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Rustum Kozain

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Extract: The Pornographer’s Muse

The following extract is the opening of  “The pornographer’s muse”, in this December’s Playboy:


The waiters tittered in their corner over the large woman trying to squeeze her lower half under one of the small tables outside in the late afternoon sun. What amused them most was her ogling young female passers-by, blatantly so at times, even though a pair of dark sunglasses hid her fleshy eyebrows and her small, dark eyes. She had a big round face, heavy with the hang of her jowls, the top of her lip beaded with sweat, which showed up the dark, downy fluff there. Her short hair was dyed flame red and worn in a youthful wave, not entirely incongruous to her age, but certainly in an attempt to escape any easy gauging of it. A colossus, she was not the kind of person the young waiters expected would be comfortable at this café frequented by lanky models stringing along the foolish rich.

But Anne Hemwidge came here often. An art critic and professor, sometime painter and poet, Anne was enjoying the last few weeks of her sabbatical. She had planned the renovations at her home badly – a new coat of paint, new bookshelves fitted – and with the painter and cabinet maker in the house, she couldn’t focus on anything aside from some paperwork. So she was out and about, lazing over lunch, paging through a glossy book on painting from this or that era. Now she had to get back home and see the workers off for the day.

Taking her glasses off, she called for her bill. Her small, rodent-like eyes tracked the young woman bringing the folder to the table. Cheeks flushed red with two pints of beer and the summer sun, Anne was feeling carelessly flirtatious. She got up to signal that she was also ready to pay immediately, grinned at the waiter and counted out the cash, her practised eye picking up the name from the bill.

“Keep the change, Jess.”

“Thank you,” the young woman smiled broadly at the big tip.

Anne sized her up quickly and noticed the ruby red glass cross she wore as a pendant.

“Oh, that is beautiful,” she said.

The waiter instinctively brought her left hand to her neck, covering the jewel with her palm.

“Oh, this? Thanks.”

Her hand slid down and she briefly held the pendant in her finger tips, then leaned forward to pick up the bill folder.

As the cross swung free, Anne impulsively reached out a big, doughy hand to lift the pendant closer, pretending intense scrutiny.

The waiter wanted to draw back and so return the pendant to the private space where it belonged, but the big tip she had received made her reluctant to cause offence. She remained frozen, bent forward, her awkward pose unnoticed by Anne…

Mnemosyne I

Mnemosyne I

Comes through the bright green leaves
of the row of oak trees
in late November,

the whitewashed wall of the school.

Early summer, the morning hot by ten.

The matric exam done,
we’ve come to return our textbooks
and now stand in the shade

under the big oak by the school hall
to say farewell
to a favourite teacher

who looks on us
with the care some always had,
our teachers,

but that we recognise
always only too late,
in memory

when we’re looking elsewhere
for something else, like now,

when I look elsewhere,
for something else,
you come to me unbidden,

in the shade of that tree


in a short white dress
with small red flowers
or are they strawberries?

(…read further.)

The Love of Men I

I love men too for their bodies,
could love them hard and gentle
and would have them love me back
in all love short of the fuck,

[... read further]

This is the sea

This is the sea

(After a photograph by Victor Dlamini)

There is that sea, as deep sometimes
as the heart at dusk,
the shine on its face soon to fade.
There is that caravel drifting in
and all it brings: a load of good
and bad unreckoned by the quartermaster…

(full poem forthcoming in Groundwork, Kwela Books/ Snailpress, 2012)

The adoration of cats

Here I am running from it all again
all trouble heaping up in my house
in my head the debts incurred
the regrets that nag and bicker
like a country’s citizens
not the one, not the other, that one neither…

(full poem forthcoming in Groundwork, Kwela Books/ Snailpress, 2012)

Kingdom of Rain II

I still dream of one day seeing
sniffing at the ground not far from me
softly grunting, a grizzly bear,
or sat down pulling at a vine of berries
or a sapling, oblivious to me or not caring
or, even, knowing that I am there
but with no malevolence,
with nothing more than wanting to stare
and wonder at it just being bear
and hope it will let me in
not predator, nor prey
somewhere in a North American jungle
with god knows what else around us
but still just me, the trees, the bear…

(full poem forthcoming in Groundwork, Kwela Books/ Snailpress, 2012)

Review: Stephen Watson, The Music in the Ice

Stephen Watson, The Music in the Ice: On Writers, Writing and Other Things, Penguin Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-143-02690-7

(originally published in WordsEtc, February 2011)

In Stephen Watson’s poetry I have always found a certain obligatory distance, even when poems are in homage to a friend. It could be his modernist legacy, a suspicion of emotion stemming from T.S. Eliot: to display emotion is an aesthetic betrayal which undermines a certain truth and redemption in aesthetics, the pursuit of which is the poet’s metier. I often feel, when reading the poetry, that I am tapping at a thick, determinedly post-Romantic carapace.

