our Imam Haron would die a terrible and grievous death in prison on the 27th of September, 1969, when the government had angered Allah and the Cape had experienced the Earthquake.

I didn’t know, that a decade later, as a grown man, I would see my parents again on my grandfather’s funeral. We would sit in my grandmother’s lounge, once all the people had left, drinking her spiced-tea, speaking about the time my grandfather had built, with his bare hands, a magical box cinema in our backyard in Fietas.

Photo by David Goldblatt