My heart pounding in my chest, I knew my mother wouldn’t approve of the conversation I was about to open with her — or rather, attempt to open. As I crossed our little lounge, typical of a house in Bokaap, with a fraying rug in the centre and old dark wood furniture, all smelling of years of incense and furniture polish, I became acutely aware of how conservative my mom was. She refused to throw out any of her mother-in-law’s old things, keeping every doily and every brass tea set and trinket as they were when my father was growing up in this very same house. I doubt that she, a woman who clings to tradition and fears the intrusion of the outside world, would entertain the conversation I had been debating for days with myself whether to have or not.
She was sitting at the enamel kitchen table, chopping mangoes for her atchar. Behind her, the open patio doors allowed a subtle yet refreshing breeze into the otherwise still and heavy household air. She sat in a stained salaah top and worn doekie which was tied hastily behind her head. The light streaming in from the open doors highlighted the creases around her eyes and sun-toughened skin. In her late forties, my mother was a robust woman, having spent her youth working on the vegetable market in Salt River. She was accustomed to hard work. Although a housewife for over twenty years, her time at home had very little impact on her hardened manner, I thought. She skinned and sliced the mangoes with such efficiency and purpose it seemed almost mechanical. She looked up at me and I immediately felt out of place. Standing awkwardly in the doorway, painfully aware of my loose hair and Western clothes, I felt like an outsider. The reason why I was standing there didn’t help at all. I knew the moment she knew what I was thinking I would be an outsider, an intruder, in fact.
My thoughts were cut short as she told me to come help in her brisk and slightly abrupt way: “Vir wat staan jy so? Kom help!” I was grateful for the invitation, something about helping in the kitchen made talking easier. Being preoccupied with peeling and slicing set my mind at ease somehow and I think my mother knew it. She would often invite me or my other siblings to help with a task in the kitchen when she knew something was bothering us and it always managed to tease out even the most troubling of issues. We continued in silence for a few minutes as I struggled to match her efficiency, my hands already sticky with sweet mango juice. Finally, falling in to somewhat of a rhythm, I broke the silence: “We have to write a short story for English, Ma.” No answer, so I continued, keeping my eyes on the piece of mango my knife was slicing. “It has to be about the supernatural, you know like ghosts and stuff.” She paused for a moment, looking at me intently. She put down her knife and wiped her sticky hands on her top. I felt uncomfortable under her gaze, I hadn’t looked up yet but I could feel her eyes on me. I thought about stopping, about dropping the subject and changing my mind, about telling the lecturer I couldn’t do it. It was too late though, my mother knew. She might not yet know exactly where I was going with this but she knew I had brought up this story for a reason. I kept slicing, a convenient excuse to avoid eye contact, until I had finished slicing the piece of mango and started on another. I succumbed to the soothing effect of working in the kitchen and before I could catch myself, I heard the question slip from my lips: “Do you think I could interview Antie Rifa? You know, about the work she does?”
For a hopeful second I glanced at my mother. She was staring at me, her expression not angry, but worried. Her voice sounded very tired when she eventually spoke, the robust efficient woman gone and in her place sat a worried mother trying to protect me from things she felt I didn’t understand. All she said to me was, “These aren’t things you play with, Tahira. You might not believe in it but it’s real.” With that she picked up her knife and started slicing again. The conversation was over. All traces of tiredness gone and all that was left was the hardened expression I had grown up studying for answers she wouldn’t give me.
I finished helping with the mangoes, but my mind was crowded by thoughts of how I would tell the lecturer I wouldn’t be able to interview anyone. I had this brilliant idea but no access to the information at all. Without my mother there was no way I could speak to Antie Rifa — I was seen as a child and it would be the epitome of disrespect to ask her questions on such a serious matter on my own.
I left the kitchen. Feeling like more of an outsider than I had felt when I had stood awkwardly in the doorway, it wasn’t about my clothes anymore. I knew my mother would be keeping an eye on me now. She could be a suspicious woman and she definitely had reason now that she knew I wanted to know more about Antie Rifa’s “work”. I went to stand outside in the sun for a bit, the rich smell of incense and furniture polish combined with the spicy sweet smell of my mother’s mango atchar was becoming overwhelming. A smell I had always considered familiar was now pervasive, getting in the way of my thoughts.