But this distancing is in a way the enabling step for what is Watson’s metier: landscape. He is at his best – in poetry and prose – when describing a de-peopled landscape, stony or lush, clouds gathering or in the play of light. When I think of a Watson landscape, I think of flint: hard, sharp in relief, containing sparks, process of formation unclear, but clearly formed over a long period.

In this book of essays variously written over the last twenty years, one gets an idea of those geological processes. But this is also a book on Watson’s enthusiasms and obsessions. Most surprisingly are “Leonard Cohen & Longing”, “Buiten Street” (which ruminates on a first love lost) and “Hannah Hunter Watson” (on the birth of, and addressed to, his first child and daughter) because of their self-disclosure. These essays maintain a flintiness, but they also contain confessions about the author’s neuroses, early ambition and, at times, a Buddhist’s desire for resolution through dissolution. A few weeks before the daughter’s birth:

I wanted all the books I had read, and all the more the books I’d written, to un-write themselves, to return to the nothingness out of which they’d been wrested, leaving the silence unstained. Beauty remained only in those things that bore no sign of human aspiration, and most of all the taint of my own. I longed for anonymity, to disappear. (“Hannah Hunter Watson”)

And then, after the birth:

I was no longer that man on the outside, looking in on the world from a great distance. I was now joined to another story – a wider, deeper story – to the great human family and the common fate.

It is a surprising rebirth of the dyspeptic figure behind “A Version of Melancholy” (1989), an early essay about Cape Town and the despair it invokes, as well as of the critic who in his Ph.D. thesis (1993) gags at “imaginative and metaphysical deficiencies” in South African poetry, “a kind of deficiency which is also present in South African culture as a whole”. Like Naipaul’s infamous dismissal of his native Caribbean, Watson cannot believe that anything of cultural worth can come from South Africa (Coetzee, Ibrahim, Sekoto?).

For Watson, however, there are exceptions to “South African culture as a whole”: an essay on Guy Butler, who is also commemorated alongside Alan Paton, Lionel Abrahams and Francois Krige, the painter, in “Four South African Epitaphs”. But he also returns to his uncertain relationship with South African culture in “The Rhetoric of Violence in South African Poetry” where he posits a causal relationship, among others, between the rhetoric of violence in “struggle poetry” and the normalised violence we now experience. It is a sobering read, but also a sociological morass which I am not sure the writer who “was no longer that man on the outside, looking in on the world from a great distance” negotiates successfully. One wishes in this essay for a descent from Olympus to the temper of self-reflection that returns the writer, in “Hannah Hunter Watson”, to the writer and man who “was now joined to another story… to the great human family and the common fate”.


[Update: I've added a note (*) at the end.]

Our friendship must have started before we were teenagers because one of my earliest memories of Edrees is of him and my brother teaching me to ride Edrees’s bicycle, one of those intermediate ones – mid size, freewheel, back-pedal brakes – and from which Edrees had already removed the training wheels. They let go, I fell and was angry with them for a long time. But bicycles would remain central to our friendship.

He lived at the bottom of Wit Elslaan, three streets away from us in Jakarandalaan. The roads didn’t form a grid, so three streets away was much closer – maybe 400 metres, maybe even less – than three blocks away. My mother and his father were colleagues, my mother a clerk and his father a salesman, at Wanda Furnishers in Lady Grey Street, the ‘high street’ of Paarl and what we called ‘dorp’ (the CBD). Perhaps that is how we met, through our parents, but I cannot recall our parents socialising much. And I struggle to remember whether Edrees attended New Orleans primary; I struggle to recall him in the madressah classes that were integrated in the timetable at that school, a state school that, following the Group Areas Act, replaced the old Muslim community school on the corner of Malay and Weiss Streets, west of the Berg River, and where the majority of pupils and teachers had been Muslim, the ones now at New Orleans primary.

Was he at NO primary school and did he attend those maddressah classes? The memories are vague, but he must have been there. Do I see him now, in class? Or was he ‘exempt’ from madressah?

How we all wished we could be exempted. While madressah was integrated in the timetable – when the Christian students had Bybelonderrig, we had madressah – once or twice a week we also stayed after class. After class and having to endure either Islamic history (boring at the time) or Fiqh or Tougheed (arcane, intricate theology and the rules of conduct in matters such as the different prayers to utter on entering and exiting the toilet, and uttering them, not just running them through your head) – what child, truly, wishes to endure this, all under the gaze of an obligatory strict khalifah quick to grab a cane? Do I see Edrees, in primary school, loping off home for afternoon adventures, while we were to suffer the dread khalifa and a crack on the knuckles because we stuttered over a letter or syllable in batcha classes (probably Malayo, meaning recitation from the Quran, whether from the script or from memory; generically also ‘praying’; for us kids, parrot-learning to ‘read’ the Arabic of the Quran, although it was reading without comprehension – few South African Muslims are literally literate in Arabic).

