Monday, 15 August 2011

Coz I come from kings and peasants...

My spiritual retreat has become a little more like ashes in the wind. I can't actually explain it. There's so many things going through my mind but I'm struggling to put them all on paper, or blog in this case. On top of that, I'm struggling to keep up. I have so many people to respond to and so many emails to read. It's like there's always 100 things going on but at least 90 of them slip through the cracks because I either don't get to it on time or I'm zoned out, only to recall them at the most inconvenient of times (read bath-time).

So I've decided to tackle the biggest request so far. Many people have enquired about me and my family etc. Now, I've spoken about myself on this blog many times and it would be easy for me to give everyone a bunch of links but I realise that I have a lot of new readers and maybe it would be better to just do a quick re-cap. Maybe this is what I will tell my own children one day...

I was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, to a very ethnically and culturally diverse family, Mother's family being the epicentre of that diversity. My mother's parents were well known in their circles and I've blogged about how they met before.

My late grandfather was initially known as Cecil Patrick and came from a Catholic family, with strong French roots and Jewish ancestry. His grandmother was a French woman who left home and married out of her race before giving birth to his mother, Edith Brown. He was as much of a brawler as he was quirky and eccentric and always challenged the oppressive authorities. Often mistaken for Portuguese during the Apartheid era, he would take the "whites-only" buses and when they realised who he was, he'd say 'sit my uit, sit my uit, ek is klaar by my huis!' (kick me out, kick me out, I'm already at home!). Most weekends he'd invite his friends and family over and they'd play cards or dominoes and when he was tired, he'd kick them all out saying 'fokkof, loop almal van julle, ek is nou moeg, uit' (f***-off, leave all of you, I'm tired, get out) and they'd reluctantly leave until the next weekend. He was always seeking for something more, some deeper spiritual connection in his life as he once said, but it was only after his brother Daniel murdered his wife, that he and most of his brothers (and sister) converted to Islam.

His wife, my late grandmother was an independent feisty woman who also left home in her early twenties to go and work in a clothing factory in Sophiatown in the 60's. Her grandfather was an Irish immigrant, Edward Brooks who came to South Africa in those early years looking for opportunities. He too married out of his race, to a Malaysian woman, and a few years later in the mid-1920's, my great-grandmother, Leah Brooks was born. Leah, as she was initially known, converted to Islam when she married my great-grandfather, an Indian immigrant who broke away from his royal family's roots and traditions in the name of love and whiskey. He had a penchant for it even though he was quite a religious man! Most of my grandmother's extended family married outside the realms of culture and race; the result being that one or two of her first cousins are Chinese, whilst a few others are Arab and can trace their lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad (saw) etc. etc.

My maternal Grandparent's barely had anything in the way of material wealth. They were poor and whatever money they made went to feeding the 8 children they had. But even so, they always ALWAYS took care of others too. As Mother recalls, there was never a time when they didn't have someone staying with them in their modest home. It was either a homeless couple, or a widow, or one of my Grandfather's stray directionless friends. Their home was always open to people in need, no matter how much or how little they had.

On my father's side of the family...

My paternal grandfather (father's father if we must be pedantic) was an immigrant too. Ethnographically speaking, he had strong Persian roots but that's about as much as we know about him because he was an orphan and grew up in a mosque in the mountainous region of the Swat Valley on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan...
So where he came from, and how he got there, no one really knows. He became an Islamic Scholar and an Imam (Priest) of the mosque before setting sail for South African shores. Some time after his arrival, he married my grandmother, a third-generation Indian (meaning her grandmother came from somewhere in India). By temperament, my grandfather was one of the calmest people around, with a wonderfully peaceful and pleasant countenance.

What made him a phenomenal person was his character. As an Islamic Scholar and Imam of one of the main mosques in Johannesburg, he didn't always ascribe to the ways of his culture. In fact he adapted to his new country, so aside from Fridays and religious holidays, he mostly wore a three-piece pin-stripped suit (complete with waist-coat) with his pants down to his ankles (not folded up above the ankles like many of the holy and sanctimonious folk) and polished shoes. He traveled extensively to other mosques in different regions of the country. On these journey's he often encountered Muslims whose ways and practices were not like his own, but he never reprimanded them, or corrected them... if a ritual did not go against Islamic law, he respected the context in which it was observed and practiced and never tried to change it. As a leader and as someone who was aware of people's rights and preferences, he always let the people choose and decide for themselves how they wanted to live and never interfered even when they deliberately erred. If he didn't agree with something, he merely sat aside and smiled and waited for them to complete their practices. He never ever condemned anyone to hell for not worshiping the way he did. The result was that people loved to be around him and everywhere he went, they would compete with each other for his attention and they would try to persuade him to their side. But he would just smile his smile, acknowledging their presence, making them feel worthy of his company, without siding with anyone or ascribing to their ways.

