On Islam and Cape Town and Friendship

Green Point Urban Park amphitheatre.
Green Point Urban Park amphitheatre.

On a blustery Sunday late last summer the girls and I had cabin fever from being alone indoors too long so we decided to take a stroll down the road to what we consider our back garden, the Green Point Urban Park. Long before we got there we saw throngs of people crossing the Main Road and streaming into the park. There must have been hundreds of men and women in long, white robes, their garments blowing out in the wind as they trekked down the long walkway with children and blankets and baskets in tow. At first I felt so horribly conspicuous and self-conscious that I considered turning around and leaving – a half-naked blonde woman in tattered denim shorts amongst these angelic creatures in their pristine, flowing robes.

We stopped at a water fountain where an old man was leaning, watching a bunch of men on their knees bowing down in prayer. I asked him what the occasion was and he explained that it was Mouloed, the prophet Mughamad’s birthday, and a very important event in the Islamic calendar. We continued to wander amongst the crowds, following the music. On the grassy plain that stretches out before the amphitheatre families sat in relaxed reverence as a male choir sang songs of such astonishing poignance and beauty that the three of us stopped dead in our tracks and didn’t move again for a long time. I forgot to be self-conscious as I became part of the celebration and absorbed the voices ringing out in praise, a south-easter lifting and carrying them up to their God.

It was foreign and familiar in equal measures. Islam might not be my religion, but it’s my heritage, and one of the most precious sounds I’ve ever heard was when I returned to Cape Town after a long time away and suddenly, on the wind, I could faintly make out the unmistakable, mournful strains of the Imam singing the evening prayer. And I stopped absolutely dead and listened with all my soul because I was home. When I was a small girl my granny and grandpa lived on the top floor of a tall block of flats off Greenmarket Square. That was the sound I would hear through the open window as I sat perched on my granny’s kitchen counter, swinging my legs as she peeled vegetables, and to this day it fills me with awe.

The first time I ever visited Bo Kaap in the early nineties (it didn’t have cool coffee shops and galleries back then) was when my friend Zulfa invited my boyfriend and I around for supper one Friday night. I am certain it was the first time I ever had supper in a not-white person’s house, and I was excited and a little bit nervous. She had been explaining ‘Bismillah’ to me, and wanted me to experience it in person. ‘Bismillah’ is the belief that whenever you feed people who visit your home, strangers or otherwise, you are honouring Allah and you will be rewarded in heaven. The food was every bit as wonderful as I had imagined, her mom having made every samoosa, daltjie and sweet pickle from scratch. We sat around their smart dining-room table and they treated us ungodly, pale strangers like honoured guests.

Zulfa remains my friend and one of the best human beings I’ve ever known and we still refer fondly to that night with her beloved mom and dad who have since passed away. And when we get together, as we did a few weeks ago (in one of those ultra cool coffee shops that line Rose Street now) we laugh so much our stomachs hurt when we say goodbye, and I wonder why I don’t talk to her every day because she is like tonic.

Sometimes when we take the girls and ourselves for a walk along the promenade at the weekend we’ll be lucky enough to encounter a Muslim wedding party with all its miniature brides and grooms, and it’s such an occasion and so ostentatious and proper and wonderful it really puts the rest of us and our blasé ways to shame. Because, really, what is this world without its rituals and formalities and dresses of shiny, white satin? We need this stuff to give life magic. Otherwise it’s just a series of grocery shops.

A while ago, coming down Lion’s Head, we found ourselves outside that little building that looks like a mosque but is actually the burial site of some very pious people called Saits (Zulfa told me) who were responsible for bringing Islam to the Cape. I’m not sure what it’s used for exactly, so far from everything, but I’ve always been attracted to holy buildings so I took off my shoes and went inside. You can immediately feel you’re not just in any old room. The air was suffused with incense and something that felt like grace. I took in the curly gold lettering and the stars and moons and the swathes of velvet and I felt a little bereft, having no religion to call my own and this one being so pretty. And I offered a prayer to Allah that he would watch over his lost children, too.

