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 Quran and the Quest For Kindness

In the last years of my dad’s life, I spent a lot of time asking him questions about the Quran.  It wasn’t because either one of us was having a religious rebirth or even because it gave us some common ground together other than playing backgammon, although it did do that.  It was because my dad knew the Quran inside out, as it had been part of his upbringing.  I knew almost nothing about it, as that had been part of the upbringing he had given me.  After 9/11 and the consequent Islamanoia, I began to have to field questions about Muslims simply by virtue of being born one.  My dad taught me not to speak without having my facts in order, and so that was when I began my journey to explore the Quran.
While my dad hadn’t taught his kids much about the religion, I learned he was a strong believer, which he began to reveal to me in the passages we talked about and how inspirational and important they were in his mind for living a decent life.  I suspect his interpretations of several things, including alcohol and the hijab and ultimately death, would not have met with the approval of many Muslims, particularly here in the Gulf.  That aside, I think my favorite passage in the Quran would—or at least, should—meet with the approval of people from any religion, including atheists:

“Do what is beautiful. God loves those who do what is beautiful” (2:195)

Beautiful in translation in this case means to show kindness and practice good deeds.  Or as Robert Frager, a Harvard-trained psychologist and Sufi, explains in The Wisdom of Islam: A Practical Guide to the Wisdom of Islamic Belief,  it is “acting with heedfulness, beauty, refinement, graciousness, and respect for others.”  Do what is beautiful just says it so simply.

In manic paced places like Abu Dhabi, where buildings and people and cars come and go faster than the rain, it is sometimes hard to keep focused on the beautiful, until some sad news reminds you of the reality that is sometimes hard to see out of the rabbit hole in this city that my friend Cindy calls “Alia in Wonderland.”

That’s why I like my friend Alicia Bessette and Mathew Quick’s blog, “Quest for Kindness” (http://aliciabessette.com/blog/) Sometimes just the phrase “quest for kindness,” just like “do what is beautiful” act as grounders.   Kind of like “Never a lender or borrower be” from Shakespeare, another source of wisdom my father loved to quote, reminds you to put your credit card away.