Search for home and meaning: As a teenager I asked ‘too many’ questions and got whacked over the head
This is a lightly edited excerpt from DM168 contributor Ismail Lagardien’s new book, ‘Too White to be Coloured, Too Coloured to be Black: On the Search for Home and Meaning’, published by Melinda Ferguson Books.
When I was seven or eight days old, swaddled in fresh clean linen – on the day I was named Ismail – my mother held me tightly to her chest. I was like an anchor tied to her. Our hearts beat as one.
My father was sober that day and sat beside her sipping sweet milky tea. A man with a beard (or so I imagine anyway) took me from my mother’s arms and whispered something into my ear.
I did not understand what he said and wouldn’t know the meaning of his words nor the melody for at least a decade after that day. It was part of the naming ritual that “made” me a Muslim. The words he whispered were the athaan, the Muslim call to prayer.
So, within a few days of my birth, I was baptised – I’m not sure that is the right word for the Muslim process. I was named Ismail, after the son of the mythical Ibrahim (Abraham). The naming process was conducted in Arabic, a language that was as alien to me as any other. I did not understand the words then and still don’t know what those words mean. I may have known as a teenager.
The words of the athaan in English are: “God is great, there is no God but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. Come to prayer.” This whispering was followed by reciting, in my ear, the first kalima, a cornerstone of Islamic belief. “There is none worthy of worship except Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
When the man whispered these words into my ear, I could barely understand or speak a word in any language. I did not know the name of my mother or father and the whispers were in Arabic, a language from a land thousands of kilometres away.
By this ritual and the circumcision that was to come – the mutilation of my body over which I had no say – I was “made” a Muslim. Everyone in attendance now knew that I was a Muslim. I did not. Everybody “oohed and aahed” about the beautiful baby as they do on all such occasions. “Mashallah,” (what God has willed) someone said. Tea and cake were served. I fell asleep and biological rhythms took control of my body while my infant brain worked in blurry dreams to try to make sense of the images, sounds and senses of the people around me, high as they were on sugary drinks.
I was not born a Muslim nor a Christian, a Jew or a Jain, for that matter. Nobody is born as a religious being. You have to be alive first, before becoming something, anything before something is made of you. Between the day that I emerged from that black forest to the day that I was made a Muslim, I was actually nothing. I was free, but unable to make anything of myself.
At birth you have no beliefs, values, principles or social rituals and relations. At birth, you have no knowledge of the world. You have no history, not until a history is explained to you or taught as you grow up.
You are then placed in a community, real or imagined, one that has a history or multiple versions of histories, and identities that will conspire to make and remake you over and again. Until my early teens, I was proud of my Malay heritage – with good reason.
At the time, I had close family in Malaysia. Sometime after Malaysian independence, two of my mother’s brothers and several members of my extended family accepted the invitation by that country’s first prime minister, and relocated to Malaysia.
In the 1980s, I would become the South African correspondent for Malaysia’s New Straits Times, and came to regret that my father declined the invitation to relocate to Malaysia. When I was growing up, we always used the Malay words and phrases that remained from the era when Malay slaves were brought to the Cape by the Dutch in the 17th century, as well as the customary Arabic.
As for religion, and specifically at my pembaptisan (baptism), I was completely oblivious to what was going on around me and heard only sounds that I could not make out, nor repeat. At three months – at about the time I was abandoned by the doctors who asked my parents to pray to God so I may live – I could barely see things. I could not describe things, or explain them. A Quran or a Bible, the Torah or the Bhagavad Gita – or any other book for that matter – was alien to me. A book was a thing, and unless it was used as a doorstop, it would, in truth, remain a book.
The Quran, I would come to learn much later in life, was believed to be more than a book. It was sacred and had to be wrapped in cloth and always placed high on a shelf. In our home it was always placed on top of a cupboard.
There were strict rules for handling the Quran. Before you touched it, you had to do a ritual ablution. When you held it in your hands, you had to make sure it was never held below the waist. I suspect that was because that was where your genitals and filthy bum were. You were never meant to question those diktats. That is what faith is, or rather, that is how it differs from science.
