A Narrative Essay
By Shameelah Khan
On Sundays, uncle Magz and I would listen to jazz music on Khaya FM. It was our tradition. He would read the newspaper and I would watch him, observe him and learn from him. He would often hold in his hand a glass of neat whiskey and I would listen attentively to stories of him and his good friend Ahmed Timol or even his encounters with Steve Biko and his time in the Black Consciousness Movement. We are not blood-related but he had always lived with my family because his family wasn’t okay with him drinking and being part of the changing political landscape in the country. To be from a wealthy Indian family and to be associated with the black community during apartheid wasn’t something they could live with. It is strange, I could never imagine my life without Uncle Magz. My grandfather would often remark that he was a dronky or a drunkard and that Allah must forgive him for his sins. My education into Politics and Music started with this man, through the wafts of whiskey and brandy emanating from his soulful lips, Abdullah Ibrahim filling the room, newspapers stacked in the corner… this was a happy place. It was filled with sunshine and sounds that had moved me. My uncle preferred the instrumental sounds and it often took him back to his memories of the Liberation Movement. He taught me about 1976 and about the brutal-injustice of the TRC. “Is that what forgiveness looks like? You place a group of people who were treated worse than animals on a podium and let them pour their hearts out to the violent killers and all they get is a sorry. How is that forgiveness? How do you forgive someone who has murdered your family, taken everything from you? Your rights? No man. I can never forgive what they did to us.” I learnt about the time Bra Hugh alongside Kippie Moeketsi played at my great grandfather’s restaurant where they would host secret ANC meetings. Music is what had united the country. Music filtered through the townships after curfews and it was music that offered more reconciliation and spaces of forgiveness in the country. My uncle never married, but he had loved one woman his whole life. She was an Akhalwaya girl, part of the famous Akhalwaya’s food chain. Back then, everyone knew of the Akhalwayas and their food. Everyone still does. He had loved her. I once asked him why they never ended up together and he said “they used to call me a K-word lover and those years a druggy. Her father said I wouldn’t give her a life. Maybe he was right.” Whenever I think about my love for Jazz Music, I think about my uncle. I think about our stories when he moved from the Black Consciousness Movement to the ANC. My uncle loved and continues to love the ANC. I visit him whenever I can and I call him “Cha-Cha”, I also tap his shiny bald head and kiss it. I love kissing his shiny-bald head. The last time I saw him, he said that he is old and tired. He also quit drinking but every now and then, I find myself walking to his lounge on a sunny Sunday, jazz moving through the room, Duke Ellington bouncing off the walls. And then he broke the silence sitting between us, “I liss for a dop now.” I smiled… something more wanted to leave his lips, “….and some fresh biltong.”
My teacher was speaking about how sinful it was for Muslims to drink alcohol and my grandfather’s voice would echo in my head in class, “It is the Devil’s Pee, I don’t know why you kids are allowed to see him do that stuff and your mother allows it.” For the longest time, in Madressah, I would hold in all that was sacred about the ones I had loved because my Madressah wasn’t really a space for “otherness” or rather my own “otherness.” It was in a class where my teacher said that people who drink and do not pray must repent or they will go to hell. I sometimes think back to Madressah and wonder if these men teaching us had ever considered the narrative of converts or that perhaps the Muslim home was more complex than their experiences of it. It was always assumed that there was a mother and a father present or that everyone in that home was perfect and practicing. I remember raising my hand,
“Moulana, what if the person is a good person and drinks because they had a hard life? Or maybe they had a bigger reason, like they needed to fight for justice and they had nothing to drown their trauma in but alcohol. Will they be forgiven?”
“Allah is Most forgiving. So Repent.”
I was fair-skinned with green eyes, Indian-Passing. Regardless, I had to always work extremely hard in Madressah to feel “accepted” in the space. It was only myself and another boy who was not Indian or Hanafi in the Madressah. He wasn’t fair-skinned or green-eyed so he would be hit more than I would be. Madressah was an abusive space. I remember being hit often. But the boys would get beaten with sticks, or objects or a pipe that we called “The Cane.” Many people will speak about their violent experiences in Madressahs, especially non-Indians who attended Indian-Madressahs in South Africa. For me, this has always been where misogyny was protected and hidden from the outside. I remember once my cousin had played with the keys to a room and locked some boys inside as part of their game. When the principal found out, he had made him hold out his knuckles in front of him and began to beat my cousin’s hand so badly that he broke his knuckle.