Zulfa. Need I say more?
My friend, Zulfa. Need I say more?
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A Peacock Called Don Juan

Close friends of ours who moved back from London round about the same time we left Sweden recently bought themselves a beautiful house in Hout Bay with a moody mountain view and a handsome resident peacock. Having your own peacock strutting around on the the lawn at braais while all your friends go oh my god and post pics on instagram is fun for a while, but the fabulousness wears thin when, every day at 4am, the peacock takes it upon himself to perch high on a branch in his favourite tree and call out to all the valley that he’s in the mood for love. Especially since he is the only peacock in the whole of the republic and he has to make his voice travel very far to be heard by maiden birds across the miles.

Nobody likes to be woken up day after day by squawking, least of all the anaesthetist neighbor who really can’t afford to be groggy of a morning. So, a meeting of the neighbourhood was called to try to find a solution to the problem of the pining peacock. While words like ketties and shotguns were grumpily uttered, my friends’ next-door-neighbour is a fanatical animal lover and was aghast at the suggestion that any harm should come to this gorgeous creature. Instead, she offered to call in an animal behaviourist who would communicate with the peacock, explain the situation to him and try and reach some kind of compromise which would allow the humans and the bird to live peaceably together.

So, the animal behaviourist contacts Don the peacock (he told her his name, obviously) and they have a chat about this problem and she records his thoughts and feelings in an email which she then shares with all concerned. Unfortunately, as Don ‘tells’ his human co-habitants, he isn’t actually that keen on changing his M.O. He likes living in Hout Bay, he enjoys the human contact and since it’s imperative that he finds love at this stage of his life, he won’t be stopping his mating call anytime soon. Nor moving it to a later time slot because that doesn’t suit his schedule. In other words, tough titties for you. At that, the animal behaviourist explains to him that the consequences might well be dire, but Don takes it on beak and is willing to accept his uncertain fate.

Happily for everyone – especially Don – ketties and shotguns were never needed as, before things reached a head, the lonesome Casanova was relocated to Clovelly where peahens are plentiful, and in the shagging department this dashing fellow is now positively spoilt for choice. The anaesthetist is happy, as I’m sure are his patients, and while Don’s show-offy presence is missed at gatherings, everyone’s getting a good night’s sleep which is rather more important. And it’s just one of those insane stories that wouldn’t happen in too many other parts of the world, but it’s kind of par for the course down here in the wildest of wild wests where you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

The Very Fabulous Don.
Don the peacock

The Great Imposter Complex

My favourite Facebook comment thread in the whole world by far is a conversation I stumbled upon about three months which was happening between a bunch of highly respected, serious South African journalists about how many times in their lives they have known absolutely fuckall about the topic they were supposed to be writing about and had to totally bluff their way through it. And it was amazing for me to hear because I feel that about 70% of the time – that I have no idea what I’m doing, that it’s by some bizarre fluke that I’m actually paid to write, and that it’s only a matter of time before somebody finds out the truth – that I’m a total fraud and will definitely be stripped of my title soon because what the hell do I know about anything?

The stories they told were funny – one had to interview this young scientist who had come up with a theory which disproved Steven Hawking (really), and she had to nod knowingly and pretend to understand what the poor man was saying when he might as well have been speaking Khazakstanian in dialect through a hosepipe on the moon. Another who is such an astonishingly gifted writer her words regularly stun me talked about how she’ll be in an interview with someone who is just about to deliver the one pearl of truth she’s been waiting for for the past hour and which, like Lebowski says, will hold the entire interview together, she interrupts and starts talking about herself and the moment is lost, never to be retrieved.

I do that regularly, and then get home with my little dictaphone and want to slap myself with my plakkie as I play it back again and again trying to guess what the top chef in the whole wide world was just about to say when I stopped him to tell him my very important story about gathering mushrooms in a forest in Sweden. My worst interview ever in my life was also my first, and it was with Alanis Morissette at the height of her crossness and fame, and instead of spending the night before doing proper research I went for a braai with my new boyfriend thinking that I’m great with people, I’ll just improvise and wing it, except by the time we got to the Bellville Velodrome on Saturday afternoon I was in such a state of terror and anxiety I started crying and begging to be taken home.

