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.

Blog Featured Getting Personal Worldly Fragments

Travel Diary: A fortnight in Saudi Arabia

1 April 2010

I am on board a Saudi Arabian airlines flight to Jeddah. It’s been five, long years since I touched my forehead to hallowed ground. While the churlish brat sitting behind me constantly kicks my seat and the woman sitting beside me, a nurse from Bloemfontein working at  King Faisel Hospital has not volunteered more than those words, I am happy. In a little while, I will see the lights of Jeddah twinkling beneath me, I will be home.  Labbaik.

2 April 2010

I was hardly in Jeddah above an hour before my passport was confiscated. We were whisked through immigration, no questions asked but as soon as we stepped into the arrivals hall, scanning the crowd for friends, a veritable snotkop demanded, ‘Jawazat!’ ‘Passports!’ Apparently it’s standard practice for all passengers on umrah visas to be accosted thus. I gave our passports over, certain that they’d be given right back to us. Instead, the passports were checked and our visit visa with allowance for umrah was noted, head honchos had to be informed, confusion had to be pronounced. After calling our visa ‘sponsors’, clarifying we’re not elaborate fakes  our passports were eventually released.  That circus orchestrated by the Ministry of Haj in the name of job creation. Bless.

Leaving Jeddah for Makkah, my friend points out an area recently ravaged by floods.  While I had heard about the floods, I somehow didn’t think the devastation to be at all severe. We learn that by popular account about 3000 people died in the flooding. Yet, the official count reads only 300 because the vast majority were illegal immigrants.  The family of each ‘official’ casualty of the flood has been given SAR1 million in compensation. Already, the roads were being repaired, the area although visibly damaged was undergoing a swift transformation.I wondered if a similar tragedy were to befall South Africa, would we be able to repair the damage this soon? ‘This area is like Jeddah’s Soweto’, my friend says. ‘Maybe our own Mandela will emerge from here too.’

The sight of the Makkah skyline, even from a distance is jarring. Like an echo of Gotham city towering over the Haram.

3 April 2010 (4:00 AM)

Sentences beginning with ‘I’

I am seated cross-legged in the haram, looking towards the Ka’abah. I have just performed two tawaaf and despite wanting to perform another, my feet and temper are otherwise inclined. I am more irritable than I am allowed to be. Rumi’s ‘If you are irritated by every rub how will you ever be shined?’ comes to mind. I want the Turkish women sitting to my left and those seated behind me, holding a conversation over my head, to hush. I want to be performing tawaaf closer to the Ka’abah. I want everybody obstructing my view of the Ka’abah to be quiet and be seated. I want the wheelchairs constantly bumping against me to be moved to the first floor. I want space around me as I walk around the Ka’abah. I want more solitude, less annoyance. But I can see the Ka’abah, it must be enough.

4 April 2010 (6:00 AM)

Sunrise over the HaramThere is no sight quite as spectacular as the sun rising in the Makkah sky. Although it was a balmy 30°C at 2AM, the light breeze now tugging gently at my pages and skirts has settled an unruly mind. I promise to work twice as hard on my return just so that my Lord can let me feel this over and over again. This, right here, the Ka’abah at the centre of a wakening day, is beauty. I wish I had the paint or the words that would sufficiently record this sight and these feelings for posterity.

5 April 2010

We performed  the Maghrib/Sunset prayer at a mosque surrounded by carpet stores. It’s characteristic of Jeddah to have clusters of stores all plying the same trade situated on the same street.  Another street, Falsteen street, is populated with stores selling mobile phones and accessories. The mosque we prayed at had no running water at the time. When later my brother narrated the tale of trying to perform wudhu with a trickle of water a family friend tells us, ‘All of Jeddah routinely is out of water. It’s not something new.’ ‘Aren’t there plans to get piped water yet?’ I ask. ‘Of course we have pipes ready! But then, these water trucking companies wouldn’t be making any money.’ For a country with the resources of Saudi Arabia, municipal services remain shockingly rudimentary.

In Khaledeya, long after midnight, after sleepily tucking into Al Baik, I came across this store. Che didn’t seem at all pleased to be caught in  Jeddah. My friend asks why I’ve stopped to take a picture.  I explain Che looks a little out of place beside Gucci and Adidas. Playfully, my friend accuses me of being racist for thinking the ‘badoos’ ignorant of Che. I ask if he knows who Che is. ‘Well, who is he anyway?’ he asks.

