MOROCCO: A Destination For Happy Endings…

A group of people climbing the fence that separates the borders of Morocco and the Spanish territory of Melilla in an attempt to migrate to Spain, on April 3, 2014. (Blasco Avellaneda/AFP/Getty Images) A group of people climbing the fence that separates the borders of Morocco and the Spanish territory of Melilla in an attempt to migrate to Spain, on April 3, 2014. (Blasco Avellaneda/AFP/Getty Images)

A group of people climbing the fence that separates the borders of Morocco and the Spanish territory of Melilla in an attempt to migrate to Spain, on April 3, 2014. (Blasco Avellaneda/AFP/Getty Images)

The term ‘happy-ending” is ambiguous at best. Depending on who you are, where you are from and your perspective in life a happy ending could infer an illicit activity, behaviour or inversely it could mean something sweet, innocent, and wonderfully miraculous.  Be that as it may, Morocco’s third largest city and tourism capital  Marrakesh, has all the happy endings you can dream of.

LET YOUR HEART DECIDE

Picture the spirit of Marrakesh through the words sung by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle in the song “A whole new world”, a soundtrack for the 1992 Walt Disney animation fantasy film “Aladdin”.

“I can show you the world, shining shimmering splendid, tell me princess, now when did you last let your heart decide? I can open your eyes take you wonder by wonder, over sideways and under on a magic carpet ride.  A whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. No one to tell us no or where to go or say we’re only dreaming”. A whole new world (don’t you dare close your eyes) A hundred thousand things to see – (hold your breath it gets better). I’m like a shooting star, I’ve come so far… I can’t go back to where I used to be….” 

It is these words which spring to mind as I reflect on my recent week-long trip to Marrakesh – Morocco.  It is surprising to me that I didn’t think of it at the time, because, it’s a song which best describes my experience of the country.  But in that week I was entirely focused on something else. In fact there was no room to wonder. I had been given, offered, an opportunity to tell a story which I had been training and preparing for retrospectively for the past 13 years. In a competition initiated by the African Media Initiative (AMI) called The African Story Challenge   aimed at improving the quality of news stories in the continent.   By this time I knew that there was more to see than I could ever see and more to do than I could ever do. My heart had decided on what was most important to me and the story was all I could think about. I had enough on my proverbial plate, and was, as a result content to remain within the tall palm trees and the beautiful landscape at the Pullman Resort and Hotel were we had been booked.

MAKE A SHOPPING WISH

Before travelling to Morocco, I did a bit of online trolling to see if there was anything tourism related which I’d love to do or see whilst there. The souks and historic Mosques and buildings popped up prominently as popular tourist destinations. Online pictures of course looked magical, an amalgam of colours, and endless choices of shiny trinkets which reminded me of markets in Egypt. I had accompanied a colleague of mine to one of them en-route to Syria some years ago.  She needed to buy Louis Vuitton bags for her relatives back home, but she didn’t want to go shopping alone and I was the only person willing to go with her.  After what seemed like hours of walking around, the novelty of the souks quickly wore off.  I felt as though I had been swallowed into a rabbit hole of monotonous stalls, shops, wares and people so much so, I could no longer tell my left from right. Everyone beckoned, begged, bickered, haggled, hustled, insisted, in an effort to lure customers into their shop, for the best price for this, good quality that, cheapest this you could ever find in the world. The alleyways were narrow, hot and crowded. Everything started to look identical, the heat was suffocating, and the vibrant noise was loud enough to silence the sound of my heart beat.  I had no energy to engage in endless banter or mindless negotiations for goods I knew I had no intention to purchase. I just smiled and laughed the rest of the way, the least offensive response to people hard at work, making a living. No amount of no thank you would stop them.  Egyptians were relentless negotiators.

ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY

By the time I was physically walking through one of those Moroccan souks in Marrakesh – accompanying a colleague who was eager to experience what Moroccan Markets had to offer and needed some company I was claustrophobic. As we walked through the popular tourists square Djemma El f-na  the crowded evening streets, meandering through the mosque, horse driven carriages, through to the main square where musicians, magicians, fortune tellers, snake charmers and artisans employed their best tricks for a dirham – I realized that I had no desire to see more. Perfumes, scarves, clothes, carpets, lamps, lamp shades, fabric, electronic gadgets, everything for sale, I had seen before countless times. I committed instead to enjoying the experience through the eyes of my colleague who was curiously excited about the new-ness of everything and was in  search for a special gift for a special friend back home.

FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD

The food stalls near the entrance of the souk were, bright and honestly very inviting. Mountains of fruits and vegetables, fish, beef, lamb kebabs, seafood, pizza, pasta, patisseries, burgers, pita bread, all lit brightly and prepared while you wait were hard to resist. Maybe a taste of something, I thought to myself.  The food stalls reminded me of food quarters in Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon.  It suddenly occurred to me  as we  meandered through the different  stalls and I feeling a  bit like a famous movie star who was being pursued by the  “paparazzi”, who all shouted  enticingly with animated hand gestures, inviting me with their gleaming eyes,and striking smiles on bright young faces begging me to  “please join us for dinner, please come this way, madam please” while  ignoring my please of  “no thank you, I’m not hungry’ responses as if  I  were speaking a language they didn’t recognize. It was only then, in that totally unrelated haze that I realized – I hardly ate in Beirut.  I cannot remember what Lebanese food tastes like.  A late colleague of mine, Dudley Saunders, a camera-man who had been in Beirut for a while before we arrived had organized a fixer in the city who invited us to a place said to serve the most delicious food in town. It was full, lively, and vibrant, people were talking and shouting everywhere, food was in abundance the tables were overflowing. The atmosphere was electric for lack of a better word, people’s faces were animated with laughter and loud passionate conversations about war. It was June 2006 the hottest summer in Lebanon. We had just walked down from a five-star hotel chain Les Commodores Hotel, where we were staying for a few days.  The hotel is famous for its 50 year history of hospitality to international journalists and reporters in the centre of the Amhara business district. The festive scene, the hustle and bustle of waiters traipsing back and forth like busy buzzing bees between tables, serving plates piled high with falafel, shwarmas, Tabbouleh, pitta bread lamb, chicken on rice, coca cola and sprite in an endless list of food items on the menu, all of it belied the fact that just a few kilometres away people were dying. The festiveness of the restaurant did not give an impression that just south of the city rockets were being fired, there were no signs that Lebanon was under attack.  So even though the food looked deliciously inviting in Marrakesh – I had no appetite for any of it.

PEOPLE AND PAPERS

I considered writing one or two news stories about Morocco’s migration policies  in the absence of a tourist activity worth pursuing within that short space of time. I had read news articles of Moroccans specifically targeting, assaulting, abusing and tormenting sub-Saharan Africans from neighbouring countries such as Mali, Guinea and Senegal. “ Moroccans are racists” warned a  friend before my trip “they don’t consider themselves African, even though the country is on the continent of Africa” She insisted “Cover up, it’s a Muslim country” she advised.  It seemed there was an endless number of news stories to pursue.   Moroccan authorities had refused entry visas to artists traveling by road from Lagos, Nigeria en-route to Sarajevo called the Invisible Borders Trans-African. The project which has been running since 2009, aims to document life and movement on the continent and use that information to create art for Africans by Africans. Invisible Boarders founder and director Immeka Okereke said they hoped to open up a dialogue between Europeans and Africans to re-negotiate the imaginary and physical borders between the two continents. But it seemed Morocco – a gateway country to Europe – was under pressure to further tighten its borders. Which meant that that migrants and or travelers from sub-Saharan countries would face even tighter restrictions for travel and those that didn’t have the required papers or permission for entry  did so illegally and hundreds have lost their lives in the process.

ON A NATURAL HIGH

Morocco is also a source, destination and transit country for drug trafficking. It is known to many as the hashish capital of the world, though a recent study by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy &Kenza Afsahi “Hashish Revival in Morocco”- reports that Hashish production levels have fallen by 65% percent in the past decade. Even so Morocco is currently the second largest producer of Hashish and exporter of the drug after Afghanistan.  The drug is offered fairly openly by peddlers in the souk who I heard calling out “hashish! Do you want some Hashish” to a group of American tourists who were loudly incensed and offended by the insinuation.  This exchange which I found humours I witnessed with my ears during my second trip to the souks in Marrakesh.  This time I was with three colleagues who were eager to experience the what Marrakesh had to offer. And since I had been there before I was invited to come as a “guide”.  “The square is shaped like a star, I know exactly how to navigate the space, we are not lost” said one of them as we walked aimlessly in circles on the outskirts of the city. There were no tourists milling about in that area, and  after a while, the fear of the unknown  trickled down with the stcky sweat on our bodies. Two of  our colleagues decided to ask for directions “Just to confirm that we’re in the right direction” from local boys who were willing to show us the way for 50 Dirhams or a full packet of Marlboro cigarettes.  It seemed like forever before we emerged back to where we had started and the search was now  for  a restaurant to sit, and cool down  after two hours of walking.  My colleagues yearned for a cold pint of Beer, but Morocco is a Muslim country: alcohol consumption is strictly forbidden and highly regulated for tourists who can only drink it in secluded or well covered licenced international hotels and restaurants at very high prices.  Sweet Mint tea is the preferred national beverage.

