The Casbah: A stunning tale of Durban’s city within a city
Historians Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed have captured a rich record of the tapestry of life that has made Durban’s Grey Street area a unique and extraordinary place. In their new book, the pair provide a mesmerising account that blends deep research and a highly personal journey.
The discipline of geography has undergone remarkable changes in the past three decades. There was a stage when globalisation, the network society and, in David Harvey’s memorable phrase, the “time-space” compression that followed from Marx’s “annihilation of space”, were all the rage. But in more recent times there has been something of a return to place.
The outstanding geographer Tim Cresswell has written a wonderful book on a single street in Chicago. And now brilliant local historians Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed have written a stunning book on Durban’s Casbah – “A place where the reel life of the cinema met the real life of the street”.
Casbah is a term that normally refers to the exotic marketplaces of North Africa and the Middle East. However, as Desai and Goolam demonstrate, the term was long adopted by residents, media and other writers when referring to Durban’s Grey Street area.
Since the 1870s, the area has been a living monument to non-racialism and defiance against apartheid. However, as architect Len Rosenberg has argued, “this area has generally been ‘invisible’ in the historical narrative of the city and remains the ‘other’ Durban”.
Academic duo Desai and Vahed bring beautiful writing to this work of deep research.
In page after page, street after street, alleyway after arcade, the authors bring to life a “city within a city” – covering four square kilometres.
Durban is a port city and the global influences through the 1950s and 60s are palpable in this narrative. Desai and Vahed show how in the jazz clubs of the Casbah, sounds from afar melded with local cadences to produce something distinctive. In turn, through artists like Sonny Pillay, these sounds cascaded through the world.
As one reads the Casbah, one gets a sense of how people responded to apartheid. There were head-on confrontations and the Casbah hosted a hive of anti-apartheid activists, but an intricate and delicate sidestepping also allowed you to make a life despite the racial strictures.
Although the Casbah contained class and religious differences, the authors highlight cultural tolerance and a sense that “we are in this together”.
By contrast, from the democratic, post-apartheid era, the authors quote the lament of lawyer and public intellectual Saber Ahmed Jazbhay about how “we succumbed to fear and prejudice that religious leaders force-fed us, with how their particular brand of faith was superior to the other, and we began to build walls around the ghettoes of our minds”.
According to Desai and Vahed: “In walking between the congregations in the Casbah, one senses the tension between mutual entanglement and cordoning off a pure space distinct from other religions or even reinventing divisions from India.”
As I read these pages, I came to realise how we can be seduced by the linear path of history that traces the coming of modernity. But these are more complex matters.
In a couple of chapters on what were colloquially known as the “Bottom” and “Top” markets, one sees how the city – in both its apartheid and post-apartheid guises – was determined to smash this hangover from the past.
This was a place where fresh produce found an outlet and which sustained small gardeners. City Hall was insistent that a shopping mall should take its place. But there was an incredible fight-back from the community and the market still stands – a living example that power can be resisted, that people can be guardians of their history and authors of their present.
We are indebted to Svetlana Boym for alerting us to the adverb “off” which sensitises “us to explore sideshows and back alleys rather than the straight road of progress; it allows us to take a detour from the deterministic narrative of 20th century history. Off-modernism [stimulates] a critique of both the modern fascination with newness and no less modern reinvention of tradition”.
Desai and Vahed take us “off-stage” into the world of the Casbah.
The area is also home to the famous, century-old Victoria Street and early morning markets (in 2009 the latter was almost replaced by a mall!).
Then there is the world-famous Curries Fountain, a battlefield for many non-racial sporting competitions and a community site for mass protests and resistance in the struggle against apartheid.
There are also several educational centres, temples, mosques and churches in the area, some of which have heritage status. The meticulous research and painstaking attention to detail by Desai and Vahed provide compelling evidence for the Casbah to be declared a historic, urban, cultural, heritage site – “a living museum without walls”.
The chapter on the snooker rooms is filled with local heroes dressed to the nines, playing the game to a world-class standard. As the book’s subtitle suggests, there is the ongoing debate of the bunny chow, the radical traditions that were swayed by the Bolsheviks and, of course, the bioscopes which brought the world to the Casbah.
In between, you will read about the gangs, soccer and table tennis, Mafika Gwala’s poetry, and the cultural productions inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement.
The authors quote Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko who stated that BC’s headquarters were based in Durban because of “a historical aberration”.
While the Casbah was primarily an Indian area, “it is accessible to all groups. There are no restrictions attached to Africans regarding Indian areas”.
Not surprisingly, the Casbah was described as “the cultural centrepiece of Durban’s Indian, African and Coloured communities, and home to a small but influential black intellectual and political class who envisioned an inclusive notion of identity which was not racially based”.
In the 1980s, activist Iqbal Mohammed of the Durban Central Residents’ Association emphasised the “meaning of place” for the residents of the Casbah, especially its convenience in terms of access to workplace, shopping and religious services; its community spirit, where “residents have contributed to a collective consciousness” regardless of race, language or cultural differences; and their sentimental and historical attachment to the area.
The Casbah has been described as “Durban’s equivalent of Sophiatown or District Six”, a bustling community, a living antithesis to the white part of the city that apartheid destroyed.
However, uncertainties relating to the future zoning of the area led to considerable physical neglect and urban blight in the Casbah.
It is a mesmerising read and Desai and Vahed have brought home to us the power of photographs. I grew up in this city and worked at the market. My father had a shop in the Casbah. I have already spent hours looking at the photographs. It captures a time that once was and still is.
Despite the constant threat of apartheid’s bulldozers and neo-liberal zealots of today’s City Hall, the authors remind us that the Casbah still stands.
This is a book about a personal journey. Both authors spent their boyhoods in the Casbah. And their wounds and wonderment from that period of the late 1960s and 1970s trespass the pages. It is appropriate to quote them as they return to the area fifty years later:
“To research is to resurrect. To walk into a past that is always present. Emotions you thought were settled come flooding back. Old rivalries and loves dart into shops and behind pedestrians like city sprites, beckoning us to remember and to care again. And they succeed. We come to a random stop on a corner, looking up and down the streets in all directions as if lost. How can a man be lost in the streets carried in the map of his heart?”
A meticulous reading of the newspapers of the time, minutes of meetings, interviews and a captivating writing style results in a beguiling capture of the urban.
It needs to be read because, more than anything, this “city within a city” that defied apartheid’s bulldozers is still there, living and breathing new (his)stories. DM
The Casbah: Bunny Chows, Bolsheviks and Bioscopes (UKZN Press) will be launched at Ike’s Bookshop in Durban on 30 June 2023.
Dr Brij Maharaj is an academic and civil society activist.