Saturday, May 29, 2010

Discovering the Spirit of Bo-Kaap


Around the world, people have come to know about Bo-Kaap. The published information on this interesting place has often been created by those foreign to Bo-Kaap - often for tourism advertising or to stereotype Cape Muslims. Tourists who just visit Bo-Kaap, without interacting with people of the Bo-Kaap, often leave with a distorted view of the Bo-Kaap. The Muslim tour guides have attempted to rectify the past distortions "European" writers tried to present about Bo-Kaap. What is an interesting phenomenon is that whoever visits Bo-Kaap feels the spirit of it, a spirit that transcends intellectual impressions; Because being presence in Bo-Kaap and listening to the Call to Prayer (Athaan), leaves the inner-spirit of a visitor stimulated to want to know more about the Islamic Faith, the people and the place - Bo-Kaap.

The late Dr. Achmat Davids, a historian and resident of Bo-Kaap, did extensive studies on the history of "The Mosques of the Bo-Kaap" and the people of Bo-Kaap. He has also brought to the world the reality that Afrikaans has its origins among the Muslims of Bo-Kaap, whose religious leaders were the first to write "Arab-Afrikaans", re-named by myself as "Kaaps" in my mini-thesis in Arabic III at University of the Western Cape (UWC) under Professors Mohamed Haron and Yasien Mohamed.

A contemporary, home-grown and up-to-date vision of Bo-Kaap is presently not in publication. Books that have recently been published on Bo-Kaap were again done by non-muslim, non-residents of Bo-Kaap with a tourist agenda - which still distorts the image and real value of Bo-Kaap. When reading these Euro-centric accounts of Bo-Kaap, a need to write a true account of Bo-Kaap and its people surfaces. The Blog is an attempt to add some new dimensions to the life in Bo-Kaap. It also allows other people to add comments and grow the quality reports and the value of Bo-Kaap. We are aware that all places change over time, but a true account of a place may allow for positive changes that enhance an already valuable place or people for world interest.

Within a global village with countless disappointing outcomes as results, due to the use of static methods, the fast cyberspace communication offers access to a more truer version of places and its peoples. This helps the people of the world to arrive at more positive and sustainable ways of living and progressing. Bo-Kaap, as a place and its people, may hold some of the future promises for world progress as one delves into how a small community could withstand an oppressive government and the modern onslaught of filming companies and other self-interest groups, who tried, and are still trying to exploit such a wonderful people and place for personal, selfish gains.

Some writers who interviewed individuals of Bo-Kaap, were not able to get correct information, because they did not understand the language, religion or culture of the people. They were also stooped in their own traditional western-based "research' methodologies which often alienate people through distorted lenses and critical approaches - that loses the warmth of life's living report. These non-Muslim interviewers also had difficulty asking the deeper questions, because they did not speak the language of Bo-Kaap or share the faith of the people. The Muslims of Bo-Kaap spoke differently to the Muslims from other parts of Cape Town. Eurocentric writers also had a different agenda which tainted their interpretations and writing styles.

Brief History of Bo-Kaap

The Mardykers were the first Muslims who came to the Cape. They were not slaves, but craftsmen and women who worked for the Dutch East India Company. They were, though, not allowed to preach their faith -Islam - to others. With the coming of Sheikh Yusuf, a prince and political exile, who came with his own followers, Islam spread by word through the Thikr (Remembrances of Allah- The One and Only God) of groups of men and women. These Athkaar(Plural of Thikr) had such a remarkable, influence on the Cape, that many Slaves became Muslim. Their new faith and the general charity of Muslims, combined with the first school/ madrassa at the Owal Mosque in Bo-Kaap started by a political exile to the Cape, Tuan Guru, brought more slaves to the mosque and to Islam. The attendees were taught Islam and how to read, using Arabic Script for their colloquial language, accounting, Dutch and other subjects as more literate Christians and European settler descendants, became Muslim. The Owal Mosque site was given to the Muslims as a negotiated offer in return for some Muslim men being asked, by the British empire, to guard the South African coastline.

The Bo-Kaap Muslims' regular Thursday Night  Athkaar (Ga-dat) created the opportunity for them to receive Divine Assistance, which in-turn made the authorities respect them, love them, support them and even fear them, even though the general Muslim was materially poor. The Muslim's love for charity, openness to feeding their guests with their best, however meagre it was, which characterised the Bo-Kaap Muslims as "Goet-gief-tag" (like to give). They were always ready to invite people to eat at their homes and treat them well - even as part the family - whoever it may be - Muslims always had "Oepe tafels fe ie-nag-ge ene"-'Their tables were always set with food and delicacies for anyone"- "oop tafels vir enigeen". They had a general friendly nature and were easy to get along with.This attracted many non-muslims into the fold of Islam - and still, does.