6 April 2010

I’m not so noble to have raised my nose in moral indignation against the new shopping mall in the high-rise Zam Zam building. I am sufficiently ‘phony’ enough to have stepped through those doors and paused in sheer awe. Yes, Makkah is becoming a Disneyland version of itself. There are more people posing for pictures around the haram than there are praying. Susan Sontag’s words, ‘Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs,’ rings eerily through the hordes of people recording themselves doing the Sa’aee, obstructing the passageways with frequent stops to photograph themselves walking towards the Ka’abah. We are a generation obsessed with being seen to have done rather than to have simply done. I find the moral indignation over the construction of the skyscrapers somewhat farcical. It’s like the moral indignation over language change, self-appointed gatekeepers of linguistic purity huff and puff when language  change is evident, decrying the move away from a more authentic set of values. Change is indubitable, language change is often simply a mirror of social change. So too, the changes in Makkah simply cater to the changing demands of pilgrims. Do I not find it reprehensible? I think it’s sickening, but it’s only proof our collective phoniness.

This is Anfield. (At The Footlocker, ZamZam Towers)

The Sheikh stationed at the door of our building handing out leaflets warning society against the folly of their ways has for the third time today, handed me a little purple pamphlet, damning me to hell for not covering my face. Apparently I, and others like me, are responsible for the corruption of society and unless I cover up a fiery abode is my lot.

7 April 2010

Let’s play spot the Saffan in Makkah

South Africans stand out in Makkah. Easily discernible, even from a mile away, men in their short sleeved thowbs/kurtas, suspiciously shiny looking takkies/tennis shoes/ sneakers, women in their uniform of austere-looking knee-length burkas,  shoe bags proudly displaying the name of their travel agent on their backs, bratty kids who address their parents with the preamble, ‘I want…’   Clusters of women sitting in the haram who can be overheard saying, ‘Benoni! My uncle was from Benoni! Ali Bhai Ravat? The Cook? He lived on Mayet Drive! No man, his children are still there. Four sons he has…Yes, yes, Ahmed is the biggest. Good boys they are. Next time your’ll come Durban your’ll must visit.’ We also take halal certification very seriously, as self-appointed viceroys of SANHA/MJC/NIHT/ICSA South Africans are commonly heard asking unsuspecting cashiers at Burger King/ Al Tazaj/ Pizza Hut/ KFC/Hardees, ‘Where does your meat come from?’ Fear not South Africa, we haven’t managed to export vast quantities of Rainbow chickens just yet.

8 April 2010

On our way to Ta’nim, Makkah, our taxi driver asks us where we’re from. ‘South Africa,’ we reply. ‘South Africa? Where’s that?’ he asks perplexed. ‘South of the continent of Africa’, says my brother. ‘Yes,’ he says impatiently, ‘but what’s your country called?’ ‘South Africa,’ we reply in unison. ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘never heard of it.’ ‘Mandela?’ we ask, ‘No.’ ‘Ahmed Deedat?’, ‘No’. The World Cup? ‘Oh yes! South Africa! Ahlain! I heard there’s lots of gold and diamonds where you come from, true? So, you should pay me double.’ I think he was only half-joking. As he continued chatting away to us, while texting and also steering his taxi through the Makkah traffic, the car lazily straddled two lanes, the one it was meant to be driving in and the other for oncoming vehicles. Just as I realised our ambidexterous driver was chancing his luck, an on-coming car,  manages to swerve away at the last second. Our taxi driver slams on the brakes, rolls his window open and lets out a flurry of colorful expletives. I don’t suppose I’ve been good enough to have died in Makkah.

Later that evening I perform umrah. There is no point hoping for the haram to be less crowded, it is crowded. The only way to survive the crowd is to merge with it. As I perform the Sa’aee, I think of the woman whose actions millions of people each year replicate. Hajer, the wife of Abraham, stranded in the desert without food or water, anxious to feed her son Ismail, ran seven times between the mountains of Safaa and Marwa, searching for water. It was an act so beloved to the Creator, that hundreds of years later, we walk between Safaa and Marwa, just as she did. Yet she did not seek to curry favour with her Lord, she was desperate to feed her child. The act of a woman, of a mother, how many poems have been penned of the love of God, how many salaah prayed in fear of His wrath, how many more elaborate displays of piety are made, yet the act of a mother seeking to feed her child was so beloved to Him, that even hundreds of years later, we walk that walk, men, women, children, that He may look upon us with a smile too. And I learn, again, that being a good Muslim, is being a good person, to do good for good’s sake, to give for giving’s sake.

Makkah, no matter how many times before you may have lost a lock of hair on its floors, shocks you with its relentless drive, stabs you with its constant motion, bruises you with its boisterousness and then somehow, like a blue bird descending in a snowstorm, you gain respite- from yourself, your ego, the person you think you are.

9 April 2010

I feel like a tourist in my own home town. Madina is home. Yet, it isn’t. I’ve been disconcerted by the number of people who’ve come up to me, warmly greeting me, remembering my name, my family, asking after my parents, clearly pleased to see me and I don’t remember them at all.

