The following is adapted from an unpublished manuscript I wrote about my experiences as a freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa, which included living for two years with a Muslim family in the industrial neighborhood of Salt River. Both years, I observed Ramadan with the community–an intense time of faith, politics, and turmoil in a country riddled with cultural contradictions, both debilitating and inspiring.
Towards November, people in Salt River began making preparations for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and I noticed that my neighbors seemed to be more and more fervent in their public expressions of religious piety.
My landlady still had to catch up on fast days that she had missed the year before because of illness, so she started fasting early, even throwing in a few extra days–“for all my sins,” she said.
Shops started offering specials on food and spices, and people began ordering large quantities of meat in advance at the butcher store. The smels of oils and spices wafted out from kitchens around the neighborhood, where mothers and daughters had begun preparing some of the festival’s little delicacies in advance, like the samoosas filled with chicken and mincemeat that could be frozen for several weeks before they were to be deep-fried in sunflower oil and served to hungry families at iftar dinners.
I thought that the prospect of fasting for a whole month would have filled everyone with a sense of dread–and it did, to some extent. But many people, to my surprise, were looking forward to the fast. “Ramadan,” my landlady told wistfully, “is the only time that the Muslim people are one ummah, one people, united.”
I began to notice the camaraderie slowly building in the neighborhood. Would I really want to be left out? Shouldn’t I rather take the opportunity to experience something unique, something beyond the boundaries of suspicion that had been reinforced by September 11 and its aftermath? And would I be able to eat breakfast in the morning without noticing that my landlady and her children were going hungry? I would feel guilty–worse still, I would feel like a wimp.
I decided to fast for the full month. My landlady and her friends were skeptical: some Christian friends of theirs had tried to keep up with the Muslim tradition in the past, and had always given up before the halfway point. They tried to talk me out of it. But I insisted: “I’ll do this just the way you do,” I said.
The first day, as I was warned, was the worst. Thereafter, the ritual of fasting became somewhat routine. I got used to waking up at half past three in the morning to eat two bowls of cereal and down a few glasses of water before the muezzin performed the call to prayer. At night, I gorged myself like everyone else, feeling the same disappointment at finding myself suddenly full after a few mouthfuls, retiring with the whole family to the couches where we slouched, immobilized by our sudden corpulescence.
After the first week, I noticed, with great satisfaction, that I was slimming down a little, the girth of winter slowly succumbing to the asceticism of the fast. The only truly difficult aspect of fasting, I found, was the cumulative weakness that set in after so many consecutive days of self-deprivation and interrupted sleep. It made concentration difficult–which, I suspected, was part of the point. The mental listlessness that hunger creates encourages a kind of passivity, an unusual, dreamy receptivity to teaching and preaching. People absorbed speeches in the mosques and on the radio with an unusual patience, whether the topic was political or religious.
From what I heard on the live broadcasts on the Islamic radio station, there was widespread support for the Taliban in Afghanistan–“our brothers in Islam,” as some leaders put it–but also widespread skepticism on that score, especially when the Taliban’s oppression of women came to light. “They were doing the right thing, but they went too far,” one neighbor said to me. Nevertheless, such debating would only start once everyone had some food in their bellies.
At around five in the evening, when the men were returning home from work, the women were busy preparing food for iftar, and there were still a few hours left to go before sunset, the young men of the neighborhood would kill time by setting up impromptu cricket matches in the middle of the street. The wicket consisted of two milk crates, stacked on their sides, one on top of the other, held in place with a heavy brick in the lower crate. The ball was a squishy stress ball that had been taped over.
Because traffic continued to flow through the neighborhood, it was necessary to place the wicket in the exact center of a four-way intersection, so that passing cars in every direction could swerve around it without needing the wicket to be moved. Only one driver objected–a driving instructor giving a lesson to a fearful young student, who rolled her Toyota straight down the center of the narrow road and came to a stop a few centimeters from the wicket. “This is a public thoroughfare!” he protested indignantly, leaning his head out the window. Amid snickers, jeers, and murmurs of “Whitey,” the wicket was shifted.
The field of play was severely constricted by houses and corner shops; more than once, wayward strokes ricocheted into the butchery or the dry-goods store, filled with customers at closing time. Fielders were posted in the corners and in the streets–or, it would be more accurate to say, they loitered on the edge of the action, distracted by conversation or by hunger pangs, until the ball came bounding in their direction. The girls of the neighborhood gathered in little crowds on balconies and porches to watch the action, cheering and laughing at the general hilarity of the game. There were hoots of laughter when one of the fielders, a large man whose shift at the butcher store had just finished, ducked frantically to avoid a slow, wobbly shot that arced towards him.
As for the bowling, the asphalt pitch gave no spin whatsoever, so the only approach for the bowlers was fast and direct. Since the wicket-keeping was somewhat erratic, this meant that errant balls passing the wicket went zooming along the street for a block or two before being recovered. Small boys were dispatched on recovery missions, and until they returned with the ball the players would loll about in the afternoon sunshine, having a laugh or two and wistfully willing the summer sun on its path through the late afternoon sky.
One night, I agreed to go to a mosque after dinner for the night prayers, which in Ramadan are unusually long. The Jewish custom is not to kneel to God except on certain holy days, and not to pray in the shrines of other religions at all, but I decided I would go along just this once. It was the same God anyway, I reflected, and I remembered that Middle Eastern Jews in medieval times used the word “Allah” freely, just as English-speaking Jews today use “God” and French Jews use “Dieu” in casual references.
The mosque was in the Bo-Kaap, the old colorful neighborhood that was reserved for slaves and laborers during the era of Dutch colonial administration, and which had been a local hub of Islam for centuries, with a dozen ornate little mosques scattered throughout the neighborhood. The prayers proceeded one after the next, in the standard Arabic, with the standard movements–“Up, down, kiss the ground,” was my landlady’s description–and interspersed with little songs, with “Nederlander” melodies of local origin, the Eastern Arabic tones of the lead voice floating above a background of standard Western chord progressions.
After the first half an hour, my knees were killing me. On a normal night, I might have been able to take it, but the repetition of prayer after prayer was taking its toll. I desperately wanted to sit cross-legged instead of kneeling, but was afraid to draw too much attention to myself. Eventually I settled on a compromise–one leg tucked under me in a kneeling position, the other splayed out to the side. My companion had by now noticed my discomfort and was enjoying it immensely; it was all he could do to keep himself from bursting out laughing.
After prayers, people spent hours visiting each other at their houses. Doors were open and people moved through the street well into the late hours of the night. On their visits, people brought each other foods and treats–fried pea-flour balls called daljties, pumpkin and corn fritters, glazed pancakes, samoosas, and cookies.
Every day we went through the same cycle–denial followed by sensual indulgence. It was a kind of schizophrenic existence, and reflected my mood as I continued on the one hand to write articles responding to anti-American and anti-Israel themes in the media, and on the other to keep reaching out to the other side, trying to understand the alternative point of view.
Image: Tennyson Streer Mosque, Salt River, Google Maps