The parallel consciousness of self and surroundings... is the key to transforming mentalities and reshaping societies.” -

Edouard Glisant


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

LIFE ON THE VAYA: HEARTBREAK (PART 3) - FICTION

Excavations began the next day.  Massive earth-moving machines, tree cutters and other weapons of mass destruction took over the property with military precision, obliterating forty years of the Body Cobra’s labour of love.

One hundred-year-old oak trees; fir trees and acacias were brought to their knees.  Asters; zinnias; Michaelmas daisies, their yellow centres lifted to the sun; palest pink roses; agapanthus; purple, yellow and orange pansies; violet and maroon irises; magnolias; red, pink, coral and violet azaleas; jasmine; hollyhocks; wisteria; fuchsia; oleander and lavender - ripped out, torn off, bodies crushed, defaced and shattered, necks grotesquely twisted to one side, broken limbs extending towards the sky as if in prayer.  As their last breath left their bodies a heavenly fragrance wafted towards me like holy incense. 

The army departed, at last, leaving behind a multi-coloured holocaust of plant life. I wept for the loss of the gardens; I wept out of fear and uncertainty for the future, and mostly I wept for the mindless destruction of the Body Cobra’s life’s work.

The Body Cobra never returned.  A Seeff for sale sign was erected on the verge outside the gate. 
His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren came to dismantle his home and remove his belongings. Within weeks the Muslim Brothers bought his flat.

I went to visit Mr Ermann.  A new wife, Rokaya, opened the door and invited me in.  “My husband has just had his bath",she informed me, “but please wait, I know he wants to see you very much.”

I was surprised to walk into an atmosphere of domestic contentment with exotic aromas of cumin, coriander, nutmeg, cardamom aniseed and turmeric drifting from the kitchen, and classical music playing softly in the background. I heard Mr Ermann and the other wives laughing and chatting animatedly in the next room.

I wandered around the sitting room, still rich with antique Judaica, touching objects reverently, breathing them in:   An 18th century Polish silver Torah shield; a silver Passover goblet, an embroidered, velvet challah cover and a Damascene Seder tray made of copper and silver, with a menorah in the centre and engraved on the outer rim the Hebrew words: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget [its skill]. May my tongue cling to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not bring up Jerusalem at the beginning of my joy…”


I was lost in contemplation of a painting of a rabbi painted in 1900 by the Austrian artist Josef Johan Suss when Rokaya tapped me on the shoulder. “My husband is ready to see you now,” she said.

Mr. Ermann was lying on this bed, propped up against a pile of pillows.  Two of his wives were busy settling him in.  I greeted them. Again, I had a distinct feeling that I had seen them on their way in or out of the Diamond Polisher’s flat.

“My dear…” he said warmly.  I am so happy to see you, so very happy. I was going to ring you because there is so much to talk about, so much going on.”  I noticed a copy of the Koran lying open on his bedside table.

 Mr Ermann watched me silently.  “Yes, my beloved Rokaya has been reading to me,” he said. “She has such a soothing voice.”

Rokya, who was hovering at the end of the bed, blushed with pleasure at his acknowledgement of her.  She and Fatima excused themselves. 

Mr Ermann gestured for me to sit on the chair beside the bed.  Zubeidah, meanwhile, drew up a chair at the bottom of the bed and began to massage Mr Ermann’s yellow toe-nailed, gnarled purple feet. I looked away, feeling that I was witnessing something as intimate as sexual intercourse.

Replacing the book, I asked after the Body Cobra. Mr Ermann shook his head sadly.  “He’s not dead,” he said. 

I sank back in the chair with relief.

“They thought it was a heart attack at first. We all thought that,” he said.  But it’s something else, a condition called Takotsubo Syndrome, broken heart syndrome".

“Broken heart syndrome…?

“Yes.  I’d never heard of it before but I’ve been reading up on it.  It looks like a heart attack at first apparently, but what happens is the left ventricle of the heart blows up like a balloon.  The Japanese discovered the condition. They named it after the little fishing pots they catch octopuses in. Takotsubo".

“Takotsubo? How do you spell it?”

“T-A-K-O, and then T-S-U-B-O. Fascinating isn’t it? 

“So he’ll get better?”

“Yes. People do recover from it….Poor dear Hymie…,” Mr Ermann shook his head, looking towards the window.  “… A broken heart…Oh my…oh dear….”

