I’ve started writing this much, much after I had originally planned. And while I nod along in passionate agreement with Susan Sontag’s who has noted, ‘Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs’, I’m also not averse to this accumulation. But I also think that we take photographs to remember a place makes us feel, how the world touches us, sometimes poking us rudely, leaving us dusty, dirty and haggard, other times lifting us in an ecstasy of inspiration, still other times securing us in an embrace of peace. And while we see more, and learn the ways in which the world dresses and undresses itself, revealing its secrets to us and then beguiling us again, we begin to understand as well, a little more of who we are.
It’s months since I’ve returned from the US, and I fear I may have forgotten much of what I wanted to say. I fear I have lost the exact words to tell you how I felt, and what I learned but I hope to piece together a few thoughts, fuelled, I must warn, with a strong yearning to do it all again.
Returning from lengthy stays in Saudi Arabia as a child I would look forward to seeing the Jo’burg skyline on the drive home from the airport. I remember searching the horizon expectantly, and then, feeling reassured when the skyline emerged. As my South African Airways flight left Johannesburg in early November, I looked out of the window at the skyline, and I remembered the reassurance it had brought me as a child. I looked out at the skyline now, columns of bright lights shimmering in the summer night, and I felt in awe.
Earlier, when I had greeted my mum at the airport, she held me close, and reminded me to be grateful for all that I have, for all that I can do. Even now, remembering that embrace, my eyes well up with tears. And it was apt, that chatting to a friend shortly before I boarded, he reminded me to be grateful to my parents, for all they have done, and continue to do for me. And in that moment, watching the skyline of my city, the landscape of my own familiarity, dissolve into the night, I resolved to stop shrinking away from what I am.
It doesn’t quite look like the Jo’burg skyline at all in the picture above, I know. I hadn’t anticipated taking pictures on the plane, but you’ll have to trust me on this one, those lights are my Joburg.
This was my view of Dakar, Senegal. Even the empty seat beside me got frisked as we refuelled and off loaded passengers, and then loaded new additions en route to Washington DC. Muricans got zero chill yo.
This was the first non-domestic South African Airways flight I’ve taken in, I think, 18 years. And it was interesting to note how a sense of “South Africaness” is constructed, and put offered to us by the airline. This is the national carrier after all, and perennially beleaguered though it is, its existence relies on a sense of South Africaness -and apparently it’s created by greetings like ‘sunnybonany‘, offerings of Klipdrfit, washed down by Amarula, and Ceres juice for the likes of me. There is particularly one promotional video shown while that parallels South Africa with a young, black man, ready to take on the world, which I found interesting. There ought to be a proper study done about how SAA presents a sense of “South African-ness” to its passengers. I was too keyed up to take proper notes, but I did watch Mrs Doubtfire – my own tribute to Robin Williams, and another acknowledgement of my childhood.
To add variety to the sights, sounds and sleeplessness, the entire cast of Umoja – The Musical, were aboard – they were due to perform in DC the next day.
Shortly after landing in DC, my dad, who was travelling with me, received a text message from family friends in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was a message informing us of the demise of someone and announcing details of the funeral. I read the message several times, each time hoping that I was translating it incorrectly. The message claimed that Uncle Yaseen, a dear friend of my family had passed on. I was incredulous, insisting to myself that a word or two must be missing from the message – it must be Uncle Yaseen’s father-in-law. And yet it wasn’t. There in the screen I held, I learned that Uncle Yaseen has passed away.
My father had befriended Uncle Yaseen when he was the deputy chief of the Saudi mission in Pretoria. And after they became firm friends, our families travelled north to a game farm owned by another family friend of ours.
Outside the mosque in Modimolle, our families were introduced to each other. And I remember Uncle Yaseen’s booming voice. “We have two Sulaimans here! (His eldest son, and my brother were both named Sulaiman) Surely, a king will be born today!”
He was quite unlike anyone I knew and our families would become intimate friends.
I had a very, very basic grasp of the Arabic language at that time. The Arabic we were taught in school hardly equipped us to ask where a loo was, never mind have an actual conversation. And while my family spent much time in Saudi Arabia, we got by on English alone. It was Uncle Yaseen however, who would notice, that I was quick to pick up words and phrases from his young children, and it would be him who would insist, and then arrange an Arabic tutor for me. For years I would continue to receive Arabic tution at home. I would learn enough Arabic to become my family’s de facto translator and interpreter.
There are so many things I remember, so many of my memories at home, in Madina, in Riyadh, involve Uncle Yaseen. So many strands of my growing up, of the world opening up to me, are connected to him. And now he’s no more.
A couple of hours later, I was on board a United Airlines flight bound for Durham. Amid the swirl of emotion unfurling within me, I marvelled at the dappled colours of the trees below and I understood the fuss Americans make about Fall.
My first impressions of America then: Just like the movies – except there are TSA agents in hijab. (seriously)