And worst-case scenario in the world (I think this was pre that India song where she thanks all the poor people for giving her an enlightenment poes klap and endeavours to be nicer), she sat so far away from me I had to squint to see her and shout my crappy questions in a half-hysterical falsetto, hoping my voice would travel far enough, and she answered every single thing with a monosyllable. Every single thing, friends. At one point (she was just starting her covers phase) I sang – I actually sang – Sting’s King of Pain to her. To Alanis Morissette. To this day I have no idea what possessed me. I think I was trying to break the ice or something. She just took another sip of her lukewarm chamoMEEL tea and stared at me with big eyes. The horror.

Anyhoo. I’ve become better at interviews, but not better at feeling like I really am a writer just because I write. I’m finishing off my second book which is about the Banhoek Valley and historic Cape Dutch homes, and for the past year and a half my photographer has been introducing me as the ‘author’. And every time, without fail, my head whips around to see Margaret Atwood walk into the room because I’m not an author, silly. Ja, I write stuff, but ‘authors’ – well, they’ve clever and everything. And I think it’s something a lot of us suffer from, whether we admit to it or not. I used to have a conversation with a surgeon friend about whether he was a surgeon yet. And while he was performing operations all day long, it took him a while before he became a surgeon to himself. At what moment (if ever) do you become the thing other people think you are, and how much fakery do you have to put in to get there?

I once read an amazing thing JM Coetzee said – that with every book he submits he’s terrified they’re going to find out the truth – that he’s been a fraud all along and his books are rubbish. Those words really hit home for me – that such a brilliant, talented individual who has proven himself time and time again can actually doubt himself is astonishing, and makes me feel less ridiculous when I have these insecure thoughts. I wonder why it’s so hard to give ourselves credit where credit is due, and find it almost impossible to say, ‘hey – I did that well. I must be pretty good.’ Maybe part of getting there is having more conversations like that one on Facebook where people admit to feeling the same way, and we all stop pretending to be on top of things when we aren’t and just go, fuck it, I am clueless right now, buddy. It would certainly make the world a friendlier place.

When Women Like Us Get Beaten By the Men We Love

Since starting this blog I have learnt to expect the unexpected, and one of the most unexpected things of all has been the people from far and near places who look me up and come to me wanting to share their stories. They are actors in L.A. and psychiatric nurses in Boston and moms in Brisbane and teachers in France, and they present to me (as one reader put it) the multi-coloured ‘ribbons of their lives.’ So, when one of the moms from my daughter’s school approached me this morning and asked if we could have a coffee because she had a story to tell me I wasn’t that surprised.

We met in an odd little coffee shop down the road from where I live, and once the niceties were out of the way she launched into an astonishingly brave and candid account of the past year of her life where she got involved with (and almost had kids with and married) a man who abused her verbally, physically and emotionally. She left him barely a week ago, and her right eye still bears the bruises from where he hit her the last and final time. And she said, ‘the physical wounds heal fast. It’s the other ones – the ones you can’t see – that take longer to go away.’

And as she was talking I couldn’t stop thinking about another beautiful, strong, independent girlfriend of mine who told me exactly the same story some months back, except she was actually married to the guy in question, and he hit her for ten years before she managed to escape. Nobody knew – not her mother, her siblings or her closest friends. Until one morning she found herself in another fight with him, and this time hiding his gun in fear that he would use it on her, and the reality hit home for the first time that this was not about getting punched now and again – if she stayed with this man she might not live to tell the tale.

And these two women are nothing like the stereotype of who gets battered. They are smart and streetwise and together. Which makes me realise that every single one of us is vulnerable; no-one is immune to falling in love with a violent, sociopathic man and getting caught up in a situation we don’t know how to get out of. Because it happens slowly, and for a long time you’re blinded by those brain chemicals that cloud your judgement, and the erosion to your sense of self begins so subtly and innocuously that you’re well into the relationship before you even have a chance to realise what’s going on.

And it’ll be a little poke or a shove, mid-fight, or a criticism cloaked in something that sounds like concern, but with every small piece of violence leveled at you your self-esteem takes a knock and you wonder if you are a bad person and you do deserve what’s coming and your friends really don’t care about you – like this man keeps saying. And then one day, in between the humdrum of washing and cooking and doing the school run, you find yourself being flung against a bedside table so hard that you sustain a fairly serious head injury and you go to your doctor for the second time in a few months and he gives you a knowing look and says, how long are you going to tolerate this? Because he has seen it before and he knows better than you do you how much danger you are actually in.