Do I see Edrees flying off free as a bird, or is he stalking off as quickly as possible after class because it wasn’t an exemption and his freedom held a barb? If he was at that school and if he wasn’t in madressah, it would have been because he was both exempt and disallowed from attending.

Edrees and his family were Ahmadiyya, an offshoot sect of Islam considered wholly apostate by both Sunni and Shiite Islam. Started in the 19th century in India by Mirza Gulam Ahmad, the Ahmadiyya movement started out as a reformist movement seeking to revitalise Islam. But it contradicted major tenets of orthodox Islam. Ahmad, for one, claimed that the Mahdi, the herald of the second coming, and the Messiah were one, and that he was that one. Not only does Ahmad claim to be Jesus come again, by doing so he also contradicts the Islamic belief that Muhammad was the last of God’s prophets. (By what convoluted story does a relatively obscure religious sect reach out from pre-partitioned India to have followers in small, obscure towns in the Boland?)

By mosque going age, while we went to mosque in Paarl, Edrees went to a small Ahmadiyya mosque with his father – a room in a house perhaps – in Wellington, where there was a small Ahmadiyya community. He would not have been allowed into the mosque in Paarl.*

But theological differences were never really discussed and didn’t trouble our friendship, although Edrees seldom visited our house and most of our hanging out happened at his house. The unsaid rule, from early on, I now realise, must have been that he would not have been welcome in my father’s house; that is, his father may have cautioned him against possible rejection were he to visit our house. Not that I recall an incident where my father forbade Edrees, to his face or, in the early years of our friendship, to my brother and I, from coming to our house. Perhaps his father had advised him that it was best not to visit us at our house.

According to my mother, my father did discuss our friendship with Mieste (Meester, [school]master; Mieste kapieste trek die bieste se lieste), who was a friend of our family, arbiter in family feuds, my Std. 5 teacher, who we school kids were fond of but with whom we  knew where to draw the line, and a respected elder who also stood in for Friday mosque services. Mieste had told my father, apparently, to leave it alone, that we were children (innocents) and that perhaps the friendship would die away or we would realise, as we grew older, that we couldn’t be friends with an apostate. So, in the early years of our friendship with Edrees, we traipsed through the neighbourhood and got into the ordinary mischief of growing boys.

I was fond of him and I now recall moments in that early friendship where Edrees would appear suddenly skittish when he did encounter my parents, a kind of momentary closing off of the person I knew as a friend as he politely greeted my parents but then fell silent as we returned to whatever it was that we were doing. Within a few minutes he would make excuses and go home. But these would have been rare, as he seldom played at our house. When he did, it would be when we were either bunking (his mom was at home) or during school boycotts, when parent-free time at our house could be guaranteed for long stretches of the day (although, again, my suspicious father would occasionally pop by, ‘looking’ for some tool or spare part).

His parents, on the other hand, were most welcoming. As the only boy (he was the eldest) of four children, Edrees also had his own room, the small backroom in a small three-bedroom house. So it was an enclave for us where we could talk shit, listen to music and, in teenage years, smoke. Gunston Toasted, Texan Toasted. Apart from the boys in professional cycling families in our neighbourhood (Jantjies, Cupido, Green), Edrees was the first to have a ‘grown-up’ bicycle – not a professional racing bike, but a nuwe-latest (new-latest), out-the-box, full-size bike, a ten-speed Raleigh racer. He was also the first to have a three-in-one stereo (radio receiver, tapedeck, turntable in one) in his room, a Pioneer Rondo 3000, which we all coveted. Its sound and functions were all superior to the portable tape-players and jerry-rigged systems everyone else was using (my brother and I, at that point, in the same backroom of our house, which was a copy of Edrees’s house, were using, I think, a car radio-tape player hooked up to loose speakers filched from my father’s store of junk or from the old PYE radiogram).

What set Edrees further apart was that, by fifteen, I think, he had a girlfriend, Agnes, who was two years older than Edrees. Two years older. And they were probably the neighbourhood’s most enduring couple.

Agnes, or Egga, as she was known (first syllable drawn out and the colloquial flattening of the ‘a’ in Agga), was a petite and pretty girl, and she adored Edrees. From my perspective, she was virtually grown up, and seeing them kiss after he had dropped her off round the corner from her house (her grandmother didn’t appreciate her involvement with a Slams), appeared to me most grown-up. It was a romance proper, notwithstanding, or because of, him dropping her off – this older girl, this woman – from the crossbar of his bicycle. A familiar image in the neighbourhood: Edrees on his bicycle, with small Egga on the crossbar yelping in delight or mock fear if Edrees leant too much into a corner.

Older boys, like my brother, must have wondered what he, this kid, had. Or perhaps not. I don’t know. My brother, I think, was in the same class as Egga, and they were friends. And other older boys, at school, in the neighbourhood? I don’t know.