THE HONEYMOON

After our walk around the food stalls and the market it was hard to imagine what it is that makes Morocco such an attractive holiday destination for hundreds and thousands of people especially tourists from Britain, France and Europe each year.  But for those who can afford it, those who had  copious amounts of money to spend Morocco is a place of dreams. Even Hollywood actor George Clooney was rumoured to be honeymooning in an undisclosed location in Morocco with his new wife Amal Alamuddin.  Morocco is popular with LGBTQI travelers who can enjoy time spent luxurious in  Hammams across the city(steam room similar to a Turkish baths where Moroccans habitually go each week to cleanse themselves and each other) While same-sex relationships are forbidden in Morocco – the separate lives between men and women in Morocco  (and most Muslim countries) makes it a perfect environment for  people in same sex relationships to enjoy each other freely without any judgement or suspicion.  Men and women take Hamman baths  separately.   There are  many  Hamman Hotels and spas which cater for all kinds of tourists  looking to experience something new. And if  you’re not unfortunate enough to be caught like the 69 year old British tourist Ray Cole who was detained for four months for ‘homosexual acts”  – you can also order a massage with a Happy Ending!

The Sweetness of Brenda Fassie’s Zola Budd

” Nothing has a stronger influence  psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life  of the parent” C  G. Jung.

Brenda Fassie: My childhood Icon

Today is the 1st day  of the 12 Week The Artist’s way   Challenge  to myself  I wrote about it earlier this week.  I started writing my morning pages two days before to avoid the dread associated with starting  something new, to limit you know, the anxiety and high expectations associated with starting something new.  This morning however I was tired and even though I woke up to my beep at five   this morning, I went back to sleep instead of writing. When I did eventually wake up at  7am, I am normally at work by this time, I debated whether I should spend time writing my morning pages, three pages of hand writing can be daunting when you don’t have time. So I decided to write them instead.  They went pretty fast and in no time I had crossed the road to hail a minibus-taxi, pointing my index finger up to the heavens signalling that I am going to Jozi. And what a surprise when I climbed into the Taxi, which was at that very moment playing late South African Pop Icon, Brenda Fassie’s – Zola Budd song!

A song which was so popular and spoke to almost every facet of South African Society at the time, then in the 1980’s Apartheid South Africa. That’s the  genius of being an Artist,  I am slowly finding out (bear with please those of you who have been down this road before) it is the ability to provide commentary, reflect on the sociopolitical concerns of the nation while making people smile, have fun and forget about their misery even for just a moment.   Brenda Fassie was gifted in this way.

Zola Budd ( now Zola Pieterse) is a former (white) South African  Olympic track and field competitor, who in less than three years broke the world record in women’s 5 thousand meters twice.  She was the fastest women in the world and  a little peculiar because she ran barefoot. In 1984, aged 17 she broke the women’s 5000 meters record with a time of 15:01.18.83.   But she  ran in Apartheid South Africa ( which was then excluded from international athletics) So  her time was excluded in the official world record. Ag shame, broken dreams.

While (White) South Africans were going on about the unfairness of the

Zola Budd The “Bare Foot Runner”

exclusion (I assume it was talk  of the Nation at the time, I was three), Black South Africans  found a way into the conversation by naming  a new fleet or range of  minibus taxi’s (public transport used mainly  by black Africans in South Africa carry 14-16 passengers)  especially in Johannesburg as Zola Budd, because they were just as fast!  Then comes little Brenda Fassie, the newest boldest, black girl making music in town, with a Hit Song, Zola Budd (taxi, runner, you decide), the Lyrics are pretty simple…

I want to be in Your Zola Budd

“Bhuti (brother) Ngiceli’ lift ( can I get a lift)

In your Zola Budd, Zola Budd, Zola budd!

I wanna be in your Zola Budd, Zola Budd, I want to be in your Zola Budd,  Zola Budd, Zola Budd!!

Two very simple lines  and a melody that still makes me want to stand up and run, dance on the spot like she did in the video , with her index finger flaying in the air. The Apartheid Government could not ban her (music/song) like they did so many more of black revolutionary  artists at the time.  Brenda’s Music was classified as “Bubble Gum” music. You know what you do with bubble gum, you first chew it , play with it, make bubbles, then spit it out when its sugary flavour is no more.  But I can still taste the  sugar in Brenda Fassie’s music today.  The song Zola Budd, which apart having a pop theme in the beginning ends with a soulful  choir like hymn with her almost crying..slowly repeating Zola Budd.. Zoooola Budd, Zola Budd!!. It echoed the  pain and aspirations of both black and white South Africans at the height  of the country’s state of  emergency, her song  spread and became popular like wildfire.  No only putting a shine on Brenda the artist our beloved star, but on the mini-bus taxis and even Zola Budd herself ( She has a song and taxi named after her).