We sat silently in mutual mourning for a few moments.
“I have a gift for you,” Mr Ermann said suddenly, his voice lifting.  “Zubeidah, darling, go and fetch the parcel please…”  Zubeidah let go of Mr Ermann’s feet and left the room. She returned with what appeared to be a large package of books wrapped in brown paper. It was heavy. 

“Goodness… for me?” 

“Yes,” Mr Ermann nodded enthusiastically. Don’t open it now.  Take it home with you.”

It was late afternoon when I left Mr Ermann’s flat.  Down below, in the concrete quad that was once the garden, the Muslim Brothers were teaching the new converts how to pray.  I stood in the shadows watching them.

A group of Africanists, including Makabung, was also watching from the second-floor passage of the opposite building. They were dressed in black T-shirts, intensifying their solidarity and giving the impression of latent violence.

The hum of the forbidden voices of Hasidic women keening rose in a tense spiral from behind the door of the rabbi’s flat next door to Mr Ermann’s.

“Allah created body and soul together, so as Muslims we pray with our bodies and our souls, facing the Kaaba, God’s holy temple in Mecca, with Muslims all over the world, like one body, with Allah at the centre of our thoughts. Allahu Akbar ,” Aslam roared.  “Allahu Akbar”, the converts repeated after him.

I left them prostrating themselves, foreheads to the ground, and observed with satisfaction that beyond their prone bodies and the walls surrounding Oak View Mansions, the trees on the pavement were sturdy and rooted; their leaves iridescent in the fading light. 
They seemed to be waving at me. I almost waved back. 

The parcel from Mr Ermann was an early English translation of the ‘Masnavi’ in six volumes. The Persian Sufi, Rumi’s poetry and teachings on mystical Islam have profoundly influenced my own spiritual path.  I opened one of the volumes to a bookmarked page and read:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there….”



LIFE ON THE VAYA: HEARTBREAK (PART 2) - FICTION

One late afternoon I was confronted by the improbable spectacle of old Mr Ermann, who had recently celebrated his 86th birthday, with two women, fully clad in the black ankle length hijab worn by Muslim women. One of the women, dressed in a burka, was pushing Mr Ermann’s wheelchair; the other, who had her face fully covered by a niqab, was carrying his oxygen machine.
“Mr Ermann!” I exclaimed.

“Oh my dear,” he said with his usual warmth, “let me introduce you.  These are my new wives… Fatima,” he held out his hand towards the woman in full niqab. “She’s 19”, he said… “And this is Zubeidah.”  They’ve saved me a lot of money on a cook and cleaner and day and night nurses,” he winked. After a pause, responding to my stunned silence, he chuckled, “They said they can find me more wives if I need them.”

There was something about Fatima and Zubeidah that I recognised.  I was almost certain I had given them an escape card when I met them in the passage on their way to the Diamond Polisher’s flat.
“Who, Mr Ermann?” I blurted out, anxious and enraged. “Who found you wives…?”   

Distracted for a moment, Mr Ermann waved at somebody behind me passing along the first floor passage. I turned to see Assad and the Diamond Polisher talking animatedly. 

“They’re matchmaking,” Mr Ermann smiled.  “Extraordinary, isn’t it?”

“How could you?” I demanded.  “You’re an old man, a religious Jew, how could you? How could you…?”

“At my stage of life, human kindness and peaceful co-existence are what matters most, my dear,” he said with a look of almost tender concern at my distress, “It was much easier than I thought,” he continued.  Abdullah took us to the Turkish baths and it was all rather lovely really.  We soaked in warm water for a very long time until we were purified and then the Trustees towelled us down and dressed us in white robes, and we repeated the words after Abdullah: Ašhadu an lã ilãha illã lahu, wa ashãdu anna muhammadan rasûluhu: I testify that there is no God but God, and Muhammed is the messenger of God. And then we were Muslims”.  He looks upwards, as though communing with the heavenly realms.

“Then we came back in Abdullah’s combi. I have to say I felt euphoric and hopeful more than anything else.  Everything has changed.  I rather like it…I never thought I would get married again in my dotage. Of course I am not likely to get up to any tricks,” he chortled. “But so many woman to care for…what an honour…what an honour…” He shook his head in wonderment.

The next notice from the Muslim Brothers, as the Board of Trustees came to be known, announced a general meeting to be held in the foyer of the building.

