Blog Worldly Fragments

A good girl, bastardised

Some who follow me on Twitter  react with an exaggerated befuddlement over exactly which of the venerable President’s bevy of children ‘Zuma’s Bastard’ refers.  Not among the spawn of Zuma, but perhaps of Satan and also the title of an upcoming book by Azad Essa from the Two Dogs stable, ‘Zuma’s Bastard’  is the work of a friend, suitably outfitted by the winning cover design of another friend,  Saaleha Idress Bamjee. More essentially though the publishing process of ‘Zuma’s Bastard’ has led me to realise that this sense of significance achieved through the book is a communal one. There are a number of people who, like me, feel the book is as much theirs as it is Azad’s. Make no mistake, it’s him who’s pushed eighteen hour days,  becoming surly varying his disposition between peevish and cranky. Perhaps it’s because so many of us have had to put up with Azad’s errant moods that we feel so closely related to the book, or perhaps too we’ve managed to channel, collectively through Azad, our own hopes, dreams and forget-me-nots.

I have absolutely no knowledge, whatsoever, how the walls of the 44 Stanley Avenue complex, during the Mail and Guardian Literary Festival last week, were adorned with ‘Zuma’s Bastard’  posters despite warnings against such ambush marketing tactics by the diligent security personnel, who were similarly ineffective in deterring more accomplished lawbreakers from stealing a handbag and wallet from under their noses. When I first spotted ‘Zuma’s Bastard’ paraphernalia on the wall of a restroom I felt an absurd surge of pride. No, it’s not my book but I will buy a bucket load of copies to distribute to my family, at least those who wont take offence to the incendiary title, as a sort of promise that there may some day be one of my own ( a book that is, not a bastard).

I think Azad and Two Dogs have latched onto the right approach with the Cover Design Competition. They’ve selected a cover from an astonishingly high quality set of entries and have been careful too to choose a design that stands out against more dour South African book designs. It is not at all a run-of-the-mill book cover. It’s irreverent, cheeky, bold and an immediate eye-catcher. I am particularly pleased that the cover has been seen as an essential tenet of the book and not just a seductive ploy to see books out of stores.

Saaleha’s also the design guru for Al Huda, a cousin twice, thrice, or more removed, (it was only after meeting as bloggers that we knew each other as family) and one of the most talented people I know. She was one among a gregarious group of women who were my company for the Literary Festival. And after a diminutive, French woman working for TV5, in a rushed whisper insisted to know where Saaleha was from, casting aspersions on Ms.Bamjee’s South Africaness and earning the rest of us a scolding glance from some who’d have liked us to be more quiet in defending our citizenships. Our French companion later clarified her suspicion of our identities as she believed we speak English with a French accent. My parents are of course pleased to know that two years of French school have at least left that lasting legacy. In a fit of giggles over how the rest of Johannesburg’s litterati may be boxing us, Saaleha and I played interviewer-interviewee. I’ve decided to post it here before she and Azad are really famous and deny any knowledge of me, or my blog.

Saaleha purses her lips in front of a 'Zuma's Bastard' poster sporting her winning cover design at the Mail and Guardian Literary Festival

Who are you anyway?

I’m a freelancer and my email signature reads, “Wordworker, Ideas Girl.” Kind of vague, yes, but I don’t have a job description set in concrete. I’ve designed wedding invitations and co-written a radio drama series. I sold shweshwe fabric-covered notebooks at the Rosebank Rooftop Market and interviewed Justice Edwin Cameron on HIV/AIDS law for Inter Press Service. You could say I’ve got my thumb in a lot of pies, and I food blog. I grew up in a little town called Azaadville on Johannesburg’s West Rand. Sounds a bit portentous now, doesn’t it? I went on to study Marketing Communication at the then- Rand Afrikaans University and followed this with an honours in Journalism and Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. That was a turning point for me, and it was the first time I was introduced to print design as a subject, allowing me to crack my knuckles over the layout of our student newspaper.

After an intern stint at City Press newspaper, I became something of a Jill-of-all-trades at frayintermedia (formerly Paula Fray & Associates). Moving from the newsroom to a media training agency meant that I got to write, edit, design and account manage. I had to negotiate really bendy learning curves, and it was a brilliant place to build and refine my skill-set.

So you’re a writer/designer, designer/writer, designer, writer?

If it came down to, “Writer or Designer?” with my hand on my heart, a writer I am; a dilatory one at that, but, a writer. I started blogging in 2005, with the aim of using that space to ‘write to keep the rust away’. It’s been fruitful; I’m getting the words out there and meeting some pretty awesome people along the way. I do love good design though (my personal guiding tagline, ‘Pragmatics meets Pretty’), and I’m still pretty much a noob at it, which is why winning this competition was such coup for me in terms of building my design profile.