Egga, and her cousin Lalla, who lived across from our house, were not dumb to the sexual spell they held over us boys, and neither were we blind to two of the prettiest older girls in the neighbourhood strolling up and down the road in summer in their joggers. The Allie brothers cycled from their distant neighbourhood on their Raleigh choppers to circle in front of Lalla’s house – yes, circle like vultures – hoping she might come out and chat to them. But word on the street was that they were predators and, besides, as the stereotype had it, Muslim boys get you pregnant and then you have to convert to Islam. So they were wise enough to leave before Mr. Samuels came home from work.

And so Edrees too had to conduct his romance with Egga on the sly. He was friends with another cousin of hers, Anton, who lived up the road from him and who could be trusted with messages about rendezvous times (no email, no cellphones) and so their romance continued, Edrees sometimes ‘lifting’ her on his bike to or from Noorder Paarl Secondary when we were still at Klein Nederburg Junior Secondary. This would have been during the national class boycotts of 1980 – no formal classes, so lots of free time.

Despite Edrees’s romantic commitments, there was always time for friendship. And so in his small room we gathered day in and day out during the school boycotts or over school holidays, him and my brother exploring electronics by trial and error, discussing how to fashion a few small LED-lights (to be gotten cheaply at the electronics shop) into a flashing sound-level indicator, others – me, Anton, Jeremy (half-committed to professional cycling, always giving up smoking), sometimes Leon (a neighbour and friend in our street, cousin to Anton), sometimes Hugh (a street away from me, another friend and book-obsessed like me) – we just wanted them, Edrees and my brother, to get done with it and let the music play.

In terms of smoking, it was also a safe haven during Ramadan. Edrees’s parents were ‘cool’, endlessly tolerable that we smoked, and so the non-Muslim friends would smoke in the room during Ramadan, which allowed us, the Muslims supposedly fasting, with a screen for smoking too.

One of Edrees’s best friends was Keith Charl Sue Bello, who lived on the Rug (‘ridge’, a mainly working-class area with some tough, and rough, parts), but who may have been from another planet. Or so it seemed to me. He was always impeccably dressed, even if in the casual styles we all were wearing, but he didn’t fuss over his appearance. We were all bicycle crazy, but it seems that it would never occur to Keith to be caught on a bicycle, unless it was a BMX. Cycling for him too was a matter of style, rather than function. We had or wanted racers where style played some part, but bicycles with big wheels functioned better as transport than BMXes. The planet Keith was from was one, I think now, that was in touch regularly, it seems, with Brooklyn, long before it hit even Johburg. Keith was hip-hop before we knew the word. His music tastes were far more  varied than the disco and ‘jazz’ (and reggae for some) that we were listening to; he listened to “odd” bands, Reo Speedwagon, Queen, Santana and god knows what else. Queen and Santana were familiar to me, had been for a few years, but Reo Speedwagon? ELO? Grandmaster Flash? Grandmaster fuckin’ who? He was a fan too of K.C. and the Sunshine Band, a big fan – his ‘name’, in fact, was an invention or half-invention using the initials of this band. For Keith, enjoyable music was not genre-bound, it was a universe. And he was often incredulous that we had not heard of Grandmaster Flash or Blowfly, so much better, he would disparage, than Kurtis Blow.

Keith Charl Sue Bello was a legend. Of a day, Keith Charl Sue Bello might drop by Edrees’s house with a new cassette tape, or two, already taken from their cardboard and plastic package. “Just bought this,” he might say. He didn’t have a bicycle and often went on solo missions. Having made friends with the shop assistant in OK’s music section – who helped customers wanting to sample an album before buying – Keith would go there, ‘hang out’ with the assistant, talking music, and use that camaraderie to mask the fact that his main aim was shoplifting.

Always nattily dressed, Keith evaded suspicion. And, apparently, according to his stories, he was prolix. I never saw him in action; no one of us had ever seen him in action, at least not on his major hauls, so it might be that his legendary status is the stuff, indeed, of legend. As far as Keith was concerned, cassette tapes were kid’s stuff. In cardboard and plastic, the size of the cassette tape package was maybe the same XY dimensions as an A5 page (21cm x 14.5cm). They were obviously packaged like that to prevent the shoplifting of 4-track cassette tapes, small at just under 11 x 7 x 1.6cm and thus easily pilfered. But the bigger package was no challenge for Keith. According to legend, he once went into the OK, stole two tapes, left the shop, discarded the packaging, returned to the shop, handed in the two tapes at the package counter, stole two more tapes, got the first two from the package counter and walked out of the OK with four tapes.

“Eyeblind,” he said. Keith was good at “eyeblinding” or using “the eyeblind” (hoodwinking, sleight of hand). Who would expect a thief to hand in two stolen tapes at a package counter before entering the shop to steal more? That’s eyeblind.