Having been the tailors and dressmakers of some of the authorities - National Party ministers and their wives, and having their fitting rooms in their Bo-Kaap homes, "white" customers frequented Muslim homes and came to know the warmth and honesty of the Bo-Kaap Muslims. The Muslims valued their crafts and it was their communication tool to others. It was for them part of their faith. They believed in honest work and satisfying their customer at reasonable prices. They made such a name for themselves as craftsmen and women that the Non-Muslim business people depended on the Muslims' continuous craftsmanship. It is then understandable that  Apartheid Ministers, through their knowledge and dealings with the Bo-Kaap Muslim, went so far as to declare Bo-Kaap and exclusively Malay Quarter - where no non-Muslim could stay among the Muslims of Bo-Kaap - a National Party move to protect the unique culture of the Cape Muslims. This was the Unseen, Godly Protection, the Muslims of Bo-Kaap received during the hard times of Apartheid. They were so respected as a Muslim community, that they could often get what they want, while non-Muslim non-whites at times, did not enjoy the same privileges. Some non-Muslims would say that the Muslims were sell-outs - 'Fif coloms' - "dealing with the oppressor", out of envy for the respect Bo-Kaap Muslims received from the 'White' leaders. What they did not want to admit to was that the Muslims were strong and were not determined by what the authorities wanted to do to people.The Cape Muslims insisted that the authorities respect their faith and were strong to insist on their rights without compromising their principles. During the slave days at the Cape, Muslims slaves were treated very well for two reasons:
1. They were sober and exceptional craftsmen and -women
2. Some Muslims slaves would kill their oppressive slave-owners and sacrifice their life in the Path of God for other slaves' safety (Singular Jihad/ Holy War)
The above reasons were enough to make any authority respect the Cape Muslims - and Muslims in general. This hsitory of the Cape Muslims, as well as their general cleanliness,  made many employers request their craftsmanship. The sober habits and cleanliness of their living habits were demanded by their faith of Islam - a basic common religious practice of "cleanliness is next to Godliness", except that within Islam cleanliness is compulsory within Islamic Practice. a Muslims is required to use water for toilet ablution to ensure the requirements to pray (Solaah), Qur'an recital/reading and AthKaar (Remembrances of God where Qur'anic extracts in writing are used) or to circumabulate the Kaba (The Black Drapped Cube Building in Mecca). It is this compulsory cleanliness practice that differenciated the Muslim from all other  people of faith on a daily basis. The solaah format and vision also attracts many non-muslims into the fold of Islam, because the solaah (Formal, regular Prayer) contains serenity, and unitary humble movements - a natural condition the human soul yearns for. The practical Islamic infusion into the life of the Muslim man and woman made them the most interesting people in the city. One interesting practice of Cape Muslims, which also added to reasons why the authorities feared them, was the Ratiep - a sword, knife, spike wielding practice in which Muslim men strike themselves with sharp swords and knives without any injury. This freaked out some White non-Muslims in the Cape. They called for an enquiry and a British government official was sent to Bo-Kaap to investigate it. He approached the few business people in Bo-Kaap about it. The state representative came to an agreement with these Muslim representatives to tone down the sound, but continue the practice. The Muslim business people then convinced the state representative to represent their interests in parliament from that day onwards. His fear and respect for the Cape Muslims made him a formidable Muslim rep in parliament to the extent that other state officials attacked him in parliament as an over-zealous sympathiser of Muslims. Again one sees how the Creator looked after the Muslims of Bo-Kaap, because of their strength for DEEN - Islamic practice. What Muslims wear, their ways and the simplicity, yet strong faithful practice and miraculous Help they receive from God, attracted people from different faiths and persuasions to become Mulsim. Bo-Kaap's faithful practice and its numerous mosques in a confined space, with a mix of architectural styles (Portugese, Dutch, British, Arabian, Indonesian and Malaysian), thus truly draws interests from the world's people - making Bo-Kaap today a world tourist attraction.

