Friday, 26 July 2013

Elvis is still in the building

In May 2012, the South African music scene was rocked by the claim that a Zulu singer had returned from the dead. Police were investigating a man who says he is Kwakhe “Mgqumeni” Khumalo, one of the best known figures in traditional maskandi music, who died in December 2009.

The man who claimed to be maskandi musician, Khulekani “Mgqumeni” Khumalo who died in December 2009, is now behind bars. Police say that his fingerprints indicate he is actually one Sibusiso John Gcabashe but will use DNA testing for a final determination. They have also applied to have Khumalo’s body exhumed.

The fascinating aspect of the story is that hundreds of his fans had gathered in Nquthu, in KwaZulu Natal, to see their resurrected idol and his family are now divided on whether he is the real McCoy. Among them, two of his common-law wives and his grandmother and daughter, believed that Khumalo has returned from the dead.

Several of the over 30 articles running with the story focussed on the supernatural aspect. In his public address to fans “Khumalo” claims that he was captured by zombies and escaped before he could be turned into a spirit (tokoloshe). One editorial, however, considered the fact that events are not really that exceptional.

“Every now and then some nostalgic middle-aged individual will claim they have spotted Elvis Presley at some remote resort. Presley, the king of rock ’n roll, died of a suspected drug overdose on August 16, 1977.” [Moses Mudzwiti, The New Age assistant editor]

Mudzwiti may well have put his finger onto something here. He is looking at the issue from a much broader context instead and did not fall for the tokoloshe story of Gcabashe. It is tempting to heighten the occult aspect of the story as a few articles have done. It makes for quite an exotic story: a bizarre and strange account that indicates that “traditional” communities are weird and trapped in an unscientific world.

To avoid this framing of the story, many focus on the “modern”: the law enforcement officers, the fingerprints, the DNA testing, the forensics, exhuming the body and the law court. We will then have irrefutable “evidence” that this is an imposter.

But perhaps there are other discourses at play here, other frameworks that looks at our fascination with the Elvis Presleys that have not yet left the building, the inability we have of letting go. After all it is religion that gave us the “the second coming of Christ”, the rise of Lazarus from the dead, the return of the Prodigal Son. So appears as if this hankering or yearning for the return sits deep in our collective psyche.

I think, though that sometimes it actually is just a practical issue.

When the story of Khumalo initially broke, I was reminded of a movie I saw in 1984 at an Indy movie theatre in Cape Town. It was called The Return of Martin Guerre and tells the story of a French soldier, played by GĂ©rard Depardieu, who returns to his village after an absence of many years. Now there were those who had their doubts but when his wife confirms that it is Martin, the others embrace him.

The Return of Martin Guerre is set in France during the Hundred Years’ War. Imagining herself a widow, Nathalie Baye is astonished when her husband Gerard Depardieu returns after nine years. He looks like her husband and sounds like her husband, and certainly has a working knowledge of the couple's prior relationship. Still, neither Baye nor her neighbors can shake the notion that Depardieu is an imposter – especially since he's a much nicer and more responsible person than the man who marched… [From Rotten Tomatoes]

So is Gcabashe a nicer guy, nicer son, nicer husband or father than Khumalo? Or is the family who confirmed him as the original artist hoping for a return to a celebrity lifestyle? We might never find out because, since his arrest, “Gcabashe is charged with three counts of theft allegedly committed in Durban, kidnapping, assault and rape allegedly committed at Ixopo, fraud and an attempted escape from custody at Nquthu.” (The Witness)

The Return of Martin Guerre was remade in 1993 and starred Richard Gere and Jodie Foster in the American version of Sommersby.  I am sure that the French version with Depardieu did not get half the audience that Gere got in the reinterpretation.  It just goes to show that sometimes if you change the context, the main actors, the language, you will get better attention.

Gcabashe almost made it were it not for those pesky fingerprints. I mean his fans believed he was the maskandi artist including two wives, a daughter and a grandmother. I really think that if this guy could sing, he would’ve been home free!
Adli Jacobs, July 2013

Thursday, 25 July 2013

What's your story, morning glory?

Jumu’ah Khutbah (Friday Sermon), 19 April 2013, Rasooli CentreThe original title was “Changing the Narrative: Whether we desire to change ourselves or our societies, it starts with a story.”

