Letlhakaneng, North West Province. South Africa.
18. August 2012.
“Thaaabo Baloyi!” my friend Ismail called. “You my friend. Come inside. What you want? Masweets? Cool drink? Tell me, you my friend. Thaaabo!” I politely refused, as I always do, but found myself with a handful of candy nonetheless. I always leave Ismail’s place a little closer to diabetes.
Ismail Hossain – “Thabo! Not like Saddam!” he always reminds me cheerfully – is better known in the village as Tony. A few years older than me, Tony left his childhood home in Bangladesh to join his uncles and brothers here in South Africa. I don’t always understand his English, and I certainly don’t speak any Bengali; nonetheless, we often sit behind the counter of his general store, laughing and chatting together as he sells cigarettes to old men, sweets to children, and airtime to gogos.
“Thabo!” Tony hollered at me at a lull in the conversation. “Merry Christmas!”
I blinked, confused: Christmas wasn’t for another four months, and besides, Ismail practices Islam. “Ismail,” I said, “What?”
“Muslim Christmas, Thabo. Eid Mubarak!” he explained. Once more I blinked, and Ismail elaborated. “The end of Ramadan. Tomorrow, you will come with us to Muslim church?”
Eid marks the conclusion of Ramadan, an important time of prayer and fasting for Muslims. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is an Abrahamic religion, and so includes some familiar names. Islam teaches that Moses and Jesus were both prophets of Allah. However, Mohammed represents the final and most important of Allah’s prophets, for Allah shared with him a direct revelation of His word: the Quran. Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan to commemorate the revelation of His word to humanity. I reckon Tony’s comparison of Eid to Christmas wasn’t too far from the mark: both celebrate the inception of their parent religion.
I’ll be honest: I can’t recall being aware of Islam before the events of 9/11, my freshman year of high school. In the years that have passed, I have continued to learn about the history and beliefs of Islam though high school and college classes and through casual conversations with Muslim friends and acquaintances. But never before had I had any personal experience with Islam. I had certainly never been to “Muslim church” before.
So I found myself waiting for Ismail and his brothers and friends in the darkness of predawn the next morning. “Thaaabo Baloyi! I didn’t think you come. Eid Mubarak!” Tony said, giving what seemed to be the traditional Eid greeting, shaking my hand and hugging me three times, switching sides with each hug. I practiced the greeting with each of my new companions. We got on the taxi to Brits – normally crowded with Batswana on their way work – now packed with Bengalis and Indians and Pakistanis on their way to celebrate Eid together. My Setswana has improved markedly, and I have gotten used to eavesdropping conversations on taxis. Being immersed in the unfamiliar rapid-fire Bengali and Hindi felt a little uncomfortable.
We reached the mosque (“Thabo! Muslim church!”) well before the service was set to begin at 08h00. There was a large, airy room to the right of the entrance, with rows of taps for washing. With a lofted ceiling and plenty of natural light, it looked the way I imagine Roman bathhouses looked. We removed our shoes, rolled up of pantlegs and shirtsleeves, and set about preparing ourselves for the service. With no idea what to do, I followed Ismail’s lead, washing my face, arms, legs, feet, and even the inside of my nose and mouth. Unsure of how to dress for the occasion, I had dressed as I would for church: shirt and tie, dress pants, and shiny shoes. Most wore long white tunics, delicately embroidered in gold thread, with matching pillbox-shaped prayer hats. Ismail wore cargo pants and Adidas shoes under a gold-embroidered maroon tunic.
The service was to be held outside, so we put our shoes back on and continued to a large field down the road. Long rows of Tyvek woven in intricate patterns covered the field, facing northeast, towards Mecca. Many people were already there, prostrate in prayer or else chatting and greeting each other in the way Ismail taught me. People seemed surprised and a little amused by my clumsy attempts to practice the Eid greeting Ismail had taught me.
One old man shook my hand seriously. “Have you accepted yet?”
It took me a moment to realize he was asking me if I was a Muslim. “I –” not sure of how to respond.
“This is Thabo. He’s my friend,” Ismail said, deflecting but not answering the question. The old man seemed appeased all the same. Ismail turned to me and laughed. “Thaaaabo!”
I understood very little once the service began. The iman (“Tony, is that like the priest?”) preached a message, in some combination of Arabic, English, and other languages, about tolerance and forgiveness – not unlike sermons I have heard in the Roman Catholic church.
Teaching a maths lesson the following Monday morning, Kwetsane came to tell me there was a visitor for me in the office. “It’s that guy who owns the shops. Makula.”
I laughed. Makula, the Setswana word for people of southeast Asian descent, could only mean one person. Tony smiled when I walk in the office, and handed me a bag. “What’s this?” I asked. For once, Tony didn’t say anything. I opened the bag, and pulled out an English version of the Quran.
People have done all manner of thoughtful things for me since I’ve arrived in South Africa, but this gesture ranks among the most caring. “Ismail….” I began.
“Thabo! It’s fine, no problem,” Ismail replied, “You my friend.”