From the Ottoman empire to the Bo-Kaap


From the Ottoman empire to the Bo-Kaap

ISMAIL LAGARDIEN wanders down a fascinating path revealing the influence and presence of Turks in the Malay and Muslim community in South Africa from the 18th century.


IT NEVER ceases to amaze me just how many stories are buried, glossed over or ignored in this, our fateful country.

I have been distantly removed from ethnicity, creed and religious practices for decades, and now look at the origins and heritage of my family and “my community” from the safety of my keyboard and through the lenses of my cameras. I have known only superficially that genetically, the Cape Flats is one of the most diverse places in the world.

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For what it’s worth, many years ago I read an article about a National Party meneer — it may have been JG Strydom — who had a disease or an affliction, perhaps a genetic marker, which suggested that his family ties were on one of the Indonesian islands, where the condition was first identified. That last thing lies in a dusty memory; as the Russians say, doveryai no proveryai — trust that I am being honest, but verify to make sure I am not wrong. I may well be.

Anyway, the research of Halim Gençoğlu, scholar of the Ottoman era, led me down a fascinating path revealing the influence and presence of Turks in the Malay and Muslim community in South Africa from the 18th century to the 21st. Gençoğlu is unassuming, and speaks softly, with great circumspection, insight and intellect, and with deference to the subjects he studies. His research provided clarity and fresh interpretation of archival evidence that helped curators of the Iziko Bo-Kaap Museum recognise the Ottoman influence — and significant it was indeed.

For the reader who is unaware, the museum is in one of the Bo-Kaap's earliest homes, built in the 1700s. The area was home to many Muslims and freed slaves after the abolition of slavery. The house was declared a national monument in 1965, restored in the 1970s, and established as a satellite of the National Museum of Cultural History in 1978.

The museum tells the story of the local community in a national sociopolitical and cultural context, showcases Cape Islamic culture and heritage, and depicts the lifestyle of a typical 19th-century Muslim family. It was always considered to represent the cultural (and even ethnic) identity of Muslims in the Cape and those who trekked to Johannesburg for work where, like my own family, they lived in “Malay Camp”. The other Malay Camp I know of was in Kimberley.

Returning to Gençoğlu’s findings, he revealed that there was a story about the Bo-Kaap Museum that had been omitted or mangled, and it  involved “a case of mistaken identity”. In 1894, the Ottoman Caliphate in Istanbul appointed a Muslim scholar, Mahmud Fakih Effendi, to help with religious instruction at the Cape. Mahmud lived at 71 Wale Street, and after he died in 1914 his son, Muhammad Dervish Effendi, also a Muslim scholar, stayed in the same residence.

After Muhammad Dervish Effendi's death in 1940, his widow, Mariam, and their eight children lived in the house until 1978, when it became the Bo-Kaap Museum. The house was wrongly identified as the property of one Abu Bakr Effendi, and the family of Mahmud Fakih Effendi were effectively written out of Cape history. Over decades, the “mistaken identity” took on a life of its own.

Gençoğlu’s research was published in 2015 and “set the historical record straight”. He explained that it was necessary and important to reflect the “forgotten Ottoman scholar … It matters to historians,” he said.

“At present there is nothing in the museum about Mahmud Effendi or his descendants. How can we preserve the Cape's heritage in this way? We must give credit to a prominent scholar who imparted knowledge to many students in his Islamic school and whose family lived here for over a century.”

Gençoğlu explained that his research not only contributed to South African historiography but rectified the story of an eminent historical figure, Mahmud Effendi, who enriched the sociocultural lifestyle of Muslims with his educational activities at the Cape. It also drew attention to the Ottomans' religious and educational contributions to Cape Islamic society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The story does not end there. Mahmud Effendi was the great grandfather of Professor Delawir Kahn, former head of surgery at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Groote Schuur Hospital. Kahn told Gençoğlu that “Dervish Effendi was my grandfather, but he died before I was born — in fact none of my cousins knew him. I have one cousin named after him. We all knew our grandmother, Mariam Effendi, very well and she died much later.”

Kahn never lived at 71 Wale Street but remembered the extended family. “It was the most popular destination for the extended family (which included my grand-aunt, who had a very large family), especially over New Year's Eve and New Year's Day because of the strategic position for the Coon Carnival.” (sic)

And in that great South African tradition, after the house was claimed for the museum, Kahn explained, his grandmother, aunt and uncle moved to Heideveld on the Cape Flats in the late 1970s. 

The first black doctor in the Cape

The Ottoman influence in the Cape was new to me, and fascinating. Prying open South African and Turkish archival sources, including university and family records, Gençoğlu uncovered evidence that the first black doctor to graduate from UCT was a Muhammed Shukri Effendi, whose family origins lie in Erzurum, a city in Turkey’s eastern Anatolia. Dr Effendi worked briefly at Groote Schuur and had a clinic in the Bo-Kaap, which was established as the Malay Quarter a century or so after the arrival of slaves, exiles and labourers from Southeast Asia.

“A South African medical journal published on 27 July 1946 shows that Effendi was a qualified doctor already and moved his practice to a stone house in Mountain Road in Woodstock. The building was called Erzurum, named after his grandfather's birthplace,” Gençoğlu explained.

Another hidden history is that of Ahmet Ataullah Bey, an intellectual and politician of Ottoman origin who served the interests of South African Muslims in the last quarter of 19th century. Ataullah Bey played a prominent role as the country's first Muslim activist and politician. He also served as a Turkish emissary for the Ottoman state under the caliphate during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

All told, the history of Ottoman/Turkish roles in South African history seems to have been ignored. One of the distinctively South African things was that when a Turkish person was Muslim, she or he would be “coloured”; and when they were Christian, they would be “white”. And so, you had South Africans, who may have held some office during the Ottoman Era, or early Turkish era (post-1923), who were “white” and rarely, if ever, associated with fellow Turkish descendants who happened to be Muslim.

An important footnote here is that there is a lot of bad history about Turkey’s role in South Africa, emanating, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the US, which cannot imagine that the Ottomans and subsequently the Turks played important and progressive roles in consolidating Muslim communities and life at the Cape. Gençoğlu's research findings suggest just that.

♦ VWB ♦

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