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?

How to spot a psycho chick (and how fast you should run)

The trouble with psycho women is that they don’t have glow-in-the-dark eyes like Natalie Portman in Black Swan or breathe fire or carry assault rifles which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to spot them at first glance (though I have come to be familiar with a certain type of hair which I recognize as ‘mad hair’, but more about that later). But I’ve had a couple move in and (thankfully) out of my life so I know that they exist and that while they’re around things can get a little crazy.

At first, these women seem like the nicest, most thoughtful friends a girl could ever have, and they’re generous as anything, showering you with invitations and gifts (it’s part of their M.O.), but just when you get close enough to start wondering how you ever lived without them, they start with their antics. At first it’s subtle because they’re clever and manipulative, and a lot of the time you’ll start wondering if it’s you who’s mad, but this is a sure sign: If, at any point, you find yourself puzzling over an incident or a conversation with this person which has left you hurt and bewildered and wondering if the problem lies with you, get your Nikes and head for the hills. You’re dealing with a psycho, and you’ll never win.

I had this friend a few years back, we’ll call her Nadine. Nadine and I became friends predominantly because we were from the same small town and were living in the same big city. Nadine, at first, was a dream come true: Fun, funny, easy to talk to and loved socializing. From the get go we hit it off and became firm friends quickly. But it didn’t take me long to get a sense that something was up. Nadine was a little nuts. I could tell by the way she turned on her husband, fought with her family and had fall- outs with her friends. She also started copying me – wearing the same clothes, preparing the same dishes at dinner parties, befriending my friends.

Through all of the dramas in her life I was her closest confidante. But then she started turning the weirdness on me – offering to host my birthday dinner and then ‘forgetting’ at the eleventh hour; putting me down subtly in front of mutual friends; inviting my friends to parties at her home and excluding me. This went on for some time during which I endlessly harangued my husband with tales of what I said versus what she said, trying to make sense of what was going on, why I felt so hurt and confused and how she could do these things to her so-called best friend.

Ah, how naïve I was. It took me some years (and the friendship ending) to see her behaviour in context, understand that these are the actions of a deeply damaged woman (her mother openly rejected her – you never get over that) and that, while she loved and admired me, on a different level – one which even she could not understand – she hated my guts and would have liked to see me die a painful death. She has been hurt so deeply by a woman it’s difficult, if not impossible for her to form healthy relationships with other women. Once she wins you over with attention and affection and stuff (I got all kinds of amazing gifts for no particular reason) you become the recipient of her wrath. And it’s wrathful and pretty scary.

So, if you’re in a friendship which confuses your brain, ask yourself this: How are her other friendships? Are they happy and long, or are they a series of mini dramas which tend to end badly? Is her marriage/relationship with her partner stable and healthy or kinda crazy? How does she talk about the people in her life? Is she generous to a fault, or mean as a snake? Pay attention, because these things count. What happened with the others will more than likely happen with you, no matter how tight you you are now because there’s a hole in her that no amount of love from you or anyone else will ever fill. It’s gaping and it’s sad, but it’s not your problem. So, get out while you can.