And the man you love has successfully isolated you from your friends and family, and you don’t know who you can trust enough to tell, and if you should even tell anyone because you are so ashamed that you have allowed this to happen. It was an emotional conversation, and the time when I lost it was not when she told me about how he threw things at her or the cruel words he used or how he tried to separate her from her child, but when she described her visit to the local police station to get a protection order, and she was anxious and distressed and just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, but the officer in charge was a gentle, kindly black woman who must, in her life, have seen and heard it all before, and wouldn’t let her get away with filling in a form and leaving.

Instead, she was made to sit down and tell her the whole story from beginning to end, (‘African-style’, was the expression she used) and asked her questions and never judged but took in the picture in its entirely and gave her endless time to speak, all the while listening with her heart as well as her big, brown eyes. And she said to my friend who felt trivial and embarrassed – a white woman from an affluent suburb telling her small, ‘insignificant’ story – ‘you don’t have to worry anymore. I will deliver this to him in person. He won’t be hurting you again.’

I dunno – there was just something so moving about this scenario. Like an atonement, or something. So, the protection order was delivered and he’s not allowed to come anywhere near her ever again, and she’s suing him for money he owes her and getting her life together. And even though it was a terrible story, it was kind of a good one, too. Unlike many, she managed to get out quick. It doesn’t always end so well. And there was a song. It was playing on the radio while they were driving one day and he was punching her on the leg and it was one of the many turning points that made her know she was going to save herself. Music has some incredible power. (In fact, she told me it was my Tori Amos story that made her come to me and want to tell me hers).

Later, once she had left him and had sat for hours at the police station doing the necessary paperwork, she was tired and hungry and stopped for a late night supper at a deserted pizzeria in Sea Point. She thinks the young Zim waiter must have overheard her talking and wanted to make her smile without being weird so he asked her what song she was ‘liking’. Immediately she thought of the one from the car that day, but she didn’t know the name or the artist so she sang it for him. He went away, found it and suddenly it was playing over the restaurant’s sound system. Spontaneously she got up and started to dance, and he joined her – two human beings in an empty restaurant somewhere on the southernmost tip of Africa. And she said, ‘I released a lot that night, but I received so much, too.’ Until she found herself, she hadn’t even known she was lost.

One Small, Happy Story

Here comes the sun, too doo doo doo. Here comes the sun.

So, every Monday late morning I collect Elisabeth from school and take her up the road for her swimming lesson, and today I happened to sit beside one of the dads and we started chatting, and he told me about how he and his partner adopted their little son. Born very early and weighing only 1,6kgs this newborn baby boy was found abandoned in a township and taken to the nearest hospital. Because he was so premature he suffered from cerebral palsy and the verdict was that he would never walk. While many people would balk at the idea of adopting a physically handicapped child, this couple readily took the teeny-tiny baby home and he became the light of their lives and the centre of their universe.

Now he lives in a beautiful house with two extremely devoted parents, speaks Dutch and English and goes to Europe once a year on holiday, and – what’s more – he walks just fine. He is so robust and healthy-looking you would never guess he was once hanging onto life by a thread. It’s hard to imagine what his life would have been like if he had not been adopted but, like his dad says, he probably wouldn’t have walked. And there’s not really any point to this story other than that it’s an example of how liberal and awesome our constitution in South Africa is – that a gay couple is allowed to adopt and love a child. And, it’s testimony to the kind of good, selfless people there are among us. And this one small, happy story has made me feel good about the world all day.

How Tori Amos Saved My life

I discovered Tori Amos in my early twenties at the end of a terrible relationship with a lovely man. There is no time Tori makes more sense than when you’re twenty-something, blindsided with grief and reeling in shock and despair. I maintain that this kind of emotional pain you only live through once. Twice would kill you. After that, you get a bit wiser and a bit more resilient. It’s a survival thing. The song was her first hit, Crucify, and I went and bought the CD and drank all day and all night with whoever would sit beside me while I waited for the hurting to stop or, at least, subside. Her lyrics were like balm to my blown apart heart. She put words to the emotions that raged through me, and she spoke the unspeakable. Eventually, after a few years, the pain lessened and went away but my relationship with Tori grew, and in many ways her music has been the soundtrack to my life.