My memories of Madressah shifted from fond to extremely violent. I loved my friends and we created an unbreakable sisterhood. Even today as we have grown up and chosen different paths, there is always that sacred bond that never fully disappears. But it was always very difficult for me to be myself. My real self, because I came with otherness and secrets. Where they may have had secrets too, we never showed each other much of our pains. I had lived multiple realities when I wasn’t in a neatly folded Hijaab playing stuck in the mud at break time. It was only when I stumbled across the term “Mapla”, did I realise how painful Madressah really was for someone like me and the other kid who was not Indian and what we really meant in that Islamic space. It was after madressah and we were waiting to be picked up. I remember that the clouds were changing this day and it was going to rain. One of the boys in my class was giggling with some of the other boys. They were looking at me and obviously speaking about me. I looked at them and asked if there was something they wanted to say. The fat one looked at me and giggled “are you Indian?” I rolled my eyes. They continued to giggle, “If you aren’t Indian then you are a Mapla.”
I didn’t know what that word meant so I went home and asked my very crazy, colourful, eccentric, liberal mother what a Mapla was and she was furious.
“Who mentioned that word?”
“The boys in my class said I’m a Mapla.”
“Fucking Indians. Who do they think they are calling my child that… I will come to that Madressah…”
My mother went on an anti-Indian rant. I never found out what that word was. I forgot about being called that word until one day I overheard some of my cousins speaking about it and l had learnt that it meant a mixed-breed dog. A pavement special.
Being a Muslim woman of Colour in South Africa comes with so many layers of violence. My mother would always say the reason she put us into those madressahs was because when they were young, they never learnt the right way. I wish that as a child, I had the capacity to interrogate that a bit more. My parents grew up thinking that what was taught to them in their Shafi or so-called “coloured” Madresshas was wrong. She would always say “we say ‘Gha’ and not ‘ha’… and that’s wrong. You guys must learn better.” Our parents so heavily relied on the Indian Madressahs because the shafi Madressahs were far away and a reminder of their ‘lack’ of education. I hate this so much now as an adult. I wonder how things would have been for me had I attended a different madressah. At my madressah, I feared sounding “too coloured” or tying my hijab in a certain way that would make them think otherwise, I would even dress differently and hide in a voice that was not mine. It was theirs. I had attended this violent madressah for a long time. Something in me never wanted to leave. I loved my friends and I loved my teacher. He taught me many valuable things and he was a kind man. He was a good man to his wife, and a great father. He had a softness in him that I had always admired, until the day…. of the history exam.
We were waiting to get our papers handed to us and the other non-Indian kid had not paid his school fees. The principal entered the exam room with The Cane and started beating this kid on his back until he was crying and his back was bleeding. Everyone turned a blind eye. My teacher, who I had all the respect in the world for, turned a blind eye and afterwards went to the bathroom to console him. This was the day that my love for Madressah turned into hatred. I saw the redness seep through his Kurta and I knew. I was no different to him. I broke out into tears and my teacher saw. I stared at my exam for the duration of it and nothing but my name was on it. I went home and told my mother that I never want to go back. A child was beaten on his back for not having money to study Islam and nobody said or did anything. That day forever played through my mind. It still plays in my mind. Because on that day, I was nothing but a Mapla and he was nothing but a Mapla and our tongues were coloured tongues and our backs were beating stations and our homes were broken homes and our mothers were whores and our fathers were alcoholics and our skin colour was dust and our hands were chained and we were the others …. Who meant nothing.
