GETTING HERITAGE IN WRITING: This Month’s Aramco World Cover Story

These are just some thoughts of mine after my third visit to Cape Town, this time to write this month’s cover story for Aramco World Magazine https://www.aramcoworld.com/en-US/Articles/March-2019/The-Handwritten-Heritage-of-South-Africa-s-Kitabs

Cape Town's Bo Kaap

Celebrating Heritage Day in Bo Kaap

The first time I saw the Western Cape, I thought “This looks just like Los Angeles,” and then I thought, “This looks just like Lebanon.”  I’m not just talking about the magnificent mountains and endless sea. The townships remind me of the camps in Lebanon, certain Cape Flats areas remind me of Compton, and Simons Town, with its dramatic cliff homes and a local museum hosting a meditation workshop with Tibetan chanters, reminds me of Santa Monica.  But South Africa’s landscape is all its own, mired in a history all its own. Historian Joline Young has been digging through Western Cape Archives for 20 years to recapture the town’s history, as the archives had been closed to non-whites during Apartheid. As we were walking through Simon’s Town one Saturday afternoon, “We have generations of trauma in our genes.” While that’s not biologically possible, you see a lot of people chasing their genes. That afternoon we ran into a 50-year old woman, Shirleen, whose mixed-race family was relocated (forcibly removed from Simon’s Town) during the Group Areas Act.  This was her first time here, and she and her husband were trying to figure out where her uncle’s fishing restaurant would have been.

Simon's Town

Simon’s Town’s Harbor

Zainab Davidson, better known as Auntie Patty, would have had an answer.  She literally mapped the whole town from memory, which inspired her to turn her family home, Amlay House, which was confiscated during the Group Areas Act, into the Simon’s Town Heritage Museum, dedicated to preserving the Muslim heritage of the town. She is part of the story in “The Written Heritage of South Africa.” She was 60-years old then.  She’s 84 today, and lives above the museum with her husband.

I sat down one day with a sheet of paper and I drew a map of Simon’s Town, all the roads, just to see if I still remembered who lived here.  I remember the old fisherman, and the old Dutch church, and I remembered lane by lane the cottages, and bigger houses over there.  And I took all lanes and went house by house until I had this whole map of our community here in Simon’s Town and it ended at Simons Town Station. Yeah.  And then I said to my husband, man I want to start our own museum. –Zainab Davidson (Auntie Patty), interviewed at Amlay House in September 2018

The Only Muslim I Agree With

The only Muslim I agree with 100% (well, more like 90% of the time) is me.  Sometimes I question by dusk religious thoughts that at dawn seemed prophetic. But mostly I agree with myself about God, Mohammed, Jesus, the five pillars of Islam–and yes, the Muslim cliché the hijab, and all other things attributed to Muslims but not really about Muslims, like women driving in Saudi Arabia.

I have a lot of Muslim friends that agree and disagree with me on all of the above.  Most of the Muslims I know have no idea what I think about my religion, although some have tried to tell me what I think (“You don’t drink because you’re trying to be a good Muslim” someone once told me, and I didn’t bother to explain that I wouldn’t drink no matter what my religion was and I don’t actually think Islam categorically forbids alcohol).

Just as few Christians, Jews and others know what I think about my religion, although some of them have also tried to tell me. (“You’re one of those white Muslims, so we know you’re not like the others,” was the comfort I got from a co-worker on 9/11, as apparently I didn’t appear brown enough to be bad.)

No one ever asked me, not even other Muslims, until after 9/11, what I thought about Islam.  I’d venture to say many of my American friends could barely recall I was a Muslim.  For a while after 9/11, I felt it was something that like Mona Eltahawy said in a recent op ed piece for the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/sep/09/muslim-post-9-11-america) I had to mention early on in a conversation.  In my case, so no one would say anything bad in front of me and feel like crap later when I then I told them I was a Muslim.

I don’t look like a Muslim not because of the color of my skin but because I don’t wear a hijab.  That’s the giveaway in the post-9/11 US and Europe, but not in much of the Middle East, where many choose not to wear the hijab.  (Actually, more correctly is that many women choose to wear it).

As a non-wearer, I’ve really come to appreciate the hijab because it gives me a chance to always be the undercover Muslim:  In crowded rooms, classrooms, and parties, I get to hear what other people really think about Islam because they don’t think I’m one one of them.  And mostly what I hear shocks me, almost as shocking as the dangerous radicalization of Islam in disenfranchised parts of the Muslim world that led to 9/11.  Horrific as the terrorism is, it comes from ignorance, from people deprived of education and hope.  That’s not something you expect in the West, and yet most of what I hear about Islam is pretty ignorant, mostly boogey man like.

Maybe one day, Muslims will be transformed like the Russians, who under communism could only produce women in our social studies class textbooks were sullen peasant wrapped in fur skin hats, to their general acceptance in all media as hot babes, for better or worse, in a variety of professions.

That’s not necessarily something to aspire to, but until then, here is some Pew polling on American Muslims that might be a little more enlightening.  Muslim seem to be more upbeat about being American than others, not that I disagree or agree with any of  them. (http://people-press.org/2011/08/30/muslim-americans-no-signs-of-growth-in-alienation-or-support-for-extremism/)

For further readings on Arab Americans 10 years later, I recommend the following:

Alia Malek in Granta:  http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/Of-Moustaches-and-Megalomaniacs

Moustafa Bayoumi in the Nation  http://www.thenation.com/blog/163284/rites-and-rights-citizenship

Carmel Alyaa Delshad  http://bustedhalo.com/features/being-the-%E2%80%9Cother%E2%80%9D-on-september-11-2001