The Odyssey of Crossing the Oceans
Most people in the mid-90s slow down, spend time with their families, and especially their grandchildren if there are any, and generally live life at a more leisurely pace.
Not Dr Zuleikha Mayat: cultural and social activist, philanthropist, holder of an honorary doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, author of numerous books, including the bestseller Indian delicacies, which has been printed continuously since the publication of the first edition in 1961, mother of three, grandmother and great-grandmother.
While looking forward to being with her family and visiting the Durban Botanical Gardens, Mayat continues to be active in the Women’s Cultural Group she helped found in 1954, and to be its Honorary President at life. Last year, she ignored a potentially fatal episode of Covid-19 as a non-event.
Beginning with a 1950s column in Indian Views titled “Fahmida’s World,” Mayat’s extensive literary output has included various adapted versions of Indian delicacies, Koranic lights, History of the Muslims of Gujarat, Nanima’s Chest, and A treasure trove of memories on life in the town of Potchefstroom, where she was born in 1926.
In 2009 there was the edited collection Dear Ahmedbhai, Dear Zuleikhabehn: The letters of Zuleikha Mayat and Ahmed Kathrada 1979-1989, based on 75 letters exchanged between Robben Island political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada and Mayat covering culture, politics and religion.
The chance to travel to over 50 countries with her late husband, gynecologist and pioneer founder of Shifa Hospital, MGH Mayat, Travels of Binte Batuti in 2015, she documented her travels and culinary experiences in twenty countries.
Now, on the eve of turning 95, comes a new book, The Odyssey of Crossing the Oceans. A captivating expansive tale by an accomplished storyteller, the book covers pioneering sea and land odysseys spanning 1,500 years, from Arabia to Malabar, then to Gujarat in India and finally to South Africa.
Drawing from various sources, especially his immensely fertile imagination when the facts are elusive, The Odyssey of Crossing the Oceans carries on a wonderful tradition of animation and homage to the unsung heroes and heroines who, in so many ways, have been created and remade, as well as the world around them. She has a habit of reminding readers that “it is people who make history, historians only record their point of view.”
Facts and fictions, conjectures and speculations, local, regional, transnational, personal and community stories, and the experiences of migrants are all beautifully woven together into a compelling narrative.
The Odyssey of Crossing the Oceans records the spread of Islam and trade from Western Arabia, across India and to southern Africa across the Indian Ocean, the interaction between traders and local rulers in India who became Muslim , and the role of Islam in the Indian Ocean.
In the wake of the indentured workers who arrived in 1860 to work in the sugar cane plantations of the British colony of Natal came the “free” or “passenger” Indians. This interregional movement of capital and labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries laid the foundation for the Indian population of South Africa.
Migratory trade networks and the transmission of people, products and cultural, religious and trade practices in new contexts are told through family stories that bring the stories and struggles of real people to life.
Those originally from Gujarat in northwest India – known as Gujaratis – first lived transnational lives; it was sometimes decades before South Africa became “home”. Some Indians started large businesses, but most of the new migrants were either laborers and indentured laborers, or vendors of hawkers and other small trades serving a diverse clientele. All of them have helped to forge the economic, political, social and cultural foundations of South African society.
Mayat notes that his 2008 History of the Muslims of Gujarat was widely acclaimed by young and old alike, and suggested to him that humans are thirsty to know their roots. Since then she has been fondling the idea of a book about the people of Arabia who moved to India and over time traveled to Gujarat – a story lived by those who endured, not written by strangers. Family and friends responded, “Well, keep going.”
Tracing the experiences of different families, the book shows the determination of immigrants who want to succeed in their lives and contribute to their new country. The brutality of apartheid has forced long-time residents to question whether they should fight apartheid or move elsewhere to live with more dignity. The majority have chosen to stay and fight; some have left for other countries.
Mayat believes it is vital that people know their historical origins, the ups and downs of their predecessors, and how the present has been forged through sacrifice and struggle. She says that unless the roots are firmly entrenched, saplings cannot survive trials, tribulations, and the realities of life.
For her, all life is constant movement and history is an attempt to record this movement. Much of the history of colonized peoples, she says, has been erased, slandered and obscured. The heirs of rich heritages were force-fed with Western colonialist literature and began to soak up the distortion and trivialization of their past. Those who insist on a new decolonial approach to history and other disciplines and call for a decentralization of Western approaches to knowledge, learning and writing will readily agree with her.
The truth, Mayat insists, cannot remain hidden forever. Knowledge gleaned from oral histories and retrieved from other sources must resonate in our minds, among families, within institutions and around the world. Young people should cherish their rich heritage – which includes a strong work ethic and caring for one another and for each other.
Great wisdom in a world in which the rich and powerful rule with impunity, oblivious to the needs of others, and where greed, corruption, bribes and crass materialism are rampant.
- The Odyssey of Crossing the Oceans
- Saleem Badat is Professor and Researcher in Human Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). He is the former vice-chancellor of the university currently called Rhodes. Goolam Vahed is professor of history at UKZN.
The independent on Saturday