Again I sat next to Vishanti Pillay. This time she was wearing hijab although I noticed a pendant with 
an image of Kali around her neck. Kali is the multi-limbed Hindu goddess of power, change and destruction.  I presumed Vishanti still had a lot to learn about the ethics and protocol of being a Muslim woman.  “You’ve converted…?”

“No use fighting fate, “she said.  “The Creator has many forms. Everything flows to and from one source in the end. “

I noted the Body Cobra sitting in the back row. He appeared to have shed half his body weight since the AGM.

Assad announced that the Board of Trustees planned to uproot the garden to make space for communal prayer. “It will also save on the water bill,” he rationalised.  “And we will be able to retrench Albie, who hasn’t been pulling his weight for a long time.”  Albie Tshabalala had worked as the Oak View Mansions gardener for more than forty years. 

Assad was about to call for a vote when Neo Makabung, the advocate from flat 204 interrupted him. A strikingly good looking, well-built man, reminiscent of Malcolm X, with astuteness in his demeanour that I found almost intimidating, Makabung spoke eloquently and forcefully on behalf of the Africanists, a new faction in the block.  “Subordination to one or other colonial religion is not the outcome for Oak View Gardens that the Africanists want,” he said.  A small group sitting on either side of him muttered their approval.

After a pervasive silence lasting several minutes, Assad again called for the vote.  The Africanists abstained; I and four or five others voted against; the overwhelming majority voted in favour.  It was blatantly clear to everyone present that Assad had promoted his position before the meeting. 

“Done!” he shouted triumphantly. The word had barely left his lips when there was a loud thud from the back of the foyer.  Everyone turned to see the Body Cobra lying flat out on the floor.


In the commotion of cell phones, pillows, wet cloths, brandy and blankets that followed, the Jewish ambulance service, Hatzolah, arrived. Two strapping young men pushed through the crowd bearing a stretcher and in a flash the Body Cobra was being transported to an ambulance with a drip attached to his arm and an oxygen mask on his face. 

Monday, 16 January 2017

LIFE ON THE VAYA - HEARTBREAK (PART 1) - FICTION


For sixty years Oak View Mansions was occupied a close-knit community of orthodox Jewish people. The community was so symbiotic and supportive that during the festival of Sukkot to commemorate the Israelites wandering through the Sinai desert, a sukkah, large enough to accommodate the residents of 39 flats was constructed in the Oak View Mansions gardens.

When a non-Jewish private developer bought the building, he gave flat dwellers the option of buying their flats or renting them until they were sold. A mass exodus followed, reminiscent for some of the tragic evacuations of ancestors throughout history. Those who were beneficiaries of the Jewish charity, Chevra Kadisha, made a sorry spectacle loading their meager belongings and numerous children into cars and bakkies for a journey to another flat rented on their behalf by the Chev. 
Oak View Mansions morphed into a United Nations of multicultural living as I and others from assorted cultural and faith backgrounds bought flats in the building. Although most flats were still owned by Jewish people, and they remained the most influential community in the block, the character of the block – and of the neighbourhood - changed when the massive Masjid Ul Furqaan - was built in Houghton, a few kilometres away.

When owners congregated at the Norwood Chabad for the AGM, those who were sensitive enough, detected an unsettling emotional undercurrent: “The winds of change…,” Vishanti Pillay, sitting beside me, whispered dolefully.

The meeting jumped from introductions to matters arising to nominations and voting at such an accelerated pace that it came as a shock when the Chairperson of the Body Corporate (the Body Cobra), was voted out of office.



He slumped in his chair, his huge frame folded over, like Humpty Dumpty after the ‘great fall’. It’s a terrible thing, I thought, to see the collapse of a man who has thrown his weight around for so many years. Even though there was no love lost between us, my heart ached for him. His Lubavitch brethren fussed around him like “all the kings men” in their black hats and tails, grey beards trailing down to their navels and Tzitziyot flapping, but there was nothing to be done. The Body Cobra was a broken man. For the first time in 65 years a non-Jew had been voted into power at Oak View Mansions.

The new Chairperson, Abdullah Assad (whose name means ‘Lion’), called for a recess so that he and other Muslims, could perform their ritual prayers before sunset. He disappeared upstairs into the women’s section of the Shul followed by his systematically canvased and caucused new team. They returned after a short interval with Assad leading and the others in a straight line behind him like soldiers marching into battle, all chanting: “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest).