And just like my mother's parents, my father's parents too were endlessly helping others, always in the service of humanity. My grandfather would counsel people and help them in any way he could... and it didn't matter if they were Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jewish - people from all races, religions and cultures often sought his counsel, giving him very little but precious time with his family. One day he was leading the Congregation in the mosque on one of our holiest days on the calender and as he kneeled down, his forehead touching the ground in Sujud (prostration and the ultimate submission to God), he passed away. Most of the people who were following him didn't even know he was gone until they realised that he wasn't getting up to continue the prayers. He passed away peacefully, in a position that Muslims consider to be the closest to God and he is still fondly remembered to this day, so much so that 40 years later, complete strangers still approach me in the street, wagging their fingers or nodding in nostalgia they'll say "Your Grandfather, he was a very great man".

Sadly, I lost most of my grandparents at a really young age, so I never got to know them personally. I got to know my last remaining (maternal) grandmother until the age of 11 and ironically, the only one I got to know really well was my Great-Grandmother, who lived well into her nineties (I was in my early twenties when she passed on). These are the accounts I hear from their children, including my parents, and the people around them, and all those people they helped along the way.


  1. Truly fascinating. But I would recommend that you re-think the phrase "with his pants down to his ankles". . . . . Somewhat ambiguous.

  2. Prixie - Yep, they were all non-conformists ;D

    Colin - haha, I added some additional info to give it some context. Many practicing Muslim men choose to wear their pants above their ankles because it's considered a great Sunnah (was practiced by the Prophet pbuh) - however, more sanctimonious folk go around cursing others if they don't follow suit. What they don't know or realise is that during the time the Prophet (pbuh) recommended they wear their pants above their ankles, most of Arabia was in a state of poverty and the wealthy, affluent people would wear their robes down, dragging on the ground as a sign of superiority and arrogance because they could afford such garments and others couldn't.

    However, times have changed and in my opinion, that law wouldn't apply as much now simply because EVERYONE wears their trousers to their ankles. In fact, the roles have reversed and I've often encountered men with folded trouser-bottoms that are more arrogant and condescending than most people. Men are allowed to wear their pants that way in order to honour and remember the Prophet pbuh, but they certainly cannot go around condemning other's to hell for not adhering to those laws.

  3. It's my belief that people who are mixed, not only racially but also culturally, don't suffer from that thing we call cultural tunnel vision. But I guess, being who you are, you already knew that.

  4. Your grandparents on both sides would seem to be the sort of people that anyone would love to invite to their homes, to share a meal and to discuss whatever.

    You are a great tribute to them for you (and your family) as their legacy is all that they - leave behind.

  5. You definitely need to draw a family tree to do your lineage justice. It would be fun to work out how much Irish blood you have.

  6. Grrr I am in a rush and can't take the time to read this post fully right now! which is so annoying because I've been so looking forward to it, but i"ll be back. oh I'll be back :)

  7. RCB - You are correct there :) About a third of my family is Christian.

    LL - Yeah they were good people. Sadly, on my Dad's side of the family, everyone went on to become really successful and very wealthy and in the Process they forgot where they came from and what it means to be a decent human being.

    GB - My sister did one a few years back for one of her Anthropological assignments - but it wasn't as thoroughly done as we'd have liked it to be. We'll visit the idea again soon.

    Diedre - You're always welcome back anytime ;)

  8. Wow, wow. You know your family history so well! I love all of the multiculturalism. :) I've always had the desire to spend time with my extended family and write down our family history and cultural roots. I have Spanish and Guatemalan blood from my dad's side, and Chinese-Italian blood from my mother's...but I'd love to know the history of how and why my culturally diverse grandparents immigrated.

    It's a rare gem to know your family history as you do, Azra.

  9. Azra,

    We meet thousands of people in our life time, most will remain anonymous. This is a loss. The greater loss, however, is when you become familiar with a few of them and realize the value of their being. Yet because of fickle circumstance, you can only appreciate their light from afar and never walk in the brilliance of who they are. You are such a being.


  10. I see you visited my page and didn't find it interesting. We are very different.

    I do like this text, and others. You're much more fun than me.

  11. Michi - I went on an Anthropological expedition with my sister a few years back, but prior to that, I had long conversations with my Great-Grandmother (over the years) before she passed on. You should definitely try to find out about your heritage, I'm sure it's fascinating!

    Left Coast Guy - Thank you for those kind and wonderful words Dean. I'm all about appreciating the light in others :)

    Candide - I did find you interesting. Perhaps your perception of "fun" is my ability to laugh at everything, including myself. I always said that the day I stop laughing is the day I'll have real problems ;P

  12. Tauqeer - No I'm not :) My grandfather wasn't from Pakistan... his parent's were most likely from Iran although we can't confirm this because we just don't know.

    Here in SA I'm classified as "Asian" or "Mixed Race".