There are these two interesting references in the Qur’an:
We relate to you their story in truth: they were youth who believed in their Lord, and We advanced them in guidance.
[Sura Kahf 18:13]
We relate to you the most beautiful of stories, in that We reveal to you this (portion of the) Qur'an: before this, you too was among those who knew it not.
[Sura Yusuf, 12:3]
If you were to ask me who I am, depending on the time, my mood and what I think you might know about me, I will tell you a story. It might be about what I doing right now, how it is that I am in Pretoria, where I come from, what I have done… But it will be a story. I would need to think too much about the story/stories because I have told it many times to different people. Even if I were to just simply say, “Adli Jacobs,” the rest of the story will play itself out in my head because I have made enough repetitions in the past; I have repeated them over and over so many times. We make a thikr (or a mantra) with the stories that we hold. I used to be so irritated when my parents repeated their stories over and over. Now I am doing the same.

But this is what we do as human beings. We are spinners and consumers of stories. No wonder the media industry with its television soap operas and movies and reality shows are so popular. These are the new storytellers! And how we love stories… We add tails to stories and embellish them to make them interesting if we find the originals too boring. I have come to believe that no one and nothing escapes the embrace of the story. In fact, right now, standing here in front of you, it is quite natural to ask yourself, “But what is his story?” Yeah, I see you looking at me…
What is his story? What is her story? Our entire lives, from when we are little, we are surrounded by stories. You could say that stories pervade everything. Our own lives, how we see others, how we see our communities, our nation, the world, are constructed in Story. Starting the South African story with Jan van Riebeek and the arrival of the first Dutch settlers is a choice we make when we recount the history of our nation. But even if we were to choose to start further back than the arrival of colonialism, or decide to include areas previously excluded, we must realise that the narrative of the nation is a construction. We make choices in how we frame a country or a people.

In a sense, we are also trapped within the stories we tell and retell. I am a mess today because my father would beat me. He was a harsh man, he never acknowledged me, always called me a loser. And as a result I am a bad father to my kids, or a bad husband, or unreliable, or whatever… Through the stories we hold to our chests, we limit our own greatness or justify our own arrogance or our own racism. We say things like, “I am always a stickler for detail, I am fussy, I don’t suffer fools…” or “Women are always bad drivers”, “Blacks have no idea how to run a business which is why SA is in a mess…” These are stories we invented partly based on truth or reality and partly based on very limited perception.
It is like driving on the highway and a car swerves right in front of you. You lean on your hooter (or honk your horn) to vent your anger. You take a quick glance at the make of the car or maybe the number plate or the gender or race and we make up a story to explain the other driver’s lack of manners. We have no idea what the actual reason was for that driver’s behaviour and may never know. But we are going to go home and repeat that story to whoever cares to listen including our one-sided analysis.

This phenomenon is also acknowledged in the Qur’an:
(Some) say they were three, the dog being the fourth among them; (others) say they were five, the dog being the sixth,- doubtfully guessing at the unknown; (yet others) say they were seven, the dog being the eighth. Say thou: ‘My Lord knows best their number; It is but few that know their (real case).’ Enter not, therefore, into controversies concerning them, except on a matter that is clear, nor consult any of them about (the affair of) the Sleepers. [Sura Kahf, 18:22]
There is this story of a guy who could not control his gossiping tongue and went to see a Shaykh for guidance. He was instructed to collect feathers and release it on windy day from the minaret overlooking the city. When he returned to declare success, the Shaykh said to him, “Now go and collect those feathers once more.” “But this is impossible,” said the man, “they are now so widely spread!” “Precisely!” said the Shaykh.

From an Islamic, more spiritual perspective, there is this idea that we are all part of bigger, sacred story that overrides all other stories. I love the Sufi notion that says that our essential story, our actual story, our only story is the fact that we were created in a timeless, spaceless place of bliss and then were sent down to discover the “hidden treasure”. We have been sent on a quest (an adventure story?) to discover this treasure and to return from where we came from. This is the story of Adam and Eve. This is the story of US. This is what is reflected in the Qur’an in Sura Tin (Chapter of the Fig, 95):

By the Fig and the Olive, (1)
And the Mount of Sinai, (2)
And this City of security,- (3)
We have indeed created humanity in the best of moulds, (4)
Then do We abase him (to be) the lowest of the low,- (5)
Except such as believe and do righteous deeds: For they shall have a reward unfailing. (6)
Then what can, after this, contradict thee, as to the judgment (to come)? (7)
Is not Allah the wisest of judges? (8)

So, what shall your story be?