You can imagine then how Popular Brenda Fassie must have been to little black girls like me  who growing up the literally dusty streets of  Soweto (because that’s where I’m from) and I’m sure in all the townships of this country.  We all wanted to be Brenda when we grew up, even boys; we immitated her from head to toe voice to actions. She  popularized braids (we called them singles)  with colourful  beads  ( like those worn by traditional healers sometimes) because that’s how she wore her hair.  She had bad teeth, but  nobody cared, she was more than her tiny frame, bigger greater and larger.   I used to love doing impersonations of Brenda Fassie as a child, any chance I’d get,  especially the “No No No senor – Please, Pleas  don’t do this to me”, track about  a woman being held hostage by her spanish lover.  I was  dark and awkwardly beautiful like  Brenda,  so even as a child in the process of becoming aware of myself and what made me different from other humans I could see myself in her, I identify with her. She embodied mine and South Africa’s aspirations.  She inspired me, made me believe in myself. That I am black , and that is beautiful. I think my mother took me to TV auditions once, because I believed I could be a Star, like Brenda Fassie. Maybe she did too.

So later on in her career Brenda Fassie released another hit song “Indaba ya’m i straight – ayifun’irula” [ My story is straight it doesn’t need a ruler]. It was a response to media accusations, if I am correct, about her sexuality or sexual orientation and activities, she was often rumored  to keep  multiple partners  – male and female. I think she was mostly seeing women at the time of her untimely death.

I think about that song and wonder what Mabrrr would have to say to the state of the nation today, when women are being raped and assaulted  on a daily basis, others only because they are gay – to “correct” them. Or what she would have to say, that our very own Runner and 800 meter’s record breaker, Caster Semenya, was almost stripped of her title and dreams of being an athlete  because she was accused of being a man, running as a woman.

So this  got me thinking about writing and how we document and celebrate our history,  our heritage and those people who had an impact in our lives like Brenda  Fassie.  This week marking the UNESCO World Heritage and Archive week .  I  have always wanted to be a performer, an artist , an entertainer. But since art didn’t pay,   my mother who was and still is my greatest supporter (and I)thought journalism would be best.  So now I would like to be myself, today, and use what I have now, today,my journalism education and vast experience ( Thank you mom)  to live out those childhood dreams wherever possible, so that when I do have children one day, I can allow them to explore  and accept who why are sooner, so they are more balanced and happier adults.  One of my colleagues who is celebrating 15  years as a  journalist at the public broadcaster today came to my desk this morning and said to me ” I wish I had the insight, 15 years ago, of using what I have been given to the best of my ability. I wish I had known then what I know now, that life is what you make of it now, here where you are, not somewhere in the future,  I’m glad I’m doing it now but I swear, I could have kicked myself”  – She is in her 50’s.

What are you still waiting for….

To My Zahir, New York, New York!

Johannesburg, South Africa: I underestimated The Zahir by Paulo Coelho when I first picked it up from my brother’s apartment in downtown Jozi.  It was just lying there like one of those old books that you’ve read and probably won’t want to read again. It has a thick hard cover and since I was a little more than restless I opened to see if it’s a book I’d want to spend my precious hours reading. I was also a little weary of Paul Coelho’s “aspirational/inspirational”  tone in his novels, having read a number of them over the years. I just wanted to be real, you know no dreams of  treasures hidden somewhere  in your-back yard, no fantasies or pie-in the sky promises.  I wanted to know what was possible in my life, in real terms.   It was semi-autobiographical ( love fun biographies), mapping out Paul Coelho’s own journey to finding his love his wife – The Zahir – or love peace and happiness! Why! I had just been on a similar trip in search of something a bit more vague but I’m sure it had something to do with love, peace and happiness so I was interested to learn how he  reasoned with himself;  I wanted to know how a writer as accomplished and as wise as Paulo Coelho seems to be in his books, deals with loss, heartbreak, disappointment, failure, lack of confidence or self-worth.  Another of the books’ main themes which appealed to me was about writing and how he suffered before he could sit down and write his first novel which we now all know as the “The Alchemist”. How the process of actually sitting down and writing unfolded.  Why I had just been possessed by a writer I didn’t recognize, or know where they came from writing stuff that I would never verbalize ever, into to a couple of pages I submitted  to a competition as a way of saying yo! I have nothing to do with that. I was so relieved when I clicked send, this person would finally stop bothering me I could have some sleep and get back to being myself the radio reporter with varying interests in everything. I wanted to learn from him, discover that I was not alone or crazy. I am still struggling to write, I don’t think writers struggle because they write, I actually think the term “struggling writer” comes from the inability to actually sit down and write so it’s a struggle, write no, I’ll do something, write no, I’m not a writer etc. They (we, I) struggle  when they (we, I) Don’t write. It’s a new opinion on my part. So I still can’t say I am a “writer” even though I write for a living and for leisure, it’s still so unbelievable for me to say, I’m a writer. The fear of which is trumped only by having to come out to myself, every now and again. That still brings me to the point tears.  I am gay. It surprises me. And for a long time I never found someone who mirrored my feelings until I went to see what’s fresh on WordPress  this morning  and Honey I’m a lesbian wrote in Coming Out to Yourself:

Even as I come out to old recently rekindled friends, I dance around my truth, but need to tell it anyway. I fear a whole truth, like saying that I might truly JUST be a lesbian, might be too much for me to bear. I also fear that putting that stamp on my forehead automatically makes me a liar if I ever meet a man I might fall in love with again<