I don’t understand why the announcement that you had won took you by surprise. Your cover rocks!

When I saw the announcement, I was genuinely surprised. Flipping chuffed, but surprised. I knew my cover held its ground against the other short-listed covers, but I did think the concept was maybe just a tad over-the-top, that I’d pushed a small stationery store’s worth of envelopes. The other designs were posh and pretty much spot on the brief. They were the type of covers that would make me buy books.

There’s a lot of violence, irreverence and humour in this cover and you have all the looks of a sweet, Muslim girl. Weren’t you nervous about how your cover would  be received?

Not really nervous. I was certain that the Powers That Be would be able to see what thigh-slapping fun I had putting the cover together; from sourcing stock graphics to working with Azad’s disembodied head on my Photoshop art board. It was also one of the boldest things I’ve ever designed. I wanted the cover to reflect the irreverence of his writing; his in-your-face-suck-on-this type of appeal. I knew I had to have his face on the cover somewhere because this was a book born from a blog, and what is more narcissistic than a blog even if it is about the politics of our times? The twitter-logo font was one of my favourite parts. It looks a bit comical and soft, but what it captions belies this. It’s also a reference to Azad’s MO of using social media and blogging to spread his brand of desktop activism. The USB-capped gun came right at the end of the process. It was meant to diffuse some of the aggression from my initial submission, which received really valuable feedback. A brown guy with a gun can be pretty damn scary.

You are familiar with some of the work in Zuma’s Bastard – being a blog groupie yourself (ahem).Do you think there’s a role for such writing or should people buy the book just to look at your cover?

There’s most definitely a place for the type of political opinion Azad puts out (and I’m not just saying that as a groupie who followed his blog from his freelance hero days on blogspot). It’s the type of stuff that holds up a mirror to society. Sometimes brash, slightly aggressive, he pulls you in with the shock-awe, and after you’ve read a little further, you start thinking, “Hey, this lightie has a point.” I’d tell people to buy this book because the writing is smart and incisive.

PS. Azad Essa, Saaleha Idrees-Bamjee and I have all been nominated for awards in this year’s South African Blog Awards. Do pop a vote for the three of us and some of the other brown nominees here. (update: Voting has now closed and the top two in each category have been announced. While none of us have cracked nods, we thank everybody who has supported us)
PPS. Join the Zuma’s Bastard Facebook page for updates on the launch and other trifling illegitimacies.
PPPS. For an interview with Azad Essa himself, scurry over to The Daily Maverick.
Featured Worldly Fragments

Writing for our supper

Journalism is a particularly difficult industry to break into. Fresh out of university, brandishing  first class degrees and sporting the sort of confidence only the young, and stupid, dare exhibit we soon learn that without a contact, or two, and some measure of good luck even the most talented among us struggle for a byline. The Pulitzer prize featuring so promintently in our ten-year plans is cruelly deemed highly improbable for at least the next fifty years. Complacency soon makes way for reality. There are few media professionals who find immediate success in the higher echelons of the game. And yes, like most other industries, we’re forced to roll in the mud, wrestle with the more ignoble among us, all the while preserving a sense of self that does not betray the reason we chose to be writers in the first place. With some prodding and at the cost of much self-esteem, editors like demi-gods, do eventually bestow upon us the pithy space in the national paper that we so dearly crave. And even if it is on a page that no one reads, that fateful decision to be a writer is immediately justified. Though we may often only half-jokingly complain about the easy ride accountants conversely have, we do not expect an easy ride. At best, I think, to be a writer is not a static state of being, it is the state of being in constant motion, in constant pursuit of word and thought.

Nobody becomes a writer/graphic designer/illustrator to make millions but adequate  remuneration for work done, you’d forgive us for thinking it be a given. Original creative work is increasingly undermined by editors who prefer syndicated work to the homegrown blood, sweat and tears and financiers who see little value in said blood, sweat and tears.  Owners want to turn a handsome profit, media professionals want just to be published and make a living while doing so. There has for some time now been a growing sentiment of discontent among professionals working within South African Muslim community media over working conditions, poor pay and shoddy treatment. The burgeoning number of Muslim publications in South Africa are looking to turn profits, and they cannot be faulted for trying, but too often profit is persued at the expense of creatives.

