The Arabic-Afrikaans Tradition of the Cape
By Saarah Jappie
A hundred years ago, Mr A. Toffee, a resident of Hanover Street in Cape Town, wrote an impassioned letter to his religious congregation. The page-and-a-half-long document was an exposé of the deceptive behaviour of several imams, which he had been the victim of. He described in detail how, several years after his wife had disappeared from his home, a group of imams had granted her a divorce from him without his consent. What’s more, they had facilitated her marriage to another man. Furious, Mr Toffee was intent on broadcasting the details of the scandal to his community. Rather than publish the accusatory letter, he sent it to an imam in Bo-Kaap, who would then relay the information to the broader population. In order for his message to best reach the people, Mr Toffee wrote the letter in Afrikaans, still the dominant tongue among Muslims and the broader coloured population in Cape Town at the time. However, the script he used was not what we commonly associate with Afrikaans, or with the history of Cape Town: Mr Toffee’s letter was written in Arabic script.
“Arabic-Afrikaans”, or the use of the Arabic script to write the Afrikaans language, is a uniquely Cape Town phenomenon which dates back to at least the mid-1800s. This writing system has its roots in the slave and exile community that was brought to the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company in the mid-1600s. These people – many of them Muslim – came from around the Indian Ocean region and were speakers of diverse languages, from Buginese to Tamil. However, Malay was often a common language among them and it soon became the lingua franca of the developing Muslim community.
From the mosque to the madrassah and beyond, Malay facilitated conversation, sermons and education for the underclasses of Cape Town. While oral communication would have been simple, writing was more complicated. Malay speakers, as part of the city’s underclass, were illiterate in the Roman script. However, because of their knowledge of the Qur’an they could read and write Arabic. Joining these two skills, they adopted the Jawi system, using Arabic letters to write Malay. By the early 19th century Malay was losing ground to Cape Dutch, an early form of Afrikaans. Quite soon, Cape Dutch became the lingua franca of the Muslim community, used as the official language of religious sermons and in the madrassah setting. In order to write the new language, the Jawi system was adapted and Arabic-Afrikaans was born.
Arabic-Afrikaans was used from at least 1840 and reached its peak in the 1910s. The popularity of the script in the Muslim community was such that local Muslim scholars began printing texts in it, using presses as far afield as Istanbul and Cairo in order to have their books produced. In fact, Arabic-Afrikaans printing was on a par with, if not ahead of, printed Afrikaans literature in the Roman script. By the 1920s, the script was on the decline. As Muslims were integrated into formal, secular schools, literacy in the Roman script increased. No longer useful, Arabic-Afrikaans was no longer taught. Aside from a short resurgence in the 1950s, the script died out.
Although no longer used, traces of Arabic-Afrikaans can still be found across the greater Cape Town area in the form of manuscripts and printed books stored in family homes and, to a lesser degree, local museums. Preserved most often by accident, these texts generally go unread, and seldom leave their sites of storage. Their value nowadays is not in the contents they hold, but in the cultural capital linked to their possession. Yet, these documents are windows into overlooked, subaltern people, places, and practices of Cape Town’s history.
From the contents of extant documents there is the potential to learn about the goings-on in the 19th and early 20th century Muslim community, a significant section of the historical underclass of Cape Town. The religious treatises and student notebooks shed light on the alternative education system the slaves and Free Blacks formed, including both the kinds of religious teachings that circulated and the methods used to inculcate them. Reading talismanic and medical texts, we learn how slaves, exiles and their descendants, often excluded from conventional medical institutions, healed the sick and dealt with the supernatural. Finally, although extremely rare, the record books, letters and personal notes uncover the objects people owned, events in their personal lives, and the controversies that shook their community, like the situation of Mr Toffee.
Meanwhile, the form of Arabic-Afrikaans provides insight into the linguistic life of the community. When people wrote in Arabic-Afrikaans, they recorded words the way they pronounced them, without the constraint of spelling or vocabulary rules. Thus the Kaaps variety of Afrikaans, spoken in the coloured community and often silenced by the rules of standardised Afrikaans spellings, comes alive in the script. When Mr Toffee wrote of his woes, he did so using Malay words like “kanallah” and English borrowings instead of their Afrikaans equivalents. He also flattened vowels and inserted consonants where, according to standardised versions of the language, they shouldn’t be.
Despite the potential of these documents to open up a side of Cape Town’s history that is often under- or even misrepresented in the official, colonial archive of the city, their impact is limited. When Arabic-Afrikaans stopped being used and taught, existing documents lost their practical value. Consequently, many were lost, or disposed of by burning or burial. The corpus of Arabic-Afrikaans documents is thus miniscule, and it is difficult to determine just how many manuscripts and books in the script once existed. Fortunately, as awareness of the writing culture rises, more families are rediscovering such texts in their own private libraries. Their preservation might hopefully lead to new use, enriching and complicating the existing narratives of the city’s colonial past.
This article features in a special, Arabic-only edition of the Chronic, published in June 2015 as “Muzmin”. The issue, which examines the division of “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and Ali Mazrui’s concept of “Afrabia”, was designed in collaboration with Studio Safar (Beirut) and presented at the 12th edition of Sharjah Biennial.
To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop, or get copies from your nearest dealer.