A notice under the door the next day explained in almost poetic language that Oak View Mansions was destined for Muslim domination. The Western world had been poisoned against the Muslim world, Assad argued, and the teachings and ideas of Islam had been consistently misrepresented. Whilst no pressure would be exerted on residents, the chairperson encouraged conversion to Islam in the interests of the harmonious running of the block. Those who converted would receive certain ‘concessions’ which would be negotiated on a one-on-one basis.

A combi-load of male residents left the property the following day with Abdullah Assad driving. At first I barely recognised him. Instead of the striped designer shirt he usually wore, he was dressed in a white kurta with gold braiding around the neck, and had a taqiyah on his head. His black beard glistened in stark contrast to the white cotton fabric and just for a second, I was reminded of a reviled dictator. 

As the vehicle sped through the gate, I noticed Elijah, the rabbi’s simple-minded son, and waved. He waved back enthusiastically and then abruptly dropped his hand as if reprimanded.

A blank, rectangular space appeared on the door frame of Fanny Joffee’s flat. Fanny’s claim to fame was her courageous pursuit of a noisy, drunken security guard in her pajamas, at 3.00 a.m. one morning. Within days there were blank spaces on other door frames where a mezuzah had been secured for decades.



My next-door neighbour, the Diamond Polisher Adam Koan, who was Abdullah Assad’s tenant, continued his normal daily ritual however: Israeli News at top blast before sunrise and an early exit, possibly to inspect his diamonds. I met him in the passage when I took my dogs out clutching a poop scoop in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other and as usual he reached out to touch his mezuzah and placed his fingers to his lips in prayer: "Hear, O Israel, the LORD (is) our God, the LORD is One." My dogs barked as always.

The ‘diamonds’ came and left at all hours of day and night. These days, whenever I could, I slipped them a card with the number of the 24-hour helpline for sex workers. 

I came to recognise some of the women; to get a sense of them and feel I understood them in a non-verbal sort of way.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

INCULTURATION ON THE VAYA

On the cusp of Louis Botha Avenue, not far from where one of the major Rea Vaya stops will be located, an unusual form of cultural assimilation is occurring.   
 

Charles Nyathi, a security guard for a block of flats, has transformed the very basic hut used by the security personnel by nailing an ornate, brass, embossed cabinet to one of the prefabricated walls.  He uses it to store food. 


The flat owner who gave the cabinet to the security guards apparently once used it to store religious texts.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

RECALIBRATING THE GROVE


“…Sound is heard not only through our ears but through every cell in our bodies. (It) can redress imbalances on every level of physiologic functioning and can play a positive role in the treatment of virtually any medical disorder.” Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, director of Medical Oncology and Integrative Medicine, the Cornell Cancer Prevention Center in New York


Well-being and goodwill have surfaced in extraordinary ways in the inter-religious, multi-cultural melting pot of Orange Grove.  Picture a barefoot, ex-King-David boy in a white kurta, playing  Tibetan singing bowls in the Masonic Lodge in 13th Street.  Jason Katz’s twice-monthly sound journeys, sometimes with support from his 15-year-old son, Gabriel have become an imperative for many looking for healing, relaxation, meditation and revitalisation for an hour and a half on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

For those who stay for tea, delicious cakes made by his wife, Robyn, and his mother-in-law are on offer. 

Jason’s personal odyssey as a healer and mystic (my attribution) began in childhood when his mother told him he had “healing hands”.  His understanding of his purpose and his gifts have been shaped by teachers and by life experiences, including a painful couple of years when he accompanied his older brother through an agonising process of illness and death from Lou Gehrig's (motor neuron) disease.


He grew up in Fairmont and has happy memories of traveling to town on a tram with his mother, stopping at the OK Bazaars on the corner of 10th Street, where his father, who had a particular gift for selecting clothes and sweets that would sell, worked as a buyer.


After being told about the Oneness University by the transpersonal psychologist Pam Roux, Jason went to India to deepen his meditation practice https://youtu.be/tFGtl55LvGQ .While there, he realised that although he does not consider himself dogmatically religious, his Jewish education as a child is rooted deeply in his psyche. 


To receive the deeksha (Oneness blessing) an initiate is expected to kneel down before the person imparting the blessing. 


Jason was told he could sit rather than kneel because Jewish Law forbids a man to kneel down before any person or idol. There is only one ritual in the year during Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) when a man kneels before the Torah and says the words of the Shema.

Originally trained as a hairdresser, Jason is qualified to offer shiatsu, reflexology, sound journeys, and his own particular brand of D-Stress massage. He was mentored by Alice Hoehler for two years before facilitating his first sound journey and the collaborative relationship has continued. Some of the bowels Jason uses belong to Alice.