Stepping out of our small home I found myself right on the pavement, the warm afternoon sun felt comforting on my skin. I welcomed its embrace and the open space after spending the late morning with my mother in our cramped little kitchen. I felt free to think out here. I must come up with a plan. How would I get the information I need to write my story? I made my way down the steep incline of the embankment to the street. I enjoyed the feeling of the cobblestones under my shoes. I started wandering aimlessly, trying to think of ways to approach Antie Rifa, but nothing I came up with seemed plausible. The further I got from my house the clearer it became to me there’s no way I could ask her. I’d have to get the information some other way.
Antie Rifa, being my grandfather’s eldest sister and also never having been married, became the centre of our family. She acted as a sort of axis. Most of the women in our family formed part of the inner orbit, closest to her. They shared knowledge of what went on during her healing ceremonies and would sometimes even help. I, on the other hand, was nowhere near that level of intimacy. I found myself on the outer edges, too caught up in studies and questioning tradition to be allowed into their circle.
I wasn’t quite sure what Antie Rifa did in these healing ceremonies, these things were always very secretive, but I did know she kept a little book of notes on these rituals in her bedside drawer. I had seen it before on one of our visits. Perhaps on our next visit if I could just get a few moments alone with that book I’d know enough to write my story. Suddenly, I realised I was on the edge of Bokaap, very nearly in town. I slowly made my way back up the steep hill to my house. Sliding my feet slightly on the cobblestones, I felt relieved. I had a plan.
Friday came, the day we visit Antie Rifa. I could tell that my mother had our conversation on her mind. I could feel her suspicious glances and I could see the worry just beneath her stern exterior. We piled into the car to make our way to Antie Rifa’s home in Kensington. Staring out the window as we drove, my brother and sister’s bickering barely bothered me. Where usually I couldn’t stand their back and forth arguments about who’s taking up the most space or who should hold the cake my mom had baked, today I had bigger things on my mind, their arguing simply served as background noise.
When we arrived, while waiting at the gate, my mom whispered to me: “Ken jou plek.” I knew what she was referring to, and immediately replied that I do know my place. If all went well, then she would never know. All I needed was a few minutes alone in Antie Rifa’s room. I didn’t see any harm in that.
My mother’s youngest sister, who lives with Antie Rifa, opened the gate for us. As we entered, the aroma of chicken curry, cooking on her old coal stove, greeted us. It’s a smell that takes me back to my childhood every time, for as long as I can remember we had visited Antie Rifa on a Friday and for as long as we’d visited we’d always be greeted by food cooking on that coal stove, no matter what time of day we arrived. Antie Rifa was in the prayer room and we saw her muttering prayers as she thumbed her prayer beads. She nodded as we walked past and we made our way down the long narrow hallway to the kitchen. Once in the kitchen, my mother took a seat at the table and fixed me with a stern look. I smiled nervously and took my place next to her.
Antie Rifa entered the kitchen. A short, round woman, her skin was wrinkled and delicate looking, as though she was made of tissue paper. She took her seat next to her coal stove and started feeding it small logs of wood from a box at her feet. The scent of fresh wood being consumed by the fire was delicious and warm, as it accompanied a delicate layer of smoke. I focused my attention on the little hatch through which I could see the orange-red flames dance and flicker. The way she looked after that fire you would think it was alive, always poking and prodding it, feeding it, giving it air through the little hatch. I thought to myself, maybe that fire’s so important to her because she doesn’t really have anyone else to look after. Never having married she didn’t have a family of her own, no husband or children, just that stove and the food she made on it for guests like us.
The conversation between Antie Rifa and my mother was about my cousin who was getting married. My mother was asking, “do you know the family she’s marrying into, ’tie Rifa?”
“Ja, Kasker, an Indian boy, his father passed away when he was very young, he was raised by his stepfather but his mother made sure he kept close ties with his father’s family.”
My mother was interested in the fact that he was Indian. “Indian?” she asked “They have a different way of doing things don’t they?”
“Ja, hulle issie soos ons nie.”
Quickly losing interest in the conversation, I wondered whether now was a good time to try and get into Antie Rifa’s room. My mother seemed pretty interested in hearing more about this guy, so I took the opportunity to excuse myself. As I walked down the hall and got closer and closer to the room my heart started pounding in my chest. I felt my head throbbing. Just as I reached the door I heard her call, “Tahira, come make the tea!”