‘Hey Jupiter’ (‘No-one’s picking up the phone…’) for the times I’d sit in the semi darkness with the ring tone in my ear knowing, very well, he wouldn’t be home now, and even if he was, that there was nothing, really to say. ‘Putting the Damage On’ for the first time he took his new girlfriend away on holiday (‘You’re off to the mountain/I guess her skinny legs could use sun…’), and I’m bent double with the hideousness of how he’s moved on and is doing pretty well without me and my histrionics while I pine and lament and wish, with all my heart, that it was me sitting in the front seat of his car with a bottle of Jack between my bare feet and the days ahead wide open and the sky full of summer.

There was just something so arrestingly honest about this woman’s music. It was Girl with a capital ‘G’, and she had been all the places I had been, and she made it okay to be angry and feel sad and confused and fucked up. Like ‘Precious Things: ‘He said you’re really an ugly girl/but I like the way you play/and I died, but I thanked him. Can you believe that?’ The way I would go to school hoping to see The Boy, hoping he would like me enough to say hello that day, and the rejection and misery I suffered when he didn’t. Or the feeling of despair, being schooled in a Calvinist institution during the height of apartheid where any type of free thinking was literally beaten out of you, and her having the audacity to announce, ‘Father says bow your head/like the Good Book says/Well, I think the Good Book is missing some pages.’ Well, bloody well, so did I.

And suddenly it was okay to be a raisin girl and to have different thoughts and to ask questions and not take all you were being told at face value. And there was something very unshackling about that. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the feminist ethos of a lot of her lyrics played a part in forming the person I was to become. Her message resonated more strongly for me than, I think, anything I had ever heard, musically or otherwise. To this day I probably know every lyric to every song, and writing this I have to admit it sounds kinda sad, but it’s the truth. I’ve talked about how we are conduits of truth for one another, and she was that for me. I had nobody in my life at that time to guide me, a clever, headstrong, emotionally messed up young woman with no conception of how to be in a world that felt foreign and hostile and more than a little bizarre.

When I finally made it out of that small town and found like-minded people in the musty lecture halls of the best university in the universe and was introduced to a world of thought where people said no and spoke up and women were strong and fearless I found new ways of thinking and expressing myself and it was a kind of heaven. And still, to this day, Tori has a way of summing stuff up and making everything feel okay. When, 10 years ago, I had the anti-marriage to end anti-marriages in our beautiful, turn-of-the-century apartment in Sweden surrounded by 20 friends in jeans and our baby daughter, Sophie, looking on, it was ‘A Sorta Fairytale’. Like life is. Try as we may, it’s only ever ‘sorta.’ And I always have at least one of her CDs in my car so that, amidst the madness of adulthood and parenting and all that goes with it, her songs are there to remind me of who I really am.

I felt disappointed and a little betrayed when I saw what she’d done to her beautiful face, and I realized that, in spite of her music, she’s not that okay with who she is, after all. But then, like I always say, we teach what we need to learn. Tori is a stunningly talented musician and lyricist, but she’s still a human being and fallible and probably as confused as the rest of us. And maybe that’s why she does ‘real’ so well. And it doesn’t take away from what she gave me when I needed it most. And for that – giving me the voice I never knew I had – I will be eternally grateful.

Who’s afraid of the big, black township? Khayelitsha For Beginners.

One of the best damn coffees in town.
One of the best damn coffees in town.

So, shortly after writing my Ubuntu piece (and how synchronicity works) I met an old friend, Pippa, for lunch who has been working in Khayelitsha for the past 8 years. She talked about how white South Africans (myself included) have no idea of what this place on our doorstep actually is about, or what happens there, and offered to take me in with her one day for some much-needed enlightenment, and today was that day. And it didn’t take me long to realise what a one-dimensional view most of us have of this sprawling suburb, seeing only the rows of shacks which line the n2.

