Africa and the World: Writers at Home and Away
ACHMAT DANGOR: History. We all have our stories.
Forty years ago, at the eager age of sixteen, I had to appear before a race-classification board in Pretoria, South Africa, because of my mixed heritage. Let me describe that: One ancestor, great-grandmother or great-grandfather, was brought to the Dutch as a slave from Java or Malaysia; we’re not sure. Another came as a merchant from India. I have a great-grandmother who came as something else, from the Netherlands. And I was speaking Afrikaans as my mother tongue and, because I grew up in a mixed township, my second language was Isizulu. So can you imagine the confusion of those race-classification people? In the end, they classified me as colored. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being classified, but in a race-obsessed society, everyone had to have an identity. Now, we have a new kind of identity.
In the past few weeks and months, I’ve been reading from my book Bitter Fruit in various parts of the world—in London, in Antwerp, in Amsterdam, in New York, in Toronto—and I get the same question every time: Are you a Muslim writer? So here I am, with a new identity: I am a wine-drinking, Muslim-born writer who writes in English. I’m equivocally African.
I’m going to read from a story, a section of the novel, which I hope will perhaps demonstrate that ambiguity. This novel is about a young man, Michael, who discovers that his biological father is a security policeman who raped his mother. He discovers this due to the Reconciliation Commission process, as I called it, and he decides that he will not forgive and forget. He decides to execute his biological father. And the night before he does that, he wanders through the streets of Johannesburg thinking about these things.
Michael had heard the expression from Sadrodien, a mixture of Arabic and Malay, describing the call to prayer that the “Bilal” makes at each of the five prescribed prayer hours. Michael had since learnt that one of the Prophet Mohamed’s first adherents was a black man named Bilal (a faithful servant, a freed slave?). For his foresight and courage—those were dangerous times, the first Muslims had many enemies—Bilal was accorded the honor of calling the fledging band of faithful to prayer. Now, everywhere in the world, five times a day, a man—European travel brochures call him a “muezzin”—climbs a winding staircase to the top of a tower, supporting his bony knees with his hands, so that it seems he has added an extra element to the ritual of worship, and proclaims to the world: Allah u Akbah! God is Great. Bilal the man has been transformed by time and myth from person into concept.
Not all Bilals are black, Michael thinks. But here in Newclare of course, he is, a Somali émigré, poor and pious. Michael is there, at the gates of the Griffith Street Mosque, when the Newclare Bilal bhangs the dawn salaat. He watches the faithful arrive, they smile indulgently: so this is the prodigal son that Imam Ismail is trying to bring back into the fold!
When the Moulana arrives, surprise flickers in his eyes. “Wait for me in the classroom,” he tells Michael.
Michael sits on the floor, his knees drawn up against his chest. He is exhausted, light-headed from lack of sleep. The place and the hour, as well, bring upon him a dreamlike euphoria.
He remembers: he had taken a taxi from Julian’s place, long before the party ended, was dropped off outside his home in Berea. But the world beyond that door seemed small, Lilliputian. He imagined that the house had become a labyrinth of narrow tunnels, booby-trapped, rigged with concealed trapdoors through which the unsuspecting visitor might fall. Alice in Mandela’s Wonderland. Why Mandela? That came later, he thinks. He had turned away from the house, carefully retreating as if trying to allay the fears of some suspicious watcher.
He had walked down the hill to Louis Botha Avenue, then to Norwood, where a street party was taking place. Dancing and drinking in the street, loud music, glass against glass like the clash of metal, a loud, mad-hatter merriment, party-goers with smiles permanently painted onto their faces.
He remembers: Lydia lying on the billiard table, that young Mozambican, João, perched above her, birdlike, a heron, uncommonly black, his awkwardness given grace by her arched body. Silver shadows lighting up the loveliness of their coupling: green upon her olive skin, deep blue against his dark, dark back. She held him, no more than that, moored him, as if to prevent him from drifting into space, his head in her hands, whispering in his ear, as if instructing him in the art of sex. On the other side of the room, lit up by a full moon, stood Silas, staring intently, like a voyeur. Then he stumbled away, as if intoxicated.
He remembers: he had wandered away from Grant Avenue, away from the theatrical, staged revelry, along dark streets, until the world was quiet again, and he could hear the wind rustling in the trees, a true and solitary peacefulness. Somewhere, what seemed like hours later, he had come upon a small convoy of cars pulling up outside a house. Some important person in a Mercedes-Benz. Blue lights began to flash on the roof of the leading car when he stopped to watch. A warning: move a long. But he stood still, watching as the cars waited for gates to trundle open on a rail.
Who is the VIP? he wondered. It would be easy to assassinate him. What else are they good for but dying famous deaths. The Mercedes-Benz had darkened windows. They became famous in order to crave privacy.
Then a window in the car rolled down, and Nelson Mandela smiled at him. “What are you doing out so late, young man, and all alone?”
He was stunned, tongue-tied. He must have walked all the way down to Mandela’s residence in Houghton. He wanted to extend his hand, offer a greeting; then, incongruously, he remembered the gun in his pocket, and stepped back.
The President looked at him quizzically. “Are you afraid of me?” he asked.
“Do you need help?”
“I’m not far from home,” he remembers stammering, before waving to the President and his increasingly restive bodyguards, and walking away. To the freeway. A passing motorist had stopped, looked him over carefully, then offered him a lift (perhaps his stooped, shivering stance, that vulnerable look he instinctively assumed when he was being examined, made him appear harmless).
Through the rest of the night, he remained aware of the gun in his pocket, pressing its presence on him. He had practiced pulling it out rapidly, because that might be the only way he would get close enough to Du Boise. Would he really have shot that grand old man, he wonders now, as something in his mind was subliminally suggesting when he stood before Nelson Mandela’s open window?