‘Here’s the Thing’: An extract from Haji Mohamed Dawjee’s collection of provocative essays
From parenting to cancel culture, South African author Haji Mohamed Dawjee’s latest book isn’t the one she was supposed to write, she says. And yet – here it is, thought-provoking, honest and moving.
‘And so, I was shamed’
Honestly, this is not the book I was supposed to write. Here’s what happened.
Like other freelance writers, I often find myself caught between two worlds. In one version of this universe, there is almost nothing to do. No one is accepting commissions or, if they are, they won’t pay and work has all but dried up. In the alternate universe, I’m always busy. August of 2019 fell into the latter of these categories, and I was glad for it.
It was in August of 2019 that the gang violence on the Cape Flats reached epic proportions. The Western Cape government referred to this time as the ‘worst in history’ for this form of bloodshed. Mortuary statistics revealed that twice the number of people died as a result of gang violence, between January and June, than in the previous year. Many of them were mere civilians caught in the crossfire; one such civilian was Sister Mary Bruce of Hanover Park.
Soon after the military was deployed to help subdue the violence, a London website for which I had worked before commissioned me to write a long-form piece on unfolding events. I had already been in Hanover Park on the morning of the army’s deployment and spoken to several sources, but a long-form piece calls for a little more than a 700- word rollover news report. It needs research, it needs context, it needs history, and most importantly, it needs a face.
I am a firm believer in a face. I believe strongly that a story can only be told if you look someone in the eye and try your best to understand the way they have lived. I also believe the reader needs someone like this. Another human with a soul, someone they can really get to the heart of. Without humanity, stories are wasted words. In this story, which would be published under the headline ‘Cape Fear’, my words would hang off the heart of 42-year-old Sister Mary Bruce, who was shot in the leg by a stray bullet while hanging up three pairs of jeans in her back yard.
Several interviews, two weeks of research and 3 000 words later, the piece was published. I was proud of my work. I left my blood on the page. I gave it my best. But I was also worried. A writer isn’t done until they’re worried. Had I done these communities justice? Had I told this story as warmly and as accurately as I could? Had I quoted enough quotes and stated enough facts?
It wasn’t long before all these questions were answered for me on Twitter. How dare I write about a community – on the Cape Flats – that I don’t even come from. How dare I write about a race or culture – Cape Malays – that I do not belong to. How dare I mention that I live in the seaside suburb of Sea Point – a detail I included only to highlight the stark difference between the Cape Flats and Cape Town’s more affluent areas. And, of course, the most convincing argument of all: ‘Haji, in jou hele poes, beloved’.
The hands that typed these responses belonged to academics, artists and a host of other people. The hands that typed these responses belonged to academics, artists and a host of other people whose opinion I generally respected. And so, I had been shamed.
‘@Sage_Of_Absurd blocked you’.
People had screen-grabbed this notification and stuck it at the top of their profiles after I decided not to engage them. I followed a lot of these people. I liked them – in as much as you can like people over the computer, whom you have never met – and I enjoyed their tweets. Many of them were hilarious, or so I thought. On one or two occasions, these 25 were people who had approached me at book events, often making me feel shy.
But in response to my article about gang violence they jumped in, guns blazing, shooting straight from the hip. I was hurt. I was confused. I was angry. And then, I was depressed.
While the third degree washed over me, I was busy working on my second book – extended features about Black women in Cape Town. But I chose not to. I cancelled my own work, so to speak. A part of me wanted to get ahead of the potential backlash and castigation for not ‘staying in my lane’, even though I truly believe that I have every right, both ethnically and culturally, to steer my way along that path and tell those stories. Perhaps I will pick up this idea and give the narratives the space they deserve at a later stage.
I always cut my hair at the same barber, and he and I have become good friends. He’s always telling me about his mother, sister, wife, aunts, and these are stories we never hear. I was in a privileged position to be able to tell them, so I wanted to. I wanted to visit with the kosauntie and the local tailor. I wanted to have a heart-to-heart with the local ‘lady-imam’, as she was known to her community, and I wanted to paint the perfect picture of Cape Town’s first-ever woman taxi driver.
But an unhealthy dose of cyberbullying, in response to my ‘Cape Fear’ piece, put those pages in the bottom drawer of my desk, and in their place, surfaced this book. A book of questions, confessions, lessons, and introspections; a book that responds, often with a comedic and skeptic take on life.
Is it actually productive to become another cog in the rage machine, or have we tipped over into something much darker? A place where we’re overly policing storytelling, for example? A place where there is no room for constructive argument, where facts can be overlooked in place of crude statements, and where false rationalisations take the place of narratives that may have meaning and intend to offer something more? A place where, instead of entering a new dawn of discussion, debate and engagement, we find ourselves suffocating any form of social commentary?
My detour had many stops along the way. And those stops posed essential issues. The foremost of them was the question of privilege – my own. The privilege to live where I live, do what I love, and write what I write. The main critique levelled at me for reporting on the Cape Flats was that I didn’t live there or come from those communities, or that I was too privileged to tell the stories of those same communities. But I sincerely wanted to know: what if I am not just a sympathiser, but also someone who is passionate about asking real questions; someone who is searching for meaning, or a way to make meaning of their own history, their family – some of whom do live on the Cape Flats and do endure this kind of life? What if I am passionate about doing something, writing something, because of my father’s own upbringing in the area and how that, in so many ways, makes it a part of me?