Eyeblinding his way through the shops of Paarl, Keith could steal vinyl records and what have you. He apparently managed to steal a tape player, admittedly not a ghetto blaster, but still a big steal, especially considering that shops kept them chained to shelves. How the fuck did he do that, we wanted to know? He just shrugged and waved his hand dismissively, “Ek het hulle ge-eyeblin’. Hulle’s toe-ge-wap.” (I eyeblinded them. They’re dense/slow/asleep/not quick enough.) But his biggest steal at that time must have been a pair of rollerskates. What, specifically, did he do to “eyeblind” the shop assistants? Keith shrugged his shoulders: “Man, you just do it. So, at the right moment, I walked out, dangling the skates from their laces, low enough so that the shop assistant, who was behind the counter at the door, couldn’t see them. I just walked out.”

Soon Keith was stealing on order, ‘organising’ for select friends, but he kept me stringed along; he could never manage to get the LP or cassette tape I wanted. But that was okay, because I too could manage cassette tapes, even if less than one per visit to the OK. Bob Marley’s Uprising, lift shirt, stick it down your pants, lower your shirt. George Benson, Bunny Wailer, more Bob Marley, Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb (!), and so on. Sometimes alone, sometimes in a small group.

Yes, we started shoplifting.

It was 1980 and we were out on national school boycotts. After the first few weeks of listening to student leaders speechifying and attending alternative education programmes (sitting in groups and, depending on who was the group leader, learning about politics and colonial history or fooling around), we naturally grew bored. Sooner or later, attending school, for me and, I imagine, my friends, was mainly to see friends, the place to hook-up with them and decide the day’s activities. After the obligatory speech of the morning, usually by one or other of the more charismatic of the school’s now defiant student leader from the Student Representative Council (SRC’s weren’t allowed at our schools; the leaders weren’t elected, they were anointed by way of them having been ‘involved’ or ‘active’), we would leave, plans hatched.

Student leaders… eish, the names still come to me: Sean Africa, who would later become a close friend; Sean Lucas (or was it Leukes), who was ‘involved’ also with Akielah, a girl on who, in primary school, I had a burning, secret crush; Eustace Someone, I forget his surname, but his face and wide smile comes to me with little trouble – all three attractive and charming boys now becoming young men. And Allan Paulse, a classmate in 1980, now caught up somewhere in public administration in the Breede Valley I think.

There was also John Steenkamp who was an oddly stiff character, and quirky in, or because of, that stiffness. Like many boys then, he had an unhealthy concern with his turn-ups and pressed creases, and the shine of his moccasins (a slip-on leather shoe with leather fringe and tassles at the top of the bridge, ridiculously popular). We were classmates and friends after a manner, but he was also pursuing a girl, a neighbour of mine, on whom I was then developing a crush. I can’t remember John Steenkamp as a fiery speaker and our romantic rivalry during and over the long three months of that very boycott of 1980; perhaps it was a shorter one the following year – or was it 1983 – when we protested, variously, against school inspectors (typically white at high school level, to whom we had to bow and scrape, along with our teachers who had to bow and scrape and show that they were doing their work competently), the proposed Tricameral Parliament introduced by the Nats as a sop to ‘Coloured’ and Indian South Africans, hoping thus to split a greater black opposition to apartheid, or out of a sense of despair that we had eventually gone back to class in 1980 on the back of small victories or no victories because, there were still exams to write. The ‘system’ still stood, firmly, for us, apart from the scattered few who, one heard through rumours if you were not close to the comrades, had gone truly underground, crossing the border, training with MK. There is a story I remember, vaguely, from around those years, and which I have confirmed in later years, but names and details still evade me, of a young man (was he a boy still, was he already a man?) who was with MK and who was killed by apartheid forces either in a cross-border raid or while crossing the border back into South Africa. Somewhere in the fog of rumour is a story of betrayal complicated by a love triangle.

But what, apart from a general defiant mood in South African history at that time and what it may have contributed to the accumulation of general resistance against apartheid over the following years, what did we achieve in 1980, in quantifiable terms, that returned us to class? Better provision of textbooks? I don’t recall. It otherwise certainly lead to many different things for all involved. Generally, I believe, it made us, the students, more assertive and defiant. Sometimes the defiance, in my mind and in the world of my town and my school and me and my friends, could be misdirected (more stories), but we certainly learnt that, within that world, we also held an amount of not negligible power. We had become human through these boycotts, because and despite of apartheid.

But I get distracted. Behind every statement or act or name lies a network, of other statements and acts and names, of narratives that criss-cross each other. And were I a magician, a doekoem, I would bring them all into play at all the right times and phases so that, as if held in the palm of a hand, a world of names and childhood adventures, the world itself, would spin and shimmer and convolute in front of me. Unravel and come together at once with the force of the lives coming together and bouncing off each other. If I were a magician I would conjure this, my spell simply a list of words, names of streets in New Orleans, in Afrikaans and English, and, most often in the one language we made from the two: Chestnutlaan, Wit Els-, Rooi Els-, Safraanlaan, Orleans Avenue. Or a spell of any other list of words from that language, for each of which my glosses here are inadequate, incapable of revealing the world behind the word. All I have is this tool, language… linear and inadequate.

