Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Bo-Kaap is the largely Muslim district of inner Cape Town, built against the slopes of Signal Hill, which is still today largely populated by the descendants of former slaves of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie. It is often called the “Malay” quarter, but this is really a misnomer because the local community is far more ethnically diverse than that—and in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Dutch brought slaves from all over the Indian Ocean rim, and far beyond. It is a fascinating neighborhood.

There are still numerous small mosques, each with a particular ethnic or sectarian or local, even family or community affiliation: the shafee or “Indonesian” Auwal Mosque (1798); the Palm Tree or Jan Van Boughies Mosque in Long Street (1820); the Nurul Islam Mosque at 134 Buitengracht Street (1844); the Jamia or Queen Victoria Mosque in Lower Chiappini Street (1850); The Mosque of Imam Hadjie or Mosque Shafee in Upper Chiappini Street (1859); the Hanafee Mosque on the corner of Dorp and Long Streets (1881); the Boorhaanol Mosque in Longmarket Street (1884); the Quawatul Islam Mosque in Loop Street (1892); the Nurul Mohamadia Mosque in Vos Street (1899), and the Nurul Huda Mosque in Leeuwen Street (1958), among others.

It is often extremely difficult for the non-Muslim visitor fully to grasp the subtle differences between these various mosques, but the concept of the parish as distinct from the denomination certainly seems to help. Most are very small. The little row houses in surrounding streets are almost invariably painted bright, sometimes dazzling colours, wholly delightful. I was warned to be very careful walking around Cape Town, but I never once felt remotely threatened or uneasy in Bo-Kaap. The atmosphere was friendly, relaxed, even at times genuinely sleepy.

It is slightly unclear to me why Bo-Kaap escaped the shocking fate of
District 6, but I suspect that even in the dark 1960s, the area was regarded as perhaps too difficult and expensive to demolish and reorganize, or even just possibly worthy of preservation as a kind of picturesque, certainly unthreatening remnant. In a way it is tempting to use Bo-Kaap as an imaginary framework with which to imagine what the messier, rowdier, more commercial, less candy-coloured streetscape of District 6 must have been like in its heyday.

Lately a different fear has arisen, namely that processes of gentrification will eventually drive out the locals who have lived here in many cases since the mid-eighteenth century, in other words achieving by ordinary market forces (and neglect) what Apartheid entrusted to the Group Areas Act. What is especially intriguing is the persistence through the otherwise plain built environment of flourishes, arabesques, curly-cues, and hints toward gabling that you associate primarily with
Cape Dutch and therefore VOC “style,” a sort of aesthetic Stockholm Syndrome, but maybe also a plucky sign of conquest also. It is impossible not to like Bo-Kaap.

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