In September this year, a brutal armed robbery forced Jason to reconsider what was most important and where he needed to focus his energies.  He was working for a company in Buccleuch, selling hair extensions when four armed robbers attacked him and others in the shop before tying them up and escaping with a fortune of hair pieces.  Jason was left with physical scars, including a pistol mark on his forehead that somebody subsequently mistook for a bindi (the red dot worn by Hindu men and women), possibly because of the spiritual ambiance that seems to hover around him. 

The incident has left Jason remarkably free of anger or animosity. He beams with gratitude now that the path ahead is clearer than ever before.

Jason offers sound journeys in Orange Grove and in others Johannesburg suburbs. He takes bookings from individuals and small or large groups. He also gives one-on-one sound journey sessions and D-stress massage at his rooms in Senderwood.  Hourly individual sessions are R 600. Payment for sound journeys at the Masonic Lodge are by donation (recommended contribution is R 100 per person).  All Jason’s services are portable and fees are negotiable depending on travel costs and the number of people involved.

You can contact Jason at: Email: dstressjk@gmail.com or cell: 084 378-7377, or find him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000999543557.  It is a good idea to get onto his mailing list to receive a monthly newsletter giving the dates of sound journeys and other inspirational information. 

Sound Journeys are held twice a month at 
75 13th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues Orange Grove.  Parking is available next to the hall.  Bring a yoga mat or something to lie on, a pillow or cushion and a light blanket to pull over yourself.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

FROM HILLBROW TO TWEELING: A GALACTIC ODYSSEY

I meet Mano Christelis in his office in the Orange Grove house where the Galaxy Muzeum factory is based.  Every surface is overflowing with an exotic array of strangely shaped, multi-coloured beads and jewellery in the making. The lyrics of the 1960s Beatles song come to mind: “The Magical Mystery Tour is waiting to take you away…”

Mano has been commissioned to create the headdresses and earrings for George’s Bizos’s grandson’s wedding. He shows me a picture on his cell phone of models wearing red, crystal dresses and red, crystal crowns.  While we speak, he is putting together ear-to-shoulder length red crystal earrings, each pair with a different Greek Orthodox saint in the middle, for the 17 bridesmaids.  “He’s marrying a beautiful Lebanese girl,” he tells me.  Now she wants huge red tassels hanging off them as well”, he chuckles.  “It’s going to be spectacular!”

Son of the pioneering, ‘Lucky Packet King”, Lefty Christelis, Mano began making his “galactic jewellery” from lucky packet charms as a boy of eight.  “My father had mountains of lucky packets in the sweet factory in Germiston. There were corridors of all these Hong Kong toys…little charms…” He describes the scene with child-like excitement, fuelling my own reminiscences of lucky packet exuberance. 

“My dad had the machine that made all those little pink sweets and he had lollipop machines and he used to make marshmallow fish and rocket sherbet. His sherbet lines were the biggest success.  And my dad’s twin brother used to sit at the machines and every 20 to 30 lucky packets he used to put in a 50 cent coin.  So sometimes a kid would get a lucky packet with an extra 50 cent piece. It was like a big thing. He supplied the whole of Southern Africa, right up to Zambia and Zimbabwe and Mozambique. All the kids of that generation went for lucky packets.”

When his father got a consignment of beads after the Richelieu factory closed down, Mano incorporated the beads into his designs and started to cultivate an exclusive customer base.

In the eighties he set up a shop in the basement flea market in Pretorius Street in Hillbrow: “It was the time of the Café de Paris and the Three Sisters…and all the trendy shops were there…” 

The performing artist, Steven Cohen used to visit the stall with his mother:  “He used to come, dressed like a nice Jewish boy, with his mom.  And he used to like my stuff. He loved all the plastic toys.  And his mother used to say: ‘Oh come on Steven, this stuff isn’t for you!  Let’s move on!’ Meanwhile, he has become so way out and eccentric that this is like, mild, you know…“ We laugh.

Prominent designers like Peter Soldatos and Chris Levin used the Galaxy jewellery in their fashion shows and his customers included people like Linda Goodman, Winnie Mandela, Marianne Fassler and Brenda Fassie . 