I speak from both sides of the divide. On the one hand, I manage a small publication so I am particularly aware of the financial constraints placed on Muslim media in the South Africa. It is difficult to secure sustainable advertising revenue particularly when there are a number of publications in South Africa who are heedless of copyright laws and think nothing of filling a magazine with copy-pastes en masse. We need our audience to recognise the difference between good writing and design and all round shoddiness. It is remarkably simple to set up a newspaper or a magazine, fill it with he-said-she-said-Mufti-said recycled mumbo jumbo, attach a masthead to it and sell it in bakeries for R8,00. The most successful Muslim magazine in the country pays writers a paltry R150 per article even though it has a monthly distribution of close on 10 000. The cost to profit ratio is staggering.  There is little value, financial and otherwise, for good writing.

A couple of days ago, Shubnum Khan, an exceptionally talented writer and illustrator asked the gathering of the world’s know-it-alls, that is Twitter,  ‘So, how much do you think one should charge for a cartoon drawn for a national community paper?’ While the more ambitious advised her to quote an initial one million pounds and then haggle, others were more helpful. One answer though appealed to Shubnum to do the illustration for free, reminding her that it was for a community paper after all. I then entered the conversation, arguing that creatives dangling precariously close to the bottom rung of the ladder like Shubnum and I, need community media to help us make a living. Hussain Sattar then responded to me, asking whether the difficulty experienced in breaking into media stemmed from the tendency for Muslim media to concentrate on Muslim issues thus significantly dimming the appeal of Muslim writers on a broader scale. I will agree that there are a number of Muslim journalists who are too insularly focussed and are unable to grapple with issues larger than the community. But I know too a number of media professionals who are exploited by community media. It is imperative that these professionals respect their own skills enough to continue to hone them enough to impact society positively. There are a number of new Muslim publications operating with the expectation of journalists contributing for very little, if anything at all, while cleverly manipulating Islam as a marketing strategy. The call for a better representation of Muslims in mass-media is made everywhere from the mimbar to dining room tables but it must be realised that the success of young, Muslim media professionals in South Africa depends on their reception at community level. Azad Essa a successful journalist, and a Muslim one at that too, also the author of the upcoming Zuma’s Bastard, has been a vocal advocate for professionalism in community media in South Africa,

For many of us, journalism is becoming our profession and while the community papers give us a good platform to make it in the big leagues one day, God willing, I think we need to show greater ambition with these community papers. It’s mutually beneficial. The papers themselves could only get better themselves as this would attract better journalists to write for them on a more regular basis and it potentially could lend a hand in preventing people from running away from journalism after a while. As is stands, journalists are so insecure about their copy and the fact that we are treated badly and so poorly, it is very rare that we can even feel good about our work or our skills. They do very little to point out good work, or good skills and their payment plays the part. We are just performing a perfunctory function. It is as if the advertising and the Muslim community propaganda matters more than anything else.

There exists a deep-seated disregard for writing as a profession, a disregard that is not unique to the Muslim community.  Suzanne Brenner from proWRITE, succinctly puts it this way:

For those of us who make a living out of words and related industries, we are only too aware of clients who have no appreciation of the skill required, and who shirk at paying  a fee comparable to the job.Everyone knows that if you call a plumber, an electrician or a handyman, you’re looking at paying anything from R300 upward just for the call-out fee. And yet, when it comes to writers- in my case, freelancers often with tertiary qualifications but without medical aid or other perks- it’s a constant juggling act to produce budgets my clients find acceptable. So why is there such a gulf between what clients will pay and what writers expect to be paid? It’s not straightforward , but I believe that it’s because most people think they can do it themselves. And far too often, they do.

Cape Town’s Muslim Views remains the only Muslim publication in the country that has recognised the need for fair pay to creatives. The difference can be easily told by the quality of work in the paper. I fervently believe there to be a market  available for more than one Muslim publication. There should be enough ad-spend to go around. The problem however, lies is the quality of many of these publications, some cannot possibly be taken seriously. I’m defining my publication by  superior content and design. It costs slightly more at the cash point and I’m phasing in per-word contracts for contributors. Shubnum has herself illustrated an article for Al Huda in the Spring edition last year that she very generously  waived payment for. It would however be remiss of me to solicit another illustratrion from her without remuneration.  I took up Al Huda magazine after all intending to create a platform for young, struggling Muslim writers to make their name on the way up to bigger things.