Nonetheless, at three months, now a Muslim, I saw things like a book or a rock, and when that thing was removed from sight, I wouldn’t remember it. Remembering things happens much later.
I have a single memory from when I was one or two. It is of two adults walking side by side, each holding one of my hands while walking on a dock and swinging me between them the way that adults do. The black and red of a docked ship remains the most vivid image of the memory.
This memory must be of a visit to the Port Elizabeth harbour, when most of my extended and distant family, the entire Lagardien family, lived in South End, the District Six of Port Elizabeth. I asked one of my older brothers, Farouk, how this could be possible, because I always thought that we had lived in Johannesburg, which was at least 600km from the ocean, when I was about two years old. He confirmed that, when I was about two, maybe three, the family moved to Grahamstown at the behest of my paternal grandfather, Mogamat Lagardien. After a few years in Grahamstown, we were allocated a house, a matchbox house, with running water and electricity in Riverlea, a new Johannesburg township for coloured people. So we trekked all the way up north.
In different cultural settings, memory building and rearticulation start at different ages, largely because of language and learning, which may follow culturally specific pathways. For the most part, though, religion, and culture, as they exist in a particular place and time for that matter, are “given” to children after they are born, and instilled deeper as they grow up.
In my family, children were always meant to be obedient and, above all, they were meant to be seen and not heard. My father took it all terribly seriously. He would always send me away – to my room or order me to go and clean the yard, especially after my 10th year when we lived in Eldorado Park, the last stop of our moves from place to place because of the Group Areas Act shuffle.
The telling of religious stories to children, anything from Confucianism to Judaism, usually draws on ancient texts, not many of which can be verified or even trusted.
During the British colonial period in China, missionary schools introduced religious stories about the life and times of Jesus to children. This led to Christianity permeating the lives of children early in their lives.
After Hong Kong was ceded to the United Kingdom in 1842, it became a more democratic city (in a Western liberal sense) with religious freedom. And so, in addition to Confucianism, Christianity as a feature of instruction played a defining role in shaping children’s social and moral development.
My early schooling was similarly shaped by Christian national education. Which meant I knew the words to Our Lord’s Prayer, and Vader Jakob, a Catholic song of awakening. I would later learn that, in its French incarnation (Frère Jacques, dormez-vous?), it was used to taunt Jews or Protestants.
After school there was “Malay School”. I would balance the acculturation of Christian education in the morning with Islamic indoctrination in the afternoon. At Malay School, we would have to recite of passages from the Quran in Arabic, with the teacher, bearing a rotan, walking between rows of learners saying, “Bacca, bacca, bacca” (Malay for “Read, read, read”). And we would bacca, bacca, bacca without ever knowing the meaning of what we were saying.
My family were generally apolitical. My mother sometimes spoke of the “colour bar”, and my father, always sat deep into his chair in front of the black-and-white TV, would pontificate: “The Quran says you must obey the laws of the land.”
It’s no miracle that my adolescence was marked not just by obstinacy, arrogance and irreverence, but also by a lot of confusion because of the hurricane of cultures and traditions, rituals and repertoires that would, ultimately, erode my faith.
The erosion of my faith started around my 16th birthday, and was complete by the early 1980s. As a teenager I started asking “too many” questions for which I often got whacked over the head. I was a miserable child, mainly because of the beatings by my father, the taunting and beatings by friends and schoolmates, because of my fair skin, because I did well at school (my peers always accused me of “getting good grades because I had green eyes”), but also because of the dislocation in the coloured community.
One day, when I was about 15, I asked my mother, within earshot of my father: “If God has my life planned out for me, and knew everything that was ‘meant’ to be, then what is the value in praying to God to help me with anything?” My father slapped me over the head so hard that I remained dizzy and incoherent for the next hour or two.
“You ask too many fucking questions. Go and clean the yard.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.