Together with the ceramicist Tina van der Walt, Mano was one of the first to set up a stall at the flea market opposite the Market Theatre.  “Every week we had a different theme. One week would be Egyptian, the next week it would be ancient ruins, and we would do a hellova production…That’s how I started. Then I got contracts with boutiques and started supplying Stuttafords and others.”

Mano’s interest in extra-terrestrial life; good and bad aliens; baroque architecture emanating from Venus; lizard people; giant snails on Neptune; parallel governments on Mars; teleportation and jump rooms, like lifts, has grown alongside his career as a trend-setter in the jewellery business,  “I’ve always been interested in extra-terrestrial life, and I’ve had experiences of different galaxies on the astral plane,” he tells me, showing me pictures of new developments on Neptune, stored on his cell phone.  

His fascination was the inspiration behind the Galaxy Muzeum in the small northern Free State town of Tweeling, where he owns several properties, including the old post office.    “Tweeling is an energy point in the Free State,” he says. “People living there have seen triangular craft and all different craft moving across the area…”

I visited Tweeling with friend and photographer, Stan Sher. 
The display in the Galaxy Muzeum , consists of a series of vitrines depicting a variety of galaxies, dimensions, portals and life forms, including instructions on how to get there from Planet Earth. The first vitrine depicts a secret location in Mozambique where transport through history is conducted.  “Civilization: humans in military operations using time door to change history”, the caption reads.  The second, named ‘Planet Blueploy’ depicts “humabian aquatic people living in structures above oceans” accessed through a time hole in a magnetic field in the Free State area 86. Cement blocks and circles and brick-like structures, similar to the beads used in some of the jewellery appear in the various planetary constellations.


The exhibition includes the planet Jupiter, which is “three years by earth ship from planet earth’ ; Planet Oberroi, in the Zacacia Penticula Galaxy, which is 14 light years away from earth on the electronic transport field on Easter Island, inhabited by a hunter-gatherer community that is “peaceful in nature.”  Another planet is reached by means of eighty light years through wormhole and the civilization here is "of human origin through intelligent manipulation.”

“Just like there are all different kinds of birds, there all different kinds of people,” Mano explains.  “There are bird people, with feathers like birds, and there are half animal, half human people like the Egyptian hieroglyphs. “

Back in the Orange Grove factory, I ask Mano about the pictures of Greek Orthodox saints on the walls. “I’m Greek Orthodox. I was born in the realm of Jesus and that’s what I’m sticking to. I pray to God and Jesus and all the saints because that is my realm…The Greek Orthodox Church is quite open. I don’t think they would mind about reincarnation and different galaxies and things.”

I had a lot of laughs with Mano Christelis, and with Stan Sher on the trip to Tweeling. The vast array of images, resonant of the magic realism of a Marquez story, have been spinning around in my head and turning up in weird and wonderful ways in my dreams ever since.   

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The end of the world on a sunny winter day in Johannesburg


 
It’s the first sunny day after a week of unremitting, unseasonal downpour.   The change in mood in the block is palpable. Balcony doors are open and those with pot plant gardens are out inspecting the remains of their plants in their pyjamas, strangely liberated from the pressure of public opinion about their personal habits or the shape and stripe of their nightwear.  There is an air of gratitude and relief, as though spring has sprung, although it is still winter. The air is free of the insidious haze of carbon monoxide that typically shrouds the Louis Botha Avenue side of the building and the first hint of a rainbow emerges like a halo over the notorious ‘death bend’, on the cusp of Orange Grove and Houghton.

 Despite the climatic transition, I am engrossed in a book about a ship’s doctor in the Antarctic. Extraordinary weather conditions have caused the ship’s pipes to burst as frozen water thaws. The hospital floor is flooded and water is raining through the dining room ceiling. I am about to turn the page to the part about the doctor and a nurse sloshing around the hospital trying to salvage essential equipment, when I become aware of a mild and then persistent current of water dripping onto my balcony from somewhere upstairs. It is not rain; it has quite a different tone as the water hits the terracotta tiles.

Standing on the balcony, I strain my head upwards and notice water flooding onto the balcony of the upstairs flat where the rabbi’s son, Elijah Nudelman lives.  It won’t be the first time that Elijah has left a tap running. It is common knowledge that he is not quite right in the head.  “He doesn’t have a full box of chocolates”, my next door neighbour Rachel Levine would say.  I tend to agree since I am frequently awoken in the night by Elijah’s turbulent dreams. His bedroom is one floor above mine and I hear him crying out in his sleep, either in Yiddish (generally towards the early hours of the morning) or in a stream of expletives shortly after midnight, almost certainly an extension of the ‘grunge’ music he plays relentlessly until he turns in. Leaning over the rail of the balcony, I shout up at the flat above: “Elijah! Elijah!” Silence. I run up the fire escape and ring the doorbell of Elijah’s flat, then pound on the door. Silence.