But there it is. I pore over a recent street-map and all the streets of my youth are there. But there are also more streets – and the veld with its stand of pines across Meaker Street where we played is gone – streets with new names, alien names. There are new schools and the names of school names have changed. My first high school, Klein Nederburg Junior Secondary (initially it could only accommodate grades 8 and 9), in Magnolia Street, is now Charleston Hill High School. Apart from New Orleans, the ridiculous American big-city names that demarcated working-class neighbourhoods like Chicago and New York do not appear on the map. Have they been renamed? Subsumed? And Paarlita Park, east of New Orleans, along a section of Van Der Stelstraat, where Rembrandt, the cigarette factory, had built a development of small houses for its workers and their families – and which was generally considered a surprising act of  paternal magnanimity –, is it still Paarlita Park? The maps tell me nothing.

Where was I? 1980, school boycotts. At some point we started going to school, not for the speeches and alternative education programmes (these soon ended in any case), but simply to see and be with friends. After the speeches, us smokers would go and loiter behind the last block, some of us hoping to speak to a favoured girl or, as it was winter, spend the time actually in warming hugs with a sweetheart. And smoke.

Sooner or later, we would not bother going to school but meet at someone’s house, either where a parent didn’t mind or where parents were away at work. Day after grey winter day enlivened by teenage friendship and all to be discovered. Days spent, for instance, at Anthony Ruiters’s house, just across a small veld from my house, smoking, peanut butter sandwiches and tea, and listening, over and over, to the one 7-inch single he had, Michael Jackson’s “Don’t stop till you get enough,” with Anthony showing off a new dance craze, the “kapzela,” based on some of Jackson’s pre-moonwalk, step-dancing moves. And then something radically new when someone, perhaps Keith Charl Sue Bello, introduced the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”. Within days we had learnt the lyrics.

And so we also often gathered at Edrees’s house. Idle, and with no pocket money (but someone always had the money for the day’s shared packet of cigarettes), we started shoplifting, pilfering small things like those little rubber bouncing balls and sweets. It was a game: what we stole was not important, but the number and variety. A slab of chocolate, a rubber ball and a keyring trumped two slabs and a ball. I can’t remember whether by then I had my own bicycle yet or whether I was still being ‘lifted’ around by whoever was happy to tolerate me as a passenger on their bike, but bicycles were central. We stole only from shops in “die dorp”, where all businesses were white-owned. On bicycles, we could perform “guerilla strikes,” in and out the CBD quickly. The OK Bazaar was our primary target.

We were idle and thus prone, in a very ordinary way, to teenage mischief. But, because of the political education we were receiving through the boycott, we also rationalised away our thieving: our parents paid tax but we were second class citizens, and we were stealing from white-owned shops. We were striking two blows for revolution – and against capital – in South Africa. (Many years later, at university, I laughed on seeing a poster, in a book of anarchist essays, depicting a woman defiantly brandishing a cartridge of lipstick and with the slogan: “Fight capitalism. Shoplift!”)

Of course our thieving diversified. We wouldn’t remain content with chocolates and balls. My brother, for instance, had inherited a Scalectrix set from a cousin who had outgrown it. But it was an old set – the cars’ electric motors were temperamental (armature magnets probably weakened with age). From savings, my brother had already bought two new cars, but one was a saloon car (a black Escort) and the other was an open-wheeled F1 car. You can’t race two different class cars. Or was it that, come race day, everyone wanted their own car. One friend, with no interest in the stuff, may even have stolen a car which he bartered with my brother, probably for a king-size slab of whole-nut chocolate.

My brother, re-engineering a static model car to make a superior Scalectrix car, there’s a hacker story. I don’t know how or why he had arrived at the point, but at some point my brother – driven by some curious urge always to find out how things worked – decided to modify a model car not otherwise meant for Scalectrix racing. It was a red Chevrolet Camaro, from a model kit such as any boy might buy, assemble and have on display. It was slightly bigger than the models zipping around the Scalectrix track and my brother happened on the idea of turning it into a racing car. God knows where, but he found an old hand-held vacuum cleaner, such as might be used in a real car. From that he took the electric motor – maybe 3 or 4 times bigger than the puny motors standard in the Scalectrix cars – and mounted it on a rudimentary chassis. Cannibalising various parts from elsewhere, he added axles and wheels, the latter’s rims metal, whereas the standard Scalectrix car had plastic wheel rims. The drive chain is simple: an electric motor with a cog at the end of its armature rod drives a flywheel on the rear axle of the car. But while it is easy to understand the mechanics of it, it would never have occurred to me that one can assemble such a mechanical drive oneself. They were easy to understand, but found in toy cars; you didn’t assemble it yourself…

Our thieving soon moved on to music, and socialising around music was centred in Edrees’s room with its Pioneer Rondo 3000. Here we would hatch all sorts of plans, most importantly, how to boost our takings. I recalled a Marx Brothers film where one of them had large pockets on the inside of a coat and could steal large amounts of food. So, we sewed large pockets into our coats. But we never used them; at least, I never used mine. I tried, walking into shops wearing that coat. But I had lost courage.