This hospital could be anywhere in Europe.
The new Khayelitsha hospital is so fancy it could be anywhere in Europe.

In truth, Khayelitsha is home to nearly a million people, and while it certainly has its quota of informal dwellings, the suburb itself is divided into suburbs, some every bit as middle class as Kenilworth. It has schools, a mall, a gym, a large college and a brand new, modern hospital. It also has spaza shops, hairdressing salons, panel-beaters and cash stores, and even on an arb Wednesday morning there were women braaing meat, washing clothes, walking babies, chatting to their buddies. There is a cool, laid-back vibrancy about this place and ja, it’s shabby and ja, the soil is of such poor quality very few trees manage to grow, but it has industry, an energy and a sense of community that made me wonder who the poor people in this country really are.

Pre-R's learning a dance for their upcoming graduation ceremony.
Grade R’s learning a dance for their upcoming graduation ceremony.

And I’m not romanticising poverty. The reason why Pippa is there is because she started a project called ‘Home From Home’ (www.homefromhome.org.za) which provides housing to children who have been rescued from circumstances of physical and/or sexual abuse or who, for whatever reason, have lost their parents and their homes. ‘Home From Home’ has 32 houses with six children and a surrogate mother in each. We visited some of these houses which, while they are modest and everything in them is second-hand, are homely, safe spaces which provide these kids with stability, family life, nourishing food, warm beds and place to call home. And the surrogate moms work hard and the kids don’t have a lot but, despite their circumstances, they are happy and thriving and have great hope and plans for their future, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Surrogate mom, Beaulah, with her assistant, Sandile
Surrogate mom, Beaulah (on the right), with her assistant, Sandile

We also visited a very cool place called ‘Learn to Earn’ which teaches its students a variety of skills such as sewing, baking, carpentry and office management which makes them employable and empowers them to start small businesses and support themselves. And the people running this place are so dedicated and passionate it’s humbling to witness. And I thought to myself as I talked to staff how careful we must be of dehumanising these ‘off limits’ zones. Just go visiting on a Friday which is braai day (of course) and when a hard working week ends with a much-deserved cold beer; where Saturday is for kuiering, shopping and getting your hair done, and Sunday the enormous church with its very (very) long service is filled to capacity with singing, dancing worshippers. The ‘other’ is much less other than we imagine.

Where adults of all ages are able to learn a trade.
Where adults of all ages are able to learn a trade.

And sure, it’s sad – there’s a ten-year-old little boy who keeps running away in search of his parents who are missing somewhere in the Eastern Cape and obviously don’t give a hoot about their child but, being little, he still tries to find them. And some of the tiny ones whose faces lit up when we entered the room and gave us huge smiles and waves and thumbs-up ‘sharp-sharp’s – it’s heartbreaking imagining anyone abandoning these gorgeous little creatures. But it’s not depressing, it’s uplifting and encouraging seeing the amazing work being done there. ‘Home From Home’ hires a clever, dedicated young social worker who makes herself completely accessible to these kids and helps them transition and process some of the stuff they’ve had to deal with.

And what a huge wake up call and reminder that we must damn well stop whining already. We live incredible lives in an incredible place and we need to stop blaming and pointing fingers; it’s time to pull up our sleeves and, like Gandhi said, be the change we want to see. It’s not that hard – there are so many opportunities available for reaching out and changing things. Today was proof of that.

A talented graphic art student at 'Learn to Earn.'
A talented graphic art student at ‘Learn to Earn.’

Pippa told us how often she gets warned by white South Africans that she shouldn’t go into Khayelitsha; that it’s not safe for a woman. And these are sentiments a lot of us have been led to believe (I think it was that Amy Biehl story nobody can get over) but, in reality, it’s just a place like any other. Everybody we encountered was friendly and approachable. I left my leather jacket in the car when we went inside homes, and I didn’t feel frightened or wary for a second. We stopped at a coffee shop which did fabulous muffins and a latte that would put Vida E to shame. Nearby an old woman running a stall was dancing away to some music that only she could hear. The wind blew, and a young woman held onto her skirt. We drank our coffees and headed back towards the mountain, and it was a day which gave a lot of food for thought.

The ethos of Home From Home.
The ethos of ‘Home From Home’.