where from?

We shuffle in to the room, our tracks muddy from the stereotype milking; of course, it has to be the charous who are late.
Ushered to the side, we take our place holding up the wall and a roll-up banner announcing that this is the M&G Literary Festival.
When given chairs, I try to maneuver as discreetly as possible, contorting myself into that jig one does when holding back flatulence.
Still, I attract the attention of the woman in front of me and we exchange the type of smiles strangers do.
She asks me where I’m from.
I say that I’m a freelancer with an interest in literary writing.
No, no she wants to know where I’m from.
From here.
Ah, from here, she repeats after me.
All of this whispered, the Here silently expanding to include; 44 Stanley Avenue, the Hillbrow clinic where I was born, the West Rand where I grew up, the South where I now live.
An ironic exchange considering we are sitting in on a panel discussion entitled Being Here: South Africans in 2010.
Perhaps my turquoise scarf was a touch exotic or my eyeliner just a little too severe for non-desert climes.
I make conversation after the panel wraps up as I happen to know more than I should about foot-in-mouth disease and I don’t want her to feel leprous.
It turns out that she’s French and thought we may have been some strain of Algerian.
She’s not been here long enough to pot us as garden variety Jo’burg ‘slums.
During our time in Egypt, Naeem and I were pegged as Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Algerian and Egyptian until we opened our mouths and out tumbled strangled Fus-ha and English.
Where from, we’d get asked.
Gunoob Ifrikiyya (we’d latched on to the Egyptian way of making g-ers out of our j-ers).
The look was always a squashed up incredulity.
We weren’t black, how could we possibly be South African?
The tourist visa purveyors down at Mugammah, that bastion of bull-minded bureaucracy in downtown Cairo, made sure they got us down to writing country of origin as India despite the fact that both sets of our grandparents were born in South Africa.
It got me thinking, “How long do you have be here before you belong?”
My only links to India are a cooking tradition, a broken language, glass bangles and miniature fake marble versions of the Taj Mahal.
There’s a niece of my grandmother who still lives in the village in Gujarat and I must admit, sadly, the glass bangles will probably outlive that linkage.
My identity is stuffed into this bag of South African Indian-ness, which is different from any other Indian-ness you will encounter.
Add Muslim to that, and you have a full-on thesis (thankfully Kaye is onto that one).
We are biltong biryani with inkomazi for Eid.
We are here.

Shubnum’s novel Onion Tears touches on these issues of South African Indian identity.

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I am a writer and photographer (look up my work on www.shootcake.com) based in Johannesburg, South Africa. I have an MA in Creative Writing from the university currently known as Rhodes. My writing accolades include winning the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize and the 2020 Ingrid Jonker Poetry Prize for my debut collection, Zikr.

7 thoughts on “where from?”

  1. I am so glad I know you two and spent time with you and Kay – This has nothing and everything to do with the topic.

  2. In America, people thought I was Iranian, Moroccan, etc. It was quite amusing to me. We got, ‘You don’t look South African’ a lot of the times and we got the question of, ‘Where are you from?’ repetitively from a Homeland Security official while sifting through our luggage. He kept trying to figure where our country/ancestors origin were from, but we kept insisting South Africa. He should have asked about Grandparents and Great-grandparents, but he wasn’t that bright. He asked, ‘Where do you have family?’ Us: ‘South Africa, Canada, England, Australia, Panama, Scotland….does it matter?’ *pinching husband to bite his tongue and not land us in Guantanamo*
    Later on, we found out that we could’ve reported him for questions like that. Silly us.

    I often ask my parents why didn’t they speak to us in Gujerati. They said they didn’t see the point as we’re living in South Africa and they doubt we’ll ever go to India to live or want to speak the language frequently. I argue that they didn’t give us a chance to make that decision ourselves.
    I can’t grasp it very well. I stumble and often make a fool of myself, so I don’t even bother trying now.

    I agree that my future kids (inshallah) should know a local language and arabic instead. It will suit them better to understand the Quraan and not just read it.

  3. For me, there’s three parts to what I consider the makeup of my identity; the origin (the link to India), the present (the lived experience) and what lies ahead as I reconcile and forge something for myself.
    For example, I wish I had a better grasp of Gujerati. It’s a terrible thing knowing that a language will die with me. My offspring (inshallah) will not know the tongue unless they attend special classes, but then wouldn’t it be more practical for them to know a local vernacular and Arabic? This is just one of the reconciliations I will find myself faced to deal with as I go along. As tenuous as my links to India are, I know that to deny them is to deny my own blood. However, in the same breath, I am tied to my South African-ness. It’s not out of shame when I identify myself as South African first, but out of the comfort that I know more about being South African.

  4. I think it’s different for each one of us, although I hate being stereotyped. I am very sensitive about it. I hate being the “token” person. I am learning though to accept that people don’t always do it out of malice, but might just be looking to start a conversation.

    I’m superior to none

  5. I find that South African Indians have a very hard time accepting that somewhere along the line they originally originate from INDIA. The South African Indians that I met seem to have superiority complexes and behaved as if they were better than us “Indians”(living in Canada – 3 grandparents from India 1 from South Africa) Heard some very vile comments about “Indians” – not sure why there was such hatred for Indians when as I said earlier…if you trace those roots back…they’ll originate in India

  6. haha. I’m always mistaken for Mexican for some reason (I think its the hair)… although in the past 6 years I’ve been asked if I was Moroccan, Egyptian, Jordanian, Arabian, Spanish, Mexican, French, Italian (I was chuffed with that one), Pakistani, Bangladeshi (I was abit offended with that one) etc. etc.

    I love being un-identifiable, un-boxable… no labels. I see myself as a global citizen… no lines or boundaries. I think its all a load of bull-crap anyway. We are human. We worship, we eat, we bleed, we pee. That should be enough. But I guess most people find a strange comfort in their boxes and labels. It makes them feel safe.

  7. ‘Identity, the conscious experience of the self inside.’ Someone said that, I can’t remember just who right now.

    We are who we must be, to understand it, we write. Right now is all we really have and words our communion with posterity.

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