I digress. But It’s always so good to know that we’re not alone in our fears  of who we are.  Paulo Coelho’s Zahir, got me thinking about mine. At once part human, part a geographical location, an idea, ideal, spiritual pursuit or Obsession. I have long been obsessed with the notion of spiritual enlightenment,  from as early as five when I volunteered one morning to go to  church on my own. I woke up and told my grandmother ” Mama today I’m going to church” and she said who is going to take you? I said I will go by myself. She asked, do you know anyone there? I said no, but I want to find out. She said well,  we’ll see you when we get back” (I love you mama!) . Kinda reminds me of a conversation I had with her before I became a Pilgrim,  on a journey to The Magal of Touba. Anyway I went on my own to the  Church which still sits right there next to my primary school today. I remember the smell of the wooden pews which seemed to shine and glisten from the polish of human contact. And the song which we sung that day in church I still remember parts of it ” droppings, droppings, droppings, here the barn is full” as coins were being dropped into a bowl: Sunday’s (offerings) collection. I remember not having any coins to drop, and was given a cent or some such from an elder scolding me for having gone to church on my own and without money, I mean how dare you! I never went back but I wished I remembered that vivid childhood moment when it was demonstrated so clearly to me that it was all about the money when later in my early teens I poured through the Bible diligently praying, for God to speak to me, work through me, touch me like he did so many of his disciples such as Miles Munroe, his  blackness making him an automatic role model for me ( He’s also a very  gifted story-teller). But I got tired of not being  used as a useful instrument in God’s temple, being over looked always,   when after volunteering as a Sunday School teacher for some time, teaching (playing really) with children –  I love children – someone younger and more anointed than me seemed to get God’s blessing to be appointed  a Sunday school teacher, not only that my poverty and that of all the other church goers who looked like me was once demonstrated so opulently when on one “giving” Sunday all the rich white folk, brought items they no longer needed upfront, on the for charity, and all the black people became the scavengers after the service picking it all up! I’m sure there was something there I could have used, but something in me refused to be humiliated, to stand up in front of the entire congregation and fish through people’s discarded personal items. None of them went up there. I was proud. Still am. Sometimes to my detriment.  I think it was after they had a muffin auction, in which  one muffin was  sold for 4,000 rands (+- 400 USD) towards missionary travel – abroad – and all the white rich children were chosen by god to go on those missions, despite other Pius blacks having come diligently to prayer meetings, I decided I couldn’t continue to go to church. So I told my parents I was overwhelmed with school work, but that’s the first time I suffered a real heartbreak, my heart was broken and I didn’t know who would fix it.  Then I fell in love with New York, as a place for Idealist  Ideas… the land of the  free, free to be black, free to be me. And it has been  my dream to forever be in New York. I went in 2008 and couldn’t believe how strange this lover of mine had become, so cold, but I walked with her, and she took me high and low, I hated her, despised her, loathed her, enjoyed her little red-brick buildings, her coffee shops, book shops, libraries, public spaces, her freedom, she was fast, wasted no time, but you could find your own time in her if you looked hard enough, she gave you the freedom to be whoever you want to be –  but you have to do the defining yourself or else… I learnt how she moves, how she smells, how she’s like when she wakes up, when she hasn’t slept  all night, when she’s happy, chatty, sad or withdrawing… I saw her mystery unfold in front of me and I began to fall, deeper and deeper in love…. I still have an appointment  to go frolicking with new friends at Prospect Park… I still wanted to explore little china town to find my kinda Sunday Dim Sum restaurant. I love Chinese Food, I ate it in mainland China very salubrious too I might add, but it sure tastes better in New York.  So here’s  Hurricane Sandy,  threatening to wash over my Zahir, I can’t even look at images of what’s going on. I want to call her and say baby are you okay? Are you safe, warm, having some soup somewhere,  are you cold? can I hold you? I’m here, come home to me for a little while! Then I remember that I don’t have one ( a home that is )  and until I do I cannot afford to have a Zahir, which has taken me from New York, to Kenya ,  to Senegal.  When I left New York my heart was torn to pieces, I didn’t want to let go, I even left Audre Lorde behind,  when I left Kenya I cried all the way from my friend’s apartment to  OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, when I left Senegal it felt like I was travelling through a spiritual tunnel that transcended time space, ages, generations and centuries, I was bent over in convulsions, as if being baptized over and over in the pool of my own salty tears, for the 14 thousand kilometer  trip on air. I emerged on the other side of the OR Tambo Arrivals Terminal in disbelief – I was still alive. And now New York, My Zahir, has been sneaking up on me in my  sleeping and waking dreams, keeping me awake, day and night, despite everything.  One of my Good friends said to me while I was lamenting  her haunting winks   ” Well they say  sometimes there’s always that one who “got away” they say no matter who else is in your life, you will always think and wonder about what if you were with the “one that got away”.  It is  frustrating because I know what it’s like to be – with the one that got away – I’ve been to New York, and not mesmerized in as much as I am comforted by the city, every one is a foreigner, even locals, so why do I keep dreaming of going back, to her. I hate the suggestion that my heart and mind will always be caught up in some dream, pie in the sky idea,  when I could be living my life here right now.  Fully, Warts and all.