Yes, I am privileged now, but I wasn’t always. My family doesn’t come from wealth. Yes, I belong to a privileged class that now lives in a seaside suburb, but should I have remained where apartheid wanted me to? And as a member of the privileged classes, would I not be compounding my elitism, forgetting who I am and where I come from, if I wrote exclusively on issues that threaten my first world bubble? Am I supposed to stay in these lanes created by people who look like me?
In my mind, this justification is created through morally bankrupt ideologies. Our realities have become skewed in the name of social justice, and our imaginations run wild with self-righteousness. If my thoughts on this are right, then we are in grave danger of living in a world where atrocious repudiation is an acceptable means of conduct, even if it means turning on each other. How do we wade through these muddy waters and still manage to contribute to the discourse? How do we reinforce our justness, in the struggle to story-tell? This newfangled digital way of waging war on one another is mutilating. It bombards and leaves little room for explanation. It dismisses not only the person, but the story that person is trying to tell. All of this results in a standoff between those who see themselves as intellectuals, and those they subjectively dismiss as being problematic.
I truly believe that my article was an effort at making the circumstances of the situation vivid enough for people to take in and to be able to face the outrageousness of gang violence, of apartheid spatial planning, and a decades-long history of ignored communities sculpted by a regime that designed spaces for a group of people to kill each other in. But instead of igniting many critical interrogations – interrogations like: whose stories are not being told; how many people have been shot that do not yet have faces; what are the other cruelties? – the story spurred disappointment in and disgust for the least essential person in the picture. Me.
Wokeness is declaration and demonstration, and both those things are good. The problem, however, is that those two necessary factors do not always lead to discussion and discourse, which are catalysts for change. If we burn the bookstores and denounce authors, we will be left with the dangerous limitations of ideologies that can be lazy and led by like-minded people who influence not only each other, but have a decisive influence on public opinion.
The picture I painted of Hanover Park and other Cape Flats areas was by no means a full one. It did not speak of the madrasas and vegetable gardens or koeksisters on a Sunday morning. It did not tell stories of togetherness, of kids going to school and of a village raising children. It was not supposed to. It was merely a fractional focus on a particular time and a particular occurrence in which civilians were not thriving but suffering. This was its entire point.
But I am not without insecurity, and being questioned as I was, made me introspect. Perhaps, I had fallen into the trap of stereotyping. I truly believed I had something to learn. A gap to fill, and that others could help fill it with some necessary insight. I was searching for a valuable lesson. Maybe I could learn more of myself if nothing else and not make the same mistake again.
That same week, stories on the gang violence in Cape Town started cropping up everywhere, as they would. If it bleeds, it leads – that is the unfortunate anatomy of the news cycle. Male journalists wrote the majority of the bigger and more in-depth stories. A couple of days after my story was published, a white South African male writer wrote a similar piece for the New York Times. It made the front page. The author went one step further; he dismissed the Cape Flats areas as townships – a loaded noun for a host of reasons that need little explanation.
I feared for him. I feared for the inferno he would face, but none came. Twitter’s home front was quiet. In an age of immediate access to information, where digital intimacy is the order of the day, those opposed to the piece I had written seemed to have found a strange way to bypass a white male writer and find the single brown female, so to speak. Some reports seemed suspiciously more equal than others. I wondered whether the woke gaze was selective? The limits of social media as a forum for discussion are so restrictive because, to me, all it seems to do is celebrate knee-jerk reactions which are far too simplistic. After all, storytelling is not maxim, it is maximisation, and no discourse can genuinely be maximised in a tweet.
What are we really dealing with here, and how do we define it? ‘The eye is connected with the brain; the brain with the nervous system. That system sends its messages in a flash through every past memory and present feeling,’ wrote Virginia Woolf.
Was Woolf describing Twitter? The never-ending scroll of present feelings? Is wokeness an argument to be made? Or is it just an obscenity?
Stories can be both objective and personal testimony. They can be both a faithful transaction between heart and pen, and reality and interpretation. But in this current culture of punch-throwing and blinding subjectivity, will we ever reach a point where stories and people are understood? Or will we merely stand on the sidelines and bear witness to facile kangaroo courts?
My ‘cancelling’ lasted a few days. Still, a few days was all it took to stuff me into the claustrophobic closet of existentialism, where I had to ask myself if it was time to end my deep-seated passion for societal enquiry long before it properly began. The short answer is, no. But it’s not that simple. The truth is, I’m woke myself, in the sense that I consider myself aware of racial social injustices, and I want to do something about it. I’m a textbook woke – will this book make me a former woke? I watched similar groups on Twitter take down a million people and, sometimes, I led the charge. It was exhilarating. But when they came for me – and they come for everyone in the end – it jolted me and made me aware of the many faults and cracks in the way we engage with those we know personally as well as complete strangers. After that experience, I really sat with myself and wondered how much I contributed to these fissures.
In our current mood, militarism may seem inspirational, but this approach will result in an unavoidable struggle. If backlash is blanketed, it ends only in self-defeat. So many questions, so few answers. We live in a society that prefers answers, but what we desperately need is one that is willing to ask questions. And that’s what I’m trying to do, I’m asking questions. DM/ ML