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Memory Unchained: Nadia Davids Reviews Gabeba Baderoon’s Regarding Muslims

By Nadia Davids for the Sunday Times

Regarding MuslimsRegarding Muslims
Gabeba Baderoon (Wits University Press)
***** (five stars)

In Regarding Muslims, Gabeba Baderoon gives us a work of precision and poetry, equal parts scholarly analysis and creative reflection. She trains her gaze over 350 years of Islam in South Africa, tracing careful and thoughtful connections between that triad of awful legacies — slavery, colonialism and apartheid — and demonstrating with remarkable intellectual acuity how those histories circulate, intersect and are replicated now.

In doing so, she makes a powerful and compelling argument for the centrality of Islam and slavery in forging South Africa, and asserts that its Muslim community is quintessentially of this country and this continent. While this may not appear to be an especially radical thought — geography is invariably part of any group’s identity — it might surprise some readers. As Rustum Kozain notes in his introduction, “Islam is one such area of culture in South Africa where even reasonably educated South Africans show a surprising lack of knowledge.”

Though its focus is on the local, the book is international in its reach. Those ubiquitous images — suffering veiled woman, terrifying bearded men, beings full of dark mystery; people who are exotic, impenetrable, fundamentally different — are brilliantly decoded. Baderoon uses them to develop a complex portrait of this country through its many political transitions, and reveals as much about those doing the looking as those being looked at. Yet in her closing chapter, Baderoon is hopeful, observing that South Africa’s relationship with its Muslim citizens “in many ways offers a model to the world, treating them as fully integrated members of a secular democracy that expressly protects religious expression.”

The book is rich and ambitious. Baderoon moves between analysis of 16th-century archival records, 20th-century modernist paintings, 21st-century imagery of Islam and finally, contemporary poetry, novels and theatre. Her choices of archival material, literary texts and heightened political moments demonstrate that she is interested neither in “artificially centralising” nor “marginalising” Islam.

She writes vividly, beautifully, and one of the book’s many strengths is the ease with which she migrates between registers: the work is intellectually engaged but highly personal, grounded in materialist analysis but alive to the intricacies of the creative process, committed to pivotal historical moments as well as ordinary domestic detail.

She moves between the politics of Cape kitchens (in which, with obvious delight, she speaks of the subversive tactic of cooks past and present who “steal ” recipes “with the eye”), to the startling and deeply disturbing killing of drug-dealer Rashied Staggie by the vigilante group, Pagad. She shifts from the Cape’s sexual psycho-geographies to wonderfully insightful readings of the works of poets and writers like Kozain, Tatamkulu Afrika and Yvette Christiansë. Her critique of the creative is especially compelling and a mark of the depth of her analytical talent: under her pen, other artists’ writing is animated anew.

Baderoon’s navigation of the often bewildering collision of race, religion, sexuality and representation in the Cape is important, but it is in her historically reparative work on slavery that grants this work its game-changing significance.

A few months ago a friend and I were talking about the film 12 Years a Slave. Shaken by the film, its haunting horrors, its unflinching depiction of the crazed and sustained evil of slavery in the US south, my friend offered hesitantly, “But I don’t think it was like that here.”

Unfortunately, she was wrong; it was “like that here”. But the popular fiction that the Cape practised a benign version of slavery has long been propagated. For the most part, South Africans don’t speak about slavery and when we do, it is relegated to the historical past. We are not intimate with its outrages, we do not understand it as being on a continuum with colonialism and apartheid, there is little realistic engagement with its sins. It is in this arena of national amnesia, difficult entanglements and complicated histories that Baderoon’s book makes its most significant intervention.

Regarding Muslims is an important, compelling, and ethical work from a writer who thinks deeply, reads widely and writes in a way that will challenge and reorient her readers.

Follow Nadia on Twitter @Nadia_Davids1

Book details

Images courtesy Umuzi and Literatur Werkstatt


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