ASHUR SHAMIS reviews the Al Jazeera Arabic documentary on Ash-Shaheed Imam Abdullah Haron that was flighted on May 15, 2020.
Pain. Prison. Torture. Death. Two deaths, in fact, and two funerals, separated by precisely fifty years, to the day.
Graves. No! Two graves in one, for the man and his wife were buried in the same grave. That is what we are met with at the beginning of this documentary, the main storyline.
We also have the theme of a huge, complicated and overwhelming state structure; a sophisticated government machine, built on the most abhorrent system of institutionalised racial segregation known to man, which existed in South Africa since 1948.
It is one which was being gradually irritated, annoyed and angered by this ‘average’, lone man who worked the backstreets of Cape Town selling chocolates to feed his family.
Slowly we get introduced to a simple and well dressed, if short, articulate man. He seems knowledgeable and knows his bearings; a social worker, especially among the downtrodden and the under-privileged; a spiritual advisor, a teacher, a Muslim imam, would you believe!
Well, many of his contemporaries did not, and objected to him being elected – yes elected – as the imam of a mosque in Cape Town.
1966 sees him travel abroad, for Hajj in Arabia. From there he travels to London. For what purpose? Suspicious! The ‘huge machine’ goes immediately into action and builds up a profile of the sweet chocolate vendor as ‘religious fanatic mixed up in political action’.
In London, he meets two important people. One was an old friend from the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), Barney Desai, who went on to write a sensitive, historically detailed book, The Killing of the Imam (Quartet Books, 1978), which is heavily cited for this documentary, and Canon John Collins, an Anglican priest who meddled in several radical political movements.
The Imam goes back to South Africa, being now viewed by the ugly, ‘huge machine’, a different man. Eventually, he ends up in prison and, within a few months, his corpse is delivered to his family.
From what we are told, we are almost close to finding out the ‘cause of death’, near to demanding a habeas corpus. But, not quite. We have the body but not the ‘cause of death’. ‘He fell down stairs,’ they said.
We learn there were only a few steps, not high enough to cause death. But we also learn that strong electric shocks were applied to Imam. Could that be the ‘cause of death’?
He was a man who listened to his conscience. He mastered that rare gift of balancing what came from the heart with what came from the head. He had vision and ambition. He dazzled the Cape Town community with a unique charisma that endeared him to them and was the envy of many of his contemporaries.
This is what drove the Imam to oppose and fight the system of apartheid. The powers-that-be realised that he was dangerous and had to be eliminated. Imam Abdullah Haron, by then, became a symbol to his people; he became an idea, and no one can ever kill or obliterate an idea.
This documentary, like its predecessor, Imam and I, by Khalid Shamis, is true and concise, and throws light on the man and his legacy. There are intriguing impressions from his family, friends and acquaintaces that leave you wanting to know more about the Imam and his fascinatingly short life.
No writer could have written the script for this work of art. If we wish to put meanings to events, as Farid Sayed says, then here is Imam waiting for 50 years for his wife to be buried with him on the same day, in the same tomb. Indeed, truth is stranger than fiction.
- Ashur Shamis is married to Shamela, the eldest daughter of Imam Abdullah and Galiema Haron.
This article was first published in the June 19, 2020 edition of Muslim Views.