Actually, my story begins in Istanbul. (Wouldn’t that be a great first line for a novel?) During the (hair-raising) taxi ride from the airport to our hotel in Istanbul we were never out of hearing range of the Islamic call to worship. It was the soundtrack for our two days in that remarkable city before flying on to Cape Town. There was music to be heard everywhere, in the cafes and on the streets, but the call to prayer was a regular refrain. In a largely secular society, I wondered what effect those reminders have. We got a little chuckle from seeing one man sitting at a cafe, hands raised in prayer, eyes closed, lips moving…cigarette dangling from his fingers and a beer waiting on the table for the end of prayers. It was an appreciative chuckle, I assure you. I soon realized that the apparent acceptance of the broad range of Islamic practice I observed (and Christians are less than 1% of the country’s population, by the way) was based on the women. Specifically on how they were dressed. The men all seemed the same – casual in T-shirts and shorts mostly. But the women carried their family’s religious traditions on their bodies. Free to bare arms and legs in the hot summer sun, or to drape a simple scarf over their head. Less free perhaps (but who am I to say that?) were the women I saw in long dark overcoats or fully covered from head to toe with only a small slit open for their eyes. Having just finished “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Asne Seierstad, I have more questions than answers about women in Islam.
Our first day in Cape Town found us careening down the N2, driving (thanks to the British) on the wrong side of the road towards a place we weren’t sure we could find. It was Sunday morning and my husband had remembered a church in Khayelitsha, a township next to Cape Town, that he wanted to visit. The word “township” of course means something quite different in South Africa than for Americans. (The Township of Chevy Chase??). As we drove through the mostly unmarked streets of Khayelitsha looking for St. Michael’s Anglican Church, we saw the acres of shacks made from found bits of metal, plastic and wood that every “township” is made of. We also saw an abundance of life among what seemed like death. Children playing, small shops carrying on their trades, adults greeting and joking with each other. It’s difficult to understand the seeming joy (or at least lack of despair) we witnessed among the unbelievable poverty. We did finally find St. Michael’s, albeit somewhat late, arriving as we did midway through their three-hour service! We were warmly greeted and my husband was asked to speak a few words and we were very surprised to find another American in the congregation, a young woman from North Carolina who is a student at General Theological Seminary. And we enjoyed the singing of course. That heartfelt eruption of sound that South Africans are famous for, with the strong, rich harmonies and movement that speak of dreams and joy and faith even when you don’t understand the words.
There’s one more experience to share in this journal of my time in South Africa. We attended a service at St. George’s Cathedral on Monday evening at 10 p.m. It marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, into which South Africa, as part of the British Empire at the time, was also swept. It was a lovely service of music, prayers, poems and readings, and the candles we held were extinguished at 11:00 p.m., the exact moment when Britain declared war. Among what must be considered the sheer waste of human life that World War I represents, we were reminded that the blacks, coloreds and whites (those three fallacious classifications of humanity created by apartheid) who fought in the war were united by the simple equality of human suffering.
I have met with an incredible variety of people within the span of seven days – from wealthy retired Americans at a resort on Lake Michigan to members of an Anglican Church in a South African township. That’s quite a journey. But what I noticed all along is that we are united by many more things than those which separate us. The simple equalities of love for our children, friendships, and suffering make us one with each other. Those are lessons easily learned without travelling so far, I realize, but I’m grateful to have that opportunity too.
Beautifully written! Thank You soooo much for sharing your amazing experiences!!!
Wonderful to hear from you Sonia. Thank you for such vivid descriptions. . .brings back many memories. Jan