A new interest is developing amongst museum officials connected to Bo-Kaap - a proposal to declare Bo-Kaap a heritage area of South Africa, is in the process of being tabled. "De Waterkant" - part of Bo-Kaap that was declared "White" during Apartheid - has been given Heritage Status. It seems that there still exists a "white" prejudicial treatment from municipal authorities, because  the greater, "non-white" Bo-Kaap has not yet been declared a heritage area - allowing "white" buyers to exploit the Bo-Kaap's property value. The heritage interest stems from the need to stop foreign home owners, in Bo-Kaap, from building hideous, ultra-modern structures that do not fit the general, warm, cultural architectural spirit of Bo-Kaap. Whatever the fears may be and the attempts on Bo-Kaap may be, its interesting and faithful existence, with its many Masaajids (Mosques) will still make it an area of great interest. Some non-Muslims, who came to Bo-Kaap to exploit it ,  soon found themselves visited by unseen misfortune. This was sometimes ascribed to a practice of old, the Doe-koem, a few Muslims were well known for - having contact with Jinn (unseen smokeless fire creations of God, that dwell among humans, but can only be seen and contacted by some people), but it often seems to have been the general Spiritual Protection Bo-Kaap Muslims enjoyed and not the work of Doe-koems.

Several Saints (Ow-li-yaa - Friends of God (Tuans)) are buried in the vicinity of Bo-Kaap and the Cape in general - including on Robben Island). Some "White" owners who bought property, where Tuans were buried on, tried to demolish it - and found themselves visited by strange phenomena - they soon abandoned their ideas and they themselves built protective walls around the Tuan and excluded it from their property - giving back the Tuan's "property" and allowing Muslims to visit these graves freely - up till today. Some Bo-Kaap Muslims and other Cape Muslims still exist that regularly have access to communication on one or another level with these Ow-liyaah - who is believed to enjoy the status of not decomposing - the body staying fresh and whole underground- because of the spiritual level they were granted in their life-time and the Divine honour granted to them - such that the earthly elements are unable to decompose their bodies due to its Divinely "magnitised state". One "Hippie" of the 1970's experienced the freshness of a saintly body just under the stones at a Tuan, when he wanted to be curious and scratched to see what's under the Tuan's grave sands and stones. He run down the hill so fast and into my friend's shop at the bottom of the hill - freaking out at what he observed. Taun Grave sites have thus stayed untouched in former "white areas" of the Cape. This is another reason why Muslims of Bo-Kaap and often Muslims in general were feared by non-Muslims. Muslims with Red/ Black fezzes (round Turkish type hats) or Woel-sels (Turbans) were generally feared in the Old Cape. There is also a belief that the graves of the Tuan's are in such a way that there is a spiritual protective zones around the Cape - with specific reference to Bo-Kaap. The Cape's Muslims in general are well respected in the world for the religiosity and yet modern lifestyle. The Cape Muslims and the Bo-Kaap Muslims in particular are respected as the most up-righteous Muslims in the world, by Muslims from other countries - even Saudi's admit to it- especially now that so many Muslims and non-Muslims from all over the world are staying in Bo-Kaap to learn English at the English schools in the City Centre. Presently many Arab Muslims have learnt from Bo-Kaap Muslims, how to be more spiritually practical Muslims and yet  modern. Some non-Muslim students, who stayed with Muslims in Bo-Kaap, have become Muslim. Bo-Kaap today, due to the many foreign students who stay in Bo-Kaap homes, have become a cosmopolitan area. More international and local tourists now take walks in Bo-Kaap. There is a spirit they feel that attracts them. The Divine Presence is felt, because when people enter Bo-Kaap, the many Mosques' Calls to prayer is loudly and regularly heard - The Name of God and His Greatness is sounded loudly and the soul of every human who hears it freezes - even-though he/she wants to deny it intellectually.

