Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Drumbeats of a Sufi circle - Bokaap, Cape Town

When you are afraid of something, dive straight into it for the intensity of abstaining from it, is greater than your fear. (Sufi saying)

Cloaked in a long flowing robe known as an abayya, I hurriedly slip into the heated room of a house right at the very top of steep Shortmarket Street in Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay Quarters in Cape Town.

Essence mingles with incense. Thick golden air light as a whisper, rich as a treasure brushes against my face, filling and intoxicating me. Unobtrusively as possible, though not without stepping on some toes and mumbling apologies, I make my way to the back of the room to sit against the wall with a handful of other women. The old aunties frown disapprovingly and hush me, motioning for me to sit down and be quiet. They’re all transfixed by the heady call of the drums. Next to me Ayesha Kamaldien, a Bo-Kaap local squeezes my hand and breathes excitedly “Feel my pulse. It’s pumping in tune to the beat of the rabannas (drums).” The women, their eyes half closed, sway to the longing rhythm of the rabannas. Lost in motion.

Before us by turns, young boys, old fragile-seeming men and those in their prime give answer to their souls. Their eyes inwardly focussed, their lives held in safekeeping by faith, the hoarse singing voices and knowing hands of the drummers. The rabannas heated by braziers to soften their call, reverberate, evoking the same responses they did thousands of years ago. Males whirl and step to innate rhythms in a clearing fenced by circles within circles of men. Razor sharp sword blades gleam in the lamplight as they lift them above their heads and let them fall to their outstretched arms, necks and abdomen again and again. Their dance is achingly beautiful. Movements flow freely, the expressions on their faces radiant… as if they are within the presence of Light and filled with it. The swords continue their deathly ballet and pierce, sweep and slice. Yet there is no blood, no pain, only joy and light, a complete exultation in faith which surpasses all earthly holds.

This is the rhatib, a moving meditation practised by the Cape Malay to deepen their understanding of the sacred and mystical forces of life.

Yunus Davids, the rhatib imam (leader), lifts his kufiyya (fez) and wipes the perspiration from his round brown face with a huge white handkerchief. “Seeking sacredness takes a lot of energy and concentration but leaves you feeling so light” he sighs, softly exhausted.

After what feels like an hour but which in fact turns out to be five, it is 2am, the rhatib has wound down and we’re feasting on a succulent savoury chicken bredie (stew) and the best samoosas I’ve ever tasted from a take-aways down the road in Wale Street, Bismillah Café.

Boeta Yunus, dreamily lays his finger against the blade of a sword only to swiftly retract it. The blade is razor sharp and he has nicked himself.

He explains that “…rhatib was brought to the Cape in the 17th century by Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar in Malaysia. He was a prince, a freedom fighter and the leader of a Sufi Order. The British considered him a threat to their reign, so they exiled him to Robben Island”.

The Cape Malay people of the Western Cape are the direct descendants of political exiles imported from Malaysia, Indonesia, Java and Batavia as slaves by Dutch settlers who colonized the Western Cape.

Almost four hundred years later, they’re a free people whose cultures and traditions are deeply imbedded in South Africa’s fabric. Instrumental in the development of the Cape culture, architecture and the Afrikaans language, they also had a large and lasting influence on South African cooking with the introduction of bredies (stews), boboties (a spicy minced meat dish covered with savoury egg custard) and koeksisters (plaited doughnuts dipped in syrup).

Bo-Kaap, with its secret lanes and brightly colourful stoep-fronts is a reflection of the sweet, loud people who long ago converted its narrow steep streets from a place of slave oppression to one proudly bursting with life and colour.

A close knit community where everyone knows each other’s lives, they’re well meaning, caring folk. In many instances the adage: it takes a community to raise a child, still holds true here. Here children run and laugh freely in and out of neighbour’s homes.

Best of all, they’re a sharing community, always ready to burst forth into Hollandse lietjies (ribald Cape Dutch songs dating back to the days of slavery) and eagerly welcome visitors to experience their world and unique culture.