DR YUNUS OMAR gives us a brief glimpse into Ramadaan and his childhood in District Six.
FASTING during summer is no easy thing. It’s not supposed to be easy but there are times when we forget this. It’s even more of a strain when you’re a youngster in District Six and it’s school holidays.
By ‘school holidays’ I don’t mean a total break from school because the Zinatul Islam Madressah, based at Muir Street Mosque, did not close because of a silly thing like an official national school calendar. We’d walk down Muir Street or up from Selkirk Street and other roads burned into hearts and memories, and around the corner from the mosque entrance into Chapel Street and enter through the ornate little metal gate before standing at the door. You always waited at the door. But you didn’t just wait. You looked directly at Shaikh Peerbhai sitting at the large, dark desk near the partition in the large basement hall of the mosque. When he summoned you, you walked inside and sat down.
Then it was three hours of Quran recitation, reading aloud from Stories of the Prophets as part of the public speaking that we were taught from an early age, or helping someone who was struggling to maak faam (memorise) a selected section of the Quran. As soon as Bilal started the adhaan, we rushed up to perform Dhuhr salaah. Then it was our afternoon.
Before we get to the afternoon, though, it’s necessary to come clean about wudu in a summer Ramadaan in Muir Street, District Six. Sleeves up, trouser-pipes up, and then onto your favourite abdaskamer (wudu room) stool and your favourite tap. The taps were opened only slightly to save water, and then it was on to the abdas (wudu) proper.
The hands up to the wrists were done quickly and well. Then it was on to the ‘gargle the mouth and brush the teeth’ moment. Here we paused and thought deeply about doing this to the best of our trained abilities. We cupped the hands to hold the water, carefully tilted our heads backwards and poured the water from our cupped hands into our dry mouths. Those mouths had been fasting since about 4 a.m., and those mouths were thirsty. And so we did what a well-loved older uncle told us one day: ‘Maak seker dat julle reg gargle, en moenie vergeet om die water agter in die keel te laat gaan nie. Daai’s important. Moenie sluk nie, maar die water moet agter in die keel gaan om skoon te maak.’ (Ensure that you gargle properly, and don’t forget to allow the water to reach the back of throat. That’s important. Don’t swallow, but the water must clean the back of the throat.) We took that sagely advice very seriously.
The cool water, in dry, young, Ramadaan mouths, swirled carefully and deliberately in every part of those little mouths. If ‘gargling the mouth’ was done without much thought at other times, during a Ramadaan summer it was planned and executed with precision, care and full concentration. And it was beautiful. That second phase of the abdas needed its proper time to complete. And we had three chances! It was wonderful. Ramadaan in District Six was wonderful.
We’d come out of our house at Number 29, past where my uncle and aunt lived at Number 27, past the store on the corner of Muir and Roger Streets (my grandmother owned all three properties, and lost it during the Group Areas expropriation in the 1970s), and across to the Salvation Army. It was ‘wajib’ (advice from my Dad) to greet Mrs Pamplin at the Salvation Army before going to mosque, and I’d regularly stick my head through the large doors, and be greeted by an always-smiling Mrs Pamplin and her children. Then, past Shaikh Abu Bakr Najaar’s house, past the Natha’s house (if I wasn’t swooped up onto the back of the green International truck by Omarjee Natha or his wife, Amina, and chatted with) and then a right turn onto the marble step and then up the stairs.
I loved entering that masjid. It was a pleasant, welcoming and calm space, and it’s where the familiar faces and smiles came together every day.
Starting Ramadaan 45 years later, in a place far from the now empty plot that was my home, is not the same. It’s not the same. It’s not enough. It’s not home.
The Ghiwalas are gone. The Parbhoos are gone. We can’t kick a soccer ball at their garage doors which were our goalposts opposite our home in Muir Street any longer. The Essops are gone. The Josephs and Soekers are gone. The Nathoos are gone. Hadji Moosa is gone. The Salvation Army is gone.
But Ramadaan is with us, and it brings its magnificence. It brings the possibility of us being better than we were before. But it also brings a sadness that never disappears. Ramadaan each year brings anew the emptiness.
It reminds me, through the emptiness, of the wonder of the abdas, and the kindness of that much-loved uncle who knew how we struggled to fast as youngsters in District Six, and taught us to gargle our mouths with care and due concentration.
Yunus Omar (PhD) lectures in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.