All the visual clichés I could not resist shooting just before sunrise at the Nizamiye Mosque Complex in Midrand. Search the hashtag #nizamiyesunrise on instagram or facebook for shots by others at the photo-meet.
Jo’burg city is like an aging movie star who dropped out of the public eye decades ago and has now emerged from her reclusion, reinvented. Her waist may have thickened and the skin around the eyes more deeply etched, but her magic still shimmers in the right light, charm at-ready, her presence grand.
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.
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.