In the end  Paulo Coelho finds his wife, The Zahir, she was apparently  waiting for him to find her,  for two years. But she also kept herself busy. She is Pregnant.  I remember a dream I had two years ago, I was holding my Zahir’s hand, encouraging her as sweat trickled down her crunched up face behind the curtain of brown wet locks, she was in labour –  giving birth to a second child.  A few months ago more recently I had another one of those vivid dreams in which I was released from the  clutches of a  disapproving mother- in- law- to- be, a place where I experienced tremendous loss, of a child, I convulsed in pain again  in that dream again but woke up to a newer place where I was happy again, it seems this time I was surrounded by many children, and we were  all singing and dancing  together  to none other than Frank Sinatra’s Iconic New York, New York song…..” start spreading the word, I’m leaving today I’m gonna be a part of this……. New York, New York!

I have to remind myself that dreams are not always literal. Jozi is here and I love her.

“Love is a disease no one wants to get rid of. Those who catch it never try to get better, and those who suffer do not wish to be cured.”

― Paulo CoelhoThe Zahir

FACES and PHASES with Zanele Muholi

Pictures by Photographer Zanele Muholi have been following me… literally.  They were the last pictures I saw at the  The Biennale de L’Art Africain Contemporain: DAK’ART 2012  in  Senegal in May this year. It was surreal.  I had met and made friends with a Mauritanian Photographer Elise, during pre-election protests on the streets of Darkar and she  was exhibiting photographs she had taken of the floods in Senegal the previous year – 2011. It turns out  that her exhibition was combined with the launch of Zanele Muholi’s book of Photography and mini exhibition, including a  video with sound narration by Zanele Muholi about Lesbians in South Africa.  This was the same week in which Muholi’s home had been burgled and hard-drives of her work were stolen from her house.

Being. Zanele Muholi

The cinema at the  French Institute in Dakar was almost empty. I had  invited one of my friends from the popular Sandanga Markert to come – but he declined, because he did not agree with subject matter, being a devout Muslim who prays five times a day.  It was not so long ago that I myself had been a nation builiding lesbian.  I had seen all these pictures before. So many times.  I knew these faces. I heard the narrative being given by the french hosts ” … in South Africa Lesbian women are being killed targetted..  just this week Zanele Muholi’s home was burgled”

I felt like a fruad, sitting there with a straight face.  I was also at a cross roads – debating whether to continue living in  Senegal or return  home to no job, no place to live, no money, nada.  I had worked so  damn hard to get those two things in Senegal sorted. I found myself in the early hours of  one  real wicked morning, at a 24 hour Shisanyama (braai meat)  joint I had used for shelter,  with sex-workers from Guinea and their Senegalese   handlers.  They tried to recruit me and one of them tossed me a one mil note (CFA), equivalent to 10 South African Rands (ZAR) or less than one USD to buy food.  It had taken all my God given strength to get myself up from that place, to a great space where I had money, work and a comfortable place to stay, one I could call my own. I wasn’t sure I wanted to give it all up again and for what….

Those  faces kept slidding past the  screen, over and over again, as if to say you  are one of us , as  if to say come home.  It gradually  dawned on me that I had a to make a choice. To risk living in a place that refuses to acknowledge my existence  or  to die in a place that does.

FACES & PHASES: Tuesday 27 November 2012.  Catch it if you can @ the German Cultural Center in Johannesburg.

The series “Faces and Phases” of acclaimed photographer Zanele Muholi was included in dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, Germany from June to September 2012 and co-produced by Stevenson Gallery and the Goethe-Institut. It will now return to South Africa for an exhibition at the Goethe-Institut.Zanele Muholi explains: “In “Faces and Phases” I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond. I show our aesthetics through portrait

ure. Historically, portraits serve as memorable records for lovers, family and friends.
“Faces” expresses the person, and “Phases” signifies the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another. “Faces” is also about the face-to-face confrontation between myself as the photographer/activist and the many lesbians, women and transmen I have interacted with from different places. Phases articulates the collective pain we as a community experience due to the loss of friends and acquaintances through disease and hate crimes.
The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more ‘authentic’ than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the other does not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman?
“Faces and Phases” is an insider’s perspective that both commemorates and celebrates the lives of the black queers I have met in my journeys.”

My Pride Now and Then

This year’s   Johannesburg – Jo’burg Pride Parade was very much controversial: something  actually happened. But I missed the commotion. Choosing instead to forego the parade and attend the festivities at the Rosebank – Zoo lake – park grounds, where the pride-party would take place  much later in the afternoon.

