HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: I spent a portion of Eid with racists and did nothing. You?
Here’s the thing about your ordinary run-of-the-mill racist, or at least the way I see it: they usually pipe up when they’re instigated. They always have their eyes and ears on the ground searching for any microscopic opportunity to be racist. Racists are active in the face of, well, race. When someone around the dinner table brings up politics and the ANC, it equals a perfect opportunity for a racist to chime in. Someone shares a story about how their friend got mugged the other day equals a racist's wet dream to share their racist opinions. Chats about quotas in the cricket squad (or any kind of quota - period) requires no invitation from a racist. They will literally find the conversation from the other side of the room to come and tell you about those “blacks”. At least, this how I thought it worked. It’s not.
It was a lovely day. My wife and I flew to JHB and then drove to Pretoria on Wednesday so we could spend Eid with my parents in their new home. It was a first Eid together in a really long time, and Rebecca’s first with us in Pretoria. Previously we had only spent Eid with family in Cape Town. We passed the time with bridge, a lot of laughing, teasing my dad about his Tony Soprano-esque antics and we ate a lot of delicious food. But as the sun start to set, our apprehension for the evening set in with it. We were due to have dinner in Erasmia (read: Laudium for all intents and purposes) at my mom’s sister’s house where all her siblings and their kids and their kids kids would gather under a marquee in the garden to share a meal.
I’d spent the previous couple of days prepping Bec for the event. I didn’t want to scare her, but I wanted to arm her psyche with the right armour to protect itself from the pure scale of the situation. My mom has five siblings, each of those five siblings have at least three kids. Some of those kids are old enough to have kids of their own. And some kids are so old, in fact, that their kids have kids. (In Indian family terms, this usually means that people are grandparents by the age of 40-something). So, not that old, but you get the picture. The maths means that a small family dinner equates to about 50 people shouting over each other, mostly saying things that the brain can’t compute.
On our car ride to Erasmia, a heavy truth set in while trying to prepare Bec: what I was really doing, was trying to prepare myself. I sat in the back seat a bit confused. What was I so afraid of? Why did I feel so anxious? I knew all these people since childhood, I loved a lot of them and most of them I didn’t mind that much. They’re weren’t terrible people, just… different. Yes, I struggled to make conversation and we had massive jarring differences in our priorities or suitable topics for conversation, in fact, our entire take on what makes for suitable social interaction was completely incongruent, but hey, here we are, and here we have always been and I have somehow always made it through it, as have they. So what was my problem? Well, it didn’t take long for me to remember. Racism. The racism was my problem.
My brother had a gig at UJ that evening so he didn’t make the trip with us to dinner. We were asked where he was, and instead of trying to explain what a gig is and what a saxophone is and why it’s okay to play music on Eid night, we just said he had to work. This was obviously frowned upon, as well and sneered at. The idea of work and men of my brother’s age group in this portion of family doesn’t go together. It’s a foreign concept - in fact, the current stat for men in their twenties who work in that family is a whole two percent. Tired of batting off ridiculous reactions, my sister, Bec, my cousin Zareena from Cape Town and myself made our lonely way to the set table outside where we sat in a corner quietly to keep ourselves safe from the impending rage. It did not work for very long. An uncle pulled through to come wish us Eid Mubarak, I was happy to reciprocate because I hadn’t seen him in ages, he shook Bec’s hand, gave me an awkward side hug and then leaned over the table to shake my sister’s hand. She jokingly gestured a fist bump. His response, and I kid you not: “We don’t do those darkie things here”. Unprovoked. Out of nowhere. Out of bounds. And I was thrown completely out of sorts. He left and we swiftly moved on, flabbergasted.
Fast forward to teatime. In Indian households, tea follows dinner promptly and it’s always scooped up from a big pot that has been slowly brewing away for a while with milk and cardamom and water and tea bags. I found myself in the kitchen waiting in line while my cousin (the remanding portion of ‘man in his twenties who has job’) scooped some up for himself, his wife next to him. We found ourselves in conversation about a visit to Cape Town, “you guys can definitely stay with me”, and then out of nowhere, another uncle creeped up like an unwelcome jinn: “But no blacks are allowed, ne?”. Huh?! "What even on god's holy land on this 'big big religious day' is even happening?" I thought to myself.
I was stunned into silence and in that quiet I had hoped that this moment would pass quickly and that I would wake from my nightmarish sudden slumber to find that none of this had happened. That I had indeed just dreamt up this most ridiculous scenario, but no, it got worse. It turns out you can’t make this shit up, even in your wildest imagination because just when the dumbstruck silence in my own head was about to convince me that this was all fiction, my cousin jumped in with some racism of his own: “He’s calling me black. Look at him. Look at his complexion and look at my complexion. He’s black.” At this point an aunt has walked in and my uncle has walked out and my cousin is now directing these comments to my aunt, clearly seeking some kind of vindication. My aunt is furiously hand gesturing in a language I don’t understand. He continues: “And look at this tea. Black, black, black tea I must drink”. My aunt: “I know! I told them not to leave the tea bags in so long and not it’s karou (black) tea”. As I type this I still cannot believe that it actually happened. That the racism was so rife it didn’t even need an invitation. All it needed was a couple of uncles, an unevolved culture and a pot of tea.
I got home that night dumbstruck still. I should have said something. Why didn’t I say anything? I still didn’t believe what had just happened. I truly did believe that in order for racists to be racist, an element of race needs to exist in some shape or form, that is, they need to somehow, in some way, be faced with it. But on the evening of Eid, I found out I was wrong and I am still reeling in disbelief.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.