On a train trip to Cape Town with my brother and another friend, Willem, I had caused to happen my brother and I being slapped in a stairwell by a plainclothes store detective at OK Bazaar in the Golden Acre. We were in the music section, in the wide open exit of the OK, right at the Golden Acre exit onto Adderley Street. I thought, this can’t be difficult. I took the cassette tape that tempted me, and walked up and down the aisles of music, looking for an opportunity. But I lost courage and put the cassette tape back.

As we walked out, the store detective put his arms around us: “Kom net gou saam met my.” He guided us into the restricted stairwell next to the OK entrance. My brother was furious with me. My protestations of innocence didn’t help. I had behaved suspiciously, the detective had picked me up, but never saw me put the thing back. So, there we were, in shit in the big city. We were searched, my brother and Willem making mumbling noises when nothing was discovered. The detective, now pissed that he didn’t find anything, lashed out, slapping my brother. And then he slapped me, admonishing me not to take stuff and wander around with it. Trembling with humiliation, we took the train back, our silence – the three of us obviously brooding to ourselves about this injustice – interrupted every now and then by my brother crapping on my head.

I never again stole after that, and still get nervous on entering a shop, worried that I may appear suspicious.

As we outgrew our thieving, we started to outgrow each other as well, or simply drifted apart. My father was becoming stricter with regards our socialising. He knew when we returned home from a certain direction, that we had been visiting Edrees, and would scold us for it. Eventually, I think, my brother too stopped going there and would show his disapproval to me. He would still talk to Edrees if encountering him, but he wouldn’t seek him out, as I did, because I was fond of him.

But Edrees was also outgrowing us. He was at a technical college – was I at school still, in matric? – and, having outgrown Egga as well, was seeing a young woman from Cape Town. It may be that he met her via perhaps an Ahmadiyya network of socialising, I don’t know, where the chances of him finding a mate in Paarl or Wellington were reduced by the small community that the Ahmadiyya formed out there. Although it’s difficult for me to imagine such deliberation operating on his part. I remember occasions where he talked about her, I may have been introduced to her, but for the most part we weren’t seeing each other regularly anymore. He had his driver’s license and liberal use of his father’s car. So he was no longer housebound, as I was with a strict father, without a car. And there would be no chance of me gallivanting around Paarl at night with him, given my father’s strictures.

I was at university already and only coming home to Paarl on the occasional weekend, when I heard that Edrees had died in a freak accident. Driving down a road, with Anton in the car, they were struck by a falling tree. Anton survived.

I do not remember the reasons – if there were any – for me never having gone round to give my condolences to Edrees’s parents or look up Anton. It may be as simple as the negligence to make some time; it may be related to other friendships that in their Islamic provenance subtly discouraged this human act. Perhaps somewhere I feared that Muslim friends with whom I was now close and who themselves were parochial in their friendships, who always wondered sceptically at the fact that I also had Christe friends, may ask difficult questions. But why would that have troubled me? I don’t know.

And then time passed, and more time, and here I am now wanting to collapse those years, wishing that Edrees and I had at some point spoken about religious ‘differences.’ I remember my brother once in a brief, bullish and brutish argument with Edrees about these matters. Keith Charl Sue Bello perhaps saying something to the effect that everyone had their own beliefs and my brother dismissing KC with a “What do you know, you’re not Muslim.” But I have a memory of Edrees and a look of cowed hurt on his face, mumbling something about rather not wanting to talk about. It may have been the topic itself, but my brother also had that effect, a brute force even in argument. Perhaps it was that about that topic, a scorned identity, a dismissed minority view, Edrees was not prepared to argue with someone like my brother. That look of hurt, carrying nevertheless something about his convictions of which he could never convince someone like my brother, who was not only the kind of arguer that he was, but who would have in his arsenal also archive upon archive of mainstream scorn, suppression and repression of a divergent or an opposing view. Intangible perhaps, but dominant forces nevertheless. How do you push back against such forces?**


* A classmate from that time, Shafiq Kamalie, writes to me to say that in primary school Edrees did attend mosque with us as he remembers Edrees in the van ferrying the kids to mosque. I caught a ride with two teachers’ lift club and thus don’t have access to that detail. So Edrees must have also attended madressah. By highschool though, this friend confirms, Edrees had stopped attending our Sunni mosque. He himself recalls how ostracisation of Edrees was operating beneath the surface already at primary school.