Back in my own flat, I phone Alfred, the gardener/caretaker. He arrives within minutes. A huge Zulu man, well over six feet tall, Alfred is permanently dressed in blue working overalls with a ZCC star pinned to his chest, and a bus conductor’s hat with the peak turned to one side of his head. He crouches and awkwardly contracts his large body to get through the door.

We try phoning the rabbi and then the chairperson of the Body Corporate, privately referred to as “the Body Cobra”, without success. The water continues to flow and then to gush down from the upstairs balcony as a newsreader on Classic FM announces a national emergency. I change the station and turn up the volume. Rede Thlabi is interviewing Acid Mine Drainage activist Mariette Liefferink on Talk Radio 702.  “I have been saying for years that the crunch is just around the corner,” Liefferink pronounces. “The central basin has decanted and the city’s water pipes have exploded from the pressure. As we speak, enough acid water to fill 50,000 Olympic swimming pools is flooding the city of Johannesburg”.

 Within hours the picture has changed. By now a vast lake of water has surged up from ground level and Alfred and I are boarding a small wooden rowing boat steered by the Body Cobra. Spluttering with a dog hater’s contempt and outrage as Alfred hands me my two small dogs, Green Tara and Kuan Yin, the Body Cobra takes a small notebook and pen from the inside pocket of his jacket, and makes a note, no doubt with the intention of imposing a special levy on owners with pets.  The antagonism between the dogs and the Body Cobra is mutual.  They growl at him. I smile inwardly.

Rabbi Yudelman, wearing full Lubavitch religious trappings, and Elijah are already in the boat. The Body Cobra steers the boat past 112, where Rachel Levine climbs in, clutching a bag of Israeli jewellery in case she meets any customers on the way. Then we pass 108 to collect Noah Abramowitz.  Noah, referred to by Alfred and other staff as ‘Omdala Oyinqaba’, the old eccentric, is best known for singing an eclectic repertoire at the top of his lungs in the underground parking garage at odd hours of day and night.  As we arrive at his balcony he is singing, ‘The times they are a changing…”  “Oh get in, Noah!” Rachel Levine snaps with irritation.

 After one more stop at 113 to pick up Hymie and Beulah Lazarus and their parrot, Lennie, the boat is quite full.  “Get back inside? Get back inside!” Lennie shrieks as the boat lurches hazardously towards Louis Botha Avenue. 

 
With despair, I notice that “Orchards Wheel and Tire”, “Jay-Jay's Car Wash”, “Mashi Rose Tombstones,” “E&W Steel Design”, “Burgess Plumbing”; “Vintage Clothing”; and “Tonino's Pizza and Pub” are almost entirely submerged.

 
Noah sings, "He aint heavy, he's my brother," as I beg and bargain with the Body Cobra to make a stop at my brother’s shop to see if he needs help.  Finally he agrees and we sail up the ramp to the old warehouse, where my brother’s eccentric second-hand bookshop is located. A plastic sign reading: “Men working overhead” that I anxiously recognize as one of my brother’s collection, floats by.

 All the shelves on the lower half of the wall are under water. Richard and his assistant, Liberty, are huddled together with dazed expressions on the narrow walkway assembled from steel, wood and hemp rope, that runs alongside the upper part of the shop. They are surrounded by boxes and crates of books labelled in thick black ink: Peter Cheney; Howard Spring; Denis Wheatley; Frank G. Slaughter; Stephen King; Taylor Caldwell; Dornford Yates; Medical Romances; Shakespearian Studies; Crime Fiction; and Judaica.
 
The boat rocks and dips precariously as Richard and Liberty squash themselves in between Hymie and Noah on the central plank.

The Body Cobra steers the boat towards Maryvale Convent. The historic mural of our Lady of the Wayside is almost entirely under water. The water is lapping at our lady’s chin and above her head, two nuns clinging to the church steeple wave frantically, but there is no room for them in the boat. The Body Cobra shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head sadly.  On we go towards Killarney, passing the mosque on Central Avenue, Houghton, with its imposing minarets. I imagine that Na’eem and Fatima would have fled here and wonder whether they are still in - or on - the building or whether they have been rescued by a helicopter or a boat. Since Na’eem always has strings to pull, I am confident that he would have made a plan.
 