The second Madressah I attended was a Shiah Madressah, but we had no idea until after it had closed down of course. My mother’s best friend said there was a Saturday Madressah and we should attend. I decided that I would attend. It was there that so many things changed for me. I learnt that Madressah’s could be a political space where questions were welcomed and responses made sense. It was a Madressah in the home of the two uncles who were running it. We started every morning by reciting Quraan, then we would do Fiqh and history and then Arabic. It all made sense to me. This Madressah was a non-violent space. It felt like the wounds of my first Madressah were being attended to and my love for Quraan was cultivated once again. I was re-imagining a space of love, kindness and hope. It was here that I learnt a world of knowledge around Hazrat Ali (RA) and the love for the Ahlul-Bait. I learnt about South Africa and social justice. I learnt that a mistake in the recitation of the Quraan was not a gateway for abuse and smacks, but that of “try again, bismillah”. It is exhausting to always be surrounded by Sunni Muslims who are constantly angry about Shiah communities. I learnt from Sunni Muslims that Shiah Muslims are violent and all sorts of nonsensical hatred toward a group of Muslims who experienced great political and historical hardship. I had absolutely no idea I was attending a Shiah Madressah at the time, until it had closed down suddenly and we were not told much. I found my books I had received and, at the back, there was a stamp and it all clicked that I had attended a Shiah Madressah. My experience at this Madressah was short-lived, only a few months but the amount of healing I received in that space was unexplainable.
I have never assumed labels of any kind; I prefer to exist that way. It always shocks me when Sunni Muslims call Shiah Muslims Unbelievers, or the blatant suspicions or even the religious accusations. Once someone even said to me, Shiah’s have their own Quraan. I couldn’t believe the things I was hearing about the Shiah community from the Sunni community. I also grew up in a home that wasn’t very aware of any of these politics. But I remember saying how strange and violent their assumptions were and I wondered where they had come from… and then I was thankful that I wasn’t a Shiah in my old Madressah and I was just a coloured Mapla…. I couldn’t begin to think of what would have happened to me…
On My Mother
My mother says that she is Coloured because she grew up in Eldorado Park. My father also grew up in Eldorado Park but says that he is Indian/Malay. I never really knew what I was growing up so whenever that horrid form would come my way, the race card, I would always tick other. It was only when I started university, did I really understand who I was. I was making sense of apartheid and Racial constructions. I realised that I had been othering myself all throughout my childhood. Sure, my parents are from Eldos and the Eldos in me lives on. But I wanted to know more. This sparked my interest in memory and archive. I found out many things about myself. I found out that my mother was in fact not Coloured and my father was in fact not Indian. I found out that my father was a mix of Indian, white, Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu and that is just three generations up. I found out that my mother is a mix of Indian, white, Chinese, Polish, Coloured and Indonesian. What apartheid did was hand to us names, surnames, races and called us other. I watched as my mother thrived in her life. She travelled on her own, she built a business and she stood up to the patriarchy in her family and workspace. She is like any other “coloured” mother, crazy but strong and she has a kind heart. Her name means kind and generous and she lives up to that. All these years of searching and whenever I retreat into myself, I look for her. I search for her. I was speaking to a friend the other day and thinking back to when we were younger and we would all bathe in the same water (hahaha POC households….) and my mother loves to bathe. It is her favourite thing. What was weird was how much my mother loved bathing with us. Even now, she manages to sneak her way into my bath. Then we lay there, steam creating clouds around us, and I look at her naked body and she looks at mine. I have seen my mother throughout the years and her body almost never ages, but I know that someday it will and someday she would have lived a life of her otherness – in the otherness that I had found myself. To know memory and ancestors is to know otherness. To be a Muslim woman who has gone through many layers of herself is to also know layers of otherness. I had recently gone for an operation and my mother took me to her home. To my childhood home. As I was healing in my old bedroom, I was also morphing back into the child I once was. I reflected on many layers of myself. Beyond the veil, was a complex woman.
We live inside our mothers.
Inside the chaos of their bodies.
Inside the Mercy of their tongues.
We hate them.
We love them.
They are sometimes weak.
They are sometimes too forgiving.
We want them to leave us alone.
We want to remove them from our thoughts.
We long for them.
We want them near us.
We wish we had more time.
To say the things that scare us.
Had mothers .
Who had mothers.
Who had mothers .
Who taught them.
My Great Sheikh says in one of his Books, “Otherness is nothingness.”