Shafiq recalls a (Muslim) teacher telling his dad that he, Shafiq, wasn’t supposed to be friends with Edrees because “he was not one of us”. Shafiq thought that perhaps the teacher was implying that Edrees was white (he was fair, had straight hair, curly, but straight). Since Shafiq had also never seen Edrees’s father – who was fairer – in mosque, this was the reason he figured for being cautioned away from Edrees. Anyway, he’s dad explained the teacher’s injunction for the religious ostracism that it was.

** In 1982, a Capetonian, the late Ismail Peck, brought a case against the Muslim Judicial Council for being barred from a Mosque on the basis that he was Ahmadiyya. The case revolved around the definition of “Muslim”. When the judge allowed theological evidence into proceedings, the MJC withdrew from the case, naturally losing the case, with cost. The case is summarised and discussed from the Ahmadiyya point of view here.

I cannot recall being aware of this case at the time, something I am certain I would have remembered. It also strikes me that it was around this time that my father became stricter about my brother and me socialising with Edrees. And so, thanks to the internet and search engines, some things start to make sense.

Dagga – Part Five

The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?- Gilles Deleuze

The Greek roots of “nostalgia” are nostos (“return home”) and algos (“pain”); the word does not refer only to what we think of as a soft-focus recollection of times or things past. It refers to a particular ache, an ache to return, and to return to a certain place. By naturalising nostalgia – by treating or dismissing it as a wistful (wasteful?) act of recollection that we all eventually will indulge in – we deny that there is also, or was, a possibility of retaining the thing now lost. Is this the ache that the Greek algos refers to: the pain of acknowledging a loss for which yet there was a possibility of retaining? Not the packet of Simba chips that cost only 2 cents when I was a child, the loss of which I could not control, but something else? What, exactly, is the mathematics of this ache for home?

If nostalgia was a function, it would be dependent on two variables, time and the thing lost. What was lost, when? But would such a function not also have to reckon with another variable? How does one ache for a past – nostalgically, for better or worse – that is also so significantly marred by that complicated, always revolving barb: apartheid.

Read further here.

Rape is a part of our culture

[This was originally written as a comment here.]

The incidence of rape is despairing, all rape. And the statistics in this country are unthinkable. Its widespread incidence makes it a part of our culture. Yes, it’s shocking to think of it this way, isn’t it? That rape has become a part of our culture.

Rape is not something that happens on the margins of society – it happens in all classes, races, languages, religions. It happens in poorly policed informal settlements and it happens under the guise of the ‘sanctity’ of Muslim marriage. It happens among friends & lovers and in plush homes where it is hushed up for the sake of the children. It happens in offices between bosses and underlings and in schools between teachers and their wards. Children are being raped; babies, for god’s sake. How can we claim, by any stretch of the imagination, that we are a normal society?

Rape is a part of our culture. Isn’t it shocking that it should be rape that runs as a common thread through the exhaustingly many divisions of our country?

Normally the phrase “a part of our culture” is used in assertions of identity, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not; but its meaning is normally positive because it’s an assertion. By this I mean the user of the phrase normally means something positive and the phrase is used to justify or celebrate something. It should be clear that I do not use the phrase in this way at all.

To think, though, that one can use this phrase to describe this scourge, that rape is a part of our culture, should shame us as a country and a nation. Rape is a part of our culture. It should shame us into silence every time we are moved to celebrate a South African achievement or assert a routine of our culture. When a sports team is victorious and we claim winning is a part of our culture; when we produce something and claim innovation is a part of our culture; when we slaughter a cow in sacrifice to ancestors or to Allah on Eid; when we celebrate 27 April 1994, whenever… whenever we want to celebrate something that is a part of our culture, we should be shamed to think that rape is also a part of our culture. That we have normalised rape. That we have not only grown desensitized towards rape, but that we, as a society, have normalised rape.

As a country we should be shamed and censured for our shameful human rights record because rape has become a part of our culture.

We think of the rapist often as an aberration of masculinity, but I would argue that that masculinity is part of a general, arrogant, masculine South African culture. A kragdadigheid that persists, intensified, in our culture. If we think of rape as men’s arrogation of power over their victims – the assumption that because they are men they have the right over someone else, over their minds and their bodies – we can see how it is connected to a masculine arrogance that runs through South Africa (not exclusive to men), the strong over the weak; an arrogance towards others that flickers through in the politician’s contempt for his electorate, in the obscene display of obscene wealth, in the corporation’s treatment of the individual customer, in the snark comments of illiterate celebrities and columnists. A contempt towards anyone over which you have any bit of power, arrogated or earned. And drunk with that contempt. This is not human, and it is not what we struggled for.

Rape is a part of our culture and our culture is complicit with rape. Until men unlearn this arrogance, that they don’t have any right over a woman’s body or mind, that they don’t have any right over anyone’s body and mind, that no one has any right over anybody’s body and mind, the rapes won’t lessen.

We should be ashamed of our culture, of being South African.