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Becoming Iman: a media personality tells of her religious conversion, before being born again in the light of reason, writes Gillian Anstey

Published in the Sunday Times

Becoming Iman ****
Iman Rappetti, Pan Macmillan, R285

Iman Rappetti an award-winning journalist who has been involved in print, radio and television. She worked as a young journalist in South Africa and then abandoned it (along with all her worldly possessions) when she became Muslim. She lived in the Islamic Republic of Iran for two years, where she also worked on a current affairs TV show for the state broadcaster before returning to South Africa and resuming her life here. Now In her memoir, Iman shares stories and what she has learned from her colourful journey through life. Pic: Moeletsi Mabe. ©Sunday Times.

Iman Rappetti is likable. Convivial, affable, charming – describe it as you wish, she’s all of those and more. She engages with people as if they are the only other being in her universe. Combine that with supreme eloquence and it’s no wonder she is such a hit on TV (she recently left eNCA after 11 years) and her morning radio show on Power FM.

So the idea of Rappetti publishing a memoir is appealing, a chance to find out what helped create her effervescent personality.

Except nothing prepared me for Becoming Iman. Within a few pages, I was gasping with shock, and though that intensity became mild surprise at times and, at others, disbelief tinged with sadness, it also provoked much raucous laughter – all in all, a most satisfying read.

Her publishers were similarly taken aback. Rappetti says when she approached Terry Morris of Pan Macmillan, hopeful she’d be interested in a book compilation of the popular philosophical introductions to her radio show, Morris and her colleague said they made them want to discover more about Rappetti. They knew her career, of course, and “they know my background, a little bit, but they didn’t know (she pauses for a second) My Story. And then afterwards they were like ‘What?’”

It is this “story” that makes Rappetti’s memoir so extraordinary. Though even without its crucial elements, her life has not been mundane. There have been dramas aplenty, such as two siblings appearing from nowhere during the course of her childhood; another she barely knew because he lived with their affluent paternal grandparents; and the father she adored who found the Lord and transformed from an abuser to a loving husband.

Rappetti’s “story” is revealed in her memoir’s title; she literally became Iman. She was born Vanessa, a name her family still uses, and chose Iman, which means “faith” in Arabic, when she became Muslim, which she describes as “the descent into obsessive observance”. She says she was “an extremist Muslim, and for me extreme means following it 100%, not the negativity associated with extremism”.

Her husband, whom she never names, also converted and they followed the same “journey of discovery and adventure” to Iran to study their new religion further, a devotion which often saw her fast for an extra month of Ramadan, “to make up for the years I had lost in unbelief”.

So orthodox, she even shaved off her hair to not have to worry about tendrils escaping from her headscarf. “I wanted nothing to take my eyes off the book that was my oxygen and my reason for living,” she writes.

Rappetti lived like this for about six years. Then she found herself pretending to pray. Feeling suffocated, she writes: “As the laws began to have a material impact on how I was able to live, progress and aspire in society, as I began to live in a lesson, I realised that despite my best hopes, the truth was that I would never be an equal citizen in that construct and that it is the fragility of men it seeks to scaffold and muscularise.”

Today she declares: “I do not believe that God exists, I don’t.” And she is raising her three children without formal religion.

“My children have always grown up in a house where we strive for moral consciousness … for employing our ability to reason. It’s up to them to make the decision whether they want faith one day,” she says.

And her ex-husband? He is a “virulent atheist” also living back in South Africa.

Perhaps her daily inspirational radio message is a type of sermon but she doesn’t believe she has substituted faith with something else. If anything, “it’s the ritual of cooking, the ritual of self-indulgence and of having fun. I always joke and say my true north is joy. So whatever takes us there, if it is a good pot of curry, if it’s horsing around with the kids or eating something delicious or being with people, that’s what I have, if you want to say, replaced things with.”

At the time of her conversion she signed a paper written as a contract, titled “Reasons why you should not drive”. Her turnaround is that she is now a self-confessed speed demon. “Give me a Bugatti Veyron, give me a Lamborghini Aventador, give me a BMW i8 and, by the way, Rolls-Royce have just come out with a brilliant new SUV! Can I please have one of those? Apparently it hauls ass… I love speed, I do. It makes me feel free!”

Becoming Iman

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