Startled by Antie Rifa calling my name, I spun on my heels and went back to the kitchen. Antie Rifa and my mother were still talking about the groom- to-be. I put the kettle on and waited for it to boil, all the while avoiding eye contact. I wasn’t sure whether my mother knew what I was doing or not, or whether Antie Rifa somehow knew, but I wasn’t going to give away my guilt by looking either of them in the eye. Instead I made the tea sweet and milky, the way they like it, and served it on a tray so that they wouldn’t notice my hands shaking.
I had to act fast, we’d only be there another hour or so and I needed to have something at least to tell the lecturer. The only other chance I’d have was when Antie Rifa and my mother went to perform the afternoon prayer. I should have thought of that the first time, I scolded myself. That would be a definite window of at least fifteen minutes where they wouldn’t notice me missing. If I had thought of that initially, I wouldn’t have been as nervous as I was. I could feel the anxiety building up, I needed something to tell my lecturer, and the only way to get it was through that little notebook.
Tiptoeing my way down the passage again, I finally found myself alone in Antie Rifa’s room. Glancing over my shoulder briefly, my fingers tingled as I reach for the drawer where I knew she kept the notebook. The moment I saw it, my heart started beating so fast that I felt faint. My head was spinning slightly as I held the smooth, leather-bound notebook in my hands. Again, the smell of incense hung in the air, only thicker and more oppressive this time. It clung to the back of my throat, my breath was short and laboured, I felt sick. I flipped through the book looking for something, anything I could write about. The air seemed to grow more dense by the second, pressing on my chest, causing my heart to beat in my ears. I felt light- headed, fighting off my own gag reflex. Finally, my eyes settled on a passage, the sprawling Arabic letters so clear when all the rest had seemed to be swimming on the page.
Let not these words fall upon the deaf ears of the disbelievers
It was just too much. How? Of all the passages I could have come across, why this one? The room started spinning. I don’t remember closing my eyes but everything became dark. Then there was only silence and the lingering taste of incense before I fell into the blackness.
I’m not sure what happened next, but I slowly became aware of Antie Rifa sitting at the bedside. Her warm hand gentle on my forehead, reciting softly, her eyes closed. I realised I’d been tucked into her bed. It felt strange, yet comforting. My mom came in with a cup of hot rooibos. Again she looked worried, rather than angry. I tried to sit up but my head felt heavy. It usually does after a panic attack — I guess that’s all it was. I took the cup between my hands and savoured its warmth as I sipped the sweet, hot, deep amber liquid.
We drove home in silence. The atmosphere in the car was crushing. I didn’t know what to feel. I had found Antie Rifa’s warm hand on my forehead comforting and for the first time I longed to be part of the network of women in our family, to partake in the prayers and rituals for the sense of closeness they created. I had felt it earlier and it was real. I went to bed that night confused, not sure what to expect from my mother the next day. I had seen a sense of sympathy in her eyes earlier, when she brought me the cup of tea, a sympathy that I had not seen before. I wanted to experience that again. I was too tired to think about it for very long and before I knew it, I was fast asleep – a deep sleep, the kind where you don’t dream, where you wake up what feels like only a moment later.
I was woken by the spicy cinnamon wafting in the air as my mother prepared the dough for the koeksisters we’d have on Sunday morning. I made my way groggily across our small lounge to the kitchen, the familiar blend of cinnamon, furniture polish and my mother’s favourite brand of incense seeming only comforting that morning. I was glad to be home. I wanted to feel at home, I didn’t want to be an outsider. I stood in the doorway of the kitchen, watching my mother knead the dough. With each fold, the smell of cinnamon intensified. She looked up at me and said, “Kom sit.” I grabbed a stool and sat next to the old enamel table where she was working. It felt good to be close to her. I felt closer to her than I had felt in a long time and I wasn’t quite sure why, but I wasn’t about to spoil the moment by overthinking. Sometimes you shouldn’t think, you should just feel.
After a while she wiped her flour-covered hands on her apron and turned to me. Her face somehow seemed softer. I didn’t see the hardened woman I usually saw when I looked at her.
“What are you going to do about that story?”
“I don’t know, Ma,” I said, and smiled. “The koeksisters smell great.”