It was a very different Pride Indeed.

Then….

The first Pride March I ever attended was mandatory. I was the new journalist in the newsroom  and was on duty the weekend of that year’s  Pride.  I was assigned to cover it.  This is a decade ago. It was to be treated as a colour piece: journalism speak for a fun and entertaining story, nothing serious sans les Politik. This suited me fine because I was, so to speak so very green,  in matters  concerning or affecting the LGBTQi community be they  political or otherwise.

This time I went early and started walking with the happy Kings and Queens.  I was mesmerized.  The March  was Lilly white and 80 percent male.   I felt very conspicuous among the roaring crowds. A  very rare species being  – black and female – like an exotic African curiosity on the concrete runway. But I was on duty so I discounted my presence there.

As the march proceeded, I conducted  vox-pops with revelers – gingerly – I was (and still am) slightly (it’s getting better now) intimidated by gay people, gay men especially.  One is often too much  to deal with for me (I have a very low self-esteem) much less a whole group of  them happy together at Pride.  Before I forget: I lived with a roaring queen as a child and loved to listen with interest as she described just how useless women were at taking of themselves,  while putting on make up and grooming herself (oiling her very long legs) in the mornings in  the room I shared with my two sisters.  According to her;  women put their good looks to waste by not taking care of themselves, and she was so much better at it – More than a Woman.  Even I  at 11 years old did not meet her very high standards of what constitutes a well-groomed woman, I did not meet my mothers’ standards either.  I still don’t.

I was happy I was there in my professional capacity because the mic always put a distance between me and whoever I am  interviewing.  So I was shielded from their laser eyes, of what’s wrong with your skin honey? hair,  make-up,  not to mention…” Darling what are you wearing?!.  I was, however, taken aback by  the events’ aura of  exclusivity and falseness, not  in the costumes they wore but just in their “collective” attitudes :  how they responded to me as I asked my  questions.   That day reminded me of an unrelated  experience I had when I was in High School in Newcastle – in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal Province. There I attended an overnight prayer session organized by a Christian group from  High School,  an Afrikaans-English medium school which was still highly conservative in circa 1997.   They said sure you should come, “Dit sal lekker wees”  It’ll be nice said Kobie the blonde one ( she was a straight A student by the way ) with a smile and a pat  on my shoulder.  I was Christian and very new at the school and town.

I went and was coldly ignored by my two friends who smiled at me all the time. I wondered the hills on my own the whole night until it was morning and I could go home without having uttered a word to a soul on a mountain full of people.  Or another unrelated event when I was much younger – circa 1995 when I got lost during a christian march in Pretoria with an Afrikaans family my parents had befriended.  I was assigned to one of the older girls for the walk, but soon wondered and got lost in the crowd. I heard someone screaming, ” Waar is die swart meisie! swart meisie! swart meisie! (where is the black girl). When I heard her repeat my nom du plume  over and over again,  I ignored her for a bit hoping that, that  call was not meant for me. But it was and as she grabbed me by the hand I said to her stubbornly in her language – “swart meisie is nie my naam nie” black girl is not my name, her response in English to me was what else was I supposed to say?

So after my pride colour piece was done and dusted I forgot about it immediately. There was nothing about that Pride that made me ever want to go back. But I did.

Now Recently…..

In 2009 I went to Soweto Pride and Marched. I  woke up really early in the morning, a feat unusual for me and  it was a  bright and beautiful day.  I had a bubbly happiness lingering in the base of my stomach.  I didn’t know where it came from, maybe it was my nerves.  Maybe it was because I was going to a Pride March in my home township, in Meadowlands, at a park where my sisters and I used to play as kids, all kinds of games.  Or maybe it was because the community (we/re ) was still reeling from the cruel murders of  two women – Sizakele Sigasa and Saloome Masooa in 2007 –  killed because they were lesbian, lovers, living together.  I was assigned to that story too,  to “cover” the memorial service on the 12th of July 2007.   I wanted to bathe myself afterwards to rid myself of the palpable grief that clung on to my skin like a rash, and I was just an observer – a witness.  I met an old friend of mine that day she was at the memorial service.  Tracy  – we studied journalism together – and I  often enjoyed her latest heartache stories of the new, new-girl-in town she was in love with. I had never seen that look in her eyes. I had never seen her crying. She was always the tough one.

At Soweto Pride  I wore my girlfriend (lover’s ) very short white tennis shorts, a wild cat black and white  t-shirt I bought for her as a present  and a grey short  waist coat and a straw hat. I was slightly late for the convoy and my black and white friends were not amused by my tardiness, but nothing could take away my inner joy. I was going to March in My Home Town and stand up for mine  and everyone’s right to Life. Though I was among friends I walked that short strip of road on my own, thinking about my mother and grandmother and cousins and sisters and wondered what they would say If they saw me then. I also met someone that day. She changed my life.  The march was mostly black and mostly female and mostly poor. There were no floats.