10 April 2010

A call from my parents has informed me that a storm of controversy is brewing over my good friend thanking Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi for addressing the absence of Muslim women from South African mosques. That too, in front of 120 men, many of them among the leading ulema of the country, at our home.  When my parents first told me of it, I felt a surge of pride. I wondered had I been home, would I have been able to pluck up the nerve to support her. I hear also that she was one of very few women at the Hamida Masjid in Newtown for Sheikh Qardawi’s lecture. ‘Where was everyone else?’ I wondered. There are too many among us, eager to cheer from the sidelines. It’s lunacy to field a one woman team.

As I write this, I’m sitting in an all-male office in Madina. Nearly every desk around me has been vacated, fear of contamination, I guess. From the periphery of my eye I can see a group of them eying me suspiciously. They look murderous. I text a friend back home, letting him know of my predicament. Just in case this lot take up arms against me, I’ve entrusted my obituary to him.

11 April 2010

I am seated in Al Al Madina Al Munawarah, within the mosque of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). There is an ethereal quality about Madina. It’s encompassed by a peace that is almost a tangible thing. You can feel it, in the smiles of its people, in the clouds above. In Madina the world conspires to be gentle, restful, quiet. Far from the gilded pillars, staggeringly symmetrical arches and  engineering wonders,  the real opulence of Madina is in its tranquility. While Makkah must hurt you before it hugs you, Madina surrounds you with an aura of solitude. So that even among thousands of jostling women one feels simply at peace. Whether the tranquility is a reason for it being the place of rest of the most beloved or whether it is tranquil because he (pbuh) returns our greetings here, I’m still not sure.

12 April 2010

The highlight of my trip so far has been watching a group of Bosnian men reciting the Talbiya in their native tongue. Gathered outside a 24-hour, doughnuts and coffee store, they chorused their group leader with a passion and determination that roused everybody within earshot. This is not my first visit to the Harmain, but for the first time I’ve met such a wide variety of people. A group of young men from the US wearing identical T shirts, ‘Make Islam accessible to the deaf’, were a refreshing sight. I’ve met German reverts, French burkha wearers, Egyptian niqabis, Lebanese, Palestinians, Iraqis, Kazaks, Uzbeks, Malaysians, Tunisians, a Thais, Indonesians, Australians, Turkish, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, Nigereans, Eritreans, Morroccans… Islam is not homogeneous. But with ‘salam alaikum’ Muslims are able to relate to each other on at least a shared sub-culture.

13 April 2010

Entrusting our internal flight reservations to my dad meant we were left with seats on a flight to Jeddah a full day before we wanted to leave Madina. Attempts at rescheduling were met with comic disdain. The impending Spring Break had already clogged domestic flights.  No worries, says Dad. Go to the airport at 12:20 and xxx will help you. As we whiled away the afternoon at Madina Airport, dad’s wastas/contacts promising to get us seats on the 15h00 flight and then the 16h00 flight. As my brother stood docilely, politely waiting his turn to remind the subordinate wasta to spare us seats, my sister gets up, annoyed that my brother is not assertive enough. She grabs the tickets from my brother, goes up to the side of the counter and is immediately helped. Sometimes in Saudi Arabia, it really does help to be a woman. My brother, we’re promised will get onto the 17hoo flight, my sister and I have gotten on to the 16hoo flight with only a few minutes to spare before takeoff. As we board the flight, handing our boarding passes to the steward, his brow immediately creases in confusion. There actually aren’t any available seats on the flight. We’re asked to wait at the back of the plane and I anticipate being summarily dismissed. As my sister and I look at each other, trying hard not to laugh at ourselves, we learn that two airline staff have been relegated to jump seats and space has been made for us after all. We arrive in Jeddah to learn that my brother was suffering a converse fate. He had now only the 22h00 flight to hope for a seat. After much shouting into phones,  my brother arranges to get to Jeddah by car. At home, being the youngest among us three, he easily shirks any difficulty, constantly shielded by us all. His discomfiture at being thrust these responsibilities is obvious. Earlier I had watched a Saudi woman and her children at Madina airport. Her eldest son is no older than 10, yet she stands back and allows him to speak to airline officials. The kid seems comfortable, well accustomed to this sort of responsibility. Quite the opposite of  my brother who is twice is age. Of course this is not indicative of all Saudi behavior. I have Saudi friends who are more independent than some of my South African friends back home.  Saudi Arabia is a more complex set of circumstances and people than most realise but the tendency for women in certain socio-economic tiers and cultures, to take a back seat and allow instead their children to negotiate the front lines does worryingly exist.

14 April 2010 (3:30 PM)

A family having a picnic on the seaside in Jeddah

Watching the waves roll in, for a few minutes, there are no social obligations, no errands to run. But in a short while the driver will be collecting us, there are the final errands to run, a wedding to attend, a flight to catch. A sense of home is too transient to be a concrete place, we carry home within us, wherever we are.