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Launch of Surfing behind the Wall: Singapore 1

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Former Malaysian PM, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, with Dr Yunus Yasin of Fajr Symphony and the author (right).

Saturday 27th April:

Cape Malay book found in Singapore

On Saturday morning I meet with Dr Chandra Muzaffer, director of the NGO JUST (the International Movement for a Just World). He’s a softly-spoken man in a wheel-chair. Once in the opposition political frame, he’s since beaten a retreat from the ruthless cut-and-thrust of public life.

His office is in a shady street and our short meeting soon becomes an hour. He enjoys my stories about Mandela, and we agree to network. He gives me a signed copy of his latest book, Muslims Today, Changes Within, Challenges Without. I give him Surfing behind the Wall.

Then I’m bustled out of his office to address a workshop on refugees. Around the table are young people from the Philippines, China, Indonesia and Pakistan. The dominating issue is the recognition of child refugees in Malaysia, and how one can make positive interventions.

I relate to the South African experience and the pitfalls of xenophobia. I’m asked to speak about my travels. Whether I make a positive contribution or not is difficult to ascertain, but we do talk a lot.

Then it’s a quick lunch before catching a Firefly charter to Singapore. We buzz along in a propeller aircraft for about 45 minutes. Singapore is as clean and clinical as ever, the “Switzerland” of the Far East, once known for its close ties with Israel.

My good friend Iskandar picks me up at the airport. In Singapore I’ll do a book launch at the Arab Network Society and a talk on Cape Malays at Mendaki, the Malay association HQ. Mendaki is a state NGO funded by a 2% tax on Malays and is responsible for social upliftment.

As we drive, Iskandar hands me a copy of ID du Plessis’ “classic”, The Cape Malays. I’m gobsmacked. “What’s this book doing in Singapore?” I ask stupidly.

“My late brother had it,” he replies, adding that he thought he got it while on Hajj. He then tells me I can have the book.

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, “it’s yours.”

Inside the flyleaf I come across the following:

“El Hadj Erefaan Rakiep…son of…” and a family tree leading to Imam Abdullah Qadi Abdus Salam, or Tuan Guru, who established South Africa’s first madrasah in Cape Town in 1793. A political exile of Moroccan ancestry from Tidore,Tuan Guru also wrote a Qur’an from memory while imprisoned on Robben Island by the Dutch.

“These are our ancestors,” goes another line.

Also written is “NE Rakiep bought Friday 16 Feb 1973.”

It’s a fascinating, poignant piece of local history inscribed in the flyleaf of a book long out of print – as much the tale of a person suffering under apartheid trying to discover his identity. And I’d found all of this in Singapore, and not in Cape Town.

Of course, as an Orientalist who was a friend of apartheid prime minister PW Botha, Du Plessis has been harshly criticised by academics. But his work is certainly a seminal one, despite his patronising observation that the Cape Malays once “aroused” would be liable to “run amok”.

I stay at the Ba ‘Alawi mosque. My host, Habib Hasan al-‘Attas, is as gracious as ever. His zawiyyah, built by his late father, is a vibrant centre of learning. He has a unique collection of manuscripts and Islamic artefacts, some precious enough to be housed in a special air-conditioned room.

This small, saintly man introduces me to some of his guests, who are amazed to hear about the Malay heritage of Cape Islam. In his museum he shows me an old Malayu text from Cape Town written in Arabic.

The following morning it rains. Huge drops hammer on the roof like nails, and water pours off gutters in sheets. Tropical rain is not the soft Mediterranean drizzle we experience in Cape Town. Here you get soaked to the skin in seconds.

It’s a Sunday, and as the rain slacks off, the Zawiyyah is empty except for a lone figure huddled over a Qur’an. I retreat to my room to re-read ID Du Plessis.

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1 comment

  1. Slm Shafiek

    Just to let you know that it was my father, the late almarhum Alhaj Nurel Erefaan who left the book “The Cape Malays” with his good friends in Singapore in the Late 1970’s.
    Would appreciate the contact details of Iskandar.

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