Worldly Fragments

English Language To Be Refudiated

Johannesburg-Linguists, lexicographers and self-appointed purveyors of linguistic purity gathered late, Sunday 18 July, at an undisclosed location, south of the south-western semantic web,  to admit to the tongue-that-terrorised-the-world-for-centuries, a lexeme even the staunchest colonialists, war-mongers and cultural chauvinists have historically neglected. English language users, including those of the British isles, have been strongly urged to place an aesthetically-compromising, perspective-narrowing cover across their dictionaries to mitigate any effects of the exclusion of the word, refudiate, on their linguistic prowess. Disgruntled users will also be able to present their dictionaries at their nearest talk shop for a full refund. Amid the general bafflement and deep-seated confusion on the usage of the word across the English speaking world, Language Gatekeepers have released the following update for English Language (V2010/7/18.20):


[ri-fyood-i-eyt] verb. 1. to enact a highly convoluted affectation of American politics  2. to be a good, little Moslem and disappear off the face of the Earth, or preferably, just America.

2010;  (Twitter update); Ms. Sarah Palin; See also, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, islamophobia.

Industry experts have however already expressed disappointment at the update, claiming it does not sufficiently accommodate for usage as a proper noun. In response to the turmoil, the Safe-Usage Council of the United Languages is scheduled to convene early on Monday to allow key member states the right to veto any steps to concrete action.

Blog Worldly Fragments

Lest we become caricatures of ourselves

In South Africa we’re swathing our cars in the national flag, wearing football jerseys to work, trying our damndest to look for some unique way to show off our patriotism. I am a Muslim. I am a South African. I have been blessed to never feel that these identities are irreconcilable. My Muslimness is entrenched in my South Africaness. My South Africaness is connected to my Muslimness. While the rest of the world squabbles over a woman’s right to wear the nikaab, in my neck of the woods, women in nikaab drive cars, work in banks, serve you in stores. And it’s never been anything to write home about.

I have honestly never been made to think twice about wearing a hijab, or an abaya, for that matter for fear of social recrimination.  I blend in, I’ve never walked into a mall, or an interview , or a meeting having to worry about how I am going to be perceived.  I don’t doubt that my dress inspires curiosity but even when this curiosity is pronounced I’ve never been made to feel as though I was under a searchlight.  The reaction to the publication of the Zapiro cartoon by the Mail and Guardian this morning however has made me feel as though my Muslim identity and South African identity are being mercilessly wrenched apart.

In the words of former Mail and Guardian journalist, Qudsiya Karim, ‘As a Muslim, I’m not at all impressed with Zapiro’s cartoon. As a journalist, I understand that press freedom is important.’ I too champion the right to a free press, just some weeks ago I joined bloggers around the country to protest the intimidation of the media by the ANC Youth League. It is apt then that City Press editor Ferial Haffejee says, ‘Draw Mohamad day is as much about free expression as the Youth League is about advancing young people.’ I had been able to merrily ignore the calls to boycott Facebook yesterday in protest of ‘Draw Mohamed Day’. I reacted with some bewilderment that Pakistan has cut off its nation from their social media diet. To be honest it was easy to ignore until it concerned us.

Waking up to news that an interdict against the Mail and Guardian publishing a Zapiro cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammed (Peace be upon him)had failed left me a little unsettled. I only believed it once I saw it. And when I did see it, it was disappointment I felt most acutely. While I looked at the cartoon pensively, a text message from an acquaintance interrupted me:

‘ Alert: Now on Radio Islam the government wants see how Muslim South African youth react to the Zapiro drawing of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). They are waiting for any violent action from the youth to clamp down and persecute Muslims in South Africa. Even though this may hurt us, please try to remain calm and not resort to any violence!’

That message plays into the victim mentality so many in this community are handicapped by and it is disappointing that most Muslims, myself included, don’t batter an eyelash when other religions are made the butt of the cartoonist’s pencil. There certainly is a duplicity of values that needs to be addressed.

It is interesting too that on the two occasions publishing cartoons of the Prophet has been made an issue in South Africa, both times the judges deciding the matter were Muslims. A clear indication of how much more integrated Muslims in South Africa are. In the first case of the infamous Danish cartoon, the late Judge Mohamed Jajbhay decided that publishing it would amounted to hate speech. A reminder that even the most liberal constitution recognises limits to free speech but the ruling came under great scrutiny as it was felt the judge was ill qualified to hold an objective perspective in matters pertaining to his namesake.  This time the Judge was a Judge Mayet who insisted that her Muslim identity would not interfere with her ability to judge the matter.

I’m not sure if Zapiro’s cartoon can be judged a victory for free speech. As I conclude this a couple of friends are coyly tweeting admission they find the cartoon funny, that’s all. And that doesn’t make them any less Muslim. Nor does my disappointment in the cartoon make me any less South African.

Also read Hamish Pillay’s thoughts on the matter here.