“How long will we be here?” Rachel Levine laments, her arms folded across her chest. “Until the ijuba calls,” Alfred volunteers.  “Until we reach dry land,” Liberty adds. “Get back inside!  Get back inside!” Lennie protests.

The acid water swirls and sways against the sides of the boat. The rabbi is praying, rocking back and forth over his huge stomach. Richard closes his eyes and mumbles a few empathetic words from the Anglican liturgy.  I remove my mala from my bag and count the beads, quietly chanting the Om Mane Peme Hung.  Noah sings: “The holy dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah, Hallelujah, and Hallelujah…”

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

43 years of gardening on the Kensington Koppie


“This is Robben Island and if you come this way from the Cape, you see Africa in front of you…and that’s West Africa there…”  Phillip O Pirie walks me through his extraordinary garden that extends beyond his Ferret Street property onto the famous Kensington koppie.  He has been cultivating this garden for 43 years. 
 It all began when Rita O Pirie wrote to the Town Planning Department of the Johannesburg Municipality in 1971:
“Dear Sirs,
…I am interested in purchasing or leasing the piece of ground surrounding the stand for the following reasons:

1.   To beautify the area which is in a sad state of neglect – broken glass, refuse from dumping, rusty tins, etc.

2.   As I have three young children, our grounds, which are mostly terraced, are inadequate for them to play on. They are inclined to play on the piece of ground described above.

3.   The ground situated behind the house is used by Bantu males and females for drinking parties and urinating. My husband is away for considerable periods and when requesting the abovementioned Bantus to leave they use foul language and become aggressive.

4.   We have no privacy at the rear of the house and such passing persons can see over the low wall into the house.

 The Council agreed to the encroachment provided the costs were covered: R 10.50 for the plans; revenue stamps to the value of R 2.10; and a nominal fee of R 1.00 per annum for an initial five years. 

After more than 40 years of encroachment (the law says 30 years), the property belonged to Phillip and Rita O Pirie when I  met them last year. The property was on sale at the time and they had received a good offer from a Muslim family.

O Pirie’s interest in gardening began when he was a child at Holy Cross Convent in the Transkei. He grew up there: “Let’s just say I was one of the war orphans of the time," he says.  Two nuns taught him the basics of gardening: “There was Sister Florence in the flower garden and Sister Veronica in the vegetable garden and they both had green fingers.”
Over the years gardening has helped O Pirie balance his working life. He joined the SA Police Force when the Rand Daily Mail called for English speaking cops to join up in 1956 and was based at "the old Marshall Square" from 1956 - 1966. In 1967 he met Nelson Mandela at the Drill Hall, near the Noord Street taxi rank in Joubert Park. The initial stages of the Treason Trial happened there.  


After ten years as a policeman, O Pirie started his own company in the security/investigatory field. His work has taken him to many countries and brought him into contact with dignitaries around the world. 

His clients who were initially all white became “from across the racial spectrum” and include several notorious South African millionaires. O Pirie says he has considered writing a book entitled: “The ten multi-millionaires and one billionaire.”  The billionaire is a more recent client.

O Pirie relied on cheap labour (workers were paid a standard rate of between R2.00 and R5.00 per day in the early years) and inexpensive materials (cement cost R9.50 per packet) to construct the stone walls surrounding and separating the different levels of the garden.   “Most of the labour was carried by me and blacks,” O Pirie says.” It was a question of almost having four blacks Saturdays and four blacks Sundays clearing the stand and building this colossal stone wall. I had a boy from the Northern Transvaal, Limpopo area… Hell, what a good worker that was…”

I would not get into a discussion on apartheid history with Phillip O Pirie since it is unlikely that we would find much common ground. Nevertheless, he is a modest, courteous man, sensitive to people and the natural world. It is interesting to me that although he clearly has a sense of connection to plant life, his approach to gardening is quite severe and regimented: “My style has more of a military base. I like straight lines and uniformity.  I like different colours but they must blend.” Looking up towards the koppie I can’t help thinking how untamed and unordered the terrain is and what a struggle it must have been to impose structure on it.   



The next challenge for O Pirie is his daughter’s 1.8 hectare property in Lonehill: “My daughter’s garden is not straight lines. It is more circles.  I am going to try and make it conform”, he says.