The Mosques of the Bo-Kaap

The extensive research done by the Late Dr. Achmat Davids, a distant relative of mine, resulted in the Book "Mosques of The Bo-Kaap". It explains the origin of the peoples of Bo-Kaap and the beginnings each of the Mosques in the Bo-Kaap. We have 10 mosques in the vicinity of Bo-Kaap. Each under their own "management"/ mosque committee. The committees handle the care and financial requirements of the Mosque. The Musallees (those who attend the Mosques for prayers regular) have a choice of attending any mosque of their choice and contribute to any as they wish. All mosques in the Bo-Kaap now offer The Friday Ju-mu-'a Prayer ( The compulsory Mass Friday prayer for all Muslim men). Refusal to attend the Friday Prayer is a major sin. Thus during these times the mosques overflow, because there are so many Muslims from other areas that attend Bo-Kaap Mosques for Ju-mu-'a Prayer, because they work in the city centre. It is for this reason that the Masaajeed of the Bo-Kaap Committee ( a representative body from each mosque in the Bo-Kaap) decided to open all the Mosques for Ju-mu-'a. Only some mosques had Ju-mu-a Prayer in the past, because there is an Islamic Religious Law (Fiqh) that states that a Ju-mu-a can only be performed if there are 40 or more adult men present in a specific area. Bo-Kaap was smaller before in its Friday prayer attendees, but as the Muslims of the Cape Town grew and more became Central town office workers (Old Bo-Kaap had craftsmen - who often worked away on building sites away from Bo-Kaap) the number of Friday attendees grew. Muslims are not only growing in their number of children they had, but many non-Muslims became Muslim, which swelled the ranks even more. Ju-mu-'a is a spectacle of men attending Mosque. The whole South Africa has slowly respected the Muslims "Sabath" giving their workers off to attend mosque. The respect for Muslims by South African Non-Muslims has always been immense. Even the Malls have Prayer Rooms - even before the Muslim international buyers started investing in South African Businesses. It is perhaps this God-fearing nature of South Africans that added to the Miracle of the South African Transition. Another major fact of the S.A. Miracle is that many Muslim Countries , like Saudi Arabia and Libya contributed (Sadaqa/ Charity) to the ANC struggle for freedom from Apartheid. It is now so interesting, that after America and Britain  became hostile to Muslims after 9/11, Arabs decided to Make South Africa their new destination for investments. The Arab children now stay in Bo-Kaap during their English studies. It seems that Allah(God), The Exalted, made South Africa, the place the Arabs helped towards freedom, the Arabs' new home for learning and investments. They used to think the world of Britain and America, until God proved them wrong and forced them to seek protection amongst the South African Muslims - with special reference to Bo-Kaap. It is Madiba who said to the American President Clinton in a press conference on TV, that no-one tells  South Africa who to associate with, because he is grateful to the Arabs who helped the ANC, and that America can "jump in the lake" - Madiba said that while Clinton was standing right next to him at the press conference. This S.A.Miracle of change is definitely linked to the unselfish charity of the Muslim Arabs for the Freedom of South Africans and the God-fearing nature of the South Africans and its upright, yet modern Muslim. I sat next to a Malaysian Pilgrim in the Gha-ram (The Grand Mosque where the Ka'-ba is) during my first Ghaj (Pilgrimage to Mecca) in 1995. He asked me "How many Muslims in South Africa". I answered " 2% of the Population". He said: "What! Internationally you look like 90% of the S.A. population!. You are so strong as a community. I tell you the Angels are with you. That is why you look so big and strong in the world's view of South African Muslims". Yes, we as Muslims in South Africa and especially in Bo-Kaap, are Blessed and Supported by Unseen Forces.

Speak to any foreigner or even "whites", who now stay in Bo-Kaap. Their response is that the people of  Bo-Kaap are friendly and the area is homely. Everyone feels comfortable and safe. They feel protected by the spiritual forces prevalent here in Bo-Kaap. The people walking to Mosque 5 times a day is a vision many stands to wonder.

The Mosques saved Bo-Kaap from being declared "Whites Only" during the Apartheid era. The Bo-Kaap could easily be termed  "The Bastian against Apartheid". In the 70's the Cape Town City Council aimed to build a bridge to cut through Bo-Kaap, that will link De Waal Drive with Sea Point - but when they met with the Civic Association in the Bo-Kaap, they discovered that their plans would cut through a mosque which would not go down without a fight from the Cape Muslims. They went back to their drawing board only to find, with each of the three attempts with a 10 year gap in between, that every time they return to the civic association they found that there was another Mosque in the way of the bridge. They eventually gave up going through the Bo-kaap and tried to link a bridge pass the harbour - the two halves did not meet (an engineering mistake or something deeper ?)- now seen as the incomplete bridge just at the Waterfront entrance. The Plan was to break Bo-Kaap in half with the bridge and declare the better, higher part of Bo-kaap "White" and leave the lower less scenic part for the Muslims, like they did with District Six - which was another failed White dream  - Unseen Help for Bo-Kaap and District Six !

N.B. Dear reader Thank you for reading this blog entry. Please bear with me - I am extremely busy but have the niyyah (spiritual intention) to write a very deep appreciative account of the Discovering the Spirit Bo-Kaap and its People - Inshaa Allah - God Willing. If you have any questions please be so kind to send me an email : or simply place it as a comment. Thank you - Shuk'ran.

1 comment:

  1. I live in Bo-Kaap. I would support the idea to declare in a heritage area 100%. Change will happen anyway. It is better to plan for it than to stand by and react.