Now….

This time I didn’t want to go to no  Pride Parade. I wanted to go to the OR Tambo Liberation Walk, which was taking place on the same day.  OR Tambo was  South African’s anti-apartheid politician/activist/scholar/teacher/lawyer/musician and central figure in  the African National Congress – ANC .

But after I heard the organizer say on the radio they were not sure which  school, in the Eastern Cape where OR Tambo is from,  the  proceeds from the walk would go to I changed my mind. Another friend wanted to go to Pride. I had a beautiful dress I wanted to wear and had no occasion for it so I thought Pride here I come.

Before this march and in my dealings,  professional or otherwise I have found the gay rights movement in South Africa to be more segregated, polarized and cliquey than any other group I have ever  been a “part” of.  I felt even more alien within its smothering arms.  I was a generally  insecure person  before, and all my insecurities were highlighted within in the Gay/Lesbian “community”.  I didn’t look gay enough; from the way I dressed, to my physical body image, behaviour, the way I sound, my hair cut, mannerisms, my friends, the things I like etc none of it was “gay enough”.  The gay rights movement is segregated, there is a separation  between educated lesbians with Phds and Masters,  Activists /Comrades with former struggle credentials/Separation between lesbians who wear  lipstick, skirts, dresses, high heels and tight tops  to those who wear gang-star pants, florsheim shoes. Separation between old, young, Gold star lesbians ( who never had sexual relations with males), No-star lesbians  former straight – now – gay lesbians, lesbians with children and lesbians without, lesbian with adopted children,  trans-lesbians, lesbian wives and lesbian husbands, boifriends and gayfriends ,black rich educated lesbians, black poor, uneducated lesbians…  white progressive lesbians, white right-wing lesbians, closeted lesbians , sometimes out sometimes in-house lesbians etc etc, including the ever subtle but ever-present separation  between black and white, poor and rich.

Within the organizations fighting for the rights of these  already marginalized groups there was (is) more separation.  POWA ( people against women abuse – mostly stand up for raped women) One in 9 ( rights for  raped women) the chosen FEW ( women playing soccer/ raped women) and GEnderLinks, ( also includes rights of raped women) Feminist Agenda and many more representing the niche  interests ranging from women living with HIV and AIDs, women playing Soccer, to organization representing the interests of women in transitions from one sexuality to another.

Not to mention the ongoing-discussions,  debates or disagreements around even the term LGBTQi and what each letter means, who is (mis)- represented or is not. I understand the need for all these letters and how they can and do affirm a persons individual Identity. However I remember speaking to my mother who thinks it’s wrong to be gay,  about women being raped because they are  gay. Her response was this: Yes it’s sad that, that  is happening, cruel for people kill , but what makes the rape of a lesbian/gay person different from another woman/man (straight, heterosexual, only has sexual intercourse with men/women)  she asks? And the truth is – nothing.

Yes LGBTQI people are an easy target for hate crimes be they racist, religious, cultural or otherwise and we must Never Be Silent About That. But in South Africa MOST black women- PEOPLE-  are a target of violence.

Much has been written about this subject from the United Nations Human Rights Commission to articles in newspapers, South Africa is yet to ratify the laws.  ratifying yet another conventions on hate crimes, is not going to make the HATE go  away. Women in South Africa regardless of who they go to sleep with at night are victims of the most horrible, violent  crimes. Lesbian women have gone through some indescribable inhumane atrocities, but all of them are based on Hate.

In crime and lawhate crimes (also known as bias-motivated crimes) occur when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her perceived membership in a certainsocial group, usually defined by racial groupreligionsexual orientationdisability,classethnicitynationalityagesex, or gender identity.[1]

Whether the person being hurt, murdered, or assaulted  wears pants designed for men or is a helpless pensioner or a six month old child – all are raped to correct, to cure AIDs, to punish, whatever the motivation,  all of it is equally evil.  All of it must stop.  Separating these crimes into compartments I think is counterproductive, in a country where the justice system is barely functioning.    We already have existing compartments we are struggling to  deal with  even.  As Human Rights Activists,  if We ARE – human rights activists I believe  we should all find a way of working together to make this kind of cruel reality for thousands of women and men  in South Africa  , maybe your daughter or  myself tomorrow;  whether they are a part of the LGBTQi community or not to STOP. My mother would support that initiative.

What happened at the weekend is disgusting, (you can google it). But more than anything it is a  sign (loud alarm)  of discord within the he gay rights movement, which is, I believe completely out of tune with the very people whose interest  it seeks to serve.

I wore my  Rainbow Dress Proudly on that very Shameful Pride weekend.  I walked with my head held high, with none of my usual shyness or apologetic behavior.  Alone – I stood tall and Proud and let all the letters L, G, B , T, Q,  fall to the ground with each tear until I was left with I, because I am and that’s more than  enough.