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Mandela’s example should inspire reconciliation between South African Muslims and Jews

By Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool and Rabbi Marc Schneier
As Nelson Mandela endures a grave illness with the same courage and dignity he evinced throughout his life, including the 27 long years he was held prisoner on Robben Island, South African Minister of Public Services Melusi Gigaba said recently that even in his present weakened state, Mandela “is uniting the nation without even saying a word”.
Indeed, Mandela’s legacy to South Africa and the world is not only that he vanquished the evil system of apartheid that imprisoned him and deprived all South Africans of color of their liberty, but that upon finally attaining power, he eschewed the temptation to emulate his persecutors by persecuting them in turn. Instead, he set a new paradigm by advocating unity among South Africans of all races and creeds. By choosing the path of reconciliation, Mandela was able to end apartheid non-violently and to bequeath a better future to his nation; one in which forced separation and inequality among the races were replaced by a multi-racial society animated by principles of equality and justice.
Nevertheless, South Africa still has a long way to go to achieve Mandela’s vision of a country in which racial and religious groups come together for the common good. For example, two of the most influential constituencies in modern-day South Africa, the Jewish and Muslim communities, which once stood together in opposition to apartheid, have since become progressively estranged from each other. Tragically, in recent years, these two religious communities have focused on their differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of nurturing ties of communication and cooperation in the new South Africa.    
We addressed these issues head on last month during a breakfast at the Embassy of South Africa to the U.S. in honor of participants in a groundbreaking Mission to Washington of Muslim and Jewish Leaders from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The Mission was co-sponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) and Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which work together to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations in the U.S. and in countries around the world.  
After remarks by both of us and by Dr. Sayyid Syeed, national director of ISNA, urging Jews and Muslims in all three countries to  put aside differences, South African participants in the Mission Adli Jacobs, co-founder and Secretary General of Call of Islam; David Jacobson, executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Rabbi Ron Hendler, project coordinator at the Office of the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, vowed to work together to end the present state of non-interaction between Muslims and Jews in their country. They expressed the hope that the two communities can again find unity and common purpose as existed during the 1980’s when groups like the Call of Islam and Jews for Justice stood together in demanding the dismantling of apartheid.    
We understand only too well that strengthening Muslim-Jewish ties is not an easy or popular cause, but one almost certain to be denounced by influential people in both communities. Yet this effort is very much worth the candle and nowhere more so than in South Africa, where ending the estrangement between these two influential communities is a vital component of ongoing efforts to build a sustainable sense of unity and common purpose among the country’s diverse racial, ethnic and religious groups. Thus, both South African Jews and Muslims owe it to themselves and the larger society they share to find a way to live together in peace and harmony.    
One way of changing the present dynamic of conflict is to realize that the point of departure in Muslim-Jewish engagement should not be the modern-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather Abraham/Ibrahim, our common forefather and the source of our shared commitment to ethical monotheism. Both Islam and Judaism uphold the principles of peace, justice and mercy and a common moral imperative to help those in society who are most in need.
 So let Muslims and Jews break bread together in Johannesburg, Cape Town and other cities to learn about the inspiring commonalities in our two faith traditions. Let us also perform acts of loving kindness together on behalf of South Africans of all backgrounds in need of succor by feeding the hungry and homeless, repairing houses in poor neighborhoods, and going together to hospitals and nursing homes to visit sick and elderly people.
As a Muslim and a Jew committed to our respective faiths and to the larger cause of universal peace and justice so stirringly evoked by Nelson Mandela, we believe that it is essential to heal the bitter rift between Jews and Muslims in South Africa. If this can be accomplished in a country where relations between the two communities are presently conflicted, South Africa can become a beacon of hope to Jews and Muslims around the world—including Israelis and Palestinians.   
Ebrahim Rasool is the South African Ambassador to the United States and co-founder together with Adli Jacobs of the Muslim anti-apartheid organization Call to Islam in 1984. Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